Car of the Year

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

The new Range Rover is Top Gear's magazine's Car of the Year. Car? I'm sorry, but my definition of a 'car' doesn't include vehicles taller than six feet that weigh nearly two and a half tons. The Range Rover is, according to US environmental and safety regulations, a truck. Truck by name, truck by nature. No amount of ABS, traction control and terrain sensing suspension can alter The Laws of Physics: mountainous mass X V8 acceleration + slippery surface = endless understeer oblivion. As Top Gear's own writer put it, the Range Rover's quest for soft-road world domination will ultimately end 'in a ditch'.

Don't get me wrong; I'm sure the new Range Rover is a damn fine truck. Isn't it? I've yet to pilot the beast, but the few British journos who weren't busy singing 'Land Rover of Hope and Glory' at the truck's launch noticed a few 'glitches'. One version's adjustable air suspension got stuck in mid-air- a problem not unknown to owners of the previous model. One or two reviewers also didn't fail to notice the Ranger's prodigious thirst (12mpg), sloth (0 – 62 in 9.2 seconds) and square-rigged susceptibility to side winds. But hey, what do you expect? It's a truck. A truck that still hasn't released its Euro NCAP crash worthiness rating.

Aside from semantics, build quality, global warming, performance, handling and safety, my biggest problem with Top Gear's selection is that I can't understand their criteria. The magazine avoided the thorny issue of how a Range Rover is superior to a Lamborghini Murcielago (aside from the obvious fact that you can say 'Range Rover' without sounding effeminate) by simply leaving out the bit that explains how they made their choice. Well, TG does say the Range Rover has more 'all round excellence' than the luggage aversive Lambo. OK guys, but what makes the Range Rover more of an all-rounder than a BMW Five Series? The fact that it can drive to places where the rescue service arrives in a Toyota Landcruiser? I don't think so.

It's probably more a case of wishful thinking. TG's post-Empire unconscious must instinctively yearn for an English car that's a world-beater, even if it is a truck. Someone should tell TG that even nostalgia ain't what it used to be. I once took out a small village in a barely controllable, formerly all-conquering Jaguar XK120 (which may have been the car's intention, but not mine). Anyway, like the Royal family oneself, the Range Rover is a murky collection of British and German genetics. Even overlooking its BMW engine, I wonder if TG would have given Ford's latest truck the gong if it had been built in Detroit. Like, say, the similarly inoffensive Cadillac Escalade. Again, methinks not.

TG's editors should take the time to define excellence before they publicly announce it. Otherwise, they open themselves up to charges of misguided patriotism-or worse. (I once saw a vicious pub fight that started over the relative handling merits of a Nova vs. a Saxo. A Black Maria won.) If excellence equals technological innovation, anoraks will remind you that the new Range Rover's monocoque construction and air suspension predate the Defender. If excellence means drop-dead style, only a Multipla owner could deny that Mercedes' new SL is a more elegant evolution of a familiar form. And if excellence means bang for the buck, Scooby Doo, Landie don't.

To be fair, TG did a lot better in the semis. They recognized the Civic Type-R as an engineering masterpiece that costs only slightly more than the VAT on a Ferrari 456. They admitted that the Subaru Impreza Turbo is still the best- if most insect-like- driver's car ever unleashed on English roads. The plastic fantastic Renault Avantine earned a justifiable nod as the boldest new mainstream, um, thing. And who can [be bothered to] argue with their choice of the Nissan Primera as the best 'medium car'? They're all sane, safe choices for Best in Class. Porsche owners may howl with high-octane indignation at TG's conclusion that an Audi TT is better than a 911, but it's hard to share their outrage. After all, they have a 911 with which to console themselves.

I wish TG's final choice had been a little less NHS, and a lot more Pop Idol. A 'chalk or cheese?' people's poll would have been a far more equitable way to select an overall winner from such disparate machines. Perhaps it's a bit much to ask for democracy from a magazine spawned by a TV program on a channel funded by a mandatory tax on people's TV sets. So let's do it ourselves, through that newfangled thing called the Internet! Simply press the comment button below and nominate your own Pistonheads Car of The Year. Don't forget to include your justification. I'll start by nominating the BMW M5. It's the best car in Britain because I bought one. So there.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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