Tag: cars

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For all intensive purposes

No, this isn’t going to be a post about commonly mispronounced sayings and phrases, although that may form the basis of a future post – I suppose that depends on whether I could care less or not.

This post was inspired by this post that I came across today on Catherine’s blog, and I thought driving lessons and tests would make a good topic for today’s waffle.

Son, we can do this the easy way or the hard way

It was 2002. I was 19, and I figured now was the time to learn to drive. Up until now, the only exposure I’d had to driving was playing the Gran Turismo series on the PlayStation, and driving my brother’s Vauxhall Cavalier around the car park at Morrisons at the age of 15 – during which I vividly remember exclaiming, “This is nothing like Gran Turismo! How can they call it the ‘Real Driving Simulator’?! Beggars belief.”

So I did some research and decided that, as I would be leaving college imminently and that a driving licence would help me find a job, doing an intensive driving course would be the way forward. I figured it would be easier to get it all done and dusted, rather than protract it out longer than needed. BSM (the British School of Motoring) were offering 30 hour intensive courses, with the driving test at the end, and I dutifully signed up.

The 30 hour lesson programme basically took place over the course of 5 days, but as the test was on the afternoon of the 5th day, with a two hour lesson beforehand, I basically had to cram in 28 hours of driving lessons over 4 days.

At the end of it, my instructor (Neville Blake, not sure if he’s still teaching!) was happy that I was test-ready and packed me off to the Driving Test Centre in Shrewsbury.

It didn’t go terribly well.

17 minors, 2 serious faults, 1 dangerous fault and a partridge in a pear tree

For context, if there’s anyone reading who doesn’t know how the UK driving test works, you are tested on a huge variety of driving tasks – it’s widely regarded as one of the hardest driving tests in the developed world.

If you make a mistake, that’s a minor fault. You are allowed to make up to 15 minor faults in your test and still pass, although if you repeat the same mistake too many times that can fail you.

There are also serious faults and dangerous faults, and just one of either of these is an automatic, instant fail.

The partridge in the pear tree is by-the-by.

I can’t remember what all of my minor faults were for, but I know I got at least three for “undue hesitation”, as I remember being a bit annoyed at being marked down for being too cautious, thinking that extra caution was a good thing. Of course, since then I’ve come to realise that good driving is not only about being safe and making progress, but also not impeding others who also want to make progress.

I’ve also forgotten one of my serious faults. The other one, however, is really annoying. I was driving down a narrow-ish road lined with parked cars, in a residential area. My speed was appropriate for the conditions, that much I am sure, but all of a sudden a small kid (is there any other kind?) rode out into the road on a little pushbike, shooting out from behind a hedgerow in his garden.

There was no way I could have predicted it – I couldn’t see movement under the hedge in the same way you’d be able to with a parked car – but I remembered my training and instinctively went to perform an emergency stop.

Unfortunately, I felt the brake pedal move away from underneath my foot as I went to stomp on it – the examiner had got there first. Again, if the examiner has to take physical action, it’s an instant fail. I was a bit aggrieved by this, as my reactions as a learner driver are bound to be a little bit slower than a seasoned professional, but never mind – the other faults meant I would have failed regardless, even if I’d completed the stop without help.

The dangerous fault was for pulling out of a (very short) slip road on to a dual carriageway and (apparently) causing a HGV to slow down to accommodate my manoeuvre. The fact I don’t remember even seeing the HGV is more worrying, so I’ll let that one slide.

So, what went wrong?

I was test ready. I felt ready. I knew the theory (I scored 35/35 on the theory test, although as that’s mostly just common sense I’m not sure how people don’t) and I could perform manoeuvres to perfection – even the parallel park, which I’m terrible at nowadays on account of hardly ever having to do it.

I think the problem I had was that I simply did not have enough “on the road” experience. 30 hours of non-stop learning would tire anyone out regardless of the
subject matter, so it’s hardly a surprise that I clearly didn’t take
enough in.

One of the first things my instructor said to me was that he wasn’t teaching me to drive, he was basically teaching me to pass the driving test, because you never stop learning how to drive. And he was right.

I stopped learning to drive after my test, until the spring of 2004 when I resumed lessons – one a week, this time with Geoff Young (who I think is still teaching, I see him about occasionally) and with lots of private practice in between to build up my “road hours.”

It turns out that there are a huge number of variables and scenarios that you will encounter when out on the road that learning to drive in such a short space of time just cannot prepare you for.

I passed my second driving test in August 2004, with just 4 minor faults this time. Interestingly, during this test, we came upon a “fresh” accident on a dual carriageway, and my examiner – to his credit – advised me on how best to deal with the obstruction as if he was my instructor, not my examiner.

TL;DR

My advice to anyone looking to learn to drive is, put simply:

  1. Don’t do an intensive course unless you’re 100% sure it’s right for you
  2. Get in lots of private practice
  3. Do your research, and choose a driving instructor that you get on well with (this guy comes thoroughly recommended if you’re in the Shropshire region)
  4. Don’t be disheartened if things don’t go as planned – as said above, you never stop learning so don’t worry too much
  5. Once you’ve passed, look into things like PassPlus or even Advanced Driving courses

And finally, enjoy yourself! Driving offers you unprecedented freedom to go and do whatever you want, it’s worth the effort.

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Turning over a new Leaf

As I mentioned in one of my posts just the other day, I’ve been driving for 11 years now – I passed my test in August 2004. Since that time, I’ve gone through cars like most people go through underpants – 22 of them to be precise – pretty much two a year.

I started out with fairly small and slow cars, as would befit a newly qualified driver, and slowly progressed through to 500bhp monsters like the V10-powered BMW M5.

My tastes over the last few years have been for Vee-engined BMWs in general, to be honest – primarily V10 and V8 gas guzzlers, to be precise. The two V10 M5s would regularly achieve such heady heights of 12 miles per gallon – which, at today’s petrol price (£1.07 per litre), with my current work commute (18 miles each way) would see me spending a whopping £14.57 per day to get to work and back – assuming 20 work days per month, that’s nearly £300 a month – and that’s just for my work mileage, not even taking into account other journeys.

My last BMW, a 750i, which I sold on Friday night, got around 22mpg on average, so that’s better but is still £7.95 per day.

Plus of course, there was tax to consider – £505 per year for the BMW. Plus servicing and maintenance/repairs costs, which could have potentially been a wallet-killer on an older BMW – I once had to pay near enough £3,000 for a clutch and flywheel replacement on my first M5.

On top of all that, there’s the money to pay for the car in the first place. In other words, owning these damn cars hasn’t been cheap.

Something had to change.

Why don’t you make like a tree, and leaf?

So, it was with some excitement and also nervousness that I approached my local Nissan dealer a month and a bit ago and enquired about loaning one of their Nissan LEAF electric vehicles for a four day test drive.

I’d been following the development of electric vehicles with much interest over the last few years, a pal of mine up in Scotland* has long been a proponent of EVs, and often posted on Be Excellent To Each Other about his latest custom projects, but they never really appealed – probably because of the Clarksonist tripe often spouted about them.

However, the media coverage of the Tesla Roadster and Model S, and the frequent musings of Red Dwarf and Scrapheap Challenge star Robert Llewellyn, another strong advocate of EVs, made me sit up and pay attention.

Anyway, Greenhous Nissan in Telford were more than happy to loan me a LEAF for a few days. It ended up being a 48 hour test drive as they unexpectedly sold the demo car and had to have it back for preparation, but my experiences over the 48 hours convinced me that EVs are the future, and I paid a visit to the dealership the week after handing the car back and placed an order for my own LEAF.

I picked it up yesterday, and here it is, resplendent in the free Flame Red paint, because I was too much of a cheapskate to pay extra for metallic paint and the only other option would have been white – and cars don’t look good in white unless they’re also covered in Castrol livery!

So, let’s cover off a few of the questions that are often raised about electric vehicles – and again, as with my Eggheads appearance, I’ve been asked quite a few questions, so here they are in roughly the order in which I’ve been asked them the most:

Q. Electric? Have you gone mad? I thought you were supposed to be a “petrolhead” – the clue’s in the name!

A. Yes, it’s fully electric, and no I haven’t gone mad. As for being a petrolhead – I would argue that a petrolhead is someone who has an interest in cars in general, so that hasn’t changed. There’s no denying that the LEAF is interesting, and besides, I’m keeping the Celica.

Q. How far will it go on a single charge?

A. Official figures are 120 miles (on the New European Driving Cycle) but these figures are always a bit out of whack. Real-world usage by others suggest a realistic maximum of around 85-90 miles depending on driving style, weather conditions, outside temperature etc.

Q. That’s hardly anything!

A. Well, not compared to most petrol/diesel cars, no. But the LEAF will be fine for 95% of my day to day driving, and if I do need to make any longer journeys, then a number of options are open to me:

  • Use the Celica
  • Use Jem’s Honda Jazz
  • Rent a car
  • Borrow a car from Nissan themselves, they have a programme setup for this
  • Go in the LEAF, but plan the journey to include recharges

To be fair, I’d probably take one of the first two options simply for convenience – but they’re all viable.

Q. How long does it take to recharge?

A. That depends on the charger, and of course how full the battery is already. From 0% to 80% would take around 11 hours on a 3-pin domestic plug socket, or around 4 hours on a dedicated home charger, or 20-30 minutes on a rapid charger.

I’m having a home charging unit installed tomorrow (at a greatly reduced cost, as the Government provide grants for doing so) and Ecotricity have a growing network of rapid chargers installed at most motorway service stations, so a quick 20 minute stop off every hour and a half isn’t too much of a problem.

Plus there are loads of publically accessible charging points dotted all around the UK – see Zap Map for proof!

Q. It’s not the best looking car, is it?

A. It’s alright – the arse end is a bit challenging, but I quite like the look of it.

Q. What’s it like to drive?

A. At first, quite odd. It’s almost completely silent, it is incredibly smooth and vibration-free. Even at speed there’s almost no wind noise
and the ride quality is incredible. After taking my 48 hour test drive I got back into the BMW and starting the engine felt positively neolithic
with it’s loud burbling and vibrations – and I like the sound of V8s!

Q. How much money is this going to save you?

A. In terms of the cost of paying for the car, it’s about as much as I was paying for the BMW, but the LEAF is brand new. Consequently, it comes with a full manufacturer’s warranty so I don’t have to worry about paying for repairs. Maintenance is virtually non-existent thanks to there being almost no moving parts and fluids, so servicing costs are minimal. It costs me nothing in VED (road tax) as EVs are exempt, and even my insurance is cheaper.

The best part though is that to “refuel” I just have to plug it into my house, and I’ll end up paying around 2p per mile – meaning that my daily commute will cost me, at most, just 75p or so per day.

Q. Coming from a 7-series BMW, this must be like driving a Lada by comparison, right?

A. Not at all. It has just as many mod-cons as the 750i, and even some more on top. A BOSE sound system with Bluetooth audio capabilities and iPod/USB playback (not even the 750i had those!), heated seats, a heated steering wheel, reversing cameras (and even an “All Round View” camera which shows you your entire surroundings:

(picture from the teslamotorsclub.com forums)

Plus, of course, I can plug the car into the house to charge and have it set to warm itself up for me in the mornings so that by the time I get into it to go to work, it’s already nice and toasty warm – it’ll even turn the heated steering wheel on for me for 15 minutes before departure if it’s cold enough.

Q. It’s not really that environmentally friendly though, is it? I mean, the electricity is still being generated by coal!

A. Well, I’m not doing this for the environment (although it is a side benefit) – but consider that most internal combustion engines are, at most, approx. 20% efficient – i.e. for every litre of fuel they use, only 20% of the energy released goes towards moving the car. Electric vehicles are closer to 65% efficient – so even though fossil fuels are still being burned to power them, you’re getting more for less – and of course, as more green energy sources are used, electric vehicles become greener without needing to change anything on the car.

Q. Yeah, but if everyone drove electric vehicles, the National Grid would crumble under the strain!

A. Not really. It takes a huge amount of energy to refine crude oil into petrol and other fuels. If everyone switched to EVs, we wouldn’t need to refine as much oil so that energy usage would be brought right down, making more capacity for EV charging!

You’re a convert, then?

Yeah, pretty much. The technology can only get better, battery life (and therefore range) can only increase – it’s an exciting time to get in on the ground floor.

Hell, my lease on the LEAF lasts for two years and then I have to hand the car back (or buy it I suppose, but that won’t make much sense as technology will have likely moved on by then) – so in theory I may have even saved enough in fuel costs etc. that I’ll be able to switch it for a Tesla Model S

* hello, kalmar!

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A Brief History of Wheels (2004-2014)

UPDATED: March 1, 2014

I’ve been told that I change cars more often than some people change their pants, so I thought I’d drop a post on here about my car history over the last 9 years.

I learned to drive in 2002, but failed my first driving test (it was an intensive driving course, all done within a week, and I didn’t have enough "on-road" experience to handle all situations, which led to some stupid errors) and couldn’t afford to continue with it until 2004, although I kept up private practice with my partner at the time supervising in the snot green 1.0L Nissan Micra that she had.

Although I passed in August 2004, it wasn’t until November that I bought my first car. If you want to get technical though, my first car actually arrived 5 years earlier. It was a 1.1L Ford Fiesta Popular Plus bought for me for £50 by my Dad…

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Gallery: Car History

When I first started driving, back in 2004, I simply thought of cars as a means of getting from A to B. Sometimes, I yearn for those days – simply because nowadays I tend to change cars more often than I change my pants. All of the cars pictured above have been owned by me […]

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Gallery: BMW M5 (2005)

The latest addition to my car history is this rather lovely 2005 BMW M5. With 507bhp and a 0-60 time of 4.5 seconds, this is something of a monster. I’ll be writing a full review of the car once I’ve become more familiar with it and it’s functions, but for now have some photos. The […]

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