WEEKLY CAR DIARY – STRAIGHT TO ROMAN COLCHESTER IN AN AUDI Q2

Don’t get me wrong, I really like driving vans – the bigger the better. However, I didn’t do a car diary last week because, with one exception, I only drove vans – which may not be the most interesting thing to write about (unless of course its a VW Transporter Kombi!). The exception to the van fest was another Mercedes C350e saloon plug-in hybrid and plenty of ramblings on this eco-wagon can be found here. For the record, the (ahem) green, planet-saving wheeled warrior managed 40.9 miles per gallon on a steady 55 mile run (mostly motorway) compared to the official figure of 134.5 mpg.

This week looked as if it was heading the same way (i.e. all vans) but things changed when the VW Transporter I thought I was going to deliver on Friday turned out to be an Audi Q2:-

Tuesday: Vauxhall (Opel) Corsa 1.4 SRi (hire car), Leicester to Southampton and back to deliver a Vauxhall Combo van – about four miles across Southampton!

Wednesday: Vauxhall Corsa van 1.3CDTi Sportive, Bolton to Middlesbrough; old Vauxhall Corsa van 1.3CDTi (2014), Middlebrough to Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire

Thursday: Ford Transit Custom, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire to Bristol

Friday: Audi Q2 2.0TDi Quattro S-Line S Tronic (auto), Alconbury, Cambridgeshire to Colchester, Essex.

So, an Audi Quattro! Not really, obviously. Four wheel drive versions of Audi’s offerings have simply borrowed the hallowed Quattro label from the original and legendary fire-breathing, rally-bred Audi Quattro. Couldn’t imagine Detective Chief Inspector Gene Hunt (Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes) growling “Fire up the Quattro!” and then jumping into a modern little SUV.

However, he could do much worse. If you want an upmarket, smallish but practical car, then the Q2 seems a good bet … if you have the money (more on that later). The Q2 is described as an SUV but, to be honest, it doesn’t really look or feel like one. It’s a bit like a family hatchback that’s drunk lots of milk. Did you know the Dutch are the tallest people on earth? I used to travel to the Netherlands quite frequently on business and in office canteens at lunch time, the Dutch would all be drinking milk. So, I’m guessing there’s a link between height and milk (standing on a milk crate would prove this theory). Anyway, back to the Audi milk float, I mean Q2, which is really just a slightly taller, A3/Golf-sized hatchback with a larger boot (in fact, I think the Q2’s footprint is slightly smaller than the Golf’s). The Q2 doesn’t look like an off-roader if that’s what the SUV appellation is supposed to imply. However, in the looks department, it’s smart but not ground-breaking and has an upmarket air about it. The matt grey rear pillars (reminiscent of the side panels on the Mk1 Audi R8) are a neat touch.

Audi Q2

Q2 2

Inside, its smart too – as you would expect from an Audi. And the top of the range version I delivered had a couple of extras. One was the virtual cockpit where you pay more for an electronic instrument display that impersonates traditional dials that you could get for free (provided you’ve purchased the rest of the car). Too much cynicism, Colin; actually the electronics look quite posh and futuristic. The other option was the wireless phone charger which does seem very handy. Just pair your phone and pop it in the cubby hole under the centre armrest and it magically charges without the need for you to untangle any cables, plug it in or swear when you get to end of your long journey and realise that your phone hasn’t charged at all because, despite being plugged into the socket, you didn’t give the charger that two degree turn to the right that it needed to make contact (grrr, that’s so annoying, take a breath now).

So what is the Q2 like to drive? Well I’m afraid I only really drove it in straight lines but it did do that rather well. Actually, driving in straight lines to Colchester was quite appropriate because the town has a significant Roman history, having at one time been the capital of Roman Britain. At the time, the town was called Camelodunum which is impossible to say at the first attempt and sounds like a Victorian opium-based medicine for humped ungulates. The Emperor Ian Claudius (I can’t think what else the “I” in I, Claudius could stand for) stepped off the Calais to Dover ferry in 43AD and personally led the attack on Colchester before bringing underfloor heating to the masses of Provincia Britannia (Vorsprung durch hypercaust). And of course the Romans had a fondness for travelling in straight lines but I don’t think they built the A14, M11 or A120. In Colchester however, they did build a fortress, temples, a chariot circus (they liked a bit of high speed slapstick), theatres and no doubt a lot more. The sign telling me that I had arrived in Colchester also claimed that it is the oldest recorded town in Britain. Would probably be more impressive if it was the undisputed oldest town in Britain. In the modern day Colchester, you can still see parts of Roman walls dotted around plus there is a museum based in the largely complete and large Norman castle (built on the foundations of a Roman temple) and the renowned Beth Chatto gardens. Ooh, there is a zoo as well where you will probably find some dizzy ungulates (that word again – look it up).

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Colchester Castle – bigger than its Norman contemporary, the Tower of London

Anyway, I have digressed again; milk and Romans can be so distracting. The Q2 was absolutely fine cruising at 70mph on the motorway. Road noise was ever present, as it is in almost every car except the most expensive, but it only became intrusive on the roughest surfaces. When cruising, the engine was quiet but typically dieselly (new word) under acceleration. On the few occasions I did turn the steering wheel, every indication was that the steering would be pleasingly direct and accurate if you pressed on through some twisty bits. And I strongly suspect the four wheel drive would provide all the grip you would need when called upon. Incidentally, four wheel drive and a seven speed automatic gearbox are standard (or compulsory would be another way of looking at it) if you want the 2.0TDi engine in your Q2. Front wheel drive and a six speed manual box are available with the less powerful engine options and since the 150hp 2.0TDi weighs in at more than £29,000, there are opportunities for saving some money if you fancy a Q2. The cheapest Q2 (1.0T petrol, front wheel drive, manual) would save you £8,000 or 444 denarii (based on the estimated purchasing power of the denarius at the end of the Roman Empire) or between 16,326 and 17,777 pints of milk (depending on whether you shop at Waitrose or Aldi). Quids in tuus pocitus.

Colin

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WEEKLY CAR DIARY – BMW X5 HYBRID & THE NATIONAL TRAMWAY MUSEUM

Three long days working this week and a chance to get re-acquainted with Transit vans (its been a while since I drove the larger ones):-
Monday: Volkswagen Golf 1.4 TSI (125hp) DSG (auto), Kettering, Northants to Dereham, Norfolk
Wednesday: Ford Transit 350 (the big one!), Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire to Woodford Green, Essex
Friday: Ford Transit Custom (the “traditional” size Transit), Rotherham, South Yorkshire to Southampton
There was a comment in response to last week’s diary asking if I was going to review the BMW X5 40e plug-in hybrid (two of which I drove that week). It is, after all, an interesting car so here goes ….. well, from what I could tell, it was very nice! It pulled away satisfyingly on electric power only and stayed on electric until I had to accelerate up to 65/70mph on the motorway or dual carriageway (on each leg of my round trip that was only a few hundred yards from my starting point!). Everything I said about driving the Mercedes C-class plug-in hybrid on electric power applies here – eerie, silent, satisfying and, for me, still a fascinating novelty. When accelerating up to motorway speed, the two litre, turbocharged four cylinder petrol engine cut in without any fuss, the car felt quick (I have included some anorak data at the bottom of this post) and the eight speed automatic box was as smooth as frog’s fur. When cruising at motorway speed, the petrol engine was virtually silent, possibly because it was only ticking over at about 1500 to 1700 rpm so I assume the electric motor was helping. You do notice road noise but may be because the power unit is so quiet! Negotiating curves (a total of two roundabouts), the X5 felt as if it was quite nimble, certainly far more so than the lumbering Range Rover that I drove the following day. Inside, there was an upmarket and quality interior that you would expect from a £60k BMW and you would not be disappointed in terms of comfort. And that’s about it! Other than to say that the gentleman to whom I delivered the X5 loan car (I took his week-old X5 hybrid back to Leicester to have a small paint chip sorted) confirmed what I said about upmarket hybrids and tax in my Mercedes C-class post. His new hybrid X5 uses more fuel than his old diesel X5 – so it won’t save the planet – but it will save him over £400 per month in tax!
Sorry I can’t say much more about the X5 but I only drove each example about 35 short miles between Leicester to Kettering, almost entirely on motorway and dual carriageway. The only time I turned the steering wheel was when negotiating those two roundabouts (OK, I had to park them as well). Had the journey been any shorter I could probably have left the cars plugged in! Now my childish imagination starts to run riot. Suppose the X5 had one of those self-retracting cables like an old vacuum cleaner (and could reach from BMW Leicester to Kettering)! When I got to Kettering I could have rung up the BMW dealer, asked them to unplug the cable and give it a little tug (reminding them to let go sharpish). The plug and cable would then have raced off down the street like a demented snake (hopefully without BMW salesperson in tow) snapping at the heels of startled pedestrians who would leap out of the way with a shriek. Cars would have screeched to a halt at green lights as the snake hurtled through on red. Then it would have flown down the M1 and A14 passing all the other traffic and just a few seconds later it would have raced towards the X5 and disappeared into a recess in the bodywork. Before disappearing, the last couple of feet of cable would have flicked furiously up and down like the tongue of the aforementioned demented snake, just as if the car were vigorously sucking in the tail end of a strand of spaghetti. While standing nonchalantly checking the latest cricket scores on my phone, I would have casually closed a flap over the recess, wiped off any excess bolognese sauce and carried on with whatever. This is, of course, all fantasy but there are electric vehicles on our roads that do have cables long enough for their entire journey – they are called trams. Shame we abandoned them in the UK for decades before re-discovering the benefits. The new tram system in Nottingham, for example, is rather good. If you ever go to Nottingham, give them a try. You may have the privilege of travelling on the likes of Robin Hood, Torvill and Dean or England cricketer, Stuart Broad. (Sorry – I know I have some readers in Australia so mentioning Stuart Broad may be insensitive after what he did in the fourth test of the last Ashes series.)
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Once upon a time, Leicester had trams.
If you are not convinced about trams, you need to visit the National Tramway Museum (https://www.tramway.co.uk/) in Crich, Derbyshire – it’s brilliant. If you are visiting Matlock or the south eastern side of the Peak District National park, you will not be far away. Please be assured I am not a tram spotter nor tram aficionado but my family and I have visited this place two or three times over the years and really enjoyed it. The museum is set in a period village where original buildings have been transported and re-built brick by brick, including an old pub. You can ride trams up and down a length of track (all day if you want – there’s no extra cost), peruse the splendid indoor exhibits, lose the kids in the outdoor or indoor play areas, try to lose them again in the woodland walk and sculpture trail and then eat and drink yourself silly. Here you are spoilt for choice – the period tea rooms, the pub, ice cream parlour or traditional sweet shop (or all of them if your diet is starting the next day). Or, you can take your own pork pie or corned beef sandwiches and enjoy the picnic area with views over the Amber Valley at the far end of the tram line.
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A Leeds tram (left), I believe and a seaside special – an old Blackpool tram
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Indoors where exhibits are arranged chronologically from the earliest horse-drawn trams onwards
We first went to the museum many years ago when our kids were very little. It was near Christmas and we had a hearty roast turkey lunch served in giant Yorkshire puddings. Then we met Santa riding on the tram but I must have been naughty because I don’t remember getting a present (the kids did though). The last time we went was four years ago and it was a 1940’s theme day. What a great atmosphere! Loads of people dressed up in period civvies or military uniforms. And you have to admit, the trams themselves – many of them brightly coloured and/or with acres of highly polished wood – do look rather magnificent.
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1940’s theme day at the museum. You can’t keep soldiers away from a pub!
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All change! It costs one old penny to ride the trams. But don’t worry they give you that when you arrive.
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I’ll have a quarter of, erm, those … no, those … no, wait…. Like a kid in a sweet shop.
ANORAK’S CORNER: BMW X5 xDrive40e M Sport – 0-60mph, 6.8 seconds; top speed, 130mph (limited to 75mph on electric only); total power (combined petrol engine & electric motor), 313hp; combined MPG, 83.1 (ha ha); range on electric-only, 19 miles.
Colin

TAXING QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MERCEDES C350e PLUG-IN HYBRID

I have always wanted to drive an electric vehicle. I had always imagined it would be an eerie experience driving along in almost near silence with a good smooth shove from the torquey electric motor. Well, I still haven’t driven a full electric-only car but last week I came close, in the form of a Mercedes C350e Sport plug-in hybrid saloon. I have driven a couple of Mercedes hybrids before but both were diesel hybrids and neither were plug-ins. They didn’t give much clue as to what it is like to go electric as they only allowed limited use of the battery. Accelerate gently (and quietly) to 20mph and that’s your lot – the diesel then cuts in.

Driving a new Toyota Auris hybrid estate to Merseyside in January, I had a slightly better impression. As well as the initial acceleration, I managed to cruise briefly along an urban road at 40mph. However, the slightest tickle of the accelerator and in came the petrol engine. I did manage a reasonable 58mpg on the long, steady motorway journey though. Close but not quite as good as a typical family-sized diesel.

There is a big difference between the Mercedes and Toyota hybrids though. The Mercedes all had plenty of performance whereas the Toyota was about as lively as a snail with a hangover. I have not driven many cars (or even vans) which feel so sluggish accelerating from, say, 50 mph to 70mph on the motorway. That said, it is of course unfair to compare the Toyota to the much more expensive Mercedes. But petrol-electric hybrids may be the medium-term future if the authorities decide to take punitive financial measures against diesels and not everyone will be able to afford the likes of a Mercedes. Until Marty McFly and Doc Brown develop the flux capacitor and small-scale nuclear reactor to the point where electric-only cars are truly practical (feeding on banana skins and other household waste), it may be Back to the Past for current diesel owners who are used to the economy and performance of a modern diesel engine. For a lot of private buyers, a compromise on performance may become the order of the day if the only realistic option becomes one of the humbler petrol hybrid offerings, such as the Toyota. Incredible to think that diesel cars were thought of as noisy and slow a couple of decades ago.

Back to the Mercedes C350e. A seven speed automatic gearbox, two litre turbo-charged petrol engine with 211hp and an electric motor with 82hp which all adds up to, er, 279hp according to Mercedes’s own figures! The interiors of current Mercedes are really classy and this C-class was no exception – lots of brushed aluminium and high gloss black on the dashboard and leather seats.

I had to take this C-class demonstrator from Leicester to Derby and pick it up again two days later. The car’s sat nav took me on A-roads: skirting Ashby-de-la-Zouch, then north up through the pretty village of Ticknall and across the amazing and ancient Swarkestone Bridge. Much more interesting than the M1 motorway and the Mercedes was a pleasure to drive over this varied route. The battery pack (larger than in the non-plug-in C-class diesel hybrid) adds a lot of weight but the C350e still goes round corners without drama and with plenty of grip. It is quiet even when the petrol engine cuts in, which it does with a very slight nudge. Not imperceptible but almost.

The electric motor frequently did all the work on its own. It was very strange watching the needle on the rev counter drop like a stone to zero as the petrol engine closed down when I was cruising along. Then I was left with that eerie experience mentioned at the beginning of this post – near silence except for a bit of road noise. I don’t know why but this was really satisfying and I was able to cruise at 50 – 60 mph on battery alone for some decent stretches. So with the electric motor seeming to do its fair share of the work, I couldn’t have used much fuel, could I? Actually, the car managed, erm, 36.6mpg. Compared to its official combined figure of 134.5mpg. And I was driving very steadily!

Two days later and I was determined to do better when I picked the car up to return it to Leicester. The gentleman who had been trying out the car said he liked it very much but commented on how the fuel gauge had dropped alarmingly. As a result, it was very low on fuel and had only a 12% battery charge. I was beginning to wish I had slipped a couple of AAs in my bag just in case. The trip computer gave a range of 46 miles and I had 30 to go. Now there’s a challenge. Could I get back comfortably and even increase that margin of 16 miles?

Shortly after leaving Derby, I tried going to full electric-only mode but the car wouldn’t let me, presumably because the battery charge was too low. However, all was going well until I was about 10 miles from my destination. Apparently I still had a range of 32 miles – great, I should now be able to get there with a range of 22 miles to spare. Then the range figure suddenly disappeared to be replaced by a red petrol pump! The fuel  gauge itself now had one small illuminated segment flashing on and off. Interesting. Had the car now decided that the computed range was not to be relied upon? I still had one ace up my sleeve though: electric-only mode. By now the battery charge was up to 17%. I was able to switch to full e power and cruise along for a couple of miles, even getting close to 70mph on a stretch of dual carriageway. This was a very novel and enjoyable sensation – a glimpse of the future perhaps. As I reached the outskirts of Leicester, the car announced that e-only mode was no longer available and the battery charge was down to 10%. I then spent the last few miles trying to eek out the most from the electric motor as I progressed through the suburbs and then the city itself. Negotiating roundabouts and traffic lights, I would accelerate gently (the car using the petrol engine if necessary), then ease off to allow the electric motor to take over on its own. I was able to keep the available battery charge reasonably constant because slowing down for roundabouts or traffic lights usually added 1% to the charge. Eventually – phew – I made it and recorded a passable 48mpg. I suppose that was not bad for a car capable of 0-60mph in 5.9 seconds and a limited top speed of 155mph. However, it took a certain amount of concentration to achieve that figure and all at a very modest pace (the 30 miles took me almost an hour and that was not because of any significant traffic).

So, what do we learn from all that? In short, cars like the Toyota are making a valiant attempt to match the economy of diesels but the Mercedes C350e is not really about saving fuel (or the planet) at all. OK, if you plugged it in every night and had a shortish commute, you may be able to get a decent return for each gallon of unleaded (the official electric-only range on a full charge is 19 miles). No, what this car is all about is going fast and saving tax. Lots of it. In the UK, the vast majority of C350e customers will be company car drivers. In the forthcoming tax year, choosing a C350e over a cheaper diesel C-class (say, a C250d Sport auto) will save a 40% taxpayer over £2000 in income tax due to the C350e’s very low, official CO2 emissions (48g/km). Not bad. Way more than enough to pay for the extra fuel – that’s if the company car driver actually has to pay for his or her own fuel. A lot of company car drivers entitled to a £40,000 company car are probably high enough up the corporate ladder to get fuel for private use paid for by their employer. Due to those officially low CO2 emissions (which are as realistic as the official 134.5mpg), the C350e scores massively here as well when it comes to income tax on free fuel. And here’s the irony – will a company car driver entitled to free fuel have any incentive to plug into his or her own domestic electricity supply?!

Colin