Seat Mii roadtest on a mountain track

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.

whenyouhitabus.jpg

This is what happens when the bus you are overtaking decides to move away from the bus stop without looking

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.

mountain road.jpg

This road runs at 90 degrees to the one we took, but you get the idea.

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.

Monastery Odigitrias.jpg

Moni Odigitrias. See the church, buy the honey, use the toilet.

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.

End

Find out more about my writing here.

Brave Companion of the Road

Brooke and I have been together for fourteen years. She has been at my side as youth and vigour have slowly failed us both, and I have nursed her through the ailments that inevitably plague a classy French dame.

After all the years, the dents and the damage, the four times around the earth we have driven together, the overloaded trips to the tip which broke my back and her suspension, she is still willing and eager. Somehow there is no group of people too large, no burden too great for her to carry.

We know the end is nigh, we only travel a few miles together now at the weekends running errands and ferrying the kids. She starts up first time, every time. In deference to the spiders that live in her wing mirrors we don’t drive too fast anymore, but we remember all the speeding tickets.

She’s quite partial to Celine Dion, so for her sake when we are alone together I’ll belt out It’s All Coming Back To Me Now at the top of my lungs and she’ll accompany me with squeaky springs.

As for the name, well what else would you call a Blue Laguna?

Brooke

On the Road. After All

On the Road. After All

Have you ever wondered why no long distance hauliers are renowned epic poets? As someone who has spent a lot of time in the saddle I’ve puzzled over it for years. You would be wrong to leap to bourgeois conclusions of class and erudition, that is lazy thinking.

If you have never driven long distance, and I specifically mean as the driver rather than a passenger, you may wonder at my premise. But those who have sunk over hours into the drivers seat, feet nursing the pedals, hands caressing the wheel will know. With part of the brain occupied and preoccupied with speed and traffic, distances and lanes, hazard perception and directions the rest of it is freed. The higher mind is alone at last, its noisey sibling distracted and silenced, the demands of doing and achievement delegated.

The road has rhythms, be it at an over the limit blatt or a congested crawl, although in truth it is empty miles and darkness that are the most conducive environment. The rhythms give a pace and order to thoughts, but even at constant velocity there are variations and dissonances. You pass, or are passed, there are imperfections in the tarmac, changing lanes, on ramps, off ramps, lights all weave in and out of the beating heart of the engine. And that too has its complexity, whether a four, six, eight or more part percussion of pistons, conducted by the throttle and played by great lung fulls of air to the intake manifold.

It is in the regular irregularity, the tapestry of complexity, that epic poetry lives. My faithful motor and I have shared almost a hundred thousand miles, over the years and with other partners you could double that. In those vacant hours I swear I have bettered Queen Mab and Coleridge, shaded Shelley and The Mariner. But it was a fleeting brilliance. It faded as the engine ticked and cooled and by the time pen and paper were assembled to bear witness to genius it had fled leaving only the glass slipper of mocking remembrance.

Of course, that is not all of it, that is not it at all. Today I am hands free, voice recognised, recorded. So why haven’t the tattoed hoards erupted into todays whateverthefuckosphere howling and yawping, claiming their place beside Whitman, bouncing Ginsberg off the bonnet?

Surely there is more to be had from trucking poetry than CW McCall?

The road lends itself to introspection, which is rarely a happy indulgence. There is time to rake the coals of fires long extinguished, or pursue flights of fancy like lost inland gulls. Gloomy thoughts and dark roads are a poisonous blend, Sobranie Blacks, seductively sickly sweet and yet filling the body with toxins. All the better. Happy poems are for hacks and Hallmark.

The blurring barriers become extremely dense, urging you to drift inwards with a new and more potent gravity. The shadows under the roadside verdancy promise eternal youth, androgyne elves and faerie queens. Dwell too long and the camber may sway you left or right and off the narrow path of safety. Survive the temptation and the passing juggernauts seek to suck you beneath their wheels.

Permit me a brief change of tack, I’m driving and my mental sat nav abhors straight lines. It is ironic that it is now, in the depths of night and on the dark of the road that I am making the choice to live. And appropriate perhaps that earlier this evening I have met briefly with the friend that introduced me to Dar Williams, and After All is playing on the stereo.

“When I chose to live, there was no joy it’s just a line I crossed, I wasn’t worth the pain my death would cost.”

I’ve had the end planned out in intricate detail for some time. No farewell note, that would be crass, just final touches of care and consideration. Paperwork neatly filed, bank accounts left in an orderly state allowing for the delays of probate, cash in the house for out of pocket expenses. The method would be calm, private, quiet. An undisturbed moment to prevent any hitches. And if I have not wholly made my peace with God, at least we have come to an understanding.

I’ve quashed it all in these melancholy miles. There is no way to tie up all the loose ends. I’ve picked apart my scheme meticulously, forensically, and found the unfixable flaws. What’s worth doing is worth doing well, and if I cannot do it well I will not do it.

That detour brings me back to hauliers and poets. In the end it is just a question of attention and concentration, and perhaps natural selection. It is about what the eye sees, what the heart feels, and what action the mind takes. And it is in this moment of darkness and choosing life that I learn the reason why no long distance hauliers are renowned epic poets.

Have you ever seen an articulated lorry jackknife? From behind and approaching at speed it seems implausible for something of such enormous weight to swing laterally. It draws the mind that is seeking the turning, pivotal moments in a grand rhythm. It calls “here is the foot on which you spin your great reveal”. It is that explosive writing rush when the finale becomes extraordinarily clear. Ink spills from the pen like gasoline from a ruptured tanker, the instant in which you know you have at last bested Queen Mab and Coleridge and the page catches fire.

Life did not choose me after all.

END

My book available here and here among others. Buy it, review it, tell me what you think.