17 October 2016

Parting is such sweet sorrow

After seven years, and with 101k miles on the clock, I decided that it was time to replace my venerable Freelander 'Classic' with something newer. I'd previously had a Freelander 2 on loan for a few weeks when my Defender was in for repair, so buying one as a replacement was a fairly easy decision to make.

I did consider (briefly) the Škoda Yeti, Volkswagen Tiguan and Mitsubishi ASX, but they were a little smaller and the lure of the green oval was strong. Eventually I took delivery of a 6-speed manual 2014 Freelander 2 GS in Loire Blue from a dealer in Reading.

The GS is the not-quite-entry-level version, but still fairly well appointed with full leather, cruise control, automatic lights and wipers, keyless ignition and a DAB radio. Unfortunately a problem with a driver's seat meant that I got excruciating backache in a very short space of time whilst driving it, so the dealer agreed to an exchange for the next version up: an XS in Santorini Black (AKA Range Rover black).

This brought some extra features including built-in satellite navigation, armrests, voice-control and additional trim to enhance the interior. Mine also has the Meridian sound-system complete with sub, which gives excellent audio from the radio or my iPod.

It may be an older design (the Freelander 2 was originally launched in 2006) but the updates that Land Rover have made have helped to keep it current. The last update took place in 2013 and bestowed an improved interior, electronic handbrake, daytime LED running lights and improved fuel economy. On a typical, laden, long journey on mixed the roads the computer tended to show around 36mpg.

As an ex-courtsey car it hadn't done a huge mileage, and it still felt very new. Almost immediately I had to make some long journeys in it, and it sat very happily on the Motorway all day, making smooth, refined progress in climate-controlled comfort.

The Freelander 2 boot is a good size and has comfortably swallowed luggage, equipment and even items of furniture without complaint. That the rear seats fold completely flat helps enormously when trying to get larger items inside, and the square shape overall means the space is all useable.

With the rear seats upright, there is plenty of leg room for the rear seat passengers and an armrest with cupholders and door pockets are there for convenience. As with the original Freelander the rear seats are set slightly higher than the front ones to improve the view.

As you might expect, it works well when you leave paved surfaces and take to unsurfaced roads and tracks. Freelander 2 features Land Rover's Terrain Response system than changes the vehicle's characteristics to suit the terrain, including the throttle response and traction control systems. However, unlike its larger Discovery 4 sibling it does not have either low ratio gears nor air suspension for adjustable ride-height, but it does have an improved version of the Hill Descent Control system first seen on the original Freelander.

I have the Defender for heavy-duty off road use, but the Freelander 2 got its wheels muddy from time-to-time, generally giving demonstration drives to people who don't believe it's as good off road as it is, strolling casually up and down muddy, slippery slopes on road tyres.

Land Rovers are built for towing, and I had a Witter detachable tow bar installed with plug-in (13-pin) electrics. With a trailer attached the trailer stability system is activated, the rear parking sensors are deactivated, and it feels as though other aspects of the vehicle's performance is modified to suit. I haven't towed much, but it made short-work of my trailer and a friend's caravan - but with a two-ton towing capacity that isn't really a surprise.

On the road, it is a fairly tall vehicle and it does lean a bit in corners, but never disconcertingly so and I've been able to hustle it along twist back-roads without any concern: at the end of the day it's a 4x4 and not a sportscar, but it's no slouch either and can hold its own in urban traffic. The 2.2 litre diesel engine is a little old now and some have described it as noisy or coarse, but it's certainly not intrusive and there's very little in the way of disturbance from vibration even on the coldest of mornings.

On the subject of cold mornings, there are some nice touches that really help: the windscreen and door mirrors are heated, as are the driver and front passenger seats, and there's a winter-park setting for the windscreen wipers that leaves them on the heated part of the screen. Once underway, the heating system is very effective with warm air coming out of the vents in just a few miles at urban speeds which is very welcome.

When I did the initial review on the loan car in 2011 I wasn't sure whether I'd buy one or not, and of course I did. It's still a much more complex vehicle than the original Freelander, but the technology is applied well and genreally not intrusive. The only disappointment is the manually adjustable driver's seat which caused me a problem on anything more than a short journey. I enquired about upgrading the seat to one with lumbar support, but apparently that's not possible.

The driver's seat is the most important one in the vehicle, yet the other seats are more supportive. The previous Freelander 2s I've driven have also been XS spec. and have had electrically adjustable seats with lumbar support, so when buying this XS it came a surprise that the seats were lacking in support. I don't generally suffer from a bad back, but the Freelander 2s have given me one, which is a pain (all too literally).

As a result my time as a Freelander 2 owner was brief, and just over a year after buying it it has been sold. It was a lovely car with lots to like, but ultimately the driver's seat was the deal-breaker and it had to go.

Its replacement has arrived, and it's one that I've already reviewed on this 'blog: a Land Rover Discovery Sport.

Test Drive: Land Rover Discovery 4

In 1989 Land Rover launched the original Discovery model. Based heavily on the Range Rover it was intended as a "lifestyle" vehicle, and had a bright blue interior designed by Conran. Times change and the Discovery has matured in to a more traditional and up-market 4x4; now, twenty-seven years on, the current Discovery is coming to the end of production with its replacement due later this year.

Although branded as Discovery 4, it's arguably only the second generation as the original and Series II versions were mechanically very similar, and the Discovery 4 is an evolution of the Discovery 3, which was launched in 2004, using the same body and chassis but with a more upmarket interior, and the engines have also evolved and improved during production.

The exterior design is striking, and there is little else on the road that looks like it. I remember seeing the original press photos of the Discovery 3 and being unsure as to whether I like it or not, and even now I'm still not sure. The shape of the rear window is designed to echo the design of the previous Discovery, which had its spare wheel mounted on a side-opening rear door. As the Discovery 3's rear door is a split Range Rover style up-and-down tailgate, with the spare wheel slung underneath, I can't help feeling that it looks a little awkward, as though the designers included it for a reason they couldn't quite recall, or perhaps because "we've always done it that way".

As a result, I've always thought the rear design was crying out for a spare wheel to be mounted there, and needless to say there are third-party accessory manufacturers who have products to let you do just that.

The square, vertical theme continues inside and also feels a bit dated despite having evolved during its production; which might be part of the problem as different features and styles of control have been fitted or modified, and have moved around the console at various points.

The version I have been driving is the Landmark, one of two versions currently available; the other being the lower specification Graphite. All UK models are fitted with a 3.0 SDV6 Euro 6 engine and an eight-speed automatic gearbox, height adjustable air suspension, high and low range transfer box and locking centre diff with Land Rover's excellent Terrain Response system (the Discovery 3 was the first to be fitted with it).

Climbing aboard, the Landmark's Windsor leather seats are supremely comfortable, if a little narrow. They adjust electrically in almost every possible way, with separate front and rear height adjustment, lumbar support, fore and aft and of course seat back rake. The bolsters can also be adjusted in or out to support you laterally. Adjustment of the steering wheel is also electrical, and with the memory pack once you've found your ideal seating position the car will return to it at the touch of a button, including your preferred exterior mirror settings.

The instrument panel will be familiar if you have driven almost any recent Land Rover (apart from Defender). An electronic screen sits between the speedometer and rev counter and shows engine temperature and fuel, plus a plethora of other information. However, unlike the screen in my Freelander 2 and Discovery Sport, the screen is monochrome and fairly low resolution, but the information is presented clearly and includes sat nav directions which is helpful.

A lot of the controls look and feel familiar from Freelander 2 and other Land Rovers, but with some inconsistencies such as the headlights being controlled via a knob on the dashboard instead of the stalk. The Discovery 3 was designed during the Ford era, and I knew I'd heard the indicator tick-tock somewhere before: in a Ford Transit. This is an observation; not a criticism.

Details aside, with the engine running the cabin is a very calm place to be. There's plenty of sound insulation so the engine is well muted, and you can chose your own audio accompanyment from the Meridian sound system which includes a TV, DAB radio and an iPod connection. I lost count of the number of speakers around the cabin, but the sub certainly makes its presence felt. Rear seat passengers have their own screens mounted in the back from the front seat head restraints, and an infrared remote control allows them to control the system from there too.

On the subject of the rear seats, there are three separate rear (second row) seats that can be folded individually either flat for additional load space or rolled forward for access to the third row seats. Discovery 4 is a full seven-seat vehicle, and even full-sized adults can sit comfortably in the rearmost seats. Those third row seats fold flat in to the floor of the boot when not required, although they are a little fiddly to deploy and stow. With the seats stowed the boot space is cavernous, and I can't reach far enough in to the car from the drop-down tailgate to touch the second row of seats. There is also a pair of cubby holes in the boot for small oddments, and a large space behind the rear trim, although this is not lined so you won't want to put anything sharp or solid in there as it'll rattle or damage the metalwork.

As with several other Jaguar Land Rover vehicles, the gear selector rises out of the centre console when you start the engine. Turning it to Drive and pressing the accelerator releases the electric parking brake (with a bit of a judder) and you are on your way. There's no denying that it is a heavy vehicle, but it still manages to have reasonable performance and the air suspension deals with body-roll very well indeed for something so tall.

I haven't had the opportunity to take this car off road, but I did try a Discovery 4 at the Land Rover Experience in 2010 and its off-road credentials are well deserved. Even on road tyres the wet, muddy and slippery conditions didn't seem to cause it any concern, and the Terrain Response system combined with Hill Descent Control were far better at maintaining control than the human behind the wheel. With the air suspension in off-road mode the wading depth of the Discovery 4 is 700mm, and should you run out of ground clearance the system will detect this and give you an extra inch to be able to reverse out again.

At the other end of the scale, the air suspension can be lowered in the Access Mode to help you slip under height bars or in to multistory car parks. Or just to help you get in and out of the car.

On road there is a floatyness to the ride that might cause some people a degree of motion-sickness, but it stays well away from wallowey, and even on moderately twisty B-roads the Discovery 4 remained composed. In terms of performance it's obviously no sportscar, but I was able to hustle it
around the Milton Keynes roundabout obstacle course with enthusiasm, and it certainly held its own against a couple of executive saloons - but the fuel economy really doesn't appreciate that sort of behaviour. That said, on a cross-country run involving a mixture of A and B-roads with some dual-carriageway work I managed to achieve an average of 30mpg.

A relatively recent addition the Discovery 4 is stop-start, ostensibly to improve economy and reduce emissions. It works on the brake, and as you come to a halt the engine stops, bursting back in to life as you lift your foot off and back to the accelerator. Overall it works well, although there is a noticable, almost intrusive, shudder on restart. Another measure to improve its emissions is the addition of "diesel exhaust fluid" (AKA AdBlue), which reduces the nitrogen oxide emissions.

There are other disappointments around the car in terms of fit and finish. Both the driver's door and the upper portion of the tailgate are reluctant to close and need a firm hand. And frequently a second attempt. There is a large plastic unit, containing the alarm sensors, mounted on the ceiling which rattles; putting a hand on it stops it. This is a £54k car: doors should close easily and there should not be rattly plastic alarm sensors.

It is undoubetdle an impressive vehicle, but one that is all too obviously reaching the end of its production life. It is the last of the square-era Land Rovers and parked alongside its newer siblings it looks slightly awkward and out of place. Whatever comes next in Discovery 5 will be well worth looking at, and I hope to get the opportunity to drive and review in due course.

Having recently bought a Discovery Sport I did seriously consider the Discovery 4, but I simply don't need something that large. Having had a week with a Discovery 4 did I make the right decision in buying the Sport? Yes.

02 February 2016

Farewell Old Friend

It seems to be the season for goodbyes, and after nearly eight years my Freelander has left for a new home. As an introduction to Land Rovers, and off road driving in general, I have a lot of fond memories. I've taken it to places I was told I'd never get to, and learned a lot about driving technique. It's also the vehicle I took my advanced (on road) driving tests in.

The Freelander has often had bad press about its poor reliability, but the only major problems I've had with my Td4 have been entirely self-inflicted, or fair wear-and tear over 102k miles.

I hope its new owner has many happy miles in it.

The Last of the Defenders

My Defender on Race for Life duties

On 29 January 2016 the last Defender rolled off the Solihull production line in much the same way as the first of its Series forebears did in 1948 - indeed there are components in the last vehicles that were also in the earliest.

For 68 years it's been as much a part of British life as afternoon tea, Changing the Guard or Last Night of the Proms. It's served explorers, the armed forces, emergency services and farmers loyally in the toughest conditions and saved many a life, bringing comfort and reassurance to people in their darkest hours.

The appearance of the Series and Defender vehicles evolved slowly over the years, and since the Defender was introduced in 1983 (although it wasn't called that at the time) changes have been modest with just a few engine and interior changes along the way. That it has stayed in production this long when its competitors have evolved and modernised is quite remarkable, although it has always had its reputation as being formidably capable off road to carry it along.

But was it the off road ability that kept it going, or the sentimental affection reserved for selected inanimate objects like Concorde, VW Beetles and (original) Minis? Certainly other Land Rover products are just as capable, with a standard Freelander 2 being able to get everywhere a standard Defender 90 could, but in greater comfort and better fuel economy. Admitedly, a few dents in a Defender are considered added character, whereas a few dents in a Discovery 4 just ruins its value.

Reproduction S1 on the Defender Celebration Tour

For the enthusiasts, and I class myself amongst them, the Defender's appeal was that its abilities were relatively easy to improve, with modified wheels, suspension, raised air-intakes and the like allowing them to get far further than those fresh from the factory. Their mechanical simplicity making them easy to repair when they (inevitably) break; the Defender is based on the original Range Rover which first took to the road in the 1970s.

But even enthusiasts have to admit that they're heavy, slow, not particularly comfortable, thirsty for fuel, and the fit and finish is best described as agricultural. I drove a brand new one a few years ago and could see daylight around the (closed) driver's door. The bodywork comes ready-rippled, and whilst the live axles are robust for off road use, they don't do much for the on-road handling and ride. Compared to the current crop of four-wheel drive pickups from the likes of Mitsubishi, Volkswagen or Toyota, which are economical, comfortable and have a greater carrying capacity, the Defender was completely outclassed - except for its all-round coil-spring suspension: most other pickups still use leaf springs at the back.

Despite their shortcomings they still sold, and in good numbers; too many for them all to have been bought by sentimental enthusiasts. Indeed more Defenders were built and sold every year than Jaguar XJs, a car with a reputation for comfort and class.

A Defender 147 at the Solihull factory

With three lengths, 90, 110 and 130 inch wheelbases, and with more varieties than Heinz there was almost certainly a Defender to suit the task in hand - never mind there being a 'app' for that, there was probably a Defender for it. Even performance tuning houses got in on the act with high-power, 'hot' Defenders becoming more common than you might expect.

You need a cherry-picker to cross muddy fields? Defender. You need a road-rail maintenance vehicle? Defender. You need a 12-seat minibus to get a crew to the middle of nowhere? Defender. You need to get bales of hay and border collie up a Welsh mountainside? Defender. It really was the Swiss Army knife of vehicles with even Her Majesty the Queen driving one.

But what next? Land Rover have said that there will be a new Defender, albiet it's a few years off (why? They've had plenty of time to plan a replacement!), but will it be as versatile as the original? Will it come in multiple lengths and configurations? Will you be able to climb in soaking wet, covered in mud and not feel guilty? Time will tell.

The original Defender is going to be a hard act to follow, and there are some sections of the Land Rover community that just won't accept anything but the original as being a 'proper' Defender. But the reality is that road safety standards have moved on, and without a crumple-zone, airbags, side-impact protection and pedestrian-friendly bumpers the Defender just couldn't continue. The Defender dinosaur didn't evolve and has become extinct.

Watching the final example roll off the production line brought a tear to the eye: farewell Defender - for all your faults you will be greatly missed as a true British icon.


25 January 2016

Test Drive: Land Rover Discovery Sport

For the last twenty years or so, Land Rover’s smallest vehicle has been the much maligned Freelander. For 2015 Land Rover reorganised their product range and placed the third generation Freelander in its ‘Discovery’ family, giving it the name Discovery Sport (DS).

It’s a decision that has caused some confusion, especially as the Discovery 4 is getting on a bit and due for replacement, and some thought that the much smaller DS was the new Discovery. For those of us who are long-standing Freelander owners, it’s sad to see the name consigned to history; a victim of its undeserved reputation for unreliability. Indeed I have it on good authority that the Freelander 2 is probably the most reliable Land Rover ever built, and a standard Freelander 2 will go everywhere a standard Defender 90 will – but with better fuel economy and more comfort.

The DS is based on the same platform as the Freelander 2 and its sibling, Range Rover Evoque, but is slightly longer and slightly lower than the Freelander 2. Initially the DS also came with the Freelander 2’s 2.2 litre diesel engine, sourced from Ford & Peugeot, which was also fitted in later Defenders. Some consider it a bit coarse, and there is a little bit of roughness when cold, but it’s certainly not intrusive, and will happily cruise at motorway speeds without impressing itself upon you.

For 2016 Land Rover have installed their all-new, own-engineered 2.0 litre ‘Ingenium’ engine, which can also be found in Jaguar’s XE and is also now appearing in Range Rover Evoque. It comes in two power versions, 150 or 180, and can be attached to either a six-speed manual gearbox (also from Freelander 2) or a nine-speed automatic gearbox from German manufacturer ZF. In practice the automatic ‘box makes use of the top eight cogs, leaving the extra low first gear for off road use.

As with most Land Rovers, DS has permanent four-wheel drive with an electronic locking centre differential, traction control and Land Rover’s superb Terrain Response system to coordinate everything and keep you moving. A two-wheel drive version will be available in the future.

The UK only gets the diesel engine, but petrol versions of the Ingenium engine are available in overseas markets.

The DS has been designed by Gerry McGovern, who also designed the original Freelander, and it bears a strong resemblance to other recent Land Rovers, including the current Range Rover range. It carries its size well, and it doesn’t look unwieldy or top-heavy, and not as boxy as Freelander 2.

There are four models in the range: SE, SE Tech, HSE and HSE Luxury, and all can be further embellished from an extensive options list. The car I drove was an automatic HSE Black; the ‘black pack’ being glossy black wheels, badging, roof, grille and other details, plus privacy glass.

Inside you can see the evolution from Freelander 2 and the influence from Range Rover Evoque with clear dials, an information screen between them that keeps you informed of what’s going on, lots of buttons to control the essentials, including the Terrain Response system, and a centrally mounted screen that’s used for the sat. nav., DAB & FM radio, climate control, heated windscreen and other features. As an option you can upgrade the centre screen to dual-view with a Meridian sound system, which allows your passenger to watch TV while you simultaneously see the sat. nav. on the same screen at the same time. Pure witchcraft!

Safety systems are the order of the day and the DS is equipped with autonomous emergency braking to prevent in-town shunts, and the optional road sign recognition system can show the current speed limit or selected other restrictions on the information screen. There are also automatic headlights and windscreen wipers, and a lane monitoring system that will vibrate the steering wheel should you wander across the white lines without using your indicators (and sometimes even if you do). There’s also a full complement of airbags for the occupants, and if you should hit a pedestrian an airbag on the bonnet to help cushion the impact. As with other Land Rovers there is an emergency stop feature built in to the electric handbrake that will bring the car to a rapid, controlled halt using the ABS should it be applied whilst the vehicle is in motion – the idea being the passenger can intervene should the driver be incapacitated.

In the centre console there are a couple of cup holders under a glossy black roller shutter, and one of them lifts out to reveal a deeper cubby hole which looks big enough to accommodate sunglasses, wallet, first-aid and some of the other bits and pieces that tend to accumulate in cars. There’s more space inside the armrest too, including power sockets and a data connection for your phone or iPod, which can be controlled via the touch screen in the centre console (I understand support for Apple’s CarPlay system is coming soon). Another power socket is provided on the back of the cubby box for those in the back seats. Or, more properly, the second-row seats.

Depending on the variant, the seats are either part leather, manually adjusted, or full leather and electrically adjusted. The electrically adjustable seats include lumbar support, and are very comfortable. It feels as though you sit slightly lower in the DS than in Freelander 2, and it feels very car-like, but you still get a good view through big windows and a tall windscreen. The steering wheel manually adjusts for both reach and rake, and the electric seats adjust for height at both the front and back of the cushion to provide extra support for the back of your legs if that’s your preference. The backrest is nicely shaped to support you through the corners, and I could happily spend a few hours in the saddle – as indeed I did on the test drive.

With keyless ignition, you just press a button to start things off and as the engine starts the automatic selector knob rises out of the centre console – a trick first seen on Jaguar’s XF and since repeated on automatics throughout the Jaguar Land Rover range. Fortunately that is where the theatrics end, and you don’t have electrically opening air vents or other unnecessary fripperies; the cabin definitely errs on the side of practicality and is all the better for it.

The quality of the interior is very good, and it certainly feels like the upmarket vehicle it purports to be; although Range Rover Evoque is slightly better finished, as you’d expect for a premium vehicle. The DS’s cabin is a very nice place to be, although it does feel a little more cramped than in Freelander 2 owing to the wider centre console and the shape of the dashboard, but during my drive nothing got in the way, and I didn’t bang my elbows or knees on anything.

On HSE models a full-length panoramic glass roof is standard, which presents a challenge for those needing to fit radio antennae or warning beacons, but it does give the cabin a very airy feel. The headlining is white as standard, although a dark one is available as an option, and a matching full-length electric blind can be deployed across the glass roof to keep the sun out. SE models have a conventional metal roof with the glass being an option.

In the second row of seats there’s as much leg room as in the DS’s larger brethren, and the seats can be slid forwards for more boot space, and even reclined. An armrest with cup holders and a small cubby box is also provided, as are the obligatory ISOFIX connections for child seats. Optional rear seat heating is available, plus additional USB charging sockets and video screens in the front seat head restraints. The seats fold almost flat, and lock in place with a typical 60/40 split. A nice touch is that the backs can be released via buttons in the boot, although they still need a firm hand to click them down in to place.

The second-row seats also tilt and slide to give access (of sorts) to the third row of seats, which fold flat in to the boot floor when not in use, and take just a few seconds to swing up and lock in to place, complete with head restraints. They will accommodate an adult, but are really +2 seats best suited to younger members of the family. Optional air vents and USB sockets are available for third row passengers.

The roller-cover unclips and lifts out

Without the third-row seats deployed, the DS’s boot is a good size and should comfortably swallow a family’s luggage, shopping or whatever other paraphernalia you need to cart around, but with the third-row seats in place you’ll struggle to carry much more than a furled umbrella. You don’t get the third row of seats with the 150 engine, but they’re standard with the 180.

Tyre repair kit in the boot floor

With the engine running, the cabin is still a very peaceful place. An electronic handbrake means that you just need to turn the selector knob to ‘Drive’ and press the accelerator for you to be on your way. The 180 engine in my car was very willing, and keeping the speed down was something that took a good deal of concentration as you don’t get any particular sense of speed, wind or road noise.

A gentle foot on the accelerator is required otherwise the automatic gearbox gets very excited and seems to have trouble making decisions as to which gear it wants to be in.

Out on the Motorway the car settles in to ninth gear and, whilst I’m sure it’s environmentally friendly and fuel-efficient, the engine sounds a bit blunt and dull instead of sparkling and willing. Going anywhere near the accelerator means a change of gear. There are gear change paddles on the steering wheel, and using either of them switches to ‘Command Shift’ mode, AKA manual. A long pull of the up paddle will return you to full automatic mode.

I will freely admit that I am not a fan of automatic gearboxes as they typically have an unerring ability to never be in quite the right gear for a given situation. If by some quirk they are in the right gear, they’ll soon shift to one too high or too low. That said, I’m clearly in the minority because manual cars, particularly at the higher end of the market, are few and far between and even cars supposedly aimed at driving enthusiasts are eschewing conventional gearboxes.

The automatic Freelander 2 I drove a few years ago was very poor, and around town at 30mph the gearbox chose too high a gear resulting in a resonating vibration through the cabin. The solution, I was told, was to switch to manual mode – but if that’s the solution, why not just buy the (cheaper, less complex and more economical) manual version in the first place?

My DS was fitted with the nine-speed ‘box and with all that choice you might expect there to be a lot of cog-shuffling going on, and there is. However, unless you try to hustle it, changes are generally smooth and go mostly unnoticed. But if you give the accelerator a prod hoping to use torque to propel you forwards, or decide to have a play on a tight, windy road, the gearbox becomes somewhat intrusive and uncooperative, hopping from gear-to-gear in an apparent lather of indecision. In these cases, switching to ‘Command Shift’ mode is essential to maintain some sort of order as the car surges, pauses and lurches, generally giving the impression it has no idea what it’s doing. You can almost hear Corporal Jones telling everyone not to panic.

That said, if you’re considering using the vehicle off road then the automatic gearbox will be ideal owing to that extra low first gear and no loss of traction when changing gear. I’ve yet to see many videos of the DS off road, but it’s likely to be at least as capable as its forerunners.

Off the motorways and on more general A-roads the car was just as comfortable, and cruised along without fuss. The suspension seems well tuned, allowing it to soak up bumps and imperfections without jarring the occupants, whilst being taut enough not to roll or wallow too much. On a typically demanding fenland road everything remained composed despite the exceedingly uneven surface with lots of sharp dips, ridges and hollows. But at the end of the day it is moderately tall and heavy so don’t expect it to handle like a performance saloon car. As with most new vehicles there are various electronic stability aids to keep you where you want to be, but just remember they can’t re-write the rules of physics.

Manoeuvring it around car parks is easy enough thanks to reasonable mirrors. The tapered shape isn’t as helpful as the large, square almost van-like items on Freelander 2 and Discovery 4, but they’re perfectly adequate. HSE examples also have a reversing camera which overlays various lines on the centre display to help you line yourself up – although somehow I never managed to park at anything other than a slightly jaunty angle. I’m sure part of the overlay is to help you stop so you have enough room to open the (powered) tailgate, but I didn’t manage to master that either. Front and rear parking sensors complete the picture, so if you bump in to something in the car park it won’t be through any fault of the vehicle.

For a vehicle that’s marketed as being for people who love the great outdoors some strange decisions seem to have been made during the design process. Thanks to the third-row seats, there isn’t room for a full-sized spare wheel but you can have a space-saver wheel installed, slung underneath the back of the car. But if you do that, you can’t have a tow bar. I can’t be the only person who needs to tow and wants the confidence of having a spare wheel in case a tyre or wheel gets damaged off road. You get a tyre repair kit and compressor, but they are seldom all that successful – especially if you’ve torn the sidewall of the tyre on a rock.

I asked someone from JLR’s marketing team just after the DS launch about the spare wheel issue and was told that they don’t include spare wheels as standard as they are heavy and reduce fuel economy meaning the car might end up in a higher road tax category. When I asked about removing the third-row seats, which must be reasonably heavy, on the same basis, I was told it wasn’t possible. I dare say it would be possible to remove the folding seats from the back of the car and buy the fittings to accommodate a spare wheel from the 150 engine model instead, but no doubt without the approval of Land Rover.

Would I buy one? An unequivocal ‘yes’. I’m told there’s a three month waiting list at the moment, and I’ve a Freelander 2 to sell first, but this is a superb vehicle that will certainly do everything I need it to do, and do it well.

10 December 2015

The Key to Inconvenience - Revisited

After a month of using GTR’s ‘The Key’ I thought I would update on my experience of using it:

  • The problem with the ticket gates and the direction they are set (and the need to touch-in and out) did not change.
  • Even when the ticket was approaching expiry there is no warning message on the ticket gate display as there is with TfL’s Oyster card. However, touching the card on one of the elusive dual-purpose validators does show the expiry date.
  • Almost unbelievably, the ticket office at St Neots station does not have any way of reading the cards so cannot advise on a ticket’s expiry date. Presumably this means cards and card-based tickets cannot be issued there either, and as a ticket office is the obvious place to buy a ticket I cannot begin to imagine the rationale for not providing ticket offices with the necessary equipment.
  • Not all of GTR’s revenue protection staff have readers for the cards: on two occasions the ticket inspector has looked at the card, shrugged and said he did not have a card reader with him.
  • There is a link in the ‘My Account’ section of the GTR web site for you to view your journey history, but on checking it now my ticket has expired no information is visible.
  • The Key does not work the ticket gates when travelling between KGX and Moorgate via London Underground: paper tickets do, and it is a valid route.
  • GTR's web site appears to have corrupted some of the data in 'My Account', but there's no edit function for me to correct it.

How could the system be improved?

The most obvious improvement would be to remove the obligation to touch-in and out and bring the smart card in line with the paper tickets, or install touch-in and out validators in more convenient locations on the natural route a passenger takes through the station e.g. at the end of the platforms at KGX or the top the stairs at St Neots so passengers don’t need to make detours to find a suitably arranged gate.

Also, as the expiry date is not printed on the card, having a warning displayed on the ticket gate when the ticket is nearing expiry would be useful and prevent the awkwardness of trying to get through the gate with an expired ticket – something the ticket gate does display, but by then it is a bit late.

The impression I get is that the system has been brought in without being properly thought through. It seems that corners have been cut, and what could be a great system for customers is a messy compromise that expects customers to change their habits for the convenience of the company, whilst claiming it is the other way around.

For now I am going to stick with ye olde paper tickets. Sorry.

19 November 2015

Kings Cross Station: Making Commuters Very Cross

Kings Cross station in London is one of the rail network’s main termini and home to services between the English and Scottish capitals via the East Coast Main Line. In the early seventies a temporary building was erected in front of the original 1852 Grade-I listed train sheds, and around forty years later they were not really fit for purpose any more so it was announced that the station was to be redeveloped.

I am normally a bit sceptical of surveys, and the one carried out before the renovation showed an overwhelming majority of commuters didn’t want the station to be rebuilt – but I assumed what they were really saying is that they didn’t want the years of inevitable disruption. I was wrong.

One of the key parts of the redevelopment was to expose the original train sheds and open up the area in front of the station. This has been a success, but it has meant that the station concourse has been moved from the front to the side of the station, and this has had an unfortunate effect of making the station particularly awkward to use when catching a train.

If you are arriving at Kings Cross (KGX) by bus, taxi or via the Underground, in most cases you will find yourself in Kings Cross Square, in front of the imposing train sheds, close to the main platforms. Friendly signs say “No Entry”, because it’s exit-only.

Welcome to Kings Cross, but don't come in

Following the arrows around the back of the entrance to Kings Cross St Pancras (KXSP) Underground station brings you in to a new, modern and impressive-looking concourse. But perhaps the most striking feature, other that the roof which really is impressive, is the lack of visible departure boards or clocks. The access to the platforms is immediately on your right, but to view the boards, which are above your head and pointing away from you, you need to venture further in to the station, only to then retrace your steps to the platforms, which obviously means a lot of congestion.

Impressive roof, not so impressive passenger information

There are only a small number of gates from the concourse to the platforms as the side-on layout of the station means that you need to cross (figuratively, not literally) a number of tracks to reach your train. Passing through the barriers, the platform indicators, which confirm the destination and calling points, are arranged at right-angles so they are not visible. In fact they face the exit barriers, so people leaving the station can easily see, with a backward glance, where their train is off to next.

Side view of a platform indicator from the gate line

Regular travellers who know that their train will be going from platforms 0-8 tend to pass through the barriers and wait on what’s left of the old concourse, which is closer to the trains and avoids the crush of hundreds of people trying to get through the handful of entry gates when their train is called.

KXSP Underground station was redeveloped at the same time as KGX, but it seems that the respective architects were not on speaking terms as the entrances of each respective station do not line-up. As I said before, you walk out of the Underground to be confronted with the exit of KGX: No Entry!

There are two escalator links between the two stations: one is hidden behind the retail units in KGX and the other is a single escalator outside the Little Waitrose on the main concourse that is sometimes set to up, sometimes down, and sometimes just closed altogether – but unless you’re arriving in to the suburban platforms 9-11 you are not inside the station anyway, so need to use the stairs on Kings Cross Square instead. If you’re arriving, unless you happen to emerge from the Tube via the western ticket hall, the escalators are some distance away from the Tube’s other gate lines, and you’ll have walked the full-length of the station to get to them only to be carried back to more or less where you came from but ten foot higher, so most people use the stairs in Kings Cross Square and arrive at those welcoming “No Entry” signs. Incidentally, there is a summary departure board at the bottom of the KXSP stairs, but it isn't always in use.

The only departure board having a rest

I should add that there is a bridge across the main platforms which is accessible from a mezzanine level within in the main station concourse, but that’s where the main cafés are so it gets very congested and there isn’t much room up there to wait – although you do get a good view of the departure boards. And, of course, the escalators to get there are hidden amongst the stationery, chocolate and clothes shops, and don’t line-up with any of the entrances to the station.

Shortly before the new station opened a map was circulated by the then incumbent inter-city train operator National Express. It described passengers “strolling to their train” across the bridge which sounded serious alarm bells: commuters don’t stroll anywhere – they just want to get to their train, get on it and go home.

I think it’s safe to say that whoever designed the station doesn’t commute by train and, whilst the new concourse does look good, the new station has been built in the wrong place. They did get some things right in the seventies after all.