Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Off Road Vehicles

After last week's carefully considered and factual review I have decided to continue the motoring theme this week, but with an unashamed rant.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve nothing against so called "off road vehicles" per se. I just think there’s a bit of a clue in the title as to where they belong.

I do understand some people genuinely need an off road vehicle. If you regularly drive across fields, pull a horse box (although I’d far rather you didn’t) or perhaps just live at the bottom of a very wet and muddy lane, there might be a case for owning one. You might then be justified in driving it on the roads occasionally. At least have the good grace, though, to leave a substantial quantity of mud and other unmentionables on the wheel arches as evidence of your credentials.

The ones which get up my nose are the pure status symbols – pristine shiny new ones on the morning school run or in Sainsbury’s car park. The closest these vehicles get to off road is on a front drive - no doubt in one of those front gardens concreted over in the belief that ease of maintenance is worth any adverse impact it may have on the land’s ability to absorb rain.

I would love to understand the rationale behind this vehicle choice. "What do you think dear? The Centurion Tank is maybe a tad expensive but perhaps one of these would provide you almost as much protection when you take the kids to school. Yes I know it uses a fair bit of fuel but think of all the extra Nectar points you’ll earn."

Are these vehicles intended to be the envy of other road users? How sadly misguided. If I wanted one I could get one, but until they decide to plough over the A329 or turn the M4 into a cart track I really don’t see a need. I’ve read a lot of banter about the right to make "life style choices". That’s only an absolute right when doesn’t impact other people. If I made a "lifestyle choice" to hold rock concerts in my back garden I would consider the neighbours’ objections thoroughly justified.

Why do I dislike them so? I don’t want to get into the environmental argument because I don’t know the figures, although I doubt you can get away with carting around that much metal without taking some sort of economy hit. They are ugly and too tall and bulky to see past easily. If they offer extra safety for the occupants it is at the expense of the safety of those on the outside. Most of all, though, I hate them for what they do to me. They inspire prejudice. I find myself looking down on the drivers (figuratively, of course – in practical terms you’ve no choice but to look up at someone perched five feet off the ground). Without ever meeting the driver, I decide they are shallow individuals for whom status is clearly far too important. In a way I feel sorry for them, and I feel bad about myself for making such judgements about someone I've never met.

If you have such a vehicle because you genuinely need one then I apologise. I may even have looked upon you with unjustified distain at some point. All I ask is that if you are considering buying one because you think it will make you look good, don’t. It won’t.

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Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Toyota Prius T-Spirit

These are my thoughts and reactions having had access to a Toyota Prius for 48 hours.

For those who don’t know, the Prius has a hybrid petrol/electric engine. That doesn’t mean you have to plug it into the mains. Indeed, you can’t. The battery recharges when running on petrol or when braking. It’s all computer controlled but basically it uses battery at low speeds, only switching to petrol for faster speeds or harder acceleration.

It’s nickname is the Toyota Pious, because it allows you to wear your green credentials on your sleeve. The model I was testing was the top of the range T-Spirit (cue Nirvana jokes).

The initial reaction of most people seemed to be surprise that it looked like a “real” car. I think there’s a misconception amongst those who have never met one that it’s some sort of novelty vehicle – a sort of high tech 2CV.

It’s a decent size, the build quality seemed good and it was very comfortable. For someone used to a manual gearbox the continuously variable transmission took a while to get used to but I’m talking minutes, not days. The foot operated “hand brake” was also a bit of a surprise and difficult to locate the first few times.

I was expecting it to be a little sluggish. It isn’t. A sports car it’s not, but it takes off pretty well if you do feel the need to put your foot to the floor. For less aggressive driving it’s smooth and quiet.

The intelligent parking assist is only really of novelty value. It took me several goes to get the hang of it and even then it seemed more hard work than parking manually. It’s also just a little bit paranoid. On the few occasions I did get it right, it sometimes cancelled itself because (apparently) my speed was to high. That’s even though I only took my foot off the brake and didn’t apply any accelerator. If it’s so fussed about speed, and if it can take control of the steering wheel, why can’t it just limit my speed rather than going on strike if I go too fast?

The rear view TV display is nice but all those red, green and yellow lines are just confusing. I tried to read in the manual what they all mean but my eyes started to glaze over.

There’s plenty of room inside to accommodate four adults comfortably. I didn’t try five but it would probably be OK provided you’re not travelling too far.

Whether you rate the boot as large or small seems to depend on what you’re used to. Compared with my old Vectra it was tiny. You could be pushed to fit in luggage for four adults on a holiday break. This is mainly because the floor is at bumper level to accommodate the spare wheel and some of the electrics. A removable cover gives access to a bit more space under the boot floor but that makes the luggage area a strange shape, not having a flat base.

Particularly liked:
  • “Star-trek” style central console with touch screen. This is used for Sat Nav display, control of the audio system and climate control, or it can display an animated image to show power source and power routing.
  • Voice control of some functions. As well as the novelty value this could help keep your eye on the road because it allows several functions to be controlled from one easy-to locate button on the steering wheel. You can say things like "18 degrees" to set the climate control, "radio" to turn on the radio and "louder" to turn it up. The repertoire of commands is perhaps a little limited and it would be nice to be able to add your own. The voice saying "say your command now" would have quickly driven me up the wall but thankfully I found a menu option to turn it off.
  • Rear facing camera providing full colour display of what’s immediately behind you when reversing.
  • Large number digital speedometer (switchable between MPH and KPH).
  • Fuel economy. Driving back and forth to work for a couple of days (all urban driving) I averaged just a smidgen under 50 mpg (see also conclusions below).
  • Total silence when you come to a halt at traffic lights and the engine shuts down. It somehow makes your contribution to a cleaner atmosphere all the more real.
  • Rear spoiler cuts a horizontal line across the view through the rear view mirror.
  • ‘Er indoors said she banged her knees on the underside of the dashboard when adopting her preferred driving position.
  • Sat Nav won’t accept full 7 character post codes. After (e.g.) RG41 1 you then have to select street and house number, which is fine if you know it but a pain if you don’t.
  • Continuous beeping when in reverse. If a continuous warning tone is necessary then something less penetrating (like the “ping” of a lift) would be preferable. Toyota please note: the "ping" you get when the auto-park finishes would have been a much better choice.
  • The car’s paranoia. The display console frequently shows warnings to which you have to touch “I agree” or similar. After the first time round you don’t read them anyway and the distraction of having to dismiss the screen can end up being more dangerous than whatever it was it was trying to warn you about.
  • Flimsy cloth cover to boot area.
  • I could have missed something but I couldn’t find a way to leave the radio/cd playing to entertain a passenger without leaving a key in the vehicle.
  • Small boot area. I know I’ve already said that but really deserves repeating as it’s my main reservation about the vehicle.

In the end, I think the plusses outweighed the minuses. It’s a decent sized family car with a performance which will only disappoint if you are a “boy racer”. You cannot argue with the fuel economy even though I couldn’t achieve the manufacturer’s suggested figures.

If you are a (UK) company car driver it could save you a fortune in income tax because of the tax breaks for “green” vehicles. If you own one yourself I believe the annual road fund tax is an incredibly low £15.

If you frequently drive into town, it’s currently exempt from the London Congestion Charge although you do have to pay an annual fee (currently £10) to register. However I hear rumours that Boris may have a plan to stop this concession so don't count on it continuing forever.

Add to that the fuel economy (who knows what the future holds for the price of petrol and diesel) and the savings could be substantial. The sums will vary with personal circumstances but I’m anticipating a saving of around £80 per month (fuel and tax combined) compared with my old Vectra. On top of that there is the thought that you are doing your bit to conserve resources and protect the atmosphere.

Given the economics I think I might be prepared to be a bit more creative when packing for a weekend away with friends.

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Why blog?

OK, here are my excuses for starting blogging at a stage in life where I really ought to know better. It might give you some insight into why I'm here and what sort of thing to expect on this blog. On the other hand, it might not.

This is a tad embarrassing. Despite over 30 years in the software development industry I have to confess that I have little or no knowledge of what a blog is and how one works.

I have noticed that as soon as someone learns you are "in computers" there's a tendency to assume you know everything there is to know about computer hardware and software. In truth we computer people are often highly specialised. I could answer all but the most difficult questions about the Windows API, C++ syntax or how to use Visual Basic but I'm probably no better than the man on the Clapham omnibus when it comes to the questions lay people actually ask me like "my hard drive is playing up, how do I fix it?" or "my computer's running really slowly, any idea what's wrong with it?". I guess it's a bit like being a brain surgeon and having to field Auntie Janie's enquiry about how to deal with her in-growing toenail. When you say "it's not my field" the usual reaction is "but I thought you were in computers".

So why am I venturing out of my comfort zone and launching into this new enterprise? Although I'm a software man by trade, the real me is a frustrated author. This is a bit more than a practice ground, but only a bit. Every author wants to be heard, otherwise there’s no point.

I have a lot to say. Being of “grumpy old man” age, if not a little past it, I’m forever thinking, I must write to the papers about this or that. In truth, of course, I rarely do. Maybe this will be the outlet for all that suppressed grumpiness as well as wanting to share my boundless wisdom.

If you have stumbled in here (heaven knows how) then welcome. Please feel free to contribute. I’ve made this an open forum. Hopefully in the cornucopia of opinions I intend to post here on a divers range of subjects, you will find something to interest you.

I have no aspirations to change the world (at least, not realistic ones) but if I manage to amuse then I have succeeded.

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