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r_welfare
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Member since: 04.06.2002

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      15.12.2004 22:26
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      I liked it so much...I went out and bought one!

      I thought I'd report on my time with a 2004 Skoda Fabia 1.4 16v Comfort automatic recently. I had the car for just over a week and in that time travelled over 750 miles.

      Let me firstly say that the jokes about Skoda are now well and truly over. They began to die out around 15 years ago when the Favorit was released - here was a modern(ish) front-wheel drive hatchback from the purveyors of the funny air-cooled cars with the engine in the back. While that first Favorit lacked a bit of polish (it was plagued with typical Eastern-European fit and finish), Skoda attracted the attention of VW who injected large amounts of cash. To begin with there wasn't much to show for it (although the build quality of the Favorit did improve over its' six year life), then in '96 they gave us the Felicia - fundamentally the same car but with rounder edges, and a half-decent interior.

      Then, in '98, the masterstroke - the Octavia. Based on the current Golf, here was a Skoda that owed very little to the old school, except for competitive pricing. Quality-wise, styling-wise, engineering-wise it was on a par with the other VW group products. VW obviously had faith in Skoda, because when it was time to launch the Mk4 Polo, they chose to release the oily bits first in a new Skoda - the Fabia.

      So we all know the Fabia is fundamentally the same as a Polo - and it's none the worse for that. Upon first impression, the car looks solid and quite classy (although mine was a rental and had no wheeltrims, so this was diminished somewhat). It's big for a supermini, being some 12' long, and quite high. Personally, I find the all-in-one colour bumpers a bit heavy-handed (not to say how much they would cost to replace in a bump, given they have no rubbing strips on this model), but it's generally very modern and inoffensive.

      Inside is where the surprises start. I mean, the dashboard is VW-quality, and therefore up there with the best, with soft-feel plastics abounding. A million miles away from the Estelle and Favorit of yore. It's all very similar to the Polo or even the MK4 Golf (although it misses out on the neat touches of that car, like the dampened action of the grab handles). It's easy to get a good driving position as the seat height can be adjusted on a ratchet mechanism, and the steering wheel adjusts for rake and reach. Instruments are clear and concise. The only things I didn't like were the fact that the clutchfoot rest wasn't quite long enough for my size 11s, and the heater controls were too far down the dashboard - to change temperature with a passenger would get raised eyebrows as they thought you were trying to grope their knee! Between the stereo (more anon) and the heater was a cubbyhole for bits and pieces about 3 inches deep - why not move the heater controls up here instead?

      Rear seat space seemed pretty good to me, although I didn't spend any time there, and the chairs themselves were quite comfortable. The boot was of a reasonable size - you could get a good few shopping bags in there or a set of golf clubs easily enough, it was much bigger than (for example) the old Metro but obviously not as big as the Accord I'm used to, where you could live in the boot. Full marks for the grab handle on the inside to shut the boot without getting your hands dirty, but I'd have liked to be able to open the boot from the driver's seat - you only have the fuel flap release there.

      Another surprise is the equipment level. OK, ignoring the fact that only a few years ago Skoda put out real bargain basement machines, this is more indicative of supermini specs improving beyond all recognition in the past 10 years anyway, but even with a mid-range model like this there was air conditioning, electric heated mirrors, electric front windows, ABS, front foglights, power steering, remote central locking, CD stereo, and my personal favourite, the trip computer. Remember the Golf GTI Mk2 had a trip computer in the digital clock that you activated the functions using the column stalk? Well, it's alive and well in the Fabia. I had great fun with this, especially the 'current MPG' feature (apologies to everyone stuck behind me as I treated the accelerator like an eggshell). The only thing I couldn't fathom out was the stereo, it only had 10 buttons but I still couldn't get it to stop putting the Traffic Report on. Maybe at 27 I'm past it? (Lord knows what the average Skoda owner at 50+ makes of it)

      What was it like to drive? Well, the ride and handling were pretty impressive if you remember Eastern European cars of old. This one is right up there with the competition, if not quite as compliant as the French rivals in the suspension department. My only gripe was the steering - the power-assistance was very high, and there was less 'feel' than in my Honda Accord, which was surprising (Japanese manufacturers are famous for building power steering systems with no road feel y'see). However, when parking (coupled with the large areas of glass) there was no problem placing the car at all.

      The only real downside to the car was the engine/gearbox combination. Given that it said '1.4 16v' on the back I assumed that it was the 100bhp unit used to great effect in the hot Lupo, but according to Skoda you only get this unit with the 5-speed manual. This unit is detuned to 75bhp when coupled with the 4-speed auto, and according to Skoda's website will do 0-62mph in 17 seconds. It never felt that slow to me (and that IS slow), but it makes a lot of strange noises when accelerating which sometimes put me in mind of a diesel - very thrashy. The gearbox is OK, but hunts around a bit on hilly sections and doesn't do a lot for the economy - according to the computer I was seeing around 38mpg overall, and that included a lot of motorway cruising. It does rev quite a bit (3500rpm) at 70mph though. I will give praise for the gear selector on the instrument panel, although I can't help feel that electronics are beginning to go a bit far in new cars. This one made lots of bing-bong noises - when it was running out of fuel, when the outside temperature dropped below 4C, when the radio couldn't find the Traffic Report. I'm just a luddite at heart.

      So would I buy one with my hard-earned? Not this combination of engine and transmission to be honest (although it does seem good value at a shade under £10,000), I would either go for the basic 1.2 6v 3-cylinder (which still has air conditioning, ABS, power steering, twin airbags and a CD player) for £6,995 or the hot new vRS diesel if I was feeling flush. The cars are attractively-priced, well-built (from what I can make out) and Skoda dealers still tend to be small family-run affairs in my area, so you should get good service. The joke is finally over - the Fabia is a good little car in it's own right.

      UPDATE: In October last year I put my money where my mouth is, and my girlfriend and I purchased a Fabia 1.4 16v Comfort manual. 3 months and 9,000 miles on, it's exceeding all our expectations and returning between 46 and 51 miles to the gallon. It's a great car!

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      • Honda Accord 2.0i VTEC SE 4dr / Car / 3 Readings / 10 Ratings
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        19.01.2004 01:09
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        If you're confused about the title of this review, elsewhere on this wonderful site you will find another review written by me extolling the virtues of my dad's Accord 1.8 VTEC Sport auto. Well, by a strange quirk of fate (alright, it was a bl**dy cheap deal) I've bought an almost-identical car, but with a 2.0-litre engine. So if you're looking for an Accord auto and aren't sure of whether a 1.8 or 2.0-litre is better, I can tell you now that the bigger engine is the one to have. It's got a decent turn of speed to it for a start, particularly in kickdown mode, where you need it most (i.e. overtaking something on a single-lane road). The 1.8 isn't particularly slug-like but my dad, after 100yds of driving, noticed the difference. Incidentally, both engines suffer from a lack of low-down torque (I think due to the VTEC design, which provides more shove at the upper rev ranges) which is particularly noticeable when pulling away from rest. Unless you're pulling away on a steep hill, it's a rare event that you'll spin the front wheels. No traction control is fitted on either of these cars, and neither needs it. Might be a different story with a manual transmission, though. Surprisingly enough, the 2-litre isn't any thirstier than the 1.8 in our experiences - both cars will struggle to get more than 35mpg in daily mixed use, which isn't brilliant. However, even if you accelerate hard, do a lot of town driving or leave the air-con on constantly, it won't dip much below 30mpg. The automatic 'box is smooth, and pulls right up to the redline (6,250rpm) on hard acceleration, with a quick kickdown response where needed. I have noticed that sometimes the electronics get confused and there is a perceptible "stumble", usually when you open, close, then open the throttle again in a short period (such as a traffic jam). You also have the option of a sequential shift for the four gears, whic
        h is a bit gimmicky, but has it's uses (such as holding the car in a low gear on a steep downward hill, to preserve the brakes). Other comments made before about this generation of Accord apply equally - the car is very well-made, although some of the dashboard plastics (such as the instrument panel surround and the housing panel for the electric windows) are a bit cheap and shiny; the seats are comfortable and it's easy to get a good driving position (left leg footrest is a nice touch); legroom in the back is reasonable, but not up to the standard of the new Mondeo, Passat or Vectra; the boot of both models (saloon or hatchback) is a good size and shape. Most people will shortlist the Accord due to equipment levels, ease of operation and/or perceived reliability. Even the basic 1.8S has loads of kit - all cars get electric windows all round, ABS, four airbags, power steering, aircon and cruise control (which is a nice gimmick when there is the space and lack of traffic to use it - I find it particularly useful on 30/40mph roads with an abundance of speed cameras). My 2.0SE adds to that an electric sunroof (not really needed with aircon, but that's the Japanese for you!). Top-line SE Executives have alloys, leather, sat-nav, Bose stereo, you name it. It's also notable that the car has a 4-star EURO NCAP crash test rating. The car is very easy to drive, with light controls and quite decent handling, although obviously not in the hot hatch class - there isn't much feedback from the power steering. The ride isn't bad, but can be a bit "jiggly". Still, it does show that the car is well screwed-together, as it doesn't show up any rattles. My dad has put on 20,000 miles in eight months on his, trouble-free - his only complaint is costly main-dealer servicing (the car will go to a specialist once it is out of warranty). My car, being a Guernsey vehicle, had only done 17,000 miles
        in four years when I bought it. It was part of the main dealer's used car sale, so didn't have the usual Approved Honda warranty. I opted for a three-month third party warranty which came in useful as after two months (and just 250 miles) the oxygen sensor broke. Having the warranty saved me approximately £350, and brought home the potential problems of cars that have only covered short journeys. This is not typical of your average UK car though (and one bought from a Honda dealer should have a pretty decent warranty), so you shouldn't have a problem. The Accord always seems to do well in reliability tests, no matter who the source is. To sum up, then - a decent family car with good reliability, nice styling (particularly the up-spec saloons in dark metallics), lots of toys and it's unlikely to go wrong. You can pick one up for under £4,000 now...what's stopping you?

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          19.01.2004 00:31
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          I thought it was about time I got myself a digital camera. I'm not really a huge camera user - in the last 6 years of using my old trusty Olympus I probably took a grand total of 200 shots. Mostly I used it for taking pictures of things I was selling on eBay, then scanning the processed picture into my PC. Eventually I thought if that's all you want to do then why not cut out the middleman and buy digital? As such after Christmas I had a shufty on the 'Net and came up with this little number via Amazon. Common consensus via the High Street prices it at around £150 but Amazon are doing it at the moment for £137.99 with free postage. Not bad for a 3.2 megapixel camera from a very well-known manufacturer. If you want more features and functionality (more on that subject later) then there are more models in the range (the DSC-32P being the baby) for more money, but they all seem to share a common casing design, in currently-trendy silver, and external dimensions. So what do you get for your money. Well, it was a lot smaller than I expected. About the size of a Nokia 3310 or a packet of 20 cigarettes (comparing it to other things I have on my desk at the moment!) or say 10cm by 5cm by 2.5cm in old-fashioned raw dimensions. It?s not what I?d call avant-garde or cutting-edge in it?s design, but then what can you do in such small dimensions? Especially as all the controls fall easily to the fingertips. On the front you have the lens and the flash (no great surprises there, then) whilst the back is dominated by a (it says here in the manual) 1.6? LCD screen. Next to this you have a rotary dial which accesses the various menus (which come up on said screen) for the features of the camera. Selecting various functions is then achieved by pressing one of four buttons for up, down, left or right, arranged in a circle, and pressing a button in the centre of the circle to proceed. It?s very intuitive and I have only needed to look through the manual o
          nce (when first unpacking it), which is more than can be said for most video recorders I?ve had the misfortune to own. So what is it like in operation? Very good indeed. It?s supplied with a 16Mb memory stick as standard, which unfortunately on the top resolution setting (3.2 megapixels) only allows for 10 photos to be stored in memory, but of course you can fit bigger-capacity sticks which will allow more to be stored. It?s really just as simple (if you want it to be) as pressing the power button, moving the rotary dial one notch (to open the lens cap), aiming the camera, holding down the shutter button halfway (until it flashes a green light to indicate it has a light reading and has auto-focussed), then pressing a bit harder to take the photo. This is accompanied by a sound effect of, well, a normal camera motor drive. It must be said that, in standard mode, the colours are almost too rich and bright (giving pictures an American TV-like quality, if you know what I mean), but you can fiddle around with the colour settings according to the type of ambient light you have. I?m not going to bore you with details but suffice to say 5 minutes perusal of the relevant section in the manual will allow you to fine-tune those details to perfection. One thing that this camera doesn?t have is an optical zoom facility. Well, that?s not quite true, in certain lower resolutions (1.6 or 2 megapixel) you have a small (1 to 1.3) zoom. Personally, I don?t find this a problem ? provided you have steady hands you will find that you can take decent-focus pictures at ridiculously short ranges. Therefore, in order to provide a zoom facility, I simply walk forwards or backwards until I?m happy. Simple. But, personally, the coolest thing on this camera is a feature that is seemingly at odds with it?s model name. Y?see, DSC stands for Digital Still Camera, but this little baby also shoots movies ? with sound! The quality is low ? VGA standard ? so you shouldn?t be
          throwing out your camcorder, but it?s an excellent feature and the length of the film is only limited by the size of your memory stick (42 seconds for the standard 16Mb). It?s a bit jerky when played on your computer (at twice the normal size), but looks excellent when played back on the camera?s little screen. Praise also for the simplicity of hooking the thing up to your computer. Install the provided software. Plug the supplied cable into your PC?s USB port. Pull a rubber clip away from the corner of the camera, plug the other end of the cable in and then double-click on ?My Computer? in Windows. The PC recognises the camera as an extra hard drive, and you can then view or edit the pictures (as JPEGs) and videos (as MPEGs) to your heart?s content. So to sum up, I like this camera a lot. I must say that I only bought it due to the combination of the low price point, 3.2 megapixel capability and Sony brand name (plus the movie facility), but I?m not disappointed. The only black mark I can give it is the lack of extras ? a case would have been nice, but you can?t have everything. Anyway, I?m off to take a picture of my old Olympus so I can auction it on eBay?

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          • More +
            25.08.2003 19:52
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            It's a hectic modern world we live in. Obviously noticing that I was having trouble coping with this (by turning into some kind of mid-twenties Victor Meldrew), my girlfriend decided I was evidently ripe for some pampering, so booked us both on a two-night break at St David's Hotel & Spa in Cardiff. A bit of preamble about the hotel itself, which the spa is attached to. Completed in 1999 at the edge of Cardiff Bay, opposite Penarth, the hotel boasts 184 bedrooms on seven floors and is one of only two 5-star hotels in Cardiff (the other being the Hilton, in the city centre). It's one of Rocco Forte's hotels (he of Trusthouse Forte fame), with similar hotels also found in Manchester, Frankfurt, Rome, Edinburgh and St Petersburg. It's seriously impressive as it appears in your view as you drive in. It's a tall, glassy building, with a curved structure on the top to resemble a sail (never did find out what it does though, I thought it might be some kind of solar panel). You can drive up to the door and get your car valet parked, but as my girlfriend drives an old wreck we opted to save face and park it ourselves in the adjacent car park. This costs £4.20 a day and is not included in the room or package cost, but more on that later. As you walk in, you notice that the foyer has no ceiling, and looking up (and up) shows seven semi-circular balconies, one for each floor where the lifts exit. The rooms themselves are then down corridors leading from these landings. A very impressive sight, but not one to enjoy if you get a room on the 7th floor (like we did) and suffer from vertigo (like I do). There's a concierge to take your luggage in top hat and tails, which is something I'm not used to and he's a most impressive sight. I wasn't sure whether to tip him or not, but he left before I could offer, so that solved that problem. It must be said that all the way through the stay we received impeccable service. <
            br> The room we had was a standard one - with a large (12ft x 25ft) main area containing a super kingsize bed, writing desk, and a large cylindrical wooden cabinet containing the TV/radio, glasses and cutlery and a minibar. I haven't seen a minibar in a hotel room for ages. There was also a large wardrobe (with automatic lighting - swanky), a trouser-press, and a very comfortable leather reclining armchair that looked like it had come out of a Jaguar XJ6. Through the patio doors out the back there was a small wooden balcony, with a wonderful view over the Bay (but a big drop, so I didn't go out there often). Oh, and one very important feature - cool, unobtrusive air conditioning. As our holiday was in the middle of the early-August heatwave, I was very thankful for this. The bathroom was also fully-featured, and being a new hotel everything was in perfect order. Where, of course, St David's differs from yer average 5-star hotel is with the spa. We had actually taken a Spa Break package, where you get accommodation in the hotel, breakfast and dinner in the Marco Pierre White 'Tides' restaurant, lunch in the Spa Lounge, and a complimentary spa treatment for a set price - for us this was the 'Spa Detox' break, with two nights accommodation for £230 per person (you can also get the same thing for £115 per person for a single night). On top of this you have free use of the swimming pool, Jacuzzi, steam room and gym, but must pay extra for further spa treatments. Each package gives you a 'themed' choice of treatments to select from. The spa staff were fantastic - courteous, polite and friendly. I kicked up a bit of a stink with one of my treatments (not deliberately, mind - it was a 'Hot Linen Wrap' that was just a little bit too hot for me to stand) which opened up all the customer service stops - the manager came to see me, hugely apologetic, and offered an alternative treatment scheduled to my liking. It
            was totally my fault, not theirs, but their attention to detail was superb. I felt terrible because it was not their fault at all! You can also go to the Spa independently of staying at the hotel, but I would say that, given that it's a long drive from London and when you take into account the cost of the facilities you get in the package (i.e. rooms are normally £150 per night, dinner would be £25 per person, breakfast an astonishing £16.50 per person!) it makes more sense to take one of their packages. There is a separate lift for hotel residents to take to the spa, so you don't have to walk around in front of visiting businesspeople and local dignitaries wearing your (compulsory for spa use) white towelling bathrobe and matching slippers. I felt a bit like Hugh Hefner in Broadmoor (given that everyone else was milling around wearing the same thing). The restaurant was very good, too. For dinner, any Spa package includes a fixed Spa menu (with a choice of four different starters, main courses and desserts each), but you could, if you preferred, take the A La Carte menu with a £25 allowance, and make up the difference yourself. Incidentally, you can check on your bill by using the TV in your room at any time. The service was as I suppose one expects from a five-star hotel restaurant, i.e. very slick (I've never been anywhere near as nice as this before, so I was in awe of it all for the duration of our stay). You also get a complimentary pre-appetizer which was a nice touch. Plenty of wine to choose from too, but no Welsh wine when we were there (shame). Another reviewer found their waiter condescending, but ours were very efficient and polite; however, I do agree with her that £3.75 for a bottle of mineral water is a bit rich. Still, when in Rome... For breakfast, I would recommend asking to sit on the terrace, as it's a wonderful view. For a bloke who, five years ago, was still a university student living on £1.99 Woolw
            orth's breakfasts, £16.50 for a fry-up (with toast and tea) is a bit hard to swallow - although not literally - but again in the package it's all included, and it is excellent. If you want to leave the hotel and see the sights, the open-top bus tour stops right outside every 30 minutes (the concierge knows the exact times) and you can hop on. Recommended. It's also worth walking around Mermaid Bay, as this has been extensively redeveloped in recent years, with the new Welsh Assembly building and Millenium Centre (to be home of the Welsh National Opera) under construction. There's also a number of trendy bars (including Salt, from which Charlotte Church got turned away for underage drinking recently!) and what-not. You can take a half-hour boat trip round the Bay which is also recommended. All good things come to an end and we left after our three days feeling revitalised and refreshed. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my Hot Linen Wrap had not been charged, but we were more surprised when we got home later that day to note that our final day's treatments hadn't been charged, we had only been charged for one day's car parking, and that our room service lunch on the first day had also been omitted. Maybe the hotel was being overly generous, but I got the impression that the staff hadn't quite got the hang of all the integrated computer systems. I can't guarantee that they will be that generous if you stay there, but I will guarantee you'll enjoy your stay.

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            • Honda Logo / Car / 0 Readings / 3 Ratings
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              22.07.2003 23:07
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              • "expensive dealer service costs"

              I wouldn't be surprised if many people don't know what a Honda Logo is. Honda's smallest car for many years was the Civic, which started out Fiesta-sized in the early 70's but, since the mid-80's, has become larger to fit the "Golf class". This left Honda with a gap for many years which it didn't fill properly until the launch of the Jazz in 2001, which is apparently one of the best cars in the supermini class. However, between 2000 and 2001 Honda sold a very limited number of Logos in this country to "test the water" for the Jazz. The Logo (which was actually the previous-model Jazz) was one of the best-selling cars in Japan for many years, available in a variety of engines, transmissions and body configurations. Here in the UK the Logo was initially introduced as just one model - the SE, with a 1.3-litre 8-valve engine and three doors. The car was "fully optioned", with air conditioning, ABS, power steering, electric windows and mirrors, twin airbags and remote central locking. The only optional extra was an automatic gearbox, using the CVT "gearless" principle (that DAF were famous for in the 60's and 70's). Price at launch was a stiff £9,500 for the manual, £10,350 for the auto. In time this was brought down to £6,995 for the last of the manual cars at the end of 2001. The Logo is generally a forgotten little car, high in quality and equipment but low in driving dynamics (just like Japanese cars used to be!), but made the headlines again recently when it won the JD Power Customer Satisfaction Survey 2003 (a survey of three-year old cars of all makes and models). With a satisfaction rating of 91% it even beat all the Lexus models. My mum bought a Logo three months ago to replace her ageing Rover Metro, which was beginning to disintegrate after 11 years and 50,000 miles, and she got muggins here to help her do the deal. Her requirements made finding a car s
              eem like Mission Impossible - it had to be as small or smaller than the Metro, have power steering, air conditioning and automatic transmission, and cost no more than £7,000. Small automatics with aircon are notoriously difficult to get hold of for that price, and the other cars I suggested (VW Lupo, Vauxhall Corsa, Toyota Yaris) just couldn't be found with the right combination of equipment. However, a local Honda dealer had a blue 2000/W Logo CVT with just 7,000 miles on the clock for £6,995. This was probably slightly overpriced (especially as the Metro only got £250 on trade-in and he wouldn't knock anything off) but my mum was happy, and still is. So what's it like? Not half bad actually. It's a funny-looking thing - think VW Lupo but with a Honda Civic front end - which is narrow but high. It is rather plain, with tiny wheels and no stripes or rubbing strips down the side, but still looks like a Honda. Inside, it's just like an Accord to 3/4 scale. Headroom and legroom is quite decent, but the narrow width means you might bump elbows with your passenger if you're both on the generous side. There were some comments by journalists of low-quality interior trim, but I don't think that's the case. The dashboard is solid, there are no rattles, and the JD Power survey results obviously mean the thing is built to last. And you do get a lot of goodies. The air conditioning is a welcome bonus at this time of year, but aside from this you get neat touches like the typical Japanese remote boot and fuel filler release, and heating for the electric mirrors. Driving is a strange experience, and it's all due to that CVT auto transmission. Basically it's design means it can generate an infinite number of "gears", as opposed to the four or five fixed gears in a conventional automatic transmission. Put your foot on the accelerator and the engine will hold the revs until you reach the road speed you want, and bac
              k off the throttle. And it doesn't "creep" forward at rest like a conventional auto. Clever, eh? Well, I hope so. I was concerned about this (having heard numerous "horror stories" concerning the reliability of similar DAF and Volvo transmissions) but then I thought - Honda sell cars mainly to old people. Old people like automatics. So a large number of Logos will be autos. And they did well in the JD Power test, so they must be OK. My mum will be keeping the car for at least 10 years, so fingers crossed it won't go bang in an expensive way (not that Hondas are renowned for unreliability, so I hope my concern will be unfounded). As a result of all this mechanical and computer trickery, it's not very fast. The 1.3 engine only has 8 valves and none of Honda's legendary VTEC wizardry so it only puts out 65bhp. In automatic guise it will do 0-60 in 14.5 seconds and 90mph flat out. More than fast enough for my mum around town though, and it returns 40mpg all day every day. Despite the narrow tyres and high body, it actually handles pretty well too, the suspension isn't too bouncy as it is in some Japanese cars, all the controls are light and progressive, and it's generally an easy drive. Oh, and it's even got buttons on the steering wheel to control the mode of the gearbox (overdrive or low gear). Just like Michael Schumacher's F1 Ferrari - well, sort of. So it's small, well-built, ram-packed with goodies, cheap to insure (group 3), easy to drive, and should be one of the most reliable cars on the road. Should you buy one? Well, they are quite overpriced at the moment due to their rarity and the fact most are still in the dealer network (particularly the automatic ones), they are strictly four-seaters and they have absolutely no street cred. They're not the obvious choice but, if you're in it for the long term, I think a Logo would be a pretty good alternative to a Polo.

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              • Ford Focus 1.4 CL 5dr / Car / 4 Readings / 16 Ratings
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                22.07.2003 18:00
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                • "smallest engine lacks go"

                Ford's Focus has been consistently one of the best-selling cars in the UK since it's launch in late 1998. It's a familiar sight to all of us on the roads today, and is well-liked by the motoring press who still rate it as one of the best cars in its class. I drove a 1.4LX five-door model in Ireland for the last five days, and these are my thoughts for the 600-odd miles. First off, familiarity has dulled the shape a bit. When it was first launched it was light years away from the conservative Escort it replaced, but as Ford had launched the distinctive KA and Scorpio to stunned punters a couple of years previously, the public were at least a little bit prepared. In fact, the Focus did inspire the "mini-MPV" look for small family hatchbacks that has been subsequently copied by the Honda Civic, for example. It's taller and more bulbous than, say, an Astra, which is a more conventional design. I can't say I'm a big fan of the looks of the five-door hatchback in this basic specification (i.e. without alloy wheels), but it is better looking than the saloon which has a very dodgy-looking rear end (the saloon is very popular in Ireland, incidentally). Like the Escort though, the estate is the best looker (although the three-door is quite handsome in sporty Zetec, ST170 or RS guise). Speaking of specification, this brand-new (800 miles on the clock) Irish-market model is different to the LX for the UK. For example, you don't get air-conditioning, alloy wheels or ABS brakes (the latter of which now comes as standard on all UK models, a commendable safety feature). Worth bearing in mind if you go down the personal import route, or buy one from a car supermarket. It appears to be more the equivalent of the UK CL model (the bottom of the range), which costs £11,145. For that you get twin airbags, power steering, remote central locking and electric front windows and mirrors. However this car also had a single-disc CD player
                (excellent sound quality and nice big, simple buttons) and front fog lights. Otherwise, pretty basic for an 11-grand car, and I'd certainly like to see A/C as standard, particularly in hot summer heat (that I had in Ireland some of the time) when it gets pretty hot inside. Incidentally, the oval air vents (part of the very stylised dashboard) are difficult to aim properly, but otherwise the controls and instrumentation are very legible and effective. Accommodation is pretty good for a smallish family hatchback, with plenty of legroom and headroom in the front (no sunroof on this particular car to rob headroom), with average legroom in the back. Nice to see headrests for all three rear passengers, and they don't block rear vision too much either. There's no rest for your clutch foot though, but the footwell is wide enough to put your foot to the left of the clutch. You can adjust the steering wheel up or down, or tilt the backrest of the driver's seat to get comfortable and have good vision, although the thick windscreen pillars do restrict your view out a touch. The stereo has controls on the steering column, another excellent safety feature (copied from Renault, no less). The boot is of a reasonable size, although it only just coped with the luggage of two people for a week's holiday (i.e. two large suitcases and two small rucksacks). I liked the button to release the boot on the dashboard and remote keyfob, although it was difficult to aim the latter at the sensor from outside the car to get the boot to open. So, to the driving experience. I would say that the 1.4-litre engine, with only 74bhp to haul around over a ton of car (Ford suggest 0-60 in 14.5 seconds and 107mph flat out) doesn't have enough power in the midrange for overtaking the numerous slow-moving tractors and trucks on Ireland's main roads, and I found the gearbox a bit notchy in use, but these are the only criticisms I can level at the car. The bad roa
                d surfaces of the minor roads were dispatched with no loss of composure (or rattles from the interior fittings). The handling was sure-footed in even the worst of conditions (and it was really, truly wet in Galway). The engine was refined and quiet (although we had the stereo on loud most of the time), returned 40mpg, and had enough acceleration from rest to 30mph to ensure that I could get into the right lane around the centre of Dublin without disrupting the flow of traffic. There was very little wind noise, and the seats were comfortable for the four to five hours spent behind the wheel each day. From a long-term ownership perspective I cannot really comment, suffice to say that the car seemed to be well screwed together and that I've never heard any major horror stories about them (except from American owners, whose cars are built in Mexico). Ford dealers don't generally get a good customer service write-up but there are loads of them about and you should be able to get a good discount on one, given the volume in which they sell them. This also helps you if you're buying secondhand, as there are plenty about (although the choice seems restricted to predominantly 1.6, 1.8 or 1.8 turbodiesel models). Personally I'd go for a 1.6 or 1.8 model, but the 1.4 would be fine around town or on the motorway - if you lived in a rural or hilly area however the superior "passing power" of one of the larger engines would probably be a safer bet.

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                • VW Lupo 1.0 E 50bhp 3 door / Car / 2 Readings / 9 Ratings
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                  21.05.2003 03:38
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                  • "poor motorway fuel consumption"

                  Once again I have just spent a long weekend in the UK and as usual there were relatives and friends to see all over the country, so I hired a car. Instead of the usual Peugeot 206 I end up with (I’ve written reviews for the 1.1 and 1.4 HDI diesel models I hired previously), I was slightly taken aback this time to be given Volkswagen’s “baby”, the Lupo, in it’s most basic 1.0E form. This model currently lists at £7,445 on the road. As a mid-twenties red-blooded male the Lupo isn’t really my cup of tea car-wise (although I wouldn’t kick a GTI model out of my driveway if I was given one). No, small cars generally aren’t my bag and I can see the Lupo appealing most strongly to young women. That’s not to say I didn’t like it though. What probably wins most people over is the styling – this car is (apparently) “cute”. It’s one of the smallest four-seat cars on sale today. I prefer the looks of its twin, the Seat Arosa, but only because I’m not a fan of the weird and wavy front end, which reminds me of the Mercedes E-Class. The rear is exceptionally truncated, and this has both advantages and disadvantages – it’s very easy to place when reversing, but there is very little boot space. The boot is only about nine inches deep, so you’re not going to get a lot in there if you keep the rear seat up (it struggled with my rucksack and sports bag). However, if you do need more space for your shopping, your friendly local VW dealer will be happy to steer you towards a Polo. Anyhow, inside it’s relatively roomy, especially in the front, where there were no problems with space in the footwell for my size 11s (a perennial problem on the small Peugeots and Citroens). You even get a small footrest next to the clutch. It’s also easy to get comfortable thanks to height adjustments for both the driver’s seat and the steering wheel. The das
                  hboard features a mock carbon-fibre finish – very nice – and it’s all very well screwed-together, although the column stalks have a very heavy action. The instruments are very legible and you get a tachometer, which is nice for a basic “town car”. The stereo has simple controls, but is a pain to seek stations with. It’s mounted high up for safety, but unfortunately this means the heating controls are low-down near the gearlever and you need to take your eyes off the road to use them. Praise for the other safety features however – twin airbags and headrests on both front and rear seats. Otherwise it’s very basic, with painted metal on the doors, wind-up windows, manual locking, and not even a glovebox (although you do get a shelf under the passenger airbag, and door pockets). To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from the driving experience, but my initial prejudice over the tiny engine size was diminished, if not totally removed, over the course of the 550 miles I drove the car for. The 1-litre engine only dishes up 50bhp, so it’s never going to be a ball of fire. However, it’s perfectly nippy for town work, and has one of the nicest gearboxes I’ve ever used. It’s very manoeuvrable due to its small size and power steering, and the engine itself is reasonably quiet and refined. VW have recently been introducing three-cylinder engines on their small cars, but I believe this car (a 52-registration model with 8,000 miles on the clock) had four cylinders. Certainly I couldn’t tell from either under the bonnet or VW’s website. Out on the motorway it’s OK as long as you don’t try and dice with the photocopier salesmen in their BMW 316is in the outside lane. The gearing is very short, so 70mph in 5th comes up at 4000rpm. This means it will pick up reasonably well at that speed should you need to accelerate, but any sort of gradient will wipe out the moment
                  um you have built up. It is (theoretically) possible to bring up the magic (and very irresponsible, Officer) 100mph on the speedo, but it’s not really fair on the poor little thing. Incidentally, if you open a window at cruising speed, air pressure makes it impossible to wind it all the way back up, so you get an annoying whistling noise. Another problem of running at high (80-ish) speeds on the motorway is quite high fuel consumption – over 550 miles I put in just under 15 gallons, which I make about 37mpg. Not bad (miles better than the 25mpg I'd be lucky to get from my old BMW 528i under the same circumstances), but worse than the larger Peugeot 206 1.1 I hired previously (and a lot worse than the 206 1.4 HDI diesel I had before that). It’s not as much fun as the French opposition on back roads either, although it hangs on well in corners and the ride isn’t uncomfortable. The brakes are also pretty good, and it has power steering to make it manoeuvrable around town. Having said all that, if I had £7,445 (or thereabouts) down the back of my sofa and I absolutely had to buy a brand-new car, I might consider a Lupo. Why? Because it’s a Volkswagen. It appears very well built, it’s cheap to insure (Group 2), it’s economical around town, easy to park, and should be easy to sell (and retain it’s value reasonably well). But I’d probably try and stretch to a Polo (or a Skoda Fabia) for more luggage space. PS I apologise for the loss of capital letters in the first few paragraphs - I'm not sure why this has happened!

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                  • Peugeot 206 LX 1.1 3dr / Car / 2 Readings / 6 Ratings
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                    22.04.2003 04:33
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                    • "ugly interior"

                    This will be a short review as I have already written extensively about my experiences with a 1.4HDI LX model of the 206 here on dooyoo. Basically that 206 was a hire car, hired over a long weekend and driven some 400 miles on a variety of roads in the South of England. This 206 was given the same treatment, but unlike the diesel model left me feeling less than impressed. This is all due to the engine, as in all other respects (age, model specification etc) the car was all but identical (although a three-door in a different colour). So everything in that review, save for the engine and a couple of other findings noted below, applies here. The 1.1 engine wasn't part of the 206 range at the start of production, only coming onstream a couple of years ago when the 106 range was thinned out, so the 206 could be taken downmarket. This 1124cc unit has been in the Peugeot range since the days of the 205, if not before. However, it's age should not mean automatically it is a bad engine, and it isn't - it's relatively quiet and smooth, but that may well be due to extensive soundproofing - but in the 206 it just doesn't provide sufficient propulsion. In the little 106 it's fine, almost rapid (I've also written a review of the 106 with this engine) but in the much heavier 206, which tips the scales at over a ton (modern cars are very heavy), it can't cut it. First gear is very low, and therefore appears to provide reasonable acceleration. However, change up into second at full throttle and all of a sudden the speedometer and revcounter needles look as though they are in slow motion, or moving through thick treacle. The acceleration just tails right off. Maybe I am being too harsh on what is a basic shopping car and not an all-out racer, but the fact is that acceleration in the 1.1-litre 206 is marginal. On the motorway, even the smallest gradients will have you reaching for 4th (or even 3rd), to desperately maintain mom
                    entum at the legal limit while faster traffic races up to your rear bumper and flashes its headlights. As a result of all this thrashing, fuel economy was (naturally) not up to the diesel, but I don't reckon 40mpg was too bad going. One upside of the petrol engine is that handling, already excellent, is sharper still, as the lower weight of the engine means the car is less prone to ploughing straight on in fast corners. Peugeot still know how to make a fun-handling car. However, this particular 206 exhibited an instability in cross-winds on motorways and a nervous shimmy on braking that was not evident on the diesel model. In fairness this particular car was well-used (9,000 miles on the clock, not bad going for a 6-month old car) so it may have been related to the tracking or suspension. Also unnerving, and not noticed in the diesel model was that the pedals seemed closer together (shades of the 106 here which is almost dangerous in that respect) and the steering wheel was mounted too low for me to see the tops of the instruments. There were also some ominous rattles from the doors and windows which leads me to believe the diesel was a 2003 model and a much better bet. I would therefore conclude by saying that if you are in the market for a 206, don't consider the 1.1 unless it's only for town use. The 1.4 petrol and particularly the 1.4 diesel are much better bets for motorway and A-road work, and although the 1.1 is a fair bit cheaper, the extra engine capacity will make all the difference. Also make sure you are comfortable with the driving position as some models appear to have a better relationship of pedals to steering wheel than others.

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                    • More +
                      22.04.2003 03:58
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                      • "not particularly fashionable"

                      Did you know Honda Accords have been sold in the UK for over 25 years? Hard to believe that the first Civics made their way to these shores nearly 30 years ago, and that Honda have only been producing cars since the early 1960's. In this country they've been very highly rated by mainly older, private buyers, but in the last five years or so the fire-breathing "Type-R" Civic, Accord and Integra have shown that Honda can be cool to the backward-baseball-cap brigade, too. I'm pretty biased towards Hondas, having owned an early Prelude and a late-model Civic (plus a Rover 200 that was partly designed by Honda), so when my dad needed to buy his first car for over 25 years recently (his company car becoming a victim of changing tax regulations), we decided that he should look to the East (as he will be doing 25,000 miles a year), and given my experience of Hondas, he felt an Accord was the way to go. The last-generation Accord has only just been replaced (you must have seen the really clever TV ad for the new one which has just come out) and was on the market from 1998 to 2003. Since 1993 (when the previous generation car was introduced - that was the one that was the "twin" of the Rover 600) they have been built in the UK (in Swindon in fact), just like the mid-sized Toyotas and Nissans are. It therefore not only speaks volumes for Japanese design but also the British workforce that the cars are still well-known for their build-quality and reliability. The Civic I ran for a year and nearly 20,000 miles when it was two years old had no rattles, no rust and never let me down once. These Accords come as four-door saloons or five-door hatchbacks. Engines encompass 1.8, 2.0 and 2.3 VTECs for the mainstream trim levels (S, SE, Sport and Executive) and a crazy 210bhp 2.2 VTEC for the Type-R. Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearboxes were available. The model my dad went for in the end was a three-year
                      -old (2000 on a V-plate) 1.8 SE Sport automatic hatchback in dark metallic green, with 18,000 miles on the clock, from a main dealer. This wasn't cheap when comparing the price paid to, say, Parker's guide, but we are talking about an "Approved Honda Used Car" (for whatever that's worth) and it is low-mileage for it's age (as I said, my dad plans on doing 25k miles a year and wants to keep it 3 years, so it had to be under 25k miles in the first place). Plus he wanted an auto which narrowed down the choice further. Having said that, like most manufacturers Honda have a handy website where you can enter car characteristics and it lists matching vehicles at its dealers which means you don't have to trudge round showrooms all day. The Sport model was apparently introduced by Honda as a lower-priced, simpler version of the Type-R, but also available as a hatchback (which the Type-R isn't). As such you get the normal, inoffensive styling of the standard Accord (which looks best in dark metallics by the way - I feel the popular silver makes it look very plain), but jazzed-up with 16" alloy wheels (a nice multi-spoke design but a pain to clean), side skirts and front and rear spoilers. It's an OAP sports car, an old-boy racer. Maybe my dad should wear his flat cap backwards while driving it. Inside there is a basically a standard Accord interior, which is a good thing. You get nice, comfy front seats that actually look like miniature armchairs, and a decent rear bench with an armrest and headrests all round. The new Civic apparently has better rear room than this Accord, but a six-footer can sit comfortably behind himself, if you see what I mean. The boot meanwhile is huge, and of course the rear seat folds. About the only reservation I have is with the standard trim colour you get when the car has a dark exterior - beige cloth. It gets dirty very quickly, but luckily appears quite hardwearing. The specification
                      of the SE model (Sport or otherwise) is excellent - four electric windows, air conditioning, remote central locking, an electric glass sunroof (why bother if you have aircon though?), electric mirrors, a bit of wood trim on the dash, but only a tape player (why no CD?). You also get multiple airbags (and a four-star Euro NCAP safety rating), but I sincerely hope my parents don't have to test this last feature. At the business end, all the controls are quite simple with large buttons for the heating/AC, although the stereo has a multitude of tiny buttons (typical Honda failing I'm afraid). I do like the window controls being on the driver's door armrest, and not down in the centre console or somewhere where you need to be double-jointed to operate the things. The speedo and revcounter have very large numerals - is this because the typical Honda buyer is old and has poor eyesight? A feature of the instrumentation that I particularly like - and it's one you don't always get on automatic cars - is an indicator to tell you which gear you're in. I think this has been included as the Accord automatic has a Tiptronic-style device (pioneered by Porsche about 15 years ago) where you can slide the gearlever sideways so you can flick it up or down through the gears manually. On the road, despite the "Sport" trappings, the car has standard Accord suspension, i.e. it won't go round corners like a Subaru Impreza but it won't remove your fillings either. It's built for comfort, not speed, although it corners quite well and, unfortunately, as usual the dampers aren't quite right so it fidgets about a bit over our decaying road surfaces. Still, the engine is a typical Honda gem - smooth and free-revving, and there's a definite, if small, kick at 4500rpm. You can see why Honda don't like doing diesels as their petrol engines really are superb. The 1.8 isn't a roadburner, and in automatic form it's diff
                      icult to get the tyres smoking (especially as those big alloys have quite fat rubber encasing them), but it's quick enough to get along well and the trade-off is mid-30's, MPG-wise, which isn't bad from a big-ish auto. And of course nothing has gone wrong yet, although it's early days. I'll keep you posted. So it looks quite good (with even some cred from the youngsters - I'm 25 and I don't feel embarrassed to drive it!), goes quite well, is well-equipped, quite spacious, cheap to insure (only Group 8), fuel-efficient and finally, being a Honda, will hold it's value and go on forever in a reliable manner. For the private family buyer doing a big mileage or holding on to a car for a long period, it's got to make a lot of sense.

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                      • Ford Transit / Car / 3 Readings / 13 Ratings
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                        25.03.2003 00:24
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                        • "Dead-feeling clutch"

                        A few months ago I had my first chance to drive a van “in anger” – something I always wanted to do, ever since, at the age of 5, I rode in the cab of a late 70’s Transit Luton van driven by my dad when we moved house. Then, a few years ago the band I played in had transport in the shape of an H-reg Transit LWB minibus, but this one had somehow sneaked out of the factory games with a Granada 2.9-litre V6 engine. This thing absolutely flew (although it was limited to 88mph because the tyres couldn’t take anything faster) and sounded like, of all things, a VW Beetle on steroids. So, when I moved to Guernsey in August 2002, I decided to hire a van from Hertz to transport my worldly goods. Of course, it had to be a Transit, and they delivered. What greeted me that day was a brand new (500 miles on the clock) Transit SWB T260, to give it it’s full name. “T260” sounds a bit reminiscent of an evil android from one of the Terminator films, but in reality means this is the baby of the New Transit range, introduced in 2001. For the first time, the Transit range has been split between front-wheel drive (for the SWB, or short-wheelbase versions) and traditional rear-wheel drive for the larger ones. There is the usual bewildering range of engine and body options on top of the choice of wheelbases, and they are made in a factory beside the M27 just outside Southampton. Note that I am ignoring the new Transit Connect here, which is apparently based on the Fiesta and, to be honest, looks like something Postman Pat would drive. The “standard” Transit, to the best of my knowledge, owes nothing to the Ford car range although it’s possible the engines are broadly similar in some way. If you wanted to buy one, I've seen them at Ford dealers in the South East for £9,995 + VAT. Resplendent in white (although I’m assured they do come in other colours), even in it’s smallest form the Transit i
                        s quite a large and imposing vehicle, although from scrutinising the handbook it’s only as long as a Mondeo, about 15 feet. However it is over 6 feet wide and over 6 feet high (even with the standard, “low” roof model I had). It looks more box-like than the previous “fast front” model, but I am told the aerodynamics are still very good and the more boxy rear (plus the front-wheel drive, which lowers the floor due to there being no propshaft or rear differential) allows a standard-sized Europallet to fit, whatever one of those is (dashed European Union standardising everything again!). My worldly belongings consisted of: one large two-seat sofabed, one bicycle, one 30” TV with stand, a large and small chest of drawers, two large hi-fis, a PC, printer and scanner, a flat-packed wardrobe, table and four chairs, 10 large boxes filled with various detritus, and three or four large bags and suitcases filled with clothes. I initially chose the smallest Transit with the low roof as it would make the ferry crossing to Guernsey cheaper (the larger high-roof would have been more than 5m long and 3m high, so would have incurred greater ferry costs), but once I had packed in the sofa, TV and chest of drawers (bought from a friend who was also emigrating) I began to panic that it would not all fit in. Luckily, some lateral thinking by my father and a couple of hours of trying various permutations got everything fitted in with very little room to spare. I will say that the loading area of the Transit is very thoughtfully-designed. My van was boarded out with plywood, I don’t know if this is a factory option but was impressively executed nonetheless. Out on the road and, as a long-time car user (who has owned some powerful machinery before) I was actually quite impressed with it. When I picked it up I made allowances for the fact it was barely run-in and a diesel (I had never driven one before), but despite only having a 7
                        5hp engine (a 2-litre direct-injection turbocharged 16 valve lump called “Doratorq DI”) it got up to speed pretty well and was an excellent cruiser. In particular, it started without needing any time for the glowplugs to warm up – but then again do direct-injection diesels have glowplugs? The very short first gear amplified the fact that, as a typical diesel, it didn’t like to rev highly, but low-down torque was excellent. The characteristic whistle of the turbocharger was quite audible but hey, I’m a red-blooded male and I like these things. One thing that a first-time van driver needs to acclimatise to when first driving a van like this is the size of everything in the cab. In particular, the steering wheel and gearlever especially are huge! As you sit up high the gearlever needs to be very long, but I found the angles it adopted in various gears quite disconcerting. Luckily I wasn’t carrying a central passenger (there are two passenger seats) so this wasn’t a problem. The gearshift action was fine, by the way, but sometimes difficult to get reverse. The driver’s seat has a whole range of adjustment so it’s quite easy to get comfortable, however I like a somewhat reclined driving position (I’ve got long arms and short legs for my height) which just wasn’t possible as the angle of recline was restricted by the bulkhead separating the cab from the loadspace. The dashboard follows the standard Ford “organic shapes” idiom, but is made of quite decent quality plastic and the controls are intuitive. The heating/ventilation was good, but you needed the fan on a (noisy) high setting to get the best out of it. The RDS stereo was of good quality, and the instruments were clear and concise. Due for particular praise are the huge door pockets, and the large mirrors – very important as you can’t see out of the back! So with the van loaded up we took to the road. The big
                        surprise came with the performance when fully-loaded – there was no perceptible difference. Perhaps my “load” didn’t weigh very much (although the TV and sofabed were bl**dy heavy!), but as I have said rapid acceleration isn’t this van’s forte. It was easy to provoke wheelspin from a standing start when loaded, though. There was a touch of understeer through the bends, again this was probably due to the rear being well-loaded but we must be reminded that this is a 6-foot-something-high van and not a Golf GTI. The headlights were reasonably powerful and the noise level low enough to conduct a conversation with my dad in the far passenger seat at our cruising speed of 65-70mph. On the way back, with the van empty, we did manage to reach an indicated 105mph driving through the New Forest, which was very impressive, although I would like to point out there was no traffic and it was 2am – I’m fond of my license in it’s unblemished state and don’t make a habit of driving like this! I had to unload the van in the middle of St Peter Port in Guernsey, a busy market town with very narrow roads. The Transit was very manouverable (a by-product of the large steering wheel and decent power steering) and the large rear door and side door made unloading a rapid business. The remote central locking allows you to unlock the rear doors separately from the cab. In conclusion then, the Transit performed admirably and I was really impressed with it. It returned just over 25mpg in my hands, although I was driving relatively hard and using all the revs (plus, as I’ve pointed out, we weren’t hanging about on the return journey). I’ve heard that there have been some reliability issues but I would imagine that is due to the new technology used in this particular model. We did 500 miles in those two days and I didn’t get out of the cab feeling crippled like I’ve heard some other vans ca
                        n do to you! One day I’d like to try one with the larger TDI or petrol engines, they must be (relatively-speaking) real screamers – maybe when I return to the UK! Having said I’m moving again this week, and will be renting a Renault Master…so watch this space…

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                        • More +
                          24.03.2003 00:13
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                          If you use the Internet, you’ll be aware of eBay I’m sure. If not, here’s a rapid synopsis of how it works. It’s an online auction. Sellers (and you can sell pretty much anything) offer items under various different categories. Each auction takes the form of a web page with details about the item, a picture (sometimes), details of the seller (eBay username and location), the time remaining until the end of the auction and the current bid price. As a buyer (you need to register with eBay first but don’t worry, it won’t cost you anything) you can then decide to bid. After that point it works just like a regular auction (only much slower, the auctions can last up to 10 days). If you are the highest bidder, and your bid is over the “reserve” price (a limit a seller can set that they are legally bound to sell the item once it is reached), both buyer and seller get notified by e-mail by eBay (and given each other’s e-mail addresses), then contact each other, the buyer sends the cash, the seller sends the item, and everyone’s happy (in theory – it usually works like that, but sometimes it doesn’t; more of that in a minute). I got into internet auctions in early 2001, via the late, lamented Yahoo! auctions (if you’re an American reader ignore this as you still have a functioning Yahoo! auction service – the UK version was closed in June 2002). I firstly used it to get rid of a lot of old “junk” I had hanging around the house (but remember one man’s junk is another man’s jewel, hence the beauty of eBay!), then got hooked into buying things, mainly stuff I didn’t need but hey, that’s the beauty of a capitalist society. I digress. Up until the late summer of 2001 I noticed that people were auctioning cars on eBay, but until that point I’d never considered buying one as I felt buying something large, expensive and complex on eBay would
                          be risky to the point of recklessness. But, since then, I’ve bought three cars using eBay, and have found it just as easy as, say, buying a car through Autotrader. There are just a few simple, but golden (i.e. unbreakable) rules you should follow. 1. Is there a picture? In a lot of ways, I would say that eBay offers the potential to be less risky than buying a car from Autotrader if the auction has a photo of the car – the picture on your computer screen will be a lot bigger, and more detailed, than that grainy picture you see in a car ad in Autotrader. I would be very suspicious of an auction that doesn’t have a picture – you’ve got no simple guarantee the car is what the seller says it is. That’s not to say that the seller isn’t genuine (there are other ways to tell – more later), but it can make you wonder. However, if there is a picture, does it square with the auction title (usually a description of the car, e.g. “1999 Fiat Brava 1.4S”) or the seller’s description? It’s not unknown for some sellers to take a picture from an earlier auction for an identical (or superficially similar) car, so look twice. Also, get an idea from anything else in the picture that tells you if it was taken recently or not (a picture taken by a camera that puts the date on it is usually a fail-safe way of telling), as it’s not unknown for sellers to use pictures of the car several months (or even years) previously, so it may look in better condition than it actually is. If the picture of the car has people in the background wearing flares, be suspicious. The best way to check if the car is what it is purporting to be, is to see if the photo shows the registration number. Then, go to an on-line motor insurance website (like Direct Line) and get an on-line quote – with these you put in the registration number, and it will tell you what the car is (make, model, engine
                          size, trim level and year) when you get the quote. Very useful, and free. Some sellers “blank out” the registration number in their pictures, but that’s not a problem, just ask them what it is using the “Ask The Seller A Question” link. The best auctions will have several pictures showing the vehicle from the inside and out, at a high resolution (denoted by the “Supersize picture” button). 2. How trustworthy is the seller? Next to where the seller’s eBay username is listed will be a number in brackets, e.g. r_welfare (36). This number is the feedback level. When transactions are completed (either as a buyer or seller), the seller and buyer “rate” each other according to whether the transaction was good or not. The ratings levels are “excellent” (which will increase your feedback level by 1), “neutral” (which does nothing) or “poor” (which will reduce your feedback level by 1). If you click on this number it will show a history of the seller’s transactions and all the auction feedback. So, if your chosen seller has a high number and very little or no negative feedback, you should feel reassured. 3. Ask questions! I mentioned the “Ask The Seller A Question” link earlier. No matter how good the auction description is (some are very comprehensive, whereas others…well, let’s just say some people out there don’t have much grasp of punctuation, spelling, or even how to turn off the “Caps Lock” key), you will inevitably want to ask more questions. So do it. Some sellers put a phone number into the description, so call it. Find out everything you can about the car. If the seller doesn’t answer your e-mails or calls, ask yourself – is he/she hiding something? 4. Keep it local Whereas Autotrader will have an issue local to your area, on eBay there are sellers fr
                          om all over the country (and indeed, the world). They should state their location in the auction, but some don’t (e.g. they put “Sunny England”, or just the county name). So if it’s not specific, e-mail them. I think it is possible using the Search option to filter the auctions by general geographical area, but if you keep it local (i.e. within 50 miles) you can get to the car (perhaps even to see it before you bid), and it’s then only a short drive home – if the worst happens, you’re not stuck many miles away facing extortionate recovery charges. Once (and ONLY once) you’re happy with all of the above, make a bid. But don’t get carried away. Other people may bid against you, and if you’re convinced this is the car of your dreams, you’ll want it come what may and enter a bidding war which may eventually lead you to pay far more than the car is worth. Don’t do this – set yourself a limit (look at Parker’s Guide online and Autotrader or your local paper to get an idea of the price of similar cars) and stick to it. There will always be another car around the corner. As I mentioned earlier, some sellers put a reserve price on the car – this is the minimum they will sell it for. If you are the top bidder but the reserve isn’t met, then you won’t be entitled to the car, but all is not lost – the seller will receive your e-mail address and may contact you to “do a deal”. Some auctions also offer a “Buy It Now” price which, if you take it, will mean the auction ends early and the car is yours. If you win the auction you will be notified by eBay of the seller’s e-mail address (and they will be notified of yours). You can then contact each other and arrange a time for you to collect the car, or the seller may offer to deliver for a price. The major difference, therefore, between eBay and conventional priv
                          ate car purchases is once you have won the auction, you are legally bound to buy the car for that price – there’s no haggling. Once you see the car comes the acid test – is it everything you expected (or more importantly, the seller described it as). Hopefully if you follow all the steps outlined above, you will know exactly what you are expecting to see. If the car isn’t as described, you are entering a grey area – you can walk away citing that the car is not as described, which should break the legally-binding contract that you automatically made as being top bidder. My advice to you is to save a copy of the auction webpage and keep details of all correspondence with the seller if problems occur – eBay offer a legal service, but luckily I have never had cause to use it. In conclusion, best of luck – if you follow the simple rules, you could drive away with a bargain!

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                          • More +
                            23.03.2003 22:40
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                            Guernsey is the second-largest of the five Channel Islands, after Jersey (the others are, in descending order of size, Alderney, Sark and Herm). It often seems that Guernsey is overlooked in favour of the larger and more famous Jersey, due in no small part to Bergerac (for those of you who have no idea who or what Bergerac is, it was a very popular 1980's TV show about a Jersey detective). In fact, due to Bergerac's storylines featuring so many murders, you'd expect that people would be put off Jersey and come to Guernsey, but I digress. Guernsey lies to the north of Jersey, and all the Channel Islands are in fact situated just off the north-west French coast. They lie approximately 80 miles from Portsmouth or Weymouth (if you take the ferry - more on that later). As a result of being so close to France, the architecture and district/street names have a distinctly French feel, but the atmosphere of the island is a very genteel, relaxed facsimile of 1950's England. Not that I was alive in the 1950's, but the island maintains some quaint customs that hark back to that era. For example as Sunday is the day of worship, shops generally do not open (a bit like it used to be not so long ago on the mainland), although this may change in the near future. Guernsey is self-governed and as such makes its own laws, although it keeps an eye on the mainland to keep itself abreast of the latest developments. Interestingly, it is not part of the European Union, although this too may change in the future. Pubs can also (currently) only open between the hours of 12pm and 3.30pm on a Sunday. Some petrol stations do not allow you to pump your own petrol, either. A by-product of Guernsey (and Jersey) not being in the EU is that the islands set their own tax rates, as a result Guernsey is one of the famed "offshore investment centres" in the world along with Jersey, the Isle of Man, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and the Briti
                            sh Virgin Islands (this is where I come in, as I am an accountant working out here on a long-term contract). Because the Channel Islands would obviously make very attractive places for a lot of people to live (such as retirees), the island governments have cottoned on to this and as such you can only live here if you have been born here, been resident for over 20 years (and thus are deemed local), or have a Housing Licence which will be granted to your employer if there is not enough local staff to fill specific positions of need (such as chartered accountants). I've been here since September 2002, so have experienced both the "summer" Guernsey and the "winter" Guernsey, two very different animals! The upshot of this strict "immigration" policy is that the local people can still afford to live here (although property prices are still pretty sensational), and also on the other hand the financial sector jobs draw in a large number of young professionals from around the globe with a high disposable income which helps sustain the island economy in the off-season. Tourism is still the biggest industry in Guernsey, although this has fallen in recent years as package holidays to mainland Europe have become cheaper. So should you come and holiday in Guernsey? Well, it's ideal for the more mature traveller or for those who covet the quiet life. Those who enjoy Ibiza and the like should look elsewhere (although nightlife in St Peter Port, the capital, isn't too bad as there are a lot of young people working in the financial industry here these days). There is excellent scenery, and the people are friendly, and of course they speak English! St Peter Port and St Sampson's are really the two major centres, and offer a wide range of shopping. There's no VAT here and all the major High Street names are represented in St Peter Port's high street (which is traffic-free, incidentally). There are also som
                            e excellent restaurants in St Peter Port, offering a wide variety of cuisine. Throughout the month of October is the "Octoberfest" where a number of the restaurants compete with each other to provide the best set three-course menu for £10, which is judged by top chefs. Of course, you as the consumer are the real winner here as the food is excellent. What you will notice is the absence of “chain” pubs and eateries, i.e. no Beefeaters or Brewers Fayre’s, or even McDonald’s or Burger King (St Peter Port did have a Burger King, but it closed just before Christmas 2002). Guernsey is shaped as a sort of triangle with the airport in the centre and St Peter Port and St Sampson on the right-hand edge. These two towns play host to the marina where the expensive yachts are based, but don’t offer any real beaches. These are found on the other side of the island, in districts such as Cobo and Vazon. The best thing to do is to hire a car (the hiring agencies are found either at the airport or in St Peter Port) and have a drive around. We drive on the right side (in both senses!) and speed limits are 25mph in town, 35mph out of town. Believe me, with some of the windy country lanes, that’s fast enough. You could also take the bus between major districts, or get a taxi, but in my experience the latter is only really easy to get hold of at the airport. Incidentally, if you do drive here, watch out for a funny thing we have called “Filter in Turn” at junctions, where the first car there has the right of way. I only say this as I’ve had several near-misses with terrified tourists in hire cars. Also, there are no “pay and display” car parks about. What you do have are on-street parking with varying time limits – your hire car should come with a small card “clock” which you set when you leave your car. Streets in the towns are quite narrow and parking is at a premium. Also, i
                            f you are infirm, St Peter Port in particular is very hilly and a number of paths have some very long, steep steps. As with the food, there are no “chain” hotels, but they are numerous and there are many B&B’s and guest houses for those who are on more of a budget. Two of the best hotels are the St Pierre Park in St Andrew’s (which boasts a health suite and golf course) and the Duke of Richmond in St Peter Port. At the other end of the scale, some friends who came over in November 2002 managed to book the Hotel Dunchoille in St Peter Port for £21 a night on-line and found it excellent value. If you’re a golfer, there are the Royal Guernsey and the Grande Mare clubs, but I don’t think it’s easy or cheap to get on and play. Popular trips out include visiting Herm or Sark, both of which are short boat trips away, and are totally unspoilt (neither allow any cars or motorcycles). Be wary though if you like a drink or three – if you’re too drunk they won’t let you on the return boat. You could also visit Alderney, which gained infamy a couple of years ago due to rioting (seriously!) and is the home of many internet gambling companies, but can cost quite a bit to fly to (about £75). You could also pop across to Jersey by air or sea, and see the “concrete jungle” as Guernseyfolk call it – there’s a lot of inter-island rivalry, with the Jerseyfolk referring to Guernsey as “Donkeyland”, and Guernseyfolk calling the Jersey population “crapauds”. Don’t ask me why! I worked in Jersey for a month a couple of years ago and it’s very similar but a bit more “forward”, i.e. it resembles life on the mainland a little more. You could even pop over to France - St Malo only takes an hour by boat, even quicker if you fly to Dinard. So finally I bet you are wondering how you get here (after I’ve done such a marvellous sales pit
                            ch). You can fly with British European, BA or Aurigny from Stanstead, Birmingham, Gatwick, Southampton, Bristol or Exeter. I fly to Southampton regularly with British European and it costs about £90 return if you book on-line well in advance. If you want to bring your own car or don’t like flying, you can take the ferry, but there is only one ferry line (Condor) and, in the absence of competition, prices are higher. I came back to the UK over the Christmas period with my trusty Volkswagen and it cost an eye-watering £300 return. You can sail from Portsmouth, Poole or Weymouth, but here’s another twist – there are two distinct types of ferry. The fast catamaran only sails (reliably) in the summer when the sea is calmer and takes only 2 hours to go direct to/from Weymouth. However, in the winter the bigger boat (designed for freight) goes via Jersey and takes an eye-popping 13 hours. In conclusion, Guernsey has good weather, beautiful scenery, a relaxed pace of life and friendly people, so if all this sounds like your bag, come on over! We’ve even got the Island Games this summer!

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                            • HP Deskjet 600 / Inkjet Printer / 0 Readings / 6 Ratings
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                              22.03.2003 05:59
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                              • "takes up a lot of desk space"

                              I bet if you've been around computers for a while you know exactly what a "traditional" Hewlett-Packard Deskjet 500 printer looks like. That's right, a big, beige housebrick. They weren't pretty in the old days (just pretty pricey) but got the job done. In the early 90's most people used dot-matrix printers (remember them?) that used to rattle your house windows in operation, but after a while certain companies (notably Canon) began to offer low-cost inkjet printers that were whisper-quiet by comparison. They were also capable of much better quality. However, throughout this time HP were offering their Deskjet 500 to the public and while it was generally too expensive to all but the most voracious home user, it quickly found steady business with companies, schools and colleges. In the mid-90's HP turned it's back on this great pioneer and started offering the Deskjet 600, the portable 310, and numerous variations thereon. All of which used the standard Deskjet 500 mechanicals, but were slightly easier on the eye. Now, unfortunately they didn't think things through too well and as such these models have a reputation for eating paper and generally behaving badly (particularly those that feed the paper through vertically using the power of gravity). No such issues beset the 500. The model I still use in the 550C. This was at the top end of the range at the time - the standard 500 was a black-and-white machine, while the 500C allowed colour printing, but only held one ink cartridge at a time. As such if you left the colour cartridge in all the time, it would combine all the colours to produce "black" and quickly run out. The 550C got around this by allowing the printhead to be fed by two cartridges at once, a colour one and a dedicated black one. So you got the best of both worlds. I picked this one up about five or six years ago for £50, and it still does sterling service today. Sure,
                              the graphical resolution isn't great, but it's quiet, efficient, and gets the job done reliably and smoothly. I know that with most colour inkjet printers starting from as little as £50 today there may be no place for the 550C than in a landfill site, but if you can pick one up cheap it'll be a reliable and sturdy friend for many years to come - the Volvo of inkjet printers, if you will!

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                              • Dell Optiplex GX1 450-MHz / Desktop PC / 2 Readings / 3 Ratings
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                                22.03.2003 05:43
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                                I bought my Dell Optiplex GX1 PC in July 1999. It was secondhand and around a year old at that stage. As I recall, it set me back around £450. For this I got a 350Mhz genuine (none of this Celeron rubbish!) Intel Pentium II processor, 64Mb of RAM, a 4.3Gb hard disk, 36 speed CD-ROM drive, built-in sound and graphics, and a 17" Dell SVGA colour monitor. I am still using the machine to this day, and it's never let me down. In the meantime I've upgraded to a 400Mhz PII processor, and disabled the onboard graphics and sound to run a 16Mb 3DFX Voodoo Banshee graphics card and SoundBlaster 16 soundcard (I like games, you see). Also at some point I extended the RAM to 192Mb. I've had very few problems with it, and it runs everything I want (Windows ME, the Office utilities, the Web, Outlook, and a number of racing games) perfectly well. Although considered quite old-tech in these days of Pentium 4 processors, it does everything I want it to and still runs the latest games at a fair old lick (probably a result of having a decent graphics card). Dell run an excellent support section to their website - on the back of the machine there is a five-digit "unique" code which you can enter and will give details of all the downloads and support particular to your machine. I've only ever used the site for downloading new drivers, and when I was trying to configure the built-in Ethernet network card. Dell have a good reputation for quality systems at a low price, and if I was in the mood to upgrade (no real need at the moment as I have a Playstation 2 to handle all my gaming needs) I would certainly consider one of their new machines. When I bought this one I didn't have a Dell in mind, but it was one of the few machines available in a desktop (i.e. the computer itself lies flat so the monitor can sit on top) case, rather than a tower. Also, the case design is very clever in that it needs no screws undoing - simply
                                press two buttons on the side and the cover is released so it can be lifted away. Inside everything is easy to get at, although on the desktop model there's not a lot of room for expansion. Overall, an excellent machine, and I would recommend it to anyone as a sound secondhand buy. Update 1.6.03 - I've recently acquired another Optiplex (for free!) which used to be the server at work. This one is identical to my current one, but is in a mini-tower case. This has loads of expansion slots and drive bays, and features the same kind of clever design as the desktop - press a button on the front and the side panel hinges up and away for access. One thing I didn't mention about both machines is upgrading the processor. If you use a non-Dell fan on your heatsink then on bootup you get an error message that reads "Alert! Previous fan failure". This despite there being a fan! This is the only annoyance I guess, and a relatively minor one at that.

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                                • HP Scanjet 3300C / Scanner / 0 Readings / 4 Ratings
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                                  22.03.2003 05:32
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                                  Great scanner, low price, but no good if you run Windows XP.

                                  A good few years ago, when I got into PCs in a big way (in the mid-1990s) I was impressed by the idea of a scanner. Here was an item (handheld in those days for most home users, looking a little bit like a flattened hairdryer!) that you could use to "grab" a photo or image in a magazine or book, transfer to your PC, and play about with to your heart's content.

                                  I forget which colour hand scanner I bought way back then (a Genius, I think), and while it proved useful for adding pictures and diagrams to my A-level and university reports, it was low-quality, cumbersome to fit (requiring a dedicated expansion card to be fitted into my PC) and difficult to use properly. You had to line up the scanner with the (totally flat) image and drag it across at a constant speed. Often lights would flash to tell you you were going too fast, and all too often the image would end up garbled or skewed, and you had to start again.

                                  Of course, over time the price of technology started to fall (as it always does with computers), and flatbed scanners became affordable to the home user.

                                  In early 2001 I began to get addicted to eBay auctions, and quickly deduced that a scanned image of the item you were selling helped interest in the auction. So I bought a Hewlett Packard Scanjet 3300c from Simply Computers for about £50. Hewlett Packard are a very well-known manufacturer of computer peripherals (primarily making their name through inkjet printers, before having a crack at the PC market itself), so I was sure I was getting a decent machine.

                                  The Scanjet has not let me down. It provides decent capability (true colour at up to a resolution of 4800dpi) at a low price, with supreme ease of use. You just plug the power into the wall, connect it to your PC's USB port, install the software, and away you go.

                                  The HP PrecisionScan LT software is very easy to use, you fire it up, put the picture or document you want to scan onto the scanner,
                                  click Go, and it scans the item. It then shows you a preview of what it has picked up, you can alter the resolution, colour definition and size, and either save it or export it (personally I export it to Microsoft Photo Editor so I can play about with it). The scanning area of the scanner is approximately the size of an A4 sheet of paper, which makes it a lot more flexible than the hand scanners of old (which could take documents of infinite length, but the width was restricted to perhaps 4 inches or so).

                                  The only fly in the ointment concerns perhaps the setup of my machine - I run Windows ME, and from time to time the scanner won't scan (although the scanner lights up). Nothing can be done except reset the computer, or in extreme cases reinstall the software until it decides to play ball.

                                  No doubt the 3300c has been superceded by a newer machine providing even better features and resolution, but as a secondhand buy the 3300c will take some beating.

                                  UPDATE: Although I recommended this scanner way back when, that was when I was running Windows ME. If you run Windows XP, this scanner is notoriously difficult to get operating properly. A google search for 'Scanjet 3300C Win XP problem' will bring up a lot of pages...

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