Theme: Disappointment – Being Driven

I think that society in general has a romantic notion about how nice it is to be driven – by a chauffeur in particular. Recent experiences have led me to feel that it’s rather a disappointment.

chauffeur driven
It’s not all glamour and mafiosi

Forgive me if this comes across as just a ruse to write about a problem I have been dealing with recently, but I feel it is worth a few lines. Six weeks ago, I ruptured by Achilles tendon (proof, if anyone reading needs it, that exercise is potentially harmful to you!), and I face another 5 weeks at least with my left lower leg in an Air Cast boot (a rather marvellous innovation, if not one you ever really want to have to experience).

The consultant looking after me signed me off from driving for six weeks, which created a logistical and potential financial problem when I work 65 miles from home and public transport offers little as an alternative solution. My employer, which, unusually, is a family-owned Financial Services company, has been superb about it and put an Executive Car/ Driver service at my disposal – hence, twice or three times a week I have been chauffeured to work and back.

An Air Cast Boot - a fantastic bit of kit that you'd rather never have to experience
An Air Cast Boot – a fantastic bit of kit that you’d rather never have to experience

Now, please do not misunderstand me (I think that will be my epitaph), I feel incredibly lucky.  The drivers (three in total) have been excellent, friendly, and not overly intrusive. For every journey there is a bottle of water waiting in the back of the car, which is a nice touch. The cars have been suitably Executive – mainly a late, C6 version of the Audi A6 (2.0L diesel, 4 cylinder, complete with “Cheat Device” – remember that?), but also a brand new E220 and an Insignia Estate.

The cars are always spotless inside and out. As I said, I’m a lucky man.  People at work and friends whom I tell of this all react with a kind of, “Wow! How does it feel to live like the elite?”, which is understandable and quite right in many respects. So, why have I felt the romance turn to disappointment. I think there are two things going on here.

First, sitting in the back of a car, even a “nice” one like an A6 or E-Class, is a let-down. It’s generally darker than the front. There is remarkably little leg space – you notice this more with a bulky cast or surgical boot on – and things like consoles that extend between the front seats into the rear just get in the way if you need to fidget around. There is less to look at/play with compared with sitting in the front (I like to inspect the switch-gear for look and feel, for example).

The ride definitely seems worse in the back, and one has greater proximity to the boot/ trunk which seems to amplify road-noise into the back of the car. Of course, a true limousine may well obviate such problems – I am sure there are hours of fun to be had with crystal decanters, cut-glass champagne flutes, rear-infotainment systems and extended wheel-bases (not necessarily in that order), but I’m not sure this is the main source of my disappointment.

By the way, before going on, I found the A6 much nicer to sit in than the E-Class, and the Insignia is pretty good, although noisier and less well damped of ride. The former has a really nice dashboard (although I thought the push action of some of the switchgear quite brittle compared to my Mazda(!), with big, clear instruments and attractively shaped and textured inlays. The E-Class, however, rides better than the Audi and is quieter – both are put to shame on both points by a Citroen C6 (although I’ve never sat in the back when being driven in one of those).

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Second (returning to the plot), and perhaps it’s an unfair argument, but, being driven just makes me miss driving. Being driven increases one’s sense of general immobility and lack of freedom. It’s fine arriving somewhere, but then one is ‘trapped’ at the destination until someone else arrives to pick one up again – I hate that! Being driven is boring compared to driving – it may be less taxing and tiring, but I realise how much I enjoy driving and sensing the feel of a particular car; being driven is a very numb experience.

So, call me spoilt if you like, but it means that whenever I get one of those, ‘Oh, that must be lovely!’ reactions from people about being driven, I think they are a bit wrong-footed when I hesitate – a slightly perplexed expression passing over my face – and I reply, “Well, it’s very kind that the company are doing this for me, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and, actually, I miss driving”.

The good news is that, what with my wonderful family having convinced me to keep hold of the C6 (it’s an automatic – good job it was not the right tendon that I ruptured), I am now able to start driving again. The last six weeks have been an interesting insight into an aspect of motoring to which I have not been exposed since being a child – i.e. being a rear passenger – and it seems to me that there is much that manufacturers have to think about and work to do in order to improve the experience.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

17 thoughts on “Theme: Disappointment – Being Driven”

  1. I agree with you that, in principle, I prefer driving to being driven. However, as someone who has lived in London for 40 years and, in that time, whose average speed has probably decreased from 17 to 13 mph, there is one advantage to being driven – I see whole parts of London (basically the bits above Ground Floor level) that I’ve never noticed before.

    The point about the disappointing and slightly restricted accommodation in the rear of upmarket cars raises a question of etiquette. With many minicabs there is often no way you’d want to sit in the front seat, since it’s a receptacle for fast food cartons and leaking coffee beakers. However, upmarket minicabs and executive hire cars often afford a far more inviting seat up front, with a better view, than that in the rear. Yet, even though you’re the customer, it feels a bit presumptuous jumping in beside the driver. You’re invading his space. I have done it a few times, once on an 80 mile drive to Hamburg Airport where I realised I’d end up talking to the driver a fair bit and didn’t want to spend the whole time leaning forward. It was far nicer than sitting in the back. On the other hand, if you don’t want to talk, the back seat is best.

    1. A couple of points in response. First, for the initial few weeks, I needed to put my leg up, hence the need to be able to, in effect, lie across the back of the car. Second, you make a great point about “driving” in London and I would agree with you that, in this case, it is indeed preferable to be driven – furthermore, in this instance, the traditional London Taxi is in many ways preferable to an Executive car, as they provide much more wriggle room, easy of entry.

  2. One of the strange effects of manufacturing for the Chinese market is that back seats have become much more important in mid-size cars. For example, Jaguar have markedly improved the rear accommodation of the new XF with a less raked roof and a rear three quarter window for better light. Indeed, spy shots suggest that a long wheelbase XF is also imminent.

    1. Skoda’s Superb had fantastic rear leg-room and so did Opel’s Signum. Isn’t it renarkable how few medium-sized cars offer much rear space now compared to the almost-limousine-scaled accomodation in the Tipo and 306 and 406?

  3. There is another factor – happier passengers make for a happier driver, particularly if those passengers are children. Our old E39 BMW Touring offered a great environment for the kids, and they traveled long distances in relative contentment. I traveled in the back on a couple of occasions and found the rear bench to be comfortable, while the pale upholstery and big windows created a sense of space and calm, Our current family car is gloomier in the back, with smaller windows, a worse ride, and no air vents for the rear passengers.

    1. … sounds remarkably familiar (see Long Term Test of Mazda3)

    2. Good point. My son prefers travelling in the back of my Clio more than he did in my previous Civic, even though he had more room in the latter, purely because the windows are lower and not deeply tinted.

    3. Richard –

      Our current family chariot is a Honda FRV. It does have its virtues, but as a car designed to be carrying rear passengers frequently (it is, if nothing else, a ‘family’ car), the rear cabin is flawed as a place to travel. In fairness, it is no worse than many cars of its type.

  4. SV makes the point that “there is much that manufacturers have to think about and work to do in order to improve the [back seat] experience”.

    Given the inexorable rise of autonomous vehicles, we’ll all be passengers before long, so they really ought to get a crack on…

  5. I don’t use taxis very often, but when I do, I’m usually convinced yet again of the merits of ye merry olde saloone. Despite its unimpressive appearance, the back seats of an E-class actually feel considerably more welcoming than the second row of a VW Touran (a very popular choice with German inner-city cab drivers these days). The E’s ride is leagues ahead, as are seating comfort and noise suppression. So even if its clumsy styling doesn’t convey the sense of solidity as intended, the actual action of the car does.

  6. Chrisward: it is a curiosity that car makers haven’t heard from users/parents/kids about those hateful window lines that prevent kids seeing out.
    Kris: it’s a pity the Mercedes E looks as it does as it distracts from the comfort you mention. Those MPVs usually lack proper armrests. The E is better comparatively but no paragon.

    1. MPVs often suffer from a high floor in the second row too, and seats that are made for folding rather than sitting in. The middle row of the Galaxy / S Max suffers from this. Fine for a family car but it makes for a compromised taxi. As it happens, I have also ridden in the back of the E class and found it quite comfortable, albeit for relatively short journeys.

    2. We have an MPV (Xsara Picasso) and although I find the space in the rear excellent for the external footprint, the boot space better than excellent (540L – and a very “square” shape), and the sense of space inside terrific (very large windows, low waistline), the rear seats are hard – particularly the bases – and the ride quite jiggly, making it uncomfortable over longer distances. For those rather cynical about French reliability, it’s been a near paragon over 9 years of ownership thus far, although some interior fittings have proved flimsy and perceived quality quite rubbish.

  7. Jacomo: the Galaxy and the new Espace both have compromised rear seats. I can’t see either being used for nice long journeys but that’s indeed what people will do with them. The more I think about this the more it seems the estate car did it better, especially with regard to the seats which folded flat without being less pleasant to sit in than the saloon.
    About being chauffeured. Could it be that having autonomy or not colours the way it is experienced?

  8. I remember a fortunately short trip a a W124 Estate taxi. It was the first time I had travelled in an E Class and I was surprised as to quite how un-luxurious the back seat was. Some companies seem bettter than others about maintaining comfort with a folding rear seat but common sense suggests that practicality (flat folding seats for maximum loadspace) militates against comfort. Although my memory of my parent’s Peugeot 504 Estate was that the rear seat was fine, but I (more specifically my back) might have been more tolerant back than.

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