Cars are great – unless you have to drive them

Last weekend was my second wedding anniversary. My wife and I went to spend the weekend at the same hotel we got married at two years ago, and had a fabulous weekend – Culloden House comes highly recommended.

With Culloden being a three and a half hour drive north of Edinburgh, we decided to hire a car to take us there and back. It may come as something of a surprise to discover that someone as enthusiastic about cars as myself doesn’t actually own one of the things, but there is a very good reason for that – which I will go on to explain in this post. A rental car, we figured, would be more convenient and possibly even cheaper than the train. We could come and go when we wanted, take detours, and not have to share the passenger compartment with other people.

The fun started when we got to the desk at the car hire place. When I booked online I selected the cheapest and smallest option, and the website duly informed me I would be getting a Volkswagen Up! (VW put the exclamation mark there, don’t shoot the messenger). This I was quite looking forward to. Aside from the fact that I was used to driving long distances in small cars, I’d seen quite a few of the Up!s around town and they looked pretty funky. Sadly, it was not to be. “It’ll be a slightly bigger car than you’ve paid for Mr Mabon,” the lady told me. “It costs the same, it’s just a bigger car, an A..s..t..r..a..”

The underpowered Astra: the cause of this rant

The underpowered Astra: the cause of this rant

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the Vauxhall Astra is a perfectly functional car. It’s just that I have about as strong an emotional connection to new Astras as I do to the spoon I used to stir my tea ten minutes ago. Unless we’re going back fifteen years to the GTEs and series one cars that are now classics, I just can’t get excited about Astras. And bearing in mind that I find early-90s Citroen estates fascinating, that’s saying something.

Still, our temporary chariot was reasonably well designed, pleasantly laid-out inside and fitted out with a good range of creature comforts. When I turned the key, so quiet was the engine that the only indication I had the thing was switched on was the lights on the dash blinking into life. On reflection, this should also have been an early warning sign that the engine wasn’t putting out an awful lot of horsepower. You don’t need a lot of horses to drive round the city, though, and the Vauxhall moved itself smartly through the streets of Edinburgh, spiriting us out of the city and towards the highways in reasonable comfort.

A former colleague of mine from the 205 Challenge has a theory that Vauxhall Astras get faster as they get older, formed on a day when a faded red 1993 hatchback overtook us on a blind bend, ten minutes before a 1986 Astramax van passed us with such gusto its engine note became noticeably Doppler-shifted. This theory would go a long way to explaining the performance characteristics of my hire Astra, which was both brand new and painfully, painfully slow.

Equipped with what I can only assume is the lowest-powered engine available for the model, a 1400cc unit putting out 87PS, this Astra joins a unique club of which my old Fiat Cinquecento and the fieldwork Peugeot van at work are the only other members. Namely, the club of cars which you can drive in top gear, accelerator pedal flat to the floor, through a speed camera without triggering the flash. I remember once seeing a tourist car that had a large handwritten notice apologetically taped to the inside of the back windscreen, reading ‘Sorry: French driver’. After a spate of embarrassing attempts at overtaking trucks in which the car just wasn’t able to build up enough speed to pass without blocking the outside lane for a prolonged period, I considered putting a similar sign saying ‘Sorry: shit engine’.

Such a deceptively underpowered car could catch out those lacking experience of the unique roads found in the Scottish Highlands. The main road from central Scotland to the Highlands – the A9 – is a tight, twisty, largely single carriageway road, one that is frequented by all manner of caravans, coaches and goods lorries. If you are going to attempt an overtake in any car, you have to be pretty damn sure there’s nothing coming the other way, and that you can get past the slower vehicle before something occupying the opposite lane emerges from across the horizon. This often just wouldn’t be possible in a car with these performance characteristics, and if you’d come from foreign shores and taken to the wheel of this with a little too much confidence you could find yourself face-to-face with something much nastier than a monster on your way to Loch Ness. Still, being forced to sit back behind the trucks and buses gave ample time to show my wife the kind of nutty driving that prevails on the A9, as we watched Range Rovers picking off cars in the queue one by one, BMWs overtaking on blind bends, and delivery vans having to swerve back into the left-hand lane when something came round the bend coming the other way. Eight near-misses were counted between Carrbridge and Kingussie (a 30km stretch of road) alone.

The A9: beautiful scenery, crazy drivers

The A9: beautiful scenery, crazy drivers

Although nothing horrendously bad happened, my long weekend of 350 miles of driving was distinctly underwhelming. Unless one is on a racing circuit or rally stage, this is probably the kind of experience one wants when driving. Quiet, relaxed and okay are all adjectives normally deployed to signify a positive driving experience on a trunk road. You got there without any drama. Words like memorable, interesting and fun tend, however, to be associated with breakdowns, road traffic accidents and bouts of travel sickness that result in projectile vomiting.

The banality of the Astra experience didn’t bother me too much. The car got us to the Highlands and back without any notable incidents occurring. I could live with that. What did get to me, though, was the cost of the whole thing. Thanks to an early bird online deal, the vehicle cost less than a hundred pounds to rent for four days, in the ballpark with the price for equivalent train tickets. What this fee did not, however, include was the petrol that came with the car. We got the Vauxhall with a full tank of fuel, and returned it empty. This meant that we used sixty-odd quid of fuel to drive from our home, to Inverness, to Edinburgh Ikea, and back to our home again. All of this was normal, sensible driving too. There was no hooning.

Had this functional yet dowdy Astra been our own car, we would have had to pay nearly thirteen grand for it new, probably around eight or nine second-hand. It would have to be taxed to the tune of a hundred and five pounds a year. It would need to be insured. Serviced. Fuelled. In the city you would have to pay for a permit to park it. The numbers start to stack up pretty quickly, and before you know it you are paying an awful lot of money for something that really doesn’t give you any joy at all.

Not everyone has to enjoy driving. I have lots of friends who use their cars to let them do the things that do bring them pleasure, taking bikes to the mountains, dogs to the beach or themselves to the homes of loved ones. The difference is that most of these people buy a cheap yet perfectly reliable second-hand vehicle, get it serviced at a good independent garage, and leave it at home during the week. Cars nowadays are so reliable that they will easily clock up hundreds of thousands of miles and last nearly two decades before they start to fall apart. Unless you can’t avoid it, traveling everywhere in an expensive yet average car just seems like an awfully easy way to waste a pile of money without getting anything in return. To my mind, if you’re going to spend well into four or even five figures a year on your car, you really should be getting something meaningful back.

This is exactly why every morning at 8.30, I unchain my bike from the railings, carry it down the stairwell, and head to work through the elements on two wheels. It may be a pain having to change clothes when I get to the office and spending half an hour a day fighting with vehicles, pedestrians and (most dangerous of all) other cyclists, but it hardly costs me a penny. All the money I save goes into the GT-R/DS/Lotus Carlton fighting fund. And besides, a twenty-minute uphill climb every morning means I don’t need a gym membership either. Cars are great, it seems, unless you have to drive them.

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Filed under Road Cars, Scotland

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