Automotive sightings that leave your author perplexed.
The striking of a recently repaired nearby church clock signalled the end of another tedious morning in the office, and a fine spring day invited me outdoors to take the air. There followed a pleasant stroll, enlivened by some interesting, if conflicting, automotive observations.
Within seconds of leaving my place of work, the first of three wildly different vehicles caused my automotive radar to blip. It was a current (fourth) generation Mazda MX-5. Not a rare sighting by any means, but the unusually scruffy condition of this particular example gave it an aged, neglected and rather morose demeanour. I inferred from its condition that its driver may have travelled great distances with neither the opportunity nor inclination to apply some much needed care and attention to his faithful steed. One tends to assume that the MX-5 is primarily a car for fun and not the serious business of transportation, but Mazda’s famed engineering integrity clearly allows it to step up to more onerous tasks.
One applauds Mazda’s tenacity in continuing to produce a type of car that other automakers have long abandoned, its prize bring profitable sole ownership of the small roadster market. However, viewing this particular example from whichever angle, it left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable and unsatisfied.
Maybe it was its overall unkempt appearance, not helped by the choice of colour, an indeterminate dusty grey-blue accompanied by a now filthy beige soft top? Soul Red Crystal would much better exemplify the spirit of the MX-5 and shrug off the grime, at least visually if not physically. Steel wheels and an indeterminate brand of winter rubber reinforced the impression that the driver was more concerned about journeys than aesthetics. Speaking of aesthetics, the front end drops off the proverbial cliff, almost as if shaped by a recumbent elephant. The flanks flare out nicely, even when grimy, but the large rear-planted radio aerial lends the car the look of a radio-controlled model.
I really don’t wish to be disparaging to the MX-5. Maybe the morning’s drudgery had coloured my judgement, leaving my glass half-empty and precipitating this downbeat evaluation? I was once offered the chance to purchase a second-generation model from a friend of a friend. Sadly, I neglected the chance even to sample this award-winning Japanese icon, for reasons that now escape me. The car still appeals, albeit from an ever lengthening distance. It’s too low for a semi-centennial with a troublesome back, and too small for the weekly shop. The MX-5 is probably perfect for most journeys and a delight to drive, being carefully evolved around Mazda’s Jinba-Ittai philosophy of oneness between car and driver. Sadly, the MX-5 will never be at one with this particular driver.
My next quandary was but steps away. A vehicle the polar opposite of the first, it was a portly US expatriate of German extraction. Hailing from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the Mercedes-Benz W163 first-generation ML-Class SUV had barely troubled my radar before today.
This eighteen-year-old bore its 178,000 miles stoically. The no longer black paint still retained some quality and an air of its once-rarefied class, if now heavily patinated and dealing with the onset of tin worm. Millennial Mercedes-Benz models were, of course, infamous for their inadequate protection against corrosion. Still, I think this added some character to its appearance. As would a Land Rover Series or original Defender, this ML carried off its scars, scabs and moderately battered countenance with aplomb.
Never inordinately caring for the Sacco, Pfeiffer and Arcadipane drawn lines, I had to admit that, sitting on a quiet and leafy suburban lane, much of its two-tonne bulk fair ebbed away. This facelifted model (from 2001 onwards) was smooth and uncomplicated looking, with a stance that was pleasingly free from fuss or aggression, a far cry from its present day successor, the GLE.
The tow-hitch suggested to me the occasional trailered run to the refuse centre rather than shifting Shergar every Sunday. The mileage and condition hinted at a relatively pampered life in temperate conditions. Doubtless, its off-road excursions will have involved nothing more demanding than the odd clattered kerb or gravel driveway. Sadly, there was no opportunity to inspect the interior properly. Maybe the leather on the driver’s seat had worn thin and cracked, but maybe not. It simply wouldn’t have suited this example to be pristine. One wanted to see a little straw and a steering wheel worn smooth, and breathe the homely aroma of families and their dogs. This car could have brought baby home and carried the same offspring, now a teenager, off to university, a faithful and affectionately named family retainer.
At that point, I would have preferred my hands to caress the steering wheel of the Mercedes over that of the Mazda. Although neither is really my cup of tea, the ML carries more character, and would likely carry me more comfortably too. For me, the days of the point-and-squirt car are over but I have little need or use for an SUV, either now or in the foreseeable future.
The final car to attract my attention, again black in hue, was equally perplexing. Having been left frustrated by the MX-5’s reminder of my age and mild infirmity, then strangely comforted by the ML, a 17-plate Vauxhall Viva had me flummoxed.
Known in Europe as the Opel Karl (his eldest son) and as the wildly optimistic Vinfast Fadil in Vietnam (the factory name, apparently), the Viva had its UK relaunch in 2015. Underneath the Mark Adams and Quentin Huber drawn skin lies a fourth-generation Chevrolet Spark.
Whereas the other two protagonists were road-stained, this humdrum corporate flash in the pan was pristine. No hint of rain marks, no spattering of mud, and even the alloy wheels appeared free from brake dust as the reborn Viva gently manoeuvred past me at a notch above walking pace. If these eyes had seen a Viva before, my memory had erased it.
Hastily employing a search engine to quench my modest Viva thirst, I learnt that they were produced at GM’s Changwon, Korea plant. They were powered by a one-litre, three-cylinder engine, were offered in three simple trim levels (not including the Rocks faux off-road blend) and achieved a middling three-star NCAP rating. One had but four years to purchase a new Viva, from 2015 to 2019. Nowadays available second-hand from four to twelve thousand pounds, the example I spotted could easily have just left the line.
Yet the car contained no, ahem, spark for me. Curtailed once GM Europe entered the orbit of the giant Stellantis, the Viva was always predestined to become a generic device within the city car domain. It was a car unassuming, efficient and wholly devoid of character or verve, something which I found the other two possessed, albeit in vastly different flavours and quantities.
Even the Viva would be better than the six-mile mainly uphill walk home, granted, but at least my afternoon passed more swiftly, cogitating on my findings.
A new MX-5 costs from £25k… No, stop it!