Need a bit of light relief after recent events?
I've admired these apple peelers ever since I first saw one - if you've never seen them before watch the video below!
They were first patented by D. H. Goodell in 1867 and nearly 150 years later it still blows my mind!
The beauty, simplicity and elegance of this machine raise the hairs on the back of my neck. It's almost magical.
For more information than you could possibly want, check out the Apple Parer Museum.
I've never been to Silverstone before, so when a friend suggested a day at the track driving Audi's RS range I jumped at the chance. They offer a bunch of different experience days, but obviously we went for the most expensive one. We got the chance to drive three cars: the RS3 Sportback, RS6 Avant, and the R8 V10 plus.
Apologies in advance if you're not into cars, click here to hide all the technical jargon.
When I was looking through the programme, I assumed that the RS3 and RS6 were just there to keep us quiet until we got a chance to play in the R8, but I couldn't have been more wrong.
Of the three cars, I think I fell in love with this one the most. It's huge fun to drive and the 2.5 litre 367 PS engine pushes you firmly back into the fancy leather bucket seats from 0-60 in 4.3 seconds.
Like all the cars we drove it's a 7-speed auto gearbox with manual paddles if you want them, but we were far too busy grinning to change gear. They all also have Audi's pretty impressive quattro four wheel drive system. The RS3 is a snip at just £40,000.
We took it out in the morning for a slalom course, and then out on the full track later on in the day.
For sheer joy factor this car wins hands down, it would be a practical daily driver but was incredibly enjoyable to throw around on the track.
It's hard to put across how much of a monster this car is. From the outside looks like a normal estate, but when you get inside it feels like a leather tank.
It has stupid amounts of power from the 560 PS V8 giving a 0-60 time of 3.6 seconds. It's difficult to visualise this until one of the instructors showed us two sets of cones 50 metres apart and said that we'd go from standstill to 60 mph between them.
That's impressive in anything, but in a family car that weighs just under two tonnes it's quite a sight.
While we were driving it like this the fuel consumption was a whopping 5.3mpg!
It made me realise that you need to be careful buying low-mileage 'demo' cars from the manufacturer. This car had done just over 1,200 miles which was entirely foot-to-the-floor acceleration followed by high-g turns and full stomp braking. After half an hour the cars were all shimmering slightly from the heat haze and the brakes were pinging audibly as they cooled.
This car is incredible fun as you fight to keep it on the road because of the weight, but it's also just shy of £90,000 for the base model.
I won't be buying one, but I will be giving them knowing nods when I see them on the road from now on.
R8 V10 plus
Finally then we come to the £140,000 5.2 litre 610 PS R8 V10 plusthat does 0-60 in 3.2 seconds. Yes, this is 0.4 seconds faster than the RS6, but to be honest I didn't notice the difference.
Inside it's a strange combination of basic and confusing. It has a manual adjuster for the seat position and a CD player mounted behind and between the seats.
It has a total of 20 buttons, switches and dials on the steering wheel using at least five different types of interaction. In the bottom right are a button that starts/stops the engine and one that changes the exhaust noise from loud to very loud. How often are you really going to push those on a normal drive? I didn't try the asterisk button on the right, but I can only guess that it makes it snow.
I know that it's trying to emulate the massive complexity of an F1's wheel, but I'd rather they put these buttons on the centre console and let me concentrate on the road.
To drive it's a pure joy - it sounds incredible and changes gear so quickly and perfectly that there's no point trying to do it manually. It sticks to the track no matter how fast you're going and whatever direction you point the wheels.
I was unbelievably sad when it was the end of my turn to drive it, and I had a physical longing for another lap. Audi have created a drug on wheels with this car, if someone had offered me another hour behind the wheel for an extra £500 I would have handed them my credit card. But to be honest it's not as fun as the RS3.
To me one of the great joys of driving is the feeling that the car is just losing traction, and the skill involved in keeping that in balance. In my Mazda MX-5 I can get this feeling at 40 mph driving winding country lanes when the rear wheels slide out round a corner. In the RS3 I felt it on the slalom track at 50 mph, tyres screeching around the cones. To get this same joy in the R8 we had to be doing at least 70mph, and that means you're rarely going to feel it on the road unless you're endangering other drivers.
There were at least five people there who had been given the experience day as a freebie when they bought an Audi R8. This seems a bit weird because they already own the car, but after speaking to them they all said that they'd really enjoyed a chance to see what the car is capable of doing.
One guy said that it's just not a fun car to drive on the road because you don't get an opportunity to drive it fast, and that he takes it to a local airfield to drive up and down as fast as he wants.
And this is why I think expensive sports cars are a con: they're not designed to drive on normal roads, but they're too far expensive for most owners to consider taking them on track days. Anything above say £40,000 just isn't worth it.
When I've seen expensive cars on tracks they're always driven carefully and slowly, so even then the owners aren't getting all the fun out of them. I genuinely believe that they're only good for posing on city streets, and my theory is backed up by the placement of the exhaust noise button on the steering wheel.
All of these cars feature some serious on-board computers. The driver's input - steering and pedals - are moderated by the car, which looks at the speed, direction of travel and traction data from the wheels, and then the car may decide to steer a bit less than you commanded, or ease off slightly on the throttle. It's done very well and you don't really notice it most of the time. But it made me wonder what's going to happen to these cars in five or ten years when they're on their third owner and no longer maintained by an Audi garage.
We own a 2008 Audi A4, and in the last few months some of the sensors have been starting to go wrong - we went through three oil level sensors in a year, and a warning pops up regularly telling me that the rear brake light has failed, even though I can see it's still working. Our car doesn't have half as much technology as these cars, but it's already annoying when the fancy tech starts failing.
So what are these cars going to be like in 2026? It's fine while Audi are maintaining them at large expense, but our local garage really struggles with any faults relating to electronics. In ten years' time I suspect that they're not going to be able to fix the majority of car problems, and so either the dealers will have to really expand their service centres, which is going to really increase the cost of owning one, or cars will need to become much more reliable.
A few weeks ago I got to drive a Lotus Exige for the first time. What a lovely car! Not sure I want to buy one though.
I went on a driving experience day at Thruxton race track, having only driven at Castle Combe before I was pleasantly surprised at how long and straight the track is at Thruxton. It seemed a lot safer too, there's very little run-off at Castle Combe before you end up in the tyre wall.
I wasn't expecting much out of the day to be honest, but the instructor who took me out was simply brilliant. When he learned that I had a bit of previous track experience he changed his instruction and started teaching me the finer details of the track, and we ended the day learning a bit of heel-and-toe braking.
The Exige was an absolute joy to drive: 190BHP and 914KG of high grip fun. You could put you foot down in pretty much any gear and it would charge ahead. Inside it was really minimal, with just two dials and a bare metal floor.
The days I've had at Castle Combe were quite serious affairs, everyone brings their pride and joy and the car park is full of men wearing race suits fiddling with their exhausts to get them through noise control. In contrast the atmosphere at Thruxton was much more fun, and there were even some actual women there!
The whole day had a really nice 'meet your heroes' kind of feel to it. Thruxton have two Lamborghinis, a pair of Ferraris and a whole fleet of Porsches. When the cars weren't being driven they were lined up in the pits like superstars, so men with Cheshire-cat grins could pose in front of them while their girlfriends took photos. It made me realise just how much cars mean to some people!
The day was only marred slightly by Tiff Needell giving people high-speed rides around the track in a BMW M4. I spent a long time discussing with my instructor the apparent contradiction between what he was telling me (approach the corner head on, do all my braking in a straight line, balance acceleration and steering on the way out) with what Tiff was doing - drifting round the corners, screeching the wheels as much as possible, and occasionally spinning off the track. The instructor sighed a little, nodded and told me to ignore him.
Tesla Model 3
Last week Tesla Motors announced the launch of their latest Model 3 electric car, with delivery beginning in late 2017. I've written about my experiences in trying to find the right electric car for us, and I'd previously settled on the Golf GTE hybrid. But not any more.
The Tesla Model 3 blows the Golf out of the water:
- 215 mile range
- 0-60 in under 6 seconds
- ~£25,000 depending on options
- Autopilot mode for motorway driving
- 5-star safety ratings
Over the weekend Kat and I decided to buy one, so along with 250,000 other people we've put down a £1,000 deposit on a Model 3 when they finally become available. I'm so excited!
The reservation email said:
Thank you for reserving your Model 3. With your reservation, you are part of an exciting moment in history.
In the first 24 hours Model 3 received over 180,000 reservations, setting the record for the highest single-day sales of any product of any kind ever in world history.
Here's the launch video:
Lock picking has been on my list of skills to learn for years, but I just discovered how easy it is to buy picks on the web. Check out this short video that I made about it.
Here are some links to the picks and locks in the video:
It's really made me realise how poor padlocks are at security. The last lock in the video was used for several years to secure about £10,000 of film club equipment, but I can open it in under a minute without any fuss.
If you're interested in learning this I'll happily lend you my picks, but I'd be careful where you take them. Once forum post I read said that the police in the UK take a pretty dim view of people out on the street with a set of picks. You'd need a pretty good reason to have them, otherwise you're probably going to get arrested.
While learning to pick locks, I've seen a lot of information about locksport - competitive lock opening. There's a really big community in the UK, and their core message, which I've seen over and over is that you can only pick locks that you own, and never pick a lock that's in use. The second one is really important - a couple of times I've broken locks while picking them, and you wouldn't want to do that to your front door!
A round of Golf
Despite VW's recent emissions irregularities, their new hybrid Golf GTE is still an amazing car and delivers staggering fuel efficiency. It doesn't have a diesel engine so it's not affected by the current issues.
I've been looking for the right electric/hybrid vehicle for the last six months, and I think I've found the one I want.
The GTE is a hybrid, powered by a 1.4L petrol engine and a 75KW electric motor, so it's got better range than the Nissan Leaf.
The interior looks just like a Golf too, it doesn't have the space-age feel of the Tesla but there's everything you need. I'm really not a fan of the tartan seats - full leather would be an extra £1500 well spent.
Like any 200bhp car, it's fun to drive. By default it starts in electric mode so it pulls away quickly and silently. The car decides how to mix the electric and petrol side of things, so most of the time you can ignore it.
If you want a bit more fun there's a GTE button which engages fun mode (my term) and uses the petrol and electric motors together. This makes it really nippy, although the 1.4L petrol engine whines a bit at high revs.
VW claim that the car will do 166mpg, with a range of 31 miles on pure electric. The salesman who took me out for a drive said that he's got 150mpg out of it and doesn't have to put fuel in it very often, because he lives 20 miles from work.
Once the batteries get below a certain level, the car diverts a little energy from the petrol engine to keep them topped up.
This car ticks all my boxes. It's fuel-efficient but fun, and green without being boring.
|Model S 85D||BMW i3 REx||Nissan Leaf||Golf GTE
|Luggage space||Loads||Very little||Okay||Loads|
|Cost (my spec)||£62,800
Hole in one
So why haven't I got one yet?
Because it turns out that I'm not the only one looking for a new car.
They're totally sold out in the UK - the dealer said that the earliest they could supply one is next spring.
This isn't great timing, we've got plans that may clash with that, but if it doesn't work out I'll be placing an order!
Living with the Leaf
This is the third part of a series about electric cars. I started with the awesome but flashy Tesla Model S, then the lovely but ugly BMW i3, and now the Nissan Leaf. I'd love our next car to be electric, but I'm starting to wonder if they're good enough yet.
The Leaf is globally the most popular electric car on the market today, with roughly 7,000 of them in the UK. It's not as much fun to drive as the i3 or the Model S, but it's an awful lot cheaper, and it feels more like a car I might actually own.
The good bits
The first good point has to be price - a brand new top-of-the range Leaf is £20,590.
Second, it looks pretty sensible, much more like a normal car than either the Tesla or the BMW. It's simple and effortless to drive, and doesn't feel like you're driving an electric car. You can definitely hear the electric motor at all times, which actually makes it feel more normal.
It comes with a nice range of options: leather seats, heated leather steering wheel, front, rear and 360º parking cameras, and a good infotainment system, although the sat nav made some strange decisions.
The best part is that they put the battery under the seats (take note, BMW) and so it's got a decent sized boot that would happily accommodate our dog.
And hooray, it's a got a sensible key!
The bad bits
The major issue here is range. We need a car that can get us to see our parents in the south east. We don't do the journey very often, maybe four times a year, but it's an important consideration.
Nissan say it will average about 90 miles on a full charge, and then at a fast charging station it'll take 30 minutes to charge 80% of the battery, getting you ~72 miles before you need to stop again. This means you can drive for about an hour and then stop for half an hour, if you plan your trip in advance and know where the fast charging stations are.
Here the wonderful Zap-Map is your friend. So I plotted the trip back to see the radio rentals, stopping at real life places that have fast charging stations, and it came out like this:
To me, that's a pretty depressing journey. At the moment we usually stop once around Bristol to swap drivers and have a wee, but the idea of having to stop three times, for half an hour each, fills me with horror.
However, the clever chaps at Nissan have come up with a solution to this. According to their website:
If you need an extra car for a special occasion, you can now borrow a petrol or diesel engined Nissan free of charge (vans not available). Your dealership can make one available to you for up to 14 days a year, for the first three years of your ownership. To take up this offer all you need to do is cover the fuel and insurance costs and give us seven days’ notice.
Apart from range, my other main complaint is that the gear selector is back to front - you have to pull it back to go into drive, and push it away from you to go into reverse.
Apparently this is common with automatics, but I had the car for three days (thanks Nissan!) and several times while I had the car I almost put it into the wrong direction.
There are other, smaller problems, which possibly apply to the other cars I tested too, but only became apparent in the Leaf because I got a chance to drive it in real life, as opposed to a couple of hours:
- The boot lip is very high, the dog had problems jumping up into the back
- The charging point on the car is at the front, and the cable is fairly short. This means we have to park with the bonnet towards the house and makes it hard to pull into our parking space
- The dashboard display is a little fancy for my liking, it's very colourful and looks like a website designed in the late 1990s
- Finally, it's a bit underpowered for me. It has a 110bhp motor, and although it's got reasonable acceleration, it doesn't make me grin when I put my foot down. Yes, I know it's eco and all that, but Tesla have proved that green can be fun.
My ideal electric car
Having driven three electric cars, I feel like I've got a good idea of what I want, but it doesn't seem to exist at the moment. Here's what I mean, the items in italics are where the cars fall short for me.
|Item||Model S 70D||BMW i3 REx||Nissan Leaf||My ideal car|
|Range (miles)||275||150||90||150 or more|
|Power (bhp)||329||168||110||130 or more|
|Luggage space||Loads||Very little||Okay||Loads|
|Cost (my spec)||£61,000||£36,000||£22,040||£35,000|
I'm wondering whether a pure electric car is really the right thing for us at the moment.
It's a pretty nice car, it's not too expensive and it's good to drive but lacks sparkle. The loan car option makes up for the short range, and this is a serious contender for our next car.
Have you driven one? If not, give your local Nissan dealer a call and have a go!
Basic car mechanics
I've just finished the second part of a two-part car mechanics course at Truro College, and it's been one of the best courses I've ever attended. Before I started the first part (they also run a ladies-only class) I barely knew how to change a wheel, but at the end of the second course we just stripped down an engine and re-assembled it.
It's given me huge amounts of confidence to fix cars myself, and I can now have conversations with garage mechanics without feeling like an idiot.
The main thing I've learned about cars is how incredibly basic and old-fashioned they are. Engines have barely changed since Karl Benz invented the Benz Patent-Motorwagen in 1886, and even then it's the same basic principle as Thomas Newcomen's atmospheric engine from 1712. Hot gas makes a piston move out, which is used to power something.
Cars have got faster, more efficient and cleaner, but the underlying concept has hardly changed. Even electric cars aren't a new idea: Thomas Parker, who electrified the London Underground, built the first working electric car, with rechargeable batteries, in 1884. According to Wikipedia, in 1900 "40 percent of American automobiles were powered by steam, 38 percent by electricity, and 22 percent by gasoline."
So here's a slideshow of my final lesson, showing our engine strip down. If it goes too fast for you to read, roll your mouse over the image and it will pause the slideshow.
BMW i3 test drive
Can't decide whether to buy a BMW or save the planet? Now you can do both (sort of), with the BMW i3.
I'd like our next car to be electric so I booked a test drive in the i3. I want to see whether it's the car for me, and to see how it stacks up against the Tesla Model S, which I drove back in March.
There are two versions of the i3, a pure electric that gets 80 - 100 miles on a full charge, and a range extended version (called REx, the mode I drove) which has a teeny (650cc) petrol engine that just charges the battery when needed - it's not attached to the wheels. REx gets 160 - 180 miles on a full charge plus a tank (nine litres) of petrol.
The product specialist who showed me round the car said that BMW's aim is for half of all sales to be electric cars within five years. He also said that the nine litre petrol tank can be annoying because most petrol stations have a minimum delivery of five litres, so you have to wait until it's more than half empty before filling it.
It has suicide -- er, "coach" - doors for the rear passengers, which I've always loved and are done really well here - there's no pillar between the front and rear doors, which makes it easy to get in and out of the back.
The good bits
It's got all the usual BMW refinements, plus it's almost entirely silent - the electric motor emits a very quiet whine when you floor it, and I didn't hear the petrol engine at all.
It's pretty light at 1300kg for the REx version, the body is made mainly of carbon fibre and the insides are apparently some kind of recyclable plant material.
It's a lot of fun, fast and feels extremely smooth to drive - the acceleration is quick, but not as quick as the Tesla. But then it's about a third of the cost of a full-spec Model S. It feels more like a comfortable daily driver than the Tesla.
More importantly it doesn't feel like driving an electric car. It just feels like driving a normal automatic, which is great because if there's one thing most people hate, it's change.
The driving position is quite high up, so there's good visibility although I couldn't see the end of the bonnet which made me a little nervous of parking it.
There are three modes:
- Comfort: normal driving
- Eco Pro: improved range, limited to 80mph
- Eco Pro +: maximum efficiency, limited to 56mph
In reality I didn't find it limited my speed in either of those modes - I read afterwards that hard acceleration (is there another kind?) will disable the speed limiter.
The regenerative braking is extremely aggressive, something I noticed with the Tesla as well. Coming up to traffic lights you need to keep your foot on the gas otherwise you'll stop way too early. The product specialist called this "one foot driving" because you rarely have to touch the brake. I get the same sense that only the right side of my body is driving the car, but then I'm not used to automatics.
Best of all, it's got a fairly sensible key, unlike the Tesla's showy model car.
The bad bits
As with any car, there are always negatives. With the Tesla, my main complaint was how showy the car looked, but with the i3 the problem is how weird the whole thing looks. I'm all in favour of interesting design, but the i3 has a face that only its mother could love.
To be honest, the front of the car reminds me of a snub-nosed middle white pig. In a car park it's easy to find because it's 10cm higher than everything else, and although it looks small it's only 50cm shorter than our tank-like Audi A4 estate.
It's got a teeny tiny boot, which we couldn't fit the dog in, and the frunk is dedicated to charging, so there's no space there either. I think we'd struggle to get all our camping gear into the car just for a weekend away.
Finally, I feel that the "open-pore eucalyptus wood" dashboard rather overstates the eco credentials of the car, and is bound to get stained the first time you tip coffee onto it.
Is it really an electric car?
This is what annoyed me most about the car. The sales pitch is focussed on how eco-friendly you will be if you give BMW £36,000, and I wouldn't be surprised if they bring out a version that runs entirely on your own sense of satisfaction at single-handedly saving the planet.
In reality you're going to want the range extended version, unless you only use it for driving to the shops, and in that case you've accidentally bought a hybrid. And if I wanted a hybrid there's a much wider range of cars that don't look like pigs and cost a lot less too.
It's great fun to drive and I like it a lot, but it's not pretty and I kind of feel like I'm cheating if I buy one. I'd like to see how BMW's electric vehicle range grows over the next five years.
Am I being too harsh? Leave a comment below.
Last week I went up to Bristol to test drive the Tesla Model S electric car. I've never loved driving a car as much as this.
In fact the Model S is more like an electric supercar. It's becoming well known partly because the top of the range model features a brilliantly-named Insane Mode which accelerates the car like it's on a drag strip.
First the good points, and there are lot of them.
The car is beautifully smooth to drive; responsive and solid with adjustable suspension and steering. It's enormous fun and feels a lot lighter than its 2,200kg. The acceleration is just unbelievable, everyone told me that electric cars go fast, but 0-60 in four seconds takes your breath away.
Driving the car really feels like you're in the future - essentially it's a beautifully-designed computer on wheels. It's got adaptive cruise control that keeps you a set distance away from the car in front. In cruise mode when you indicate right, the car accelerates automatically to help you overtake. The autopilot mode, coming soon and which will be installed automatically over the internet, pretty much drives itself on a motorway. After this, getting in a normal car feels like a pony and trap.
There's loads of space, including under the bonnet (or 'frunk' as they call it) because the electric motors are between the wheels and the batteries sit under the chassis.
The range is pretty good with 200-300 miles on a full charge with a network of charging points around the country. Tesla supercharger stations fill the batteries in half an hour, and you can charge it overnight at home too.
Although the driver who took us out claimed that there was nothing he didn't love about the car, there are a number a bad points.
First, and slightly worryingly, the software in the central console seemed a bit buggy. A couple of times it froze for a few seconds, the music skipped and it was occasionally slow to respond or unresponsive. They're constantly releasing software updates for it, and I know there are always teething problems with new code, so I'm happy to let this slide.
My biggest criticism is that it feels very American - flashy and attention seeking. For example the key fob looks like a tiny Tesla (see pic), which isn't something I'd expect from a European car. The control screen is unnecessarily large and dominates the front of the vehicle. I'd like to see a toned down version for normal people.
Lastly it's very expensive - the one we drove was £80,000. Check out the design studio to configure yours - my preferred options were £100K and change.
Would I buy one?
I really want our next car to be electric, but to be honest it's not going to be a Model S. For a start, I don't want to spend that much on a car, but I'd like something less brash. I'm hoping to test drive a BMW i3 soon, so I'll keep you posted!
To end, I want to share a thought. At the end of my drive I had a moment of realisation: This is the most high tech car I've ever seen, but one day the Tesla Model S is going to feel old-fashioned.
I can't wait to see what high tech looks like then.
Talking to the car
I took my car for a day on a race track recently, which I'd really recommend if you've got a suitable vehicle. As you can see in this video, I span it at the end of the first lap, and after my heart rate fell below 200bpm I noticed that the engine management light had come on. At the time I was having way too much fun to worry about it, so I disconnected and reconnected the battery (which turned off the light) and carried on driving.
I've been doing an evening class in vehicle maintenance, and my attitude towards car problems has changed a lot - six months ago I would have probably stopped and taken it to a mechanic. But with my new adventurous DIY car repair spirit, I thought I'd try to figure out what was wrong and fix it. The class teacher said many times that as cars become more computer-oriented he understands them less. I'm the opposite - if it's got a computer in it, I might stand a chance of understanding it.
In an incredible example of standards actually working, all cars made since 1998 in the UK have an Onboard Diagnostics (OBDII) port, which looks like a massive old joystick port, intended for garages to interrogate your car and fix it. Mine's hidden on the underside of the dashboard next to the fuses, entirely hidden unless you're lying on the floor on the drivers side. For £6.99 on eBay (I love eBay) I acquired an OBDII to USB cable, above, and software. And after a lot of fiddling about in Windows I actually got the laptop to talk to the car!
The car tells me that the error is P0011, which the software helpfully translates into the camshaft being over-advanced. Why that happened and how to fix it is for another day. It also tells me hundreds of other facts, such as the car is currently breathing in air at 11°C at the rate of 3.31 grams per second, and that the coolant is at 58°C.
You may or may not find that interesting. Let me know in the comments...
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What's this about?
Hi I'm Mat and I'm addicted to new hobbies. I used to think this was a bad thing but now I'm embracing it.
Writing them all up in this blog encourages me to finish projects, and helps me keep track of which ones I've tried.
I've just finished the second part of a two-part car mechanics course at Truro College, and it's been one of the best courses I've ever attended...
Also in Mechanically minded...
A few weeks ago I got to drive a Lotus Exige for the first time...