Originally published April 29, 2007
As you may know, I do not like stretched limousines very much. And nor do I care much about the wellbeing of the planet. It’s big and old enough to be able to look after itself. So I was not best pleased last week when the BBC announced I was to be picked up at Los Angeles airport in something called an eco limo.
Horrible visions kept me awake and sweating on the flight. It’d be an elongated Prius with a nasal George Monbiot at the wheel. Or a G-Wiz with a trailer full of wheat juice. Or a tandem with Bill Oddie at the front and a disturbingly empty saddle at the back.
I needn’t have worried, though, because while California is embracing all aspects of the green revolution, it seems it really hasn’t got the hang of a nuclear-free Fairtrade peace limo.
It was a Ford Excursion, the largest SUV made by Ford. It was so big, in fact, that it was parked outside terminals 1, 2 and 3. And the back was picking up someone else … in San Francisco.
This is a car that weighs more than most people’s houses, and the eco version weighs even more because they’ve taken out the petrol engine and replaced it with the diesel motor that’s used to move the space shuttle to its launch pad.
When it chugged into life you could see people at the airport diving for the earthquake shelters.
No matter; emblazoned down the side was a green sign saying it was an eco limo, and in the back were certificates from the state of California, commending the vehicle’s owners for their responsible attitude towards Mother Earth.
The driver, a chap we shall call Swampy Bin Laden, was very proud of his car; so proud that he launched immediately into a not very scientific lecture about the fuel he was using. “It’s from a bio-plant,” he beamed.
To hammer the point home, he’d placed some stickers in the back window that said: “This vehicle runs on foreign oil.” Only the word “foreign” had been crossed out and replaced with the word “vegetable”.
I asked him if he would mind using British oil, expecting that this might have him stumped. “Yessir, I would,” he replied.
“But,” I said, “you don’t mind leaving all the world’s normal oil in the ground and running your car on what could be an African’s lunch?”
Bzzz went his head. Then he twitched a bit. For a while he looked a bit like a sci-fi robot that had been given conflicting orders.
2007: the year in cars
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Other motorists, however, thought he might be the second coming. At every set of lights they’d pull up alongside and frantically point to the back of the car as though it might be on fire. But no. They simply wanted to know as much as possible about bio-plants before the lights turned as green as they hoped to be.
“It runs real good,” said Swampy, which was a lie. It had the smoothness of a Bulgarian road drill and the volume of a swimming pool full of kids. And every time he wanted to make it move he had to plant his foot deep into the carpet. “Yeah. And I’m getting 16 to the gallon,” he’d add. I seriously doubt that. Not with the air-conditioning on full blast and his shoe in the engine bay.
Swampy may have thought he was doing his bit for the world, sticking a lentil into the side of George Bush. But the truth was that every time he started that engine half the bougainvillea bushes in LA County withered and died.An eco limo cannot be. It’s like a torpedo that’s built to be harmless or an alcohol-free beer. It has no point. One element of the name will always cancel out the other. If you want to be green, you can’t tool around town in a limo. And if you want a limo, you are on a hen night in Bradford and the only green element of that is what comes out of your stomach at four in the morning when you’re on your hands and knees in a shop doorway.
Now, though, I’m back from the land of the free and the home of the confused and am behind the wheel of a Nissan Kumquat, which offers another solution to the problem of making an eco-friendly four-wheel-drive car. Cleverly, it doesn’t have four-wheel drive.
Oh, it looks like a four-wheel driver, which means other road users will think you’ve just come back from a kayaking expedition up the Zambezi. And yes, it’s named after an Iranian tribe and means, literally, “Your marines are rubbish”. But don’t be fooled, because the base models at least are just run-of-the-mill, two-wheel-drive, five-seat hatchbacks with plastic kneepads.
Brilliant. You can’t drive it across a field or through a puddle but it looks like an SUV, which means you must bathe in a sea of hate from the world’s liberal democrats every time you go anywhere. That sounds like lose-lose.
It’d be like walking into a crowd with a false beard and a backpack full of alarm clocks and then shouting: “Only kidding.” That’s why I chose to test the top-of-the-range model, which does have four-wheel drive. This is like walking into a crowd with a backpack full of explosives and then actually exploding.
Of course you might say at this point that you don’t need a four-wheel-drive car, and that you’d rather just have a normal Nissan hatch.
Tough, I’m afraid, since Nissan doesn’t actually make a normal hatchback any more.
The Kumquat, it says, is the future. And it’s not a warped Japanese idea of the future either. It was designed in Paddington and engineered in Bedfordshire. It really is as British as a plate of Chinese chicken, except of course Nissan these days is French.
Anyway, the problem with making a family hatch butch is that it becomes bigger and therefore harder to park. And heavier, too, which means less oomph and more trips to the pumps.
The downsides seem big on paper but in reality all is surprisingly good.The Kumquat rides smoothly, thanks to independent suspension, and if a sensor detects that you may have been too exuberant with the throttle, some of the power is sent to the back wheels. Engine-wise, I tried both the diesel, which was fine, and the 2-litre petrol, which was perfectly all right.
To drive, then, it’s good. And it’s a nice place to be as well. Sure, you don’t get three rows of seats or a back bench that swivels or revolves or turns into an ice-breaker, and at first that’s disappointing. But then you don’t get these things in a Ford Focus either, and that’s what the Kumquat — despite appearances — is up against.
The Ford, of course, is nicer to drive — with a lower centre of gravity it has to be — and it’s easier to park as well. And cheaper. And more roomy in the back. And is the one I’d buy.
But I sort of get the Kumquat. For all its abilities, and there are many, the Focus is a bit boring. The Nissan isn’t. It gives you a sense of wellbeing, a sense that while you may live in a normal house with two normal children, at least the car you use makes you look a little bit interesting.
What’s more, if anyone does come up at the lights and ask what on earth you’re driving, and what kind of gas mileage you get, you can just take a leaf out of Swampy Bin Laden’s book. And lie.