Mountain track road test of Seat Mii 1.0 automatic in Crete.
The obvious question is why an automatic? As a younger man, I extolled the virtues of control and the expression of skill that comes with driving a manual car (stick, for my American friends). Now as my life falls into the sere, I find myself heartily sick of changing gears. I’ll take a quiet life, as your man Thom whined.
In this case my thoughts were more practical. I figured driving on the wrong side of the road was challenging enough without right-hand gear changes to tax my malco-ordination. The bus to Heraklion with which I had a very low-speed altercation can attest to the wisdom of this, and also paying for the excess (deductible) waiver.
The interior is surprisingly roomy and the boot is functional if you buy groceries like you’re on a diet. The pint-sized engine is actually OK for highway cruising and quite quiet at Cretan highway speeds (plus a bit). Unless there is a headwind, in which case get a hotel room and wait for the weather to change because you ain’t goin’ nowhere.
The things you can’t get away from are the ECU and gearbox, and given the component sharing across VAG the poxy things probably infect all Skoda and VW small cars.
Picture the scene: you’re on a twisty, unsurfaced mountain road. It has a spiky, uneven rocky top greased with dust and gravel. You’ve just walked a kilometre back along a gorge from the lovely secluded Agio Farago beach and you need to go up over the mountain to sanctuary at the delightful Monastery Odigitrias.
The first thing the guide books don’t tell you is that this road is only for 4x4s and rental cars. It’s also only one and a half micro cars wide, so if something is coming the other way, one of you has a decision to make.
So, you’re on an upslope, steep drop to one side, car breaker rain channels to the other, a sequence of blind hairpin turns ahead. The powertrain is too puny to creep. You give the Mii a bootfull and wait. The kick down gear change is ponderous as the engine, out of its depth like a reception teacher asked to cover the advanced calculus class, hyperventilates.
Sometime later it accelerates, if you’ve planned it right this is before you roll down the road to a comedic but nonetheless fatal end.
You keep your foot in until the last moment. The ultra-light steering is not a problem because the whole car is rattling with road feel and the suspension surrendered a long time ago. You know better than to death grip the wheel, you keep your thumbs clear and your hands soft. It’s a low grip surface, the grim reaper lurking amid the oleanders to one side, you turn the wheel and come off the gas.
Roller skate wheels skitter over the terrain, you’re sideways in a hairpin – that’s good and bad: you’re now pointing the right way but running out of momentum. Another bootfull and… nothing.
Seconds pass, you’re about to stop and roll off the road. “Oh,” says the Mii’s addled brain. “When you stabbed the gas pedal through the fireguard into the engine bay, you wanted me to accelerate. Hold on while I tell the gearbox.”
Certain death in a tin can through the rearview mirror. You’ll be goat food. Eventually, something mechanical happens. The Mii drops a cog. The engine wheezes, supplementing the dregs of forward impetus to crawl up the short straight to do it all again.
Over and over again. Never has a Muslim been so happy to see a monastery.
On the plus side, should you find yourself inadvertently going up a goat track instead of the actual road (they’re easily mixed up) the turning circle is tiny and a seven-point turn will bring you back to the right path.
Pro-tip: when you have edged to the limit of the road remember to put the car in reverse before you hit the gas again. Fortunately, the engine response is slow enough that I managed to stand on the brakes before plunging down the mountain.
Honestly, I would rather have been in Brooke, my twenty-year-old Renault Laguna. She’s down on power from her glory days, but I know every beat of her faithful heart and so can judge every gear change by telepathy. Better still would be the Monkey Car – my wife’s even older Citroen Saxo (still in the family). No one does fun small cars as well as the French and I have booted that Saxo through Snake Pass, so I know what a hoot it is to drive on twisty roads.
The locations at either end are highly recommended. The drive – well at least you now know what the guidebooks won’t tell you, and which car not to do it in.
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