Too many bells and whistles?

Last week saw the 50th anniversary of my driving licence (or, more accurately) the day I passed my driving test. In those days I used to view drivers who displayed the grille-badge of the Company of Veteran Motorists (founded in 1932) as a bunch of senile old dodderers. It seemed to me that the reason they’d had a blemish-free driving record for the number of years proclaimed in the centre of the badge was that they never went above 5mph.

I’ve not seen one of those badges for many years. The Company has morphed into the Guild of Experienced Motorists, and I’m not sure they still do the badges. Would you believe that, now I’m in my seventh decade, I may view them slightly differently these days if they did?

Apart from that anniversary, the other thing that brought all this to mind was trying out my wife’s new MX-5. She nearly bought one a couple of years ago but was put off by the basic level of equipment. Mazda had enjoyed great success with this model over 25 years, but for whatever reason the equipment level had been allowed to fall well behind the times. That’s no longer so. She really wanted (and expected) to see SatNav, Bluetooth phone integration and USB media on a modern car.

Those things are all present and correct, but what she didn’t expect, or particularly want, was a load of bells and whistles that add to the complexity without adding to the utility of the vehicle. Mazda is not alone in adopting these unnecessary features – they’re simply following current fashions. Most of them seem to be ‘technology for technology’s sake’, starting with keyless entry.

What on earth is the point of keyless entry? Remote locking has been going for decades, and that’s a real boon. Who wants to be fiddling around in the rain on a dark night trying to fit a key into a door lock? There’s surely no need though to go the extra step of sensing that the key is in the vicinity, and removing the need to stick it in the dashboard or the steering column. After all, when you arrive at your destination you’re going to have to find your key and press the lock button anyway. In the meantime, if you park en route to pop in somewhere, leaving your passenger waiting in the vehicle the disappearance (with you) of the key can cause some disconcerting effects.

Then there’s ‘hill-start assist’… You would hope that anyone driving a sports car may have been interested enough to have acquired some better than average driving skills. Yet here we are, with a car helping the driver to drive away without rolling backwards – something so basic that inability to do it means automatic failure of the driving test .

On the subject of basics, there’s ‘blind-spot assist’. The idea of this is that a little symbol flashes in a door mirror if there’s someone or something in your blind spot. Again though, learning to use mirrors properly is a basic, fundamental driving skill. Today’s mirrors all have a convex outer region and so their coverage is already excellent. If you’re in any doubt, all you have to do is simply move your head slightly just for a final check. I’m a motorcyclist and so more often than not I reflexively turn my head to do ‘the life-saver’ with my peripheral vision before committing to a manoeuvre. If this driver-aid fails, and a driver punts someone into the central reservation because they were relying on it, I wonder if that would be a defence in court. I hope not. Anyway, this seems to do little more than add cost and complexity that’s really not needed. If you park without turning your mirrors in and someone knocks one off, you can now look forward to a replacement bill approaching £500.

Given that more than half of millennials see absolutely nothing wrong with texting while driving, I suppose it may be a good thing that cars are now often equipped with some sort of lane monitoring. In other words, if you’re not bothering to look where you’re going while (not) steering a ton of metal down the road at 70mph then the car is supposed to wake you up before you kill someone and/or yourself. Too bad that this technology currently depends on tracking the white lines on the road, because most of them are worn away and the responsible agencies say they’re too short of cash to re-paint them.

The MX-5’s performance is sprightly, but it doesn’t have a huge excess of power and torque. What it does have is another little system designed to prevent you losing control if you stamp on the loud pedal at the wrong time or place. Again, if you’re so unskilled, and so unwise as to do that while driving on a public road then you shouldn’t really be driving at all. Sadly, that’s not the message promoted by the likes of Jeremy Clarkson.

Finally, there’s the gear indicator on the dash display. I’m not too averse to that: they’re common on motorcycles which have gear levers which are always in the same position unless you’re actually changing gear. In a car with manual transmission you do get some clues from the position of the gear lever but the gates are sometimes so narrow, and the ratios so close, that it’s hard to tell the difference between the 3-4 and the 5-6 planes. No, the thing I’m not too keen on is the suggestion – more of a visual nag really – that you should be one or two gears further up the box most of the time. This is probably in the interest of fuel economy, although I’d be surprised if that benefited from slogging away in too high a gear. Certainly it does nothing for the character of a sports car to be driving up hills at 30mph in sixth gear. I see no reason not to use the motorcycling technique of always being in a gear that gives you ‘roll-on and roll-off’. In other words, you’re in the correct gear if you can get some engine braking as soon as you lift off the throttle, but at the same time you can expect acceleration of some sort if you press harder.

Despite all these grumbles, I do think the latest MX-5 is a brilliant package and I will drive it as often as my wife will let me. Of course, good though the car may be, the most enjoyment to be had from a small sports car is to be driving with the roof down. Given that this spring we not only have an open top car, but also a new conservatory, then you’ll know who to blame if this summer turns out to be the start of a new Ice Age.

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