Thankfully, we've been able to get away for a break this summer. As had become the family tradition before Covid hit, we went camping, although because of Covid (and a touch of Brexit) it was in the UK - Dorset and East Devon to be precise.
Two days before we were due to load our kit into our aging (2007) Vauxhall Zafira, we suffered an electronics failure which left us stranded for hours just off the A12 in Essex waiting to be recovered. I've been driving since 1997 and this is the third breakdown I have had, which isn't too bad I guess and one of those was a distracted driver wiping me out on a mini-roundabout!
Being picked up at 4am from an isolated bus stop
after hours of waiting wasn't much fun.
For some reason the roads gods weren't on our side that day, despite the car not doing many annual miles and it being kept serviced. Sometimes the cleverer part of the technology simply fails. We were a little stuck, but our local vehicle hire centre sorted us out with a car. As it turned out, we ended up with an "upgrade" on what we had actually booked which meant another interesting bit of transport life experience.
The hire car. With #TheDoodle for scale.
We had ordered a Nissan Qashqai with our variables being cost and boot space - our Zafira can carry our family of five, our large tent, a table, chairs, boxes of food and utensils; and clothes; we have managed nearly three week stints and hundreds of miles across mainland Europe like this in recent years.
As it turned out, we had been given a Vauxhall Grandland X Hybrid 4 (with an automatic gearbox with *8* gears and 4 wheel drive for some reason). My knowledge of makes and models of cars is pretty much stuck in the period before the mid 2000s and to be honest, most cars look similar these days. The first thing to note is this is marketed as a "sports utility vehicle" and compared with the Zafira's carrying capacity, there wasn't very much utility given what we had to ditch in order to fit the tent into the boot!
In terms of "sports", I assume this refers to the insanity of a 146mph top speed and 0-60mph in 6 seconds, the latter because the vehicle is a hybrid with electric drive which adds to the power when one plants one's right foot. Anyway, this isn't a car review as such, but some of the more industry standard features were quite interesting to experience.
The car plugged in for some additional range.
First is the fact it is a plug in hybrid. According to a review I have read, this is more about people using it for daily commutes and short trips using the electric mode which carries one for around 30 miles. This is aimed at people who have somewhere to charge the vehicle at home (and maybe at work). Given that 61% of trips are by car and the average car trip time is 22 minutes (2019), many people using plug in hybrids will barely need to use petrol (in the case of this car, the hybrid range is about 400 miles).
This alone is interesting because so long as people have somewhere to charge (whether plug in hybrid or pure electric), as time goes on, less fuel from the forecourt will be needed and so the whole issue of vehicle emissions duty and fuel duty will lead to a collapse in revenues to the Treasury. This either means road pricing or everyone paying to subsidise driving more than we do today.
The charging experience was also interesting. In Dorset, some council-owned car parks had chargers run by Mer which needed an app to access them with a debit or credit card for the other kind of charging and once we were set up we could use them everywhere. Unfortunately, in some car parks, the chargers were not compatible because like mobile phones, we don't have one type of system. A couple of people on Twitter tried to explain the ins and outs to me, but nominally it's extra faff.
At a service station, this charger had a different plug
system for each parking space.
In Devon, we didn't come across any chargers, but in the motorway services, it was of course a different supplier (Ecotricity) and another app to connect, although apparently this is gradually changing to a tap payment system with the network having been taken over by Gridserve. In the services, there were only four Ecotricity branded charging spots, whereas Tesla were flooding the marking and had installed a dozen (below).
As someone who hadn't needed to work out who does what before, this all does rather feel a bit like the Wild West and already way more complicated than pulling into a petrol station and chugging fossil fuel directly into the tank. At least in the car we had, we carried a charging cable which was stored in a tray in the floor of the boot which is pretty impractical when you are carrying more than a bag of shopping (below). Amusingly, we carried the cable in the passenger foot well on the way home, but the service station charger had a cable attached!
In terms of cost, electrical charging is way cheaper than petrol; even with a very fuel efficient hybrid engine, the public car park charging was less than half the cost per mile than petrol which has to be quite attractive to people in terms of running costs. If you can charge from home, it is of course even cheaper.
Away from the hybrid and charging technology, the car had cruise control, collision avoidance and lane correction technology (which are all pretty standard apparently). In other words, I could set the maximum cruising speed on the motorway and the car would run at that speed. If it detected a vehicle in front (pulling in or slowing down), then the car would also slow down. In fact, the car could bring itself to a complete stop. The lane correction feature basically means that if one drifts too close to a lane line, centre line or edge of carriageway road marking, the car would gently take control and steer back into the centre of the lane.
The cruise control and collision avoidance technology was interesting. Where there were few junctions, letting the car decide these things meant that fuel efficiency was improved as the speed was constantly adjusted for the traffic conditions. At least with this car, you could see what was happening in the left hand circular display with the needle moving between charging (generating electricity through braking or maintaining speed down a hill) and an "eco" range of engine revs (below).
Personally, I thought the car was leaving braking too late, not because it wasn't going to stop in time, but that braking was later than I was taught - I usually brake for me and the person behind who isn't paying attention.
The lane correction technology was a bit disconcerting. When I overtake, I don't always indicate when pulling back in, especially if I am some distance ahead of the vehicle I have overtaken. I also tend to move over gently over some distance and this meant the car did sometimes try to move me to the right when I was drifting back to the left when changing lanes. Perhaps I should have used the indicators more which interrupted the feature! I had to turn it off on some roads because it just became annoying.
These sensors are (I think) at Level 2 of 5 of vehicle autonomy, where the vehicle can deal with multiple functions, but where the driver remains in charge. For someone who learned to drive in a car without power steering and generally owning cars several years behind the current state of the art, I found the experience both easy and disconcerting. At least personally, I am not sure that I will ever be happy with a car taking over the driving task for me. That's not because the technology is untrustworthy per se, but because for many years to come there still will be plenty of humans making decisions in what is a very chaotic and variable-rich environment. In fact, the variable of people outside of vehicles isn't something I want to see removed!
Driving in town (and our campsites) at low speeds, the electric mode often kicked in and it was notable that people outside of the car simply didn't hear us, whereas at high speed (say 40mph plus) tyre noise was obvious. Two things that I had experienced as someone outside a vehicle, but interesting to experience from within.
Are modern cars becoming bloated at the
expense of space efficiency and versatility?
Finally, we have to talk about size. My first car was a Mark 4 Ford Escort which was 4.02 metres long, 1.64 metres wide and 1.4 metres high. The Zafira B is 4.5 metres long, 1.8 metres wide and 1.8 metres high. The Grandland was 4.5 metres long by 1.85 metres wide and 1.6 metres high. So, the more modern cars are obviously larger, but the slightly fatter SUV didn't feel more roomy than than the Zafira which is way more versatile with the ability to fold out to 7 seats (albeit with a tiny boot) or carry loads of stuff. On weight, the Escort was 900kg, Zafira 1,445kg and the Grandland a whopping 1,860kg - twice the weight of the Escort!
I have had a love-hate relationship with cars over the years, although the hate side of things is probably more around the act of driving where there are lots of other people also driving. Having grown up in suburbia, owning a car was (and I guess still is) seen as aspirational and certainly this is something that car manufacturers have latched onto (amongst other things). These days, they have become a mere tool to me and this year's interesting trip (aside from being fortunate enough to get away) has reinforced my views on practicality and how on earth are we going to physically charge all of these vehicles.
Maybe I'm a just being a bit of a Luddite, but casting my mind back, at least my old Escort was cheap and easy to maintain, the Grandland has so much technology onboard, it would be a nightmare to own if something went wrong. Maybe that's the point - many modern cars are so expensive, people have to lease them in some way and so the gadgets are all part of the marketing as manufacturers jostle for customers.
Well, the Zafira fault was terminal. A local mechanic came and plugged his computer in to find out more and it wasn't good news. A fault in the electronic automatic gearbox was the problem and it's one of those things you can end up chasing and investing lots of cash into.
We've reflected and decided that scrapping it was the best way forward and more than that, we've decided to try being car-free for now given how rarely we were using the car which cost the thick end of £1000 a year just to sit there gathering dust. So with the few hundred pounds we got for scrap, we'll set money aside each month for travel and we'll hopefully get out on some train trips in the coming months.
I've owned a car for the last 25 years, but I'm looking forward to not having the hassle of owning a car for a while at least.