A FRIEND called last week to say she needed a new car and was interested in either a Volkswagen Golf or a Touareg. Which is a bit like saying, “I need a new house but I can’t decide between a semi in Leicester and a six-bedroom Cotswold pile just outside Stow-on-the-Wold.”
And then she went on saying that secretly she wished she could afford an £80,000 Range Rover Evoque. Er, £80,000? What’s it made of? Rhodium?
I was surprised by all this. I mean, the person in question is a successful businesswoman and mum. She travels extensively and is super-bright. And yet somehow she has managed to amass no knowledge about cars at all.
She’s not interested — that much is clear. Well, I’m not interested in plants, and yet I can tell a pansy from a forget-me-not and a nettle from a giant redwood. In fact I’m not interested in lots of things. Sinead O’Connor, for instance. But I still know all the words from Nothing Compares 2 U and that her son is called Jake. As adults we pick up and absorb information even when we don’t want to. We can’t help it. I accidentally know a bit about ballet, for example.
Later my friend called from a Volkswagen dealership saying the salesman had suggested a petrol-powered Golf as it did more miles to the gallon around town than the diesel. Which, when translated into English, means, “I have a yard full of petrol-powered Golfs that I need to sell so that I can hit my monthly targets.”
So I got stern. I said she should stop dithering about and buy a Golf diesel. It’s what I tell all non-car people to buy. Because it’s just 14ft of car. So she immediately went out and ordered an Evoque. And that pretty much sums up the pointlessness of motoring journalism.
We can dribble on about handling and ceramic brakes and hybrid drives and Bluetooth connectivity and fuel economy and all the things we think matter. But when push comes to shove, most people just want a car that looks nice.
I said she should buy a Golf diesel. So she went out and ordered an Evoque. And that pretty much sums up the pointlessness of motoring journalism
Which brings me on to the Suzuki SJ. It was introduced to the UK in 1982 and it was absolutely terrible. As a device for moving around, it was beaten by several other products, including the space hopper. It had non-power-assisted drum brakes, which is the same as saying no brakes at all, and leaf spring suspension — a technology dismissed by Fred Flintstone as “a bit old-fashioned”. The engine? Yes, it had one.
I once drove a Suzuki SJ all the way from London to Spurn Point, in Humberside, and it was so gut- wrenchingly noisy, uncomfortable, unsafe and slow that I actually volunteered to drive back to London in a Citroën 2CV.
It was an awful car but that didn’t stop it being a huge success among hairdressers, fitness instructors and nail technicians. They liked it because the roof came off and it looked a bit like the Second World War US army Jeep. Well, it did until they emblazoned the name of their play-on-words salon down the side. Hair Port. Fringe Benefits. British Hairways. You know the sort of thing.
So what caused these folk to think, “Yes, I want that”? Simple. As non-car people, they see vehicles in the same way as I see microwave ovens. They are all basically the same. But then along comes something that looks unusual and they notice it.
It’s why the Mini has been a success, and the Fiat 500 and, to a lesser extent, the Volkswagen Beetle. People said, “It has a vase!!!!” and bought one immediately. That vase was a stroke of genius, because nothing tells the world you don’t corner quickly more than a chrysanthemum on the dashboard.
With the Suzuki there was no vase. But there was a low price, so people could afford one. And then, when they took it home, they simply didn’t notice that it was terrible to drive, because it’s a car and surely all cars shake your fillings out and only stop when they hit a tree. Don’t they?
As a car, then, the SJ was lamentable. But as a marketing exercise it was a masterstroke. Because, let’s be honest, no one spots a Vauxhall Astra and says, “I have just got to have one of those.”
Anyway, that was then and this is now, and these days Suzuki is attempting to sell us something called the SX4 S-Cross. A name that would be better suited, I think, to a pushchair. The car I tested had a turbocharged 1.6-litre diesel engine that was terrible. Made by Fiat, it offered so little get-up-and-go that if I put my foot down in sixth gear at 50mph there was no discernible acceleration at all. Ooh, and it was noisy.
Suzuki has tried to mask this problem by fitting a sound-deadening engine cover and a lined dashboard, but that’s like hanging a bedsheet over the window to keep out the sound of a neighbour’s son learning to play the drums. It’d be better, I think, if Suzuki bought its diesel engines from someone else.
There were other issues too. My car was fitted with a satellite navigation screen that was like having a map of the world on the back of a stamp. And the seat was adjusted with a ratchet that seemed to offer two driving positions: flat on your back and bolt upright. And while the plastics used to make everything in the cabin would be fine in a utilitarian vehicle such as a tractor, they felt cheap and nasty here. So did the switches. And the boot wasn’t very big.
Suzuki has tried to mask this problem by fitting a sound-deadening engine cover but that’s like hanging a bedsheet over the window to keep out the sound of a neighbour’s son learning to play the drums
That said, some versions of the Pushchair do have what Suzuki bills as the world’s first double sliding sunroof. And that is good. You push the sort of switch that Fisher-Price would reject for not having the right quality of feel and the entire roof sort of disappears. In the nice weather we’ve had recently I rather liked that. I liked the fuel economy as well. And, er, that’s sort of it in the tick column.
For non-car people none of these things would matter at all if the SX4 S-Cross looked amazing and odd. And … it doesn’t. It is a sort of raised, semi- four-wheel-drive school-run car similar to all the other semi-four-wheel-drive, raised school-run cars that every damn person seems to be using these days.
It’s not a bad-looking vehicle by any means, but it stands out from the crowd in the way a milk bottle stands out from the crowd at a milk bottle factory.
There is, however, some good news. Much to my surprise, Suzuki is still making an updated version of the SJ. It’s called the Jimny now, and it has beam axles at both ends, a 1.3-litre engine that produces about 1bhp and suspension that is flummoxed by absolutely everything it encounters.
But it costs just £11,995 and it’s sweet — and there’s no better way of telling the world that you don’t care about cars. And that you can cut hair.
Clarkson’s verdict ★☆☆☆☆
Sounds like a tractor, goes like a pushchair
Suzuki SX4 S-Cross Allgrip SZ5 specifications
Engine 1598cc, 4 cylinders
Power 118bhp @ 3750rpm
Torque 236 lb ft @ 1750rpm
Transmission 6-speed manual
Acceleration 0-62mph in 13.0sec
Top speed 108mph
Fuel 64.2mpg (combined)
Vehicle tax band C
Release date On sale now