The reality is that almost all tech is old hat and boring. In the 1980s, at the giant CBIT tech fair in Frankfurt, Germany, one of the featured products was a scanner that was, essentially, the operational parts of a fax machine (the rollers and reader) in a box just big enough to hold them. It was connected to a computer where the scanned data was stored. Recently, in a tech shop, I saw a device that looked identical. “NEW,” its box screamed. “A new concept in scanning.” Well, let’s be generous, it may be higher resolution, it may be colour and it may plug into a USB port but that does not turn the 30 plus year old idea into a “new concept.”
This morning, I read material issued by The Colorado Department of Revenue Enforcement Department. It began with the breathless statement “MED now has an email list service! ” And yes, it is in bold as well as having the exclamation mark. Such a thing is not a cause for excitement. An email list is not exciting, no matter who issues it. I accept, it’s important to announce it – but it should be done sensibly, not as if it’s a teenager saying there’s a new way of hiding acne. Is there no dignity left?
It’s the same with cars. I just had an awful experience with a hire car: the manufacturer is all hyped up about its performance and style. Yes, it looks nice, but the performance is out and out dangerous. And it’s just annoying in so many ways.
Fast? Yes, when it wants to be. I like fast.
But when I wanted, when I needed, it to be fast, it was slow like a sloth on Valium. I don’t like slow, and especially not when I demand fast. Turbo lag of just under one second and a diesel engine that went to sleep at junctions and electronics that took control of the handbrake and denied it to me almost resulted in me being wiped out by traffic on more than one occasion.
And I kept banging my head so that, when I returned the damned thing, there were bits of me embedded in the sun visor.
I like to balance the car on the throttle, prepared to accelerate on demand. It’s efficient and it’s safe and it allows me graduated control over the power – smooth demand, smooth delivery. I do not want a programmer whose idea of car control is binary telling me that, at certain stages of the process, the power is on or off, a one or a zero, pushed back in the seat or sitting waiting for the large lorry that’s approaching to trample me underfoot. When I put my foot down, I want it to go, like shit off a shovel, not to wait while some part of the car debates with itself and./or several other parts whether to do as it’s told and, if so, to wait until it’s finished its sausage and sauerkraut.
A lorry travelling legally at 60mph on an A Road in the country travels a mile in a minute, that’s 29 yards in a second. With tall hedgerows and winding roads, many junctions appear, albeit with warning signs, less than 75 yards ahead. That’s two and a half seconds. Last weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix raised debates about human reaction time and, for the very fastest, it’s 2 milliseconds, according to research. No one in a real world driving situation reacts even close to that. The UK Highway Code, the bible for learner drivers, says that, for a car, the thinking distance is 18 metres, that’s roughly 17 yards. So, before the lorry driver hits the brakes, assuming it’s safe for him to do so (it might not be if he’s on a tight bend in the wet, for example), there are less than 55 yards before impact. It takes a car 55 metres (53 yards, approx) after the brakes are hit to come to a stop. That’s assuming perfect road conditions and a good driver. Let’s assume a good driver and perfect road conditions and a 38 tonne truck. That is not going to stop in 55 metres, unless it hits a building.
Knowing all of that, I had to pull out of side roads into main roads fully aware that some high-handed programmer driven by a control-freak car designer had taken all of my control away from me and was putting me directly in the path of such a truck, if one was coming. Hell, it was putting me in the path of ANYTHING that was coming because that 55 yards from the driver hitting the brakes to impact is exactly the distance that driver would have had before hitting the door next to my head. .
The car costs more than GBP46,000 and on my fourth day with it I looked out of the window of my hotel room, saw it in the car park, said to myself “F..K, I really do not want to drive that.” I walked down to the hotel reception and booked another night then I spent the day in the hotel reading, then in the bar. I didn’t want to drive it until I had to return it to Heathrow on the fifth day.
The car annoyed me in so many ways: you can’t take your finger off the hood opening/closing mechanism until it’s finished its entire process and that seems like half a decade each time you drop or close the lid. Behind the dashboard, a solenoid or something clicks away, seemingly unrelated to anything I was doing. I don’t like unexplained noises. I’m used to hearing a noise and assessing it: does it mean stop now before the car bursts into flames? I’ve been there, done that. Does it mean something is going to break and I’m going to have to be towed to my destination or a repair shop (that’s half a day, at least, down the drain?) Done that, too. Does it mean something will break but it doesn’t matter? Does it mean nothing? I still don’t know. It was still doing it when I gratefully handed the car back.
The SatNav was ridiculously complicated: it took two days and three lawyers plus a scientist of some sort to work out how to get the SatNav to speak in more than a whisper without simultaneously turning up the “urban” radio station that the damned thing appeared to be locked into. Worse, no one told the SatNav about a) the car’s enormous turning circle or b) the width of the car so it chose entirely unsuitable roads much of the time. They were roads I’d have been delighted to drive on in a car suited to them, like a Morgan or an MGB.. This horrible thing was exactly not suited to them.
Was there a manual? Yes, it was more than 100 pages long. Who hires a car and has time to read, digest and apply 100 pages of instructions?
What finally wore me down? It was the parking sensors which, in the narrow country lanes of Herefordshire went off, both sides, all, and I mean ALL, the time. Constantly. Non-stop. Literally. It reported blades of grass as I drove along. Then, when I pulled off to one side as another vehicle passed the crying wolf alarm didn’t change tone as I brushed against a small fence hiding two feet off the road in the grass, resulting in scratched paint and a bill for repair. Who in their right mind would design such a system? Mercedes, that’s who. Name and shame. It’s an AMG convertible and it doesn’t even have enough boot space for my bog standard Samsonite suitcase. I had to leave the bag behind the front passenger seat wherever I parked the car, just waiting for someone with ill-intent and a sharp knife to cut through the soft-top and nick it. No one did. That was just about the only good news of the entire time with the damned thing. And, of course, with the suitcase stuck there, one of the back seats became useless. It also meant that, instead of using the car as a mother ship with my main bag in the boot and carrying just an overnight bag into hotels, I had to hump a 20-odd kg bag across car parks, up narrow flights of stairs in 16th Century (or earlier) buildings – and, of course, down those same stairs.
Don’t buy this car used: the scuttle shake is so bad it will die of the motoring equivalent of Parkinson’s induced metal fatigue long before it breaks down. Don’t buy a one new, unless you want to pose on empty roads – the alloy wheels are unprotected by the ultra-low profile tyres so they scrape kerbs that other cars would brush off. More bills when the car was returned, and then only because I was dodging lunatics in Croydon who, on two occasions, were intent on driving into the blasted thing and my evasive action forced me into, on one occasion, a “traffic calming” blockage in the middle of the road. I wasn’t calmed.
When the top is down and the sun is up, you can’t see out properly: reflections from the shiny trim dominate the view through the centre mirror and the driver’s door mirror is blinded by the glare from the seemingly chromed dashboard air vent. The middle of the windscreen has silvered reflection from the trim at the top of the dashboard. It’s all very pretty, very sporty and very bloody annoying.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the turning circle was too big for me to get into the entrance to the coaching inn I was staying in in Ledbury and after I’d turned round and approached it from the other side, I was stuck because someone had parked on the other side of the (main) road. Trying to leave, I couldn’t turn out, without shuttling back and forth. Thanks to the kind artic driver who patiently waited while I faffed about. He might have been laughing at the dickhead in the poncy car and who could have blamed him? He didn’t know it was basically a skip with a wheel on each corner, a German taxi with the roof chopped off. He couldn’t know it was absolute shit.
The bits of my head on the sun visor were because, every time I tried to look forward to pull out of a junction or driveway, I banged my forehead. That was with the sun visor closed. I never managed to be entirely sure that the road I was pulling into was clear. And because the engine had gone to sleep, because its pickup was lethargic (not the turbo: that was an entirely different and equally dangerous problem. I’m talking about the non-turbo performance from stationary) especially up hill, I had my heart in my mouth at almost every junction. In the country, where driving at 20mph or less is essential, on tight winding, hilly, roads, it simply did not pull. On roads like that it was not safe to hoof it and bring the turbo in. Don’t buy one if you live in a rural area. You’re better off with an old Volvo estate. At least your bags will fit.
The turbo lag, genuinely nearly a second, would mean that, on A roads, I would prepare for and begin to execute an overtaking move and be on the “wrong” side of the road long before the car turned from cart-house to thoroughbred racer. And when it did, if that happened while the wheels were not dead straight, the torque steer scrabbled the front wheels something rotten.
No, there’s a whole load of noise talked about AMG Mercedes and their delights. “My” example didn’t even reach mundane. I’ve driven lots of fast cars, I’ve owned a few. And I’ve driven some absolute dogs. But never before have I looked out of the window and thought “I really can’t face that today.” Not even with an old Skoda estate car that, if the load area was full, lifted the front wheels up so that, in the wet, it went straight on at roundabouts until we moved speaker cabinets into the front passenger seat.
So, stop being excited, stop trying to make the mundane fashionable. Don’t dress mutton up as lamb. I would have been happy with a simple C class convertible (which, to be fair, is what I thought I was getting when I made the booking, not the E350D AMG that turned up). I don’t need a car laden with “features,” but I do need one that doesn’t shake crazily, doesn’t give me false information, doesn’t sit gazing around when I tell it to go and doesn’t make it impossible for me to see if I’m in danger of being wiped out from the side. Take off all the gizmos and make a simple car that works properly and safely.
I was delighted to return it to the hire shop at Heathrow. They made me coffee, really good coffee that lightened a dark mood. They marvelled at just how much of my head was attached to the sun visor, they pulled my suitcase out of the back of the car, from behind the front passenger seat, they said it was OK that I was an hour late because the Mercedes SatNav had driven me round and round in circles in London when it kept having panic attacks if it sensed traffic. Then they gave me a lift to my check-in.
Me? I was just happy to give the horrible thing back. I didn’t look back as I walked away.