Why traffic lights can leave me seeing red

Andy Russell, motoring editor. Twitter @andyrussellauto

I’ve always had something of a dilemma when traffic lights change from green to amber as you approach them – do you brake or carry on?

I don’t think there is any easy answer – it depends on so many factors including the state of the road, the weather and whether anything is behind you and, if so, how close.

When I was learning to drive in the late Seventies I recall a set of traffic light turning to amber and, feeling I was too close to stop, carried on, only for my instructor to brake. We ended up halfway across the lights and I never want to be in that predicament again!

I make every effort to stop at traffic lights when they turn to amber if it is safe and I have the distance to do so. But a couple of times, when I have had a car or a van following me, I have played it safe and gone across on amber only for the next one or even two vehicles to follow me through when the lights must have been red. Had I decided to brake I surely would have been shunted from the rear.

It would be so much easier if you had more warning, such as the green light flashing for two or three seconds before the amber light came on ahead of it turning red. It would just give a bit more warning and thinking time although there is also the argument that it might make the ‘amber gamblers’ put their foot down to get across before the lights go red.

A few years ago on a family holiday on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast we hired a car and I was fascinated by a set of traffic lights on a main road near Varna which actually showed a countdown in seconds of how long the lights would stay green or red so you could prepare to slow down and get ready to pull away.

It worked brilliantly and, although I passed through them no more than a dozen times, I never saw anyone abusing it by speeding up to them nip through.

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Classic cars enjoy rolling road tax exemption in Budget 2014

Although the 2014 budget has been a controversial one (namely the beer and bingo tax breaks) it’s good news for classic car owners.  From April this year, the classic car tax exemption from Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) will begin automatically rolling, with all cars over 40 years old eligible for a zero-rated tax disc. Previously, the exemption was fixed.

This means that from the 1 April 2014, vehicles manufactured in 1973 will be exempt. This exemption changes with the year, so in 2015 cars built in 1974 will be eligible and so on. Whilst this might seem a little confusing, just look at it this way: as long as the vehicle is 40 years old at the time of taxing, it’ll be considering classic (or more accurately, historic).

This measure was announced by Chancellor of The Exchequer George Osbourne last week and according to the Overview of Legislation and Tax rates for 2014-’15, the rolling benefit will affect around 10,000 newly exempt  classic car owners a year.

In the overview, which was formally issued after the budget, the Government states that the rolling exemption is motivated by a perceived need to preserve British heritage vehicles and its healthy industry, which is incredibly positive for those immersed in the classic car industry.

Gerry Bucke, general manager at classic car insurance broker Adrian Flux, said: “We’re firmly behind the rolling tax exemption, which should help to encourage the owners of older cars to keep them on the road and in good condition. Cars from the 70s are becoming increasingly rare sights on our roads, so anything that can keep them in use is a good thing, bringing pleasure to their owners and those of us who enjoy seeing these classics out and about.”

So which classic cars will be newly exempt in April 2015, and does this give us a legitimate excuse to buy a beautiful old banger?

Jaguar XJ-S Series II

The XJ line had a distinctive yet contentious facelift for the 1974 model year, with the 4.2 L I-6 XJ6 becoming a popular model in the UK. The contention came when it emerged that the Series II model was poor quality and this was widely attributed to the major trade union and labour relation issues at the British Leyland Group at the time.

Indeed, much of industrial England was affected by the problem so in a way, owning a Jaguar XJ-S Series II like owning a little slice of history – even if it’s not the most well-made motor around.

Chevrolet Chevelle Laguna S3

From 1974 through to 1976, the Chevrolet Chevelle Laguna was produced as a one-model Laguna S-3 Coupe, with the new-for-1974 Malibu Classic series taking the top-luxury series position. These striking Colonnade coupes lasted just three short years, with a limited run of 9,100 making them a very rare model.

Interestingly, NASCAR driver Cale Yarborough earned the first two of three consecutive Winston Cup Championships piloting a Chevelle Laguna.

Ferrari GT4 308

The 308 GT4 2+2 was a groundbreaking model for Ferrari in several ways. Firstly, it was the first production Ferrari to feature the mid-engined V8 layout that would become the bulk of the company’s business and secondly, it was the first production Ferrari to feature Bertone rather than Pininfarina bodywork.

Poor Pininfarina was actually quite upset about the decision, considering all they had done for Ferrari. We hope they’ve made up by now.

Volkswagen Passat B1

The Passat was one of the most modern European family cars at the time, and was intended as a replacement for the aging Volkswagen Type 3 and Type 4. It was incredibly popular, and was named Wheels magazine’s Car of the Year for 1974 – with its sister model Audi 80 winning a yearly earlier.

These days, it’s considered overlooked and underrated, which is why it has its own Facebook appreciation page.

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5 Gadgets all cars will have by 2025

Here are the gadgets we’ve seen around the net that we think will be made standard on all new cars over the next few years. And with cleverly communicating cars and voice activated hands-free, we can’t wait to see what the future has in store for the gadget side of the automotive world. All the tech covered in this piece either currently exists or is being developed by major automakers – so it’s not too high of a bar to set. In the past, they assumed we’d have hover-cars and wear spacesuits when we hit the millennium – but let’s just take baby steps and be a little more realistic here.

Collision avoidance systems and pedestrian Detection

The Volvo S60 comes with a pedestrian detection system called City Safety, which will automatically stop the car if it detects a person or a vehicle stop in front. Hyundai, Lexus and Mercedes all offer services on their more expensive models, which help the driver when the vehicle detects that a collision may be imminent. These range from pre-charging your brakes when a potential collision appears, to tightening seatbelts and automatically applying brakes. But we’ve seen some plans for the future that indicate these systems could go as far as to detect car indicators flashing when they’re looking to merge into your lane – and automatically steer your car around the hazard.

Rearview cameras

Thanks to a proposal by the American National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a lot of people have been looking into rearview cameras to help give the driver a better indication of what they might be reversing over. Wing mirrors aren’t enough to spot a child standing directly behind your car, and they also minimise accidents caused by your blind spot. Currently, these systems can cost around £100 – but in 6 years’ time, the cost should be negligible and manufacturers will think nothing of adding it to the gadget arsenal new cars come fitted with as standard.

Adaptive cruise control

Currently an optional extra on BMW’s new cars, as well as on a few select models from other manufacturers, adaptive cruise is just a slightly cleverer cruise control. Before it used to be so annoying cruising along the motorway when someone slows in front of you, meaning you have to stamp on the brake and then reset your cruising speed. Now adaptive cruise uses radar to keep you a safe distance from the car ahead and still give you that relaxation of cruise control. Just like cruise control became a standard addition to most new cars, we think this upgrade will slowly be rolled out to all new models before 2020.

Vehicle to vehicle communication

Ford is currently developing clever systems which use advanced Wi-Fi technology to broadcast your car’s current and expected location to other vehicles with the same system. If all cars came with a similar system, vehicles could interact with each other and warn drivers of obstructions on blind corners and – we’re hoping in the not-so-distant future – even detect crashes and take evasive manoeuvres when needed. If all the clever cars are talking to each other, none of them should hit each other. Properly implemented systems like these could make traffic collisions a thing of the past!

Voice control

With all the options available to sync your devices with your vehicle, people are becoming increasingly sceptical about how safe using these devices while driving can be. Even with all the hands-free options available, it’s still unsafe to be reaching over and playing with your iPhone – so we expect in the next few years that all of these vehicles with wireless hands-free connections will have fully integrated voice control too – allowing you to ‘call home’ or ‘skip this song’ as easily as speaking the words.

Christopher is a writer for The Car Loan Warehouse and an avid motorist who loves writing about one of his favourite subjects.

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My fears for a very short life-cycle

Andy Russell, motoring editor. Twitter @andyrussellauto

I’ve discovered the secret of being invisible but, instead of it making me a fortune, it could cost me my life.

Harry Potter had the Cloak of Invisibility… I’ve got a new bike!

As a driver I’ve have always respected the rights of cyclists to share our roads – although I admit to be more than a little niggled by those who cycle the wrong way up one-way streets, scoot through red traffic lights, cycle up the nearside of stationary traffic even when a car driver is indicating to turn left and those riders who generally seem to think the Highway Code doesn’t apply to them.

That’s got that off my chest but generally, I find cyclists a courteous, happy bunch and we rub along just fine. They give me as much room as they safely can to pass them and I pass them when there is enough room to keep them safe… a sort of road-users’ versions of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch your’s’.

Anyway, back to my new bike. It’ll go up mountains, has super-duper disc brakes and more gears than there seems to be links in the chain. Totally impractical for my modest pedal-power needs but I love it and it makes me want to ride it.

More importantly, I’ve also got front and rear lights, reflectors, a bell and a hi-vis jacket, cycle helmet and gloves which I wear… and road sense which, for me when riding a bike, is don’t argue with anything bigger even if you are in the right and have right of way. Having ridden motorcycles for half my life, I like to think I am conscious of two-wheel traffic around me and, wherever possible, make allowances to make their progress safer.

So getting on my bike came as something of a shock to me.

It’s scary how little room some drivers give cyclists when passing them, so close and fast that it’s hard not to be swayed by the slipstream.

And it’s also frustrating how little respect some show for bike riders. There came a point where I had to cross a road, having left one cycle path to reach another. In doing so, I had to cycle a couple of hundreds yards on the road with the flow of traffic. We were approaching a roundabout, so the cars behind were slowing down for that anyway, and there was no oncoming traffic. Despite having my right arm out to warn them I wanted to move across the road did any of the cars behind me give way while I was trying to cross the road? The fact that I counted 17 go past and ended up going round the roundabout says it all!

So it was with interest that I read an AA/Populus survey of nearly 18,000 drivers that found as many as 93% of motorists admit it is sometimes hard to see cyclists while driving and 55% are often “surprised when a cyclist appears from nowhere” – that must be Harry Potter again in his Cloak of Invisibility riding a bike!

And I applaud the AA and AA Charitable Trust, with support from British Cycling and the Motorcycle Industry Association, for launching a national Think Bikes awareness campaign.

Initially one million free stickers are being distributed to remind drivers to do a ‘double-take’ in their mirrors for cycles and motorcycles in their blind spots. It is suggested the cycle sticker is placed on the passenger’s side and the motorcycle one on the driver’s side.

AA president Edmund King said: “Our campaign is definitely needed when half of drivers are often surprised when a cyclist or motorcyclist ‘appears from nowhere’. Those on two wheels never appear from nowhere so, as drivers, we need to be more alert to other road-users.”

Absolutely spot on.

I started getting on my bike to help shift some weight and take more care of my health and heart but at the moment I think cycling is a bigger risk to my life.

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MINI car with maxi appeal

With the new three-door MINI hatchback being launched next month, it’s a good time to think about a used current-generation model. The mainstay of the MINI range is a great choice if you value style and pace.

Engines – Over the years the MINI’s engine line-up has grown to include a wide choice of frugal and potent petrol and diesel units but the popular choice is the 122 horse power 1.6-litre petrol unit but there’s also a 112hp 1.6-litre turbo diesel in the standard Cooper. Upgrades focused on economy and refinement, ensuring savings at the pump and a welcome upmarket cabin feel.

Exterior – Even today there can be no more distinctive shape on the market than the MINI’s. From 2006, the car offered subtle but important gains in refinement, driving dynamics and a general tweaking of the its trademark looks.

Interior – Front-seat occupants fare well but the rear seats are adequate for children and small adults. At first glance the novelty switchgear might appear to be an ergonomic nightmare, but it all works well and adds to the quality MINI-centric cabin.

Driving – You will have a lot of fun with the MINI, which translates into direct steering, great handling and good agility around town. Get the most powerful variant you can afford or you will always be left wanting more as the lower-powered cars can feel a little sluggish at times.

Ownership – If you’re smitten, look for examples with good levels of equipment as it’s only recently that standard kit levels were improved.
And while they might look good, big alloy wheels tend to make the ride less compliant, which is something to consider if you spend a lot of time in town. Look out for mondel with equipment option packs which are more desirable and, on newer models, the five-year or 50,000-mile MINI TLC routine servicing package is a bonus.

What to look for – Don’t be intimidated by the wealth of choice and always check for parking dents and minor scrapes. Kerbed alloys are another worry – especially as the damage could be hiding more expensive unseen problems. Rust and misaligned panels probably mean a bodged repair so walk away.

Model history – 2006, thorough upgrade of original BMW-made MINI saw a raft of improvements to the car’s looks, refinement, equipment levels and the way it drove. The expanding engine line-up offered both petrol and diesel units delivering enhanced performance and economy

Reasons to buy – Fun to drive, stylish, no shortage of choice.

Reasons to beware – Sparsely-equipped cars

Pick of the range – Cooper 1.6 petrol

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Making the shift to ‘easy driver’ is automatic one

Volvo’s V60 estate is more about versatility than volume, says motoring editor Andy Russell.

When I started out in motoring journalism diesel cars were few and far between and automatic ones were like hen’s teeth.
Now diesels account for just over half of all UK registrations and more and more owners are gearing up to automatics as transmission technology just gets better.
There was a time when automatics used to be confined to bigger engined models – nowadays not to offer that automatic choice wherever possible severely limits your potential audience.
I’ve just been driving Volvo’s V60 lifestyle estate with an automatic gearbox mated to the smallest 1.6-litre diesel engine and was pleasantly surprised by the experience.
OK it was more easy-going than entertaining but really came into its own on a long round trip mixing snarled-up urban traffic with the nip and tuck of overtaking on single-carriageway A roads and cut and thrust motorway cruising.
The Volvo V60 D2 Powershift took it all in its stride and 400 miles later
I got out feeling as relaxed as the stress-free journey had been.
The six-speed automatic is a bit hesitant changing up when cold but, once warmed up, shifts smoothly and is a pleasant and fuss-free way of getting from A to B – provided you are not in a hurry.
With only 115hp on tap, the 1.6-litre engine is more about MPG than
MPH – there’s bigger, more powerful diesels if you feel the need for speed.
It cruises comfortably but needs a firm foot with the auto box in sport mode to really get it going but, even so, the automatic returned a best of 57mpg and even managed about 50mpg running around and I expect many owners would do better with a light foot.
The V60 is more lifestyle estate than out-and-out load-lugger with a
430-litre boot with the seats up rising to 692 litres to the window line with the practical 40/20/40 split rear seat backs folded flat with the boot floor.
It’s a one-handed job folding them down but they’re heavy to lift back up into place. There’s a shallow under-floor storage tray and a useful panel which, once raised from the boot floor, helps prevent small loads sliding around.
The V60 drives well with comfort-biased suspension giving a generally smooth and supple ride and reassuringly confident road-holding.
The tasteful cabin has a quality, unfussy feel and is able to carry four large adults in comfort with shapely, supportive seats. The driving position is good, with the classy fascia having different instrument themes – elegance, eco and performance – but the mass of small buttons on the centre panel are off-putting until you find your way round them.
Offered in Business Edition, SE, SE Lux, R-Design and R-Design Lux, with satellite navigation versions as well, the V60 has attractive equipment levels with an emphasis on safety and electronic driver aids.

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Insurance, far from a premium experience

By Andy Russell - Archant Anglia motoring editor - andy.russell@archant.co.uk

My motoring year never starts off as a happy one because, after all the expense of Christmas, a few days into January it is the dreaded insurance renewal time.

I say ‘dreaded’ because it is not only time to renew the policy on mine and my wife’s car but, having had a multi-car policy in the past, our two sons also have to stump up for their new policies at the same time.

So, with two young male drivers in the family, when the renewal reminders come it is always a good time to sit down just in case you feel faint when you see the prices.

Little wonder so many young drivers have the misguided belief that insurance is optional.

Rather naively, I can cast my mind back 30-odd years to when I was their age – yes boys I was young once – and I actually quite looked forward to paying for my next year’s insurance if only to see how much it had come down – and it was usually quite a considerable chunk – as my no claims discount built up nicely.

It was a sort of coming of age thing that showed you were considered to be reasonably responsible for most of the time, but especially when you were driving.

Over the course of a few years, from late teens to early 20s, if you were careful and did not have a claim you could expect your insurance premium to halve in a few years.

That doesn’t seem to happen any more. This year the cover for my wife and I went up a few quid – about the same amount as my 22-year-old younger son’s premium came down despite him having another year’s no claims discount which had effectively wiped out his annual increase.

But my elder son, who is now 24, saw his policy go up by almost £500 – around a 50% increase – despite another blemish-free year of driving. It was purely down to his postcode in the North-West city where he lives but it is so annoying that careful drivers are also penalised for others’ mistakes. Just over three years ago his car was written off by an elderly driver who hit him while he was stationary at a zebra crossing. The other driver’s insurance paid out but my son’s insurance went up considerably the following year. When we queried it we were told by the insurer that, in their experience, when a driver had a non-fault claim they often then had an accident which was their fault within a year. Yes, it baffled me too but at least the insurance company recoups its payout quicker! Surely you should only be penalised if you have a ‘blame claim’ rather than for a potential accident that, as it is, has still not happened thankfully!

Fortunately this year we managed to get £300 off his premium by switching to another reputable insurance company which does multi-car policies for families rather than having to have all the cars at the same address… and a lot of haggling by my wife.

The lesson is not to accept your insurance renewal price and be prepared to spend an hour on the phone or online. My younger son and my wife and I ended up paying a few quid more but gained personal injury cover, which was also discounted, and added an extra named driver to each of our policies while elder son’s bill came down around £300.

Our original renewals price for the three policies totalled £2269 but we got it down to £2028 – a saving of £241. That’s a little bit over the annual 10% no claims discount I used to get when I was their age!

Twitter @andyrussellauto

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Seven goes into 500L

The Fiat 500 is a brand in its own right. Arguably, in some ways the 500 badge transcends Fiat itself and the Italian company isn’t daft – it’s spreading that name around a little with new models that aim to capture some of the 500’s verve.

Here’s the next stage of the 500 family expansion – the 500L MPW. You have to wonder whether there were a few wayward translations on the road to naming it, but one of Fiat’s names for it is the ‘Magic Power Wagon’ (no, really).

Joking aside, the 500L MPW has an extra 20cm grafted on to the standard 500L chassis, giving enough boot space for two occasional-use rear seats. They don’t come as standard but can be added for an extra £700 to create what Fiat calls a 5+2 layout. The legroom in the two rearmost seats is tight so are best reserved for the smallest children in the car. They also reduce the five-seater version’s 560-litre boot by 70 litres when folded flat. With them raised the remaining luggage space is negligible, as with most seven-seat cars.

This is the smallest seven-seater you can buy at just 4.35m long and 1.78m wide excluding the mirrors. Its high roof and shoulder line make it look bigger than it is, but you’re glad of the slimline dimensions for urban driving. It’s surprisingly nimble as you dash into side streets and doesn’t feel like a people-carrier.

While the third row of seats is cramped, there’s much better news from the middle bench seat. There’s acres of space for heads, shoulders, knees and toes, with a driver of more than six feet leaving plenty of room behind him for adult legs. The seats are soft and comfortable in an age of increasingly firm padding, and despite the rather odd-looking ‘inscription’ style upholstery graphics the front five seats are very likeable. Likewise the chunky steering wheel with ‘squircle’ design leather, and the solid ancillary stalks behind it.

The clutch for this 1.6-litre diesel model is sprung just heavily enough to offer appropriate resistance but lightly enough to make low-speed ratio-shuffling a breeze for your left leg but the gear shift is more notchy than some rivals and needs a slightly firmer push.

Family cars need to be practical and the 500L MPW delivers with upper and lower glove boxes, and although the former’s lid hinge mechanism is a little primitive, together they offer loads of storage. On top of these two are shelves and bins of various shapes and sizes.

Not so practical on this higher-spec Lounge model is the fact you can’t see the cruise control stalk because it’s behind the steering wheel. It’s not difficult to use ’blind’ but it takes a bit of trial and error.

This 105hp 1.6-litre turbo diesel engine offers useful punch from around 1,900rpm on the stylish rev counter up to about 3,200rpm and you can expect it to loosen up a little at both ends of the rev range with more miles on the clock. There’s a more powerful 1.6 diesel, but it’s best to avoid the low-powered 85hp 1.3-litr turbo diesel, which struggles to pull the MPW’s mass. On the petrol front there are 95hp 1.4-litre and 105hp 0.9-litre TwinAir engines.

The 500L MPW, silly names aside, has an endearing quality about it regardless of its small flaws. It does a job and it feels cheerful, which makes it a relaxing and pleasant car in which to take the kids to school, parties or the beach.

Like the 500 hatchback it’s highly customisable and handy touches like the movable boot floor, in-boot hooks, additional 12-volt charging sockets and large tailgate lip ‘seat’ make it a real-world star.

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