Stirling Moss once said, “There are two things no man will admit he cannot do well: drive and make love”. Now, I'm a 21-year-old bloke. This means, naturally, I really am a very good driver. Not only can I beat everyone away from the lights, I can also multitask by texting my friends while changing the music and rolling a spliff – all while looking out for nuisance speed cameras which are likely to land me a hefty fine.
OK, most of that is an exaggeration, but one in three people who die on our roads is aged under 25. The Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) has decided that people in this age group are exactly the sort who should be given some extra training to become safer drivers. For £40 young drivers can take part in Momentum, which incorporates an online test that gets an idea of their attitude to driving and gives the IAM an idea of where they need practice. Once they've done this, they will spend an hour out with one of their examiners who will assess their driving and give them a few pointers. Simple. But is it actually worthwhile? There's only one way to find out.The online assessment
Not a good start. The online assessment seems to be a way of the IAM trying to be cool and making judgements about your driving based on questions like, 'what's your dream car?' and 'what music do you listen to when you drive?'. I answer with 'Land Rover Defender' and a song that a beardy IAM instructor will never have heard of. I don't want them to realise that I'm a proper boy racer just yet.The drive
The day of the drive arrives and the lay-by I'd arranged to meet the examiner in is full, so it's a pitstop style manoeuvre as he jumps in. He checks my documents and questions why I'm doing this. “Er, it's because I'm a boy racer and I don't want to die.” Shit, I've been too honest. Now I'm going to have to drive like a nun so he isn't too judgemental.
I set off down the road following his directions and trying to drive naturally. Apart from worrying every time he scribbles something down on his clipboard it's going OK. He directs me down a cul-de-sac and asks me to do a left-hand reverse. It's like learning to drive again! After a while we pull over and he discusses his obsessions so far. First of all, speed. “You have a tendency to sit at 5 mph above the speed limit.” I resist the temptation to argue against this one. I know my speedo (like most others) is around 5 mph out, so I tend to take this into account.
But anyway, he's not finished. “Your steering is like a racing driver. That's fine on track but what happens when your airbag goes off?” OK, fair enough, my steering is sloppy. Like most people I ditched the push-pull method as soon as I passed my driving test and have adopted a strange, but comfortable, way of steering. He also mentions the IAM way of negotiating bends using the vanishing point technique. This is something which I will try and incorporate into my driving – it's worth looking up as it makes sense in most situations.
After a brief telling off, sorry, discussion, we carry on. My instructor, Jonathan, starts to open up a bit. He's a petrolhead himself – with Jaguar E-Types, an Aston Martin DB5 and an Audi R8 on his list of past cars. He's now running a diesel however, as fuel economy is more important than top speed. Apparently.
I do a bit of rural driving before heading into Leicester city centre to try an urban environment. He gives some good tips about spotting hazards. I feel very conscious as I sit at an indicated 30mph with a queue of cars building up behind me. He also reminds me of the two second rule – although I try not to make a habit of tailgating apparently I now seem to have ditched the two second rule in favour of the half a second rule. Oops.
Before long my hour of driving is over. We pull over to discuss what I do well, and what needs work. Although initially mentioning all my bad points Jonathan's keen to highlight the positives. “You've clearly got a lot of experience and you're not lacking confidence. You're a safe driver – I feel perfectly comfortable being driven by you.” From an ex-police driving instructor, I'll take that. Although I don't agree with everything he's pointed out I'll take it on-board. I took the criticism better than I expected and it's a very worthwhile experience to have an outsider's view of your driving. It's amazing how many bad habits you can pick up over a few years. If you're interested in advanced driving visit www.iam.org.uk
A few years ago a Hyundai would have passed me by without a second glance. Hyundais of the past were cheap but they were anything but cheerful. Recently, however, a revolution has happened and Hyundai's current range is not only excellent value for money – it's also desirable. They look cool and are as well made as their rivals and to prove this, Hyundai's even offering five years warranty on all its new vehicles.
The i20 I'm testing is the mid-range Active model fitted with the most popular engine choice – the 1.2 petrol. Although it's not packed with clever features, ours comes with bluetooth, electric folding mirrors and steering wheel audio controls as standard. If you want luxuries such as automatic headlights and a reversing camera opt for the top-of-the-range Style from £12,345.
From the outside it's a very handsome little car, its facelift front lights replacing the gawping lights of the pre-facelift model, suggesting that Hyundai means business against its rivals such as the Vauxhall Corsa or Ford Fiesta. The interior is a little disappointing – some of the plastics feel cheap (the gear knob looks like it was bought from Halfords) and the seats are a little on the firm side. However, it is spacious with plenty of room for four adults and the boot is huge compared to others in its class.
To drive, the i20 isn't entertaining, but it isn't meant to be. It's a safe drive, the suspension absorbing bumps well and the performance is more than adequate. During my time with the i20 it displays an average of around high 40s mpg on the computer. Like with the Swift I reviewed recently, I'm spending a lot of time with the i20 sat at motorway speeds – where the revs are a little higher than ideal at 70mph meaning the engine is working hard and guzzling more fuel than it would pootling along A-roads at 50 mph, which is how a lot of these spend their time. There are other engines available – 1.4 petrol and diesel units as well as a 1.1 diesel, however I've been impressed with the 1.2 and I'm not convinced it'd be worth splashing out for a more powerful or efficient engine.
Around town the i20 excels. Its light steering and clutch combined with a small turning circle makes it a doddle to manoeuvre and visibility is good. Unlike a lot of cars in its class, the i20 is easy to judge when parking as there are no large overhangs and massive blind spots.
If you're after a sporty little hatchback with the badge of a marque that will impress your friends, the i20 is not for you. However if practicality, reliability and value for money are what you're after, combined with a conservative but handsome image, it's worth considering an i20.
Hyundai i20 1.2 Active
Recommended retail price: £11,595
Top speed: 104 mph
0-62 mph: 12.7 secs
Official combined fuel consumption: 57.6 mpg
CO2 emissions: 114 g/km
Insurance group: 5
Road tax: Band C - £30/year
Servicing: 12 months/10,000 miles
Warranty: Five years/unlimited miles
I liked: Practical, good value for money and excellent warranty.
I didn’t like: Not very exciting. Interior feels a little cheap.
It's roughly thirty years ago now that the hot hatch craze hit Britain. The idea of a run-of-the-mill shopping trolley, such as the Volkswagen Golf or Peugeot 205, being equipped with an engine more powerful than the chassis could really cope with, grabbed the imagination of young drivers and the boy racer phenomenon was born. These days hot hatches are extraordinary – with the likes of the Focus RS and Renaultsport Megane comfortably exceeding 200bhp. One hot hatch that I think is a bit more back-to-basics is the Suzuki Swift Sport which, at about half of the price of the big boys, achieves a modest 134bhp from its feisty 1.6 engine yet provides plenty of smiles per gallon.
However, Britain's feeling the pinch, and most young drivers can but dream of affording to run even the Swift Sport. Gone are the days when a 17-year-old could razz around in a 205 GTI, nowadays driving anything is a privilege and many of us, while wanting the good looks of something like the Swift Sport, are happy to sacrifice performance for a few more miles to the gallon and a bit cut off the ridiculous four-figure insurance premium.
Suzuki has the answer in the form of the Swift SZ-L. It's a special edition based on the mid-range SZ3 - that means you get a 1.2-litre unit with low emissions of 116g/km CO2, resulting in road tax of just £30 a year, and a claimed 56.3 miles to the gallon. But you also get some nice features nicked from its sporty counterpart, such as a rear spoiler, privacy glass and red stitching on the steering wheel and gearshift surround. I'm a massive fan of the red stitching and wish it was more common on all cars – it can make the must mundane interior look interesting. I wouldn't class the Swift's interior as mundane, however. It's a comfortable place to sit and it feels fairly well built, however a few interior features, such as the handbrake, feel a little flimsy. It's not the most practical either – the boot is small compared to rivals and its massive lip makes transporting bulky objects a chore. The back is lacking legroom and, with small rear windows, it's not the nicest place for an adult to pass time. However, for young drivers with nothing but themselves and a few mates to carry, the Swift is more than adequate.
The question is, is fitting a 1.2 to a sporty hatchback like this a sacrifice too far? I decide to take the SZ-L for a swift (sorry) tour of North Yorkshire to find out. At first I find the engine disappointing. It seems to seriously lack grunt and doesn't seem as nippy as its rivals. However, after a few days, it's growing on me. It needs working hard – you get used to dropping down a gear on even the slightest bend or incline and you feel a real sense of pride after successfully completing an overtake. A one-in-three hill on a single track road has me dropping to first and considering asking passengers to get out to help the Swift to reach the top but we make it eventually. And what the Swift lacks in power it makes up for in handling.
Any driver can drive a fast car, slowing down for a poorly anticipated hazard and then accelerating hard to get back up to speed, but a few days in the 1.2 Swift, with its 0-60 time of 11.9 seconds, can teach you a lot about keeping momentum. Fortunately it handles marvellously – keeping body roll to a minimum and only hinting at understeer if you enter a bend at a horrendously optimistic pace, in which case it’s easy to control. This allows you to keep speed up well so you don't have to hold traffic up accelerating back up to the speed limit on straight stretches of road. The feedback through the steering wheel is also good, although it can feel a bit artificial at times, especially when it noticeably becomes heavier when you increase your speed. When I hit a patch of mud and nearly end up in a farmhouse, the steering feedback means I know exactly what the wheels are doing and I manage to control the resulting slide. Which is nice.
On the motorway – once up to speed – the Swift is a capable cruiser. You feel perfectly safe in it thanks to its seven airbags and stability control as standard, which meant it scored a top five stars in the Euro NCAP crash tests. The cruise control, fitted as standard on this model, allows your right foot a chance to relax and the seats are very supportive. On the first day of my Yorkshire trip I covered over 400 miles and happily jumped into the Swift early the next morning for another motorway journey. However, the Swift sits at 70 mph at about 3,500 revs meaning that engine noise is noticeable and long motorway journeys don't help fuel economy. Over one tank I averaged a disappointing 40.7 mpg. Admittedly, as well as motorway, some of these miles were spent working the Swift hard on challenging North Yorkshire country lanes but that's a long way from Suzuki’s official figure. Honest John
managed an average real world mpg of 50.4 showing perhaps how hard the Swift had to work in these conditions.
However, this is not the Swift's natural territory, which is why I decided to head into York city centre to explore the cobbled streets and stop/start traffic. For this the Swift is very good, squeezing down narrow streets like a pro (although the large door mirrors, while being great on the motorway, make me a little nervous). As I park up on a cobbled street with the impressive York Minster in the background, I can’t help but be impressed at how good the Swift looks. It's a really cool little car and, in the white of our test car, it gets more than one envious glance, despite being caked thick in Yorkshire dirt.
Ultimately the Swift is never going to be the most practical choice. If, however, carrying a bootful of shopping and a car ful of passengers isn’t high on your wish list, it’s definitely worth considering. Personally, although I wasn’t expected hot hatch levels of performance, I can’t help but feel it’d be perfect with just a touch more power. If it did it'd sit comfortably at slightly lower revs on the motorway increasing fuel economy and comfort, and you wouldn’t have to work the gearbox quite as hard to keep the speed up. But for people who want something cheap to insure and tax while being a fun car to own and drive, I would highly recommend the Swift SZ-L.
Suzuki Swift SZ-L 1.2 3 door
Recommended retail price: £12,719
Current offer price: £10,599 (until 31/03/13)
Top speed: 103 mph
0-62 mph: 12.3 secs
Official combined fuel consumption: 56.5 mpg
Average fuel consumption during test: 40.7 mpg (over 320 miles including motorway and through North Yorkshire)
CO2 emissions: 116 g/km
Insurance group: 11E
Road tax: Band C - £30/year
Servicing: 12 months/10,000 miles
Warranty: Three years/60,000 miles
I liked: Impressive handling, cool image, good interior.
I didn’t like: Lacking power and not the most practical hatchback.
Have you seen the episode of the Inbetweeners when Simon drives his friends into central London in his iconic yellow Cinquecento? He swaps his shoes with a tramp, gets his car clamped and ends up making a phone call to his dad along the lines of, “first of all, I want you to know it wasn't my fault”. Well, this is exactly the episode I have in mind as I point a borrowed yellow Seat Mii towards the middle of London on a night-time drive to see the sights – complete with a couple of friends equipped with cameras. Only my passengers are under strict instructions not to shout obscenities out of the window.
If you're not familiar with the Seat Mii, it's Seat's new city car that shares a platform with the Volkswagen Up and Skoda Citigo. They're all built in the same factory in Bratislava and are essentially the same car with minor tweaks to the design of each. The Mii I've borrowed is the top-of-the-range Sport model which comes with the more powerful 74bhp engine as well as a lowered suspension and tinted rear windows. It's also crammed with options including the Vibora Negra pack (£1,740 as fitted to this car) which includes the black 15” alloys, viper stripes, side decals, a chequered dashboard, side skirts, spoiler, black mirror caps and a black gear knob. There's also the convenience pack fitted (£310) which includes cruise control, trip computer and rear parking sensors; safety assist (£200) which, when driving in slow stop/start traffic, detects if the car in front has stopped and prevents you crashing into it; and the Seat portable system (£275), Seat's clever sat nav system that includes bluetooth phone connection and a fancy trip computer.
Now, on to the journey. The plan is simple – we're going to wait until it's evening (so we don't have to pay the congestion charge), and head into the big city from our hotel on the outskirts of Crawley. But first we have to get there from our base in Leicester, which involves a motorway journey down the M1 and a stint on the M25. A few years ago you wouldn't have dreamt about doing such a journey in a small city car such as the Arosa. Just going on the motorway in one of those was a scary prospect. But the Mii I'm driving is a surprisingly efficient motorway cruiser. As I join the M1 the Mii feels perfectly adequate and I soon arrive at a comfortable pace, turn the cruise control on and let the miles pass by. Even the M25 isn't a problem for the little Mii and before we know it we've arrived at our hotel.
After a few hours of looking over maps and a pub meal to prepare us for the evening’s road trip, three of us jump into the Mii, select a playlist for the journey and enter the postcode for Buckingham Palace into the sat nav. The portable system is a Navigon unit that can also act as a trip computer, a screen for the CD player and even a rev counter, if that takes your fancy. Initially the sat nav feels counter-intuitive, however you soon get used to it and the lane guidance feature makes it very clear where you're heading at complicated junctions. However, using the Mii on routes I know well, it sometimes suggests strange routes that neither I, my Tomtom, or Google Maps would consider.
But for now we decide to blindly follow the sat nav as it receives traffic updates and directs us through small suburban roads to avoid jams in areas like Croydon. Before we know it we're driving along the side of Buckingham Palace. I wonder what Her Majesty would think of our little yellow Mii with black racing stripes if she's looking out of the window. That's our first destination ticked off, where next? We decide to tootle up Birdcage Walk before dropping off photographer Adam and passenger Martin at Parliament Square so I can do a few laps while photos are taken. Photographers are a picky breed and aren't happy with a quick snap, which means in the end I do about half a dozen laps of Parliament Square, each time increasing in speed and enjoying the buzzy nature of the BumbleMii (as I've christened it). The extremely light steering makes the Mii a pleasure to drive in town but there's very little feedback through the wheel. Although I was being fairly sensible during my laps of Parliament Square, I was going fast enough to expect the steering to increase in weight as the tyres were loaded up, and perhaps even to go light as I lifted off mid corner, but I hadn't got a clue what the wheels were doing as the electric power steering gave zero feedback. While it sounds odd that you'd drive a car to its limits of grip in the middle of London, the Mii is such a fun little car it begs to be chucked about even at almost pedestrian speeds. However, while I can understand that Mii buyers won't be after excellent driving dynamics, it'd be easy to get too cocky and stick the Mii in a hedge (or the Houses of Parliament) if there's little warning when you're pushing on.
I'm sure normally the sight of a little yellow car with viper stripes doing laps of Parliament Square and trying to coax lift-off oversteer would get the attention of the many rozzers in the area, but I'm not alone. I'm following a Subaru Samba – a nasty Japanese VW camper van replica, driven by an elderly man who's kicked his wife out to get some photos of it driving past the Houses of Parliament. The sports suspension fitted to this model of the Mii means there's very little body roll, so pretty soon I'm able to lap the nasty camper van creation. Soon however red lights spoil the fun and my passengers jump back in, so we can go for another explore.
We head for the Thames and the impressive sight of the London Eye comes into view. I point the Mii at it and find myself down some little roads that make for some perfect photo opportunities. I pull up behind the Eye and two young, female European tourists stop taking photos of it, turn around and take photos of the Mii, exclaiming that it's 'cute'. Unfortunately we can't stop and chat for long – we've got plenty more of London to see and it's already fast approaching 10pm.
We drive back across the river, swing a right and head up the Embankment, before taking a left to head towards Trafalger Square. Not the fastest route but we're enjoying seeing the sights and trying to confuse the sat nav. Trafalger Square is fairly snarled up but the Mii comes into its own, squeezing between buses and picking out a route. We decide to head towards Kensington to see if we can find any supercars who wouldn't mind us hanging around with them. We drive past the Dorchester and head down Park Lane towards Harrods, prime supercar territory, but are disappointed. In a final attempt to stumble across some rich Arabs we take a left and follow the road to the rear of Harrods. It's a strange moment – this little road is unusually quiet for the middle of London and, while there are no billionaire boy racers cruising around, there are a mixture of Ferraris, Porsches and Range Rovers parked up. We stop for a photo at the entrance to Harrods where a security guard appears out of the blue, having watched us on CCTV and wondered what three blokes in a little yellow car are doing loitering outside Harrods at nearly midnight.
We didn't come to London for peace and quiet so we pile back into the Mii and head towards Piccadilly Circus. We can almost see the bright lights when we hit major traffic and a convoy of police and ambulances rush past us. It turns out a tourist has been run over by a taxi, making Piccadilly Circus even more hectic than usual. The Mii copes admirably – again darting in and out of traffic and avoiding being crushed between buses. Although I'm loving the experience my passengers are getting tired and, as we've ticked off all the main tourist attractions, we tell the sat nav to take us to a road we'd read about online – a little cul-de-sac in Canary Wharf that promises excellent views.
Again we head back up the Embankment and soon hit more traffic. Being stuck in a jam late at night is a bizarre experience for someone not used to London. I'm also a little impatient so, when a car in front turns up a little cobbled road that looks like a short cut, I decide to follow it, as does the minibus behind me. We're all a little peeved when it turns out to be a dead end but, while the minibus has no option but to reverse back out onto the main road, I manage to turn the Mii in the smallest of spaces thanks to its rear parking sensors and tiny turning circle.
Eventually we arrive at our destination. As we pull into the street we can't work out what's so special about it. I start doing a three-point-turn at the end of the road when the most stunning view of Canary Wharf comes into view.
“Oh, so that's what's so special.”
Even my passengers who've been longing to go home and to get some sleep for a while now jump eagerly out of the car to take in the impressive sight.
After taking a few snaps we go for a cruise through Canary Wharf. It's a complete contrast to central London. Being a business area we're the only people about this late at night. The Mii looks tiny as it glides past some of the tallest skyscrapers in the UK, with the noise of the three-cylinder engine punching above its weight and thrumming off the walls (seriously!). While at low revs it sounds a bit clattery, as soon as it approaches the redline the little Mii takes off and sounds fantastic. Of course, doing this regularly might be partly to blame for not achieving the claimed fuel consumption.
It's now very late indeed so my passengers decide it's time to head back to the hotel. The sat nav takes us out towards Dartford where we join the M25 which, even at night, is unforgiving thanks to miles and miles of roadworks and 50mph limits. I put the cruise control on, wind the window down, turn the music up and enjoy the drive home as best as I can while my two passengers snore away.
So what did this trip teach me about the Mii? Well, as you'd expect, it's the perfect city car. It feels confident and nippy and a pleasure to slot through London's traffic jams. But also, it's more than capable on the motorway. It's surprising how many lane hoggers move over when they see the yellow Mii gaining on them or sitting on their tail like an angry bumble bee. It feels a lot bigger than it is. After our trip to London I headed home to Leicester via the South Downs, Wales and Shropshire and having covered over 800 miles in a couple of days, I felt I could get in it and do the same journey again. That'd be impressive in a luxury car – but in a city car like this, it's amazing.
I've already talked about the steering being too light and the sat nav being irritating. At first I didn't understand why someone would opt for the Sport model - what's the point of a firm suspension on a city car? But over our trip it grew on me – it's not overly harsh and if I was buying a Mii I'd be disappointed with less power. Although the boy racer in me loved the viper stripes I think very few people will pay the full price for the Vibora Negra pack, although you can opt for the bits of it you want without paying the not inconsiderate sum for the full pack.
Seat Mii 5dr Sport 1.0 75PSRecommended retail price:
£10,430Price as tested:
106 mph0-62 mph:
13.2 secsOfficial combined fuel consumption:
60.1 mpgAverage fuel consumption during test
: 45.5 mpg (over 292 miles including motorway and driving through central London)CO2 emissions:
108 g/kmInsurance group:
Band B - £0 first year rate, £20/year thereafterServicing:
12 months/10,000 milesWarranty:
Three years/60,000 milesI liked:
An excellent city car that’s also good at eating up the miles.I didn’t like:
The irritating sat nav, expensive options and over-assisted steering.Thanks to Adam Rosenberg for the photos - visit his Flickr here.