Why an easy-driver is all geared up to be my automatic choice

The thought of driving an automatic car used to be a real turn-off but now motoring editor Andy Russell relishes the ease of the modern auto.

Smooth operator – modern automatic cars are a pleasure to drive

When I took the motoring journalist road the thought of driving an automatic car filled me with dread.

Dull, sluggish, thirsty and with a habit of lurching between their three or, if lucky, four gears when least expected, I could not see why anyone would pay extra for the privilege of an auto box.

Given the choice of a manual or automatic model, I always opted for the former… now I look forward to, even relish, driving an automatic. Automatics are now so good they often outperform the manual model when it comes to acceleration, fuel economy and emissions.

One dealership even made sure all models in its showroom were automatic versions to encourage people to try them with a test-drive and compare them to the manual. The result was a big rise in its automatic sales with some model ranges split half and half.

Modern automatics are a joy to drive – I recall being wowed by my first five-speed automatic in a BMW 3 Series in the early 1990s. Now it is not uncommon to have seven, eight and even nine-speed gearboxes which are so slick you barely notice the shifts unless you see the rev counter needle rise or fall.

My father has an automatic for the first time and it has given his driving a new lease of life by not having to make sure he is always in the right gear – one less thing to worry about so he can concentrate more on his driving. Even his little supermini has a seven-speed gearbox and driving it is a pleasure.

My elder son has also switched to automatic because, living on the edge of a big city, surrounded by motorways, it makes life so much easier, while not having a clutch pedal takes the strain out of stop-start driving. More manufacturers are using twin-clutch or dual-clutch gearboxes, which shift automatically, and many sports models are no longer offered with a manual choice.

Twin electronically-controlled shafts manage gear selection, always anticipating your next shift so it can be made in milliseconds. One shaft selects first gear; the second one puts the next gear on ‘standby’. As the gearbox changes to second, the second shaft is engaged and the original shaft reaches third. As you shift upwards the sequence continues in a series of seamless moves. They also give different driving programmes, generally normal and sport with upshifts at higher revs in latter. You can also change manually by nudging the lever back and forth or using paddles behind or buttons on the steering wheel should you want more involvement.

So, if you are in the market to change your car, check out the modern automatics… it may also change your perception and shift your preference.

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End of road for paper tax disc

It’s the end of the road for the paper tax disc as part of a host of changes to bring vehicle excise duty into the modern world of motoring.

I noticed at the weekend that my son’s car tax runs out at the end of October but he won’t get a new one to display in the windscreen.

From October 1 the paper tax disc will no longer need to be displayed on the windscreen – if you have a tax disc with any months left to run after this date, it can be taken off the windscreen and destroyed.

Instead of displaying a paper disc to show your vehicle is taxed, tax-dodgers will be picked up by the automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) CCTV network.

You can apply online to tax or SORN (Statutory Off Road Notification) your vehicle using your 16-digit reference number from your vehicle tax renewal reminder (V11) or 11-digit reference number from your log book (V5C). You can also pay at a post office. To drive or keep a vehicle on the road you will still need to get vehicle tax and DVLA will still send a renewal reminder when your vehicle tax is due to expire. This applies to all types of vehicles including those exempt from vehicle tax.

From October 1, when you buy a vehicle, the tax will no longer be transferred with the vehicle so you will need to get new tax before you can use it. You can tax the vehicle using the New Keeper Supplement (V5C/2), part of the vehicle registration certificate (V5C) online, or by using an automated phone service – 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Or you can visit a post office.

If you sell a vehicle after October 1 and have told DVLA, you will automatically get a refund for any full calendar months left on the vehicle tax and will no longer need to make a separate application.

And from October 1 (October 5 if setting up at a post office), direct debit will be offered as another way to pay for vehicle tax on an annual, twice-yearly or monthly basis but it will cost 5% more to pay monthly. As long as an MOT remains valid, the payments will continue automatically until you tell DVLA to stop taking them or you cancel the direct debit with your bank.

Vehicle history check provider HPI is warning motorists to be aware of the changes and highlights the risk of a fine, as well as facing penalty charges against a vehicle they no longer own.

Shane Teskey, senior consumer services manager of www.hpicheck.com, said: “The move away from paper tax discs will save motorists money on postage and offers more flexible payment options, not to mention making it harder for tax-dodgers to drive untaxed.

“For used car buyers, from October 1, the vehicle tax will no longer be transferred with the vehicle, so it’s important to ensure they get tax as soon as possible.

“Importantly, under the new rules, used car sellers are responsible for notifying the DVLA and then they will receive a refund for any months left on the vehicle tax. Sellers who fail to inform the DVLA could be fined and they will still be liable for any speeding or parking fines and vehicle tax for a car they don’t even own any more. We remind sellers to always send the V5C to the DVLA, rather than relying on the buyer to do it. And if they scrap a vehicle, they should get a certificate of destruction (CoD) from an authorised treatment facility.

“We’re hoping that the new DVLA initiatives will make it harder for dodgy drivers to head out on the road untaxed. It’s easy to check if your vehicle is taxed by heading online at the Vehicle Enquiry Service, making this the first step for anyone planning to sell their vehicle and avoid the risk of fines.”

For more information visit www.gov.uk/government/news/vehicle-tax-changes, www.hpicheck.com or vehicleenquiry.service.gov.uk

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See your way to keeping windows clean

It might be the season of mist and mellow fruitfulness but, beware, it is also the season of misty murk and smeary screens, says motoring editor Andy Russell.

It’s vital to keep screens clean and clear especially as the sun sits lower

It’s been a funny old year so far with the glorious, but unexpected, spring weather giving nature a head start and the hot summer sunshine and timely showers bringing plants and crops to fruition earlier than normal.

But now I can’t help feeling that we are already heading into the autumn earlier than normal; the evenings are pulling in, the nights have become pleasantly and pleasingly cooler and I’ve noticed that the mornings are starting to have a bit of a nip in the air and a touch of mist lingers until the sun burns it off.

The combination of warm days and cooler nights means that we are starting to see condensation on the outside of the car windows and warm breath misting up windscreens in the morning. So the trusty rubber blade and cloth have come off the shelf in the garage to clear the condensation from the glass so I have clear views all round before setting off.

It takes only a couple of minutes at most to wipe them clean but makes driving much easier and safer so, if you don’t have a garage or leave your car out night, go out to the car a little earlier in the morning to dry off the car windows.

I’ve been using a water-repellent glass treatment on the outside of the windows of our car and it certainly helps encourage any water to run off, especially as there is no wiper on the rear screen. Now I am also using an anti-fog treatment for the inside of the windows after seeing it being used to stop the windscreens of stripped-out British Touring Car Championship contenders misting up during races.

If you haven’t got round to having your vehicle’s air conditioning serviced this summer don’t leave it until next year.

I’m feeling smug as I invested 60 quid in having our car’s air-con system serviced and re-gassed and the difference in its performance is remarkable.

The air-conditioning gets much colder, more quickly and, because it does not have to work so hard, fuel economy is slightly better too.

And, just as importantly, it tackles misty morning windscreen syndrome efficiently and effectively so while you are clearing condensation from the outside of the windows the air-con is demisting the interior.

With the sun getting lower you also notice how smeary the inside of the windscreen becomes which can be hazardous. You can buy special cleaning cloths, which are handy to keep in the car, but one tip I was given was to wipe the inside of the screen with neat screen wash additive to remove the grime and then buff it up with a clean cloth.

If you spot any little chips in the windscreen, it’s worth getting them repaired – if they can be – before the weather turns colder and frosts cause them to crack.

It might be the season of mist and mellow fruitfulness but, beware; it is also the season of misty murk and smeary screens.

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All powered up to do little bit of research

I was asked what is the difference between BHP and PS which can seem confusing as different manufacturers use different ways to give the power output of their engines. I explained as best I could that they are essentially the same thing but it spurred me on to so a little research.

BHP is the abbreviation for brake horsepower and is the most widely used measure of engine power alongside PS.

While ‘horsepower’ refers to an engine’s total output, brake horsepower only looks at the amount of energy left once other parts like the gearbox, alternator and water pump have all been powered. It’s measured at the road wheels, not at the flywheel. PS is the abbreviation for ‘Pferdestärke’ – German for horse-strength.

One PS is about 98.6% of a brake horsepower – the two are virtually interchangeable. PS is sometimes referred to as ‘metric horsepower’.

Some car-makers quote engine power in in kilowatts – especially on the Continent.

Despite kW being the EU’s ‘legal’ engine power measure since 1992, it is used far less than PS or BHP. A kilowatt (kW) of power is about 1.34bhp.


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Little light relief… or just being kept in the dark

As the nights start pulling in, motoring editor Andy Russell passes on some bright advice about putting your lights on.

One of the best bits of advice I have ever heard about when to put your car lights on came from a traffic police officer.

As guest speaker at the advanced motorists’ group I belonged to someone asked him when you should put your lights on in cases of bad weather or when it was starting to get dark. His answer was so simple that it has stuck with me and stood me in good stead.

“When you think to yourself ‘Should I have my lights on?’,” he replied.
Apparently our brain acts like a light sensor and triggers the thought. So when it does, put your lights on. It’s better to have them on and be seen than not being visible. In the days when I rode motorcycles I never switched my headlight off – in fact the switch became so stiff you could hardly turn it off!

I often drive cars with headlights than come on automatically but I sometimes find they have not come on when my brain is telling me they should be… so I put them on manually.
Last weekend in a downpour on a motorway I came across one driver who could have used some advice about putting their car lights on.

With so much spray, they thought visibility was reduced enough to put the bright red rear fog light on, and cut their speed to little more than 30mph, but having safely passed them I noticed they were driving on side lights… and only one at that!
According to the Highway Code, you must use headlights when visibility is seriously reduced, generally when you cannot see for more than 100 metres – the length of a football pitch.

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Ford deserves medal for keeping Commonwealth Games moving

Ford has played its part as a driving force for the Commonwealth Games with a fleet of 1,123 vehicles, says Archant Anglia motoring editor Andy Russell.

Success on a plate – the Ford Fiesta, left, is the UK’s best-selling car ever with 4,115,000 sales while the Transit is the UK’s number one van

While the Commonwealth Games athletes have been driving themselves on to new levels of performance and record-breaking, spare a thought for one of the driving forces behind getting them to where they need to be.

I was lucky enough to get up to Glasgow with Ford for the launch of its new EcoSport compact sport utility vehicle. So before anyone else asks whether it was me they glimpsed on TV in the crowd at the swimming the answer is yes.

The EcoSport was good but the crowd’s reaction to 13-year-old Erraid Davies winning bronze in the women’s para-sport 100m breaststroke SB9 final was out of the world. It made you proud, whether Scottish or not, and united all nations in applause.

But Ford, as official automotive partner of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, is something of an unsung hero by providing 1,123 low CO2 vehicles including 327 S-Maxs, 279 Focus estates, 147 each of C-Max and Galaxy models, 80 Tourneo Customs, 50 Mondeos, 30 Transit vans, 10 Kugas, nine Transit 17-seat and seven Transit 14-seat minibuses, five Focus Electrics… and a partridge in a pear tree!

The vehicles are dedicated to an individual, country or are part of the chauffeur pool with Ford also training the volunteer drivers’ trainers about using the vehicles.

Ford support vehicles were also involved in the 120,000-mile, 248-day Queen’s Baton Relay with some employees baton-bearers.

And Ford is also a winner with a Fiesta bearing the registration place FMC 1 to mark it passing 4,115,000 sales since its 1976 launch to become the UK’s best-selling car ever while a Transit – 1 FMC – reminds use it is the UK’s number one van.

Find out more with Ford’s #PlayYourPart campaign on social media and at the website at playyourpart.ford.co.uk

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Buying now can make a great deal of sense

If you don’t mind not having the latest registration plate, now is a good time to find some great deals on new and used cars, says Archant Anglia motoring editor Andy Russell.

With the new 64 registration plate arriving on September 1 a lot of people will be thinking of changing their car. And, with the new plate looming, I’ve just encouraged my sons to actually change their cars now as it makes a lot of sense. Not everyone wants the latest registration plate on their new car. And it’s only for six months anyway now with the switch to the 15 plate in March next year. There used to be a time when the plate changed once a year in August so, if you got in at the very beginning, and you had a ‘new’ car for 12 months.

If you’re not too concerned about being bang up to date with the latest plate or, as many people do now, are going to put your personalised plate on it there are currently some great deals to be had on both new and used cars.

Dealerships are set volume targets on selling new cars and it’s in their interest to make sure they hit them. Admittedly, in the couple of months leading up to the plate changes in September and March, they are not going to be as high as the big-volume months but they are still targets.

So dealers often have cars in stock for immediate delivery – just have a look at some of the adverts in the motoring pages or online – with some attractive savings on list prices. And you might also get better finance deals or even some added extras thrown in for good measure.

It’s not just buyers of new cars who are able to reap the benefits of the looming new plate change looming with used buyers also able to take advantage of some good offers on the forecourts. Even if a dealership is not having an official used car event to shift some metal, it’s worth going in to see what they can do for you.

With most cars now having three-year warranties, most personal contract purchase (PCP) finance deals running for 36 months and the new plate change months being big business for the motor trade, dealerships are looking to clear some of the used stock from their forecourts ahead of a surge in trade-ins of good, low-mileage cars. But they currently have good, low-mileage cars on their forecourts which will be another registration plate change older soon which will further reduce their value.

So back to my two sons who both took advantage of good deals on used cars – one picking up a fully-loaded ex-demonstrator at less than two-thirds of the new retail price and spreading the cost with a decent deposit and a PCP, the other getting a high-spec one-owner, three-year model on a three-year HP contract.

Great deals served up on a plate!


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Don’t turn roundabouts into Russian roulette

Too many drivers are making negotiating roundabouts a guessing game by not using their indicators, says motoring editor Andy Russell.

Driving on to busy roundabouts is a bit like Russian roulette – any moment you expect a big bang.

Roundabouts are difficult enough without the added complication of playing the ‘guess where the car is going’ game.

With many drivers failing to use indicators, or even the right lane, it can be virtually impossible to know where they are going… assuming they even know themselves!

I felt very sorry the other day for a learner driver trying to get on to a roundabout where five major roads converge. They weren’t confident enough to nip into a gap in the traffic, and understandably so. But with so few cars indicating their intentions I was finding it difficult to judge when it was safe to go.

I am always careful on roadabouts, even more so since being forced to continue round one on my way home when a driver who approached it in the left-hand lane decided to sail round the outside of the roundabout and leave it at the third of the four exits… I just missed him and ended up leaving at the fourth exit and heading back to where I’d come from!

So I am delighted road safety charity the Institute of Advanced Motorists is offering tips to avoid problems at roundabouts.

Information: Look well ahead, check your mirrors so you know what traffic is around you. Give any signals in plenty of time. Try and identify a gap in the traffic before you reach the roundabout, but keep an eye on the car in front – it may not go for the gap you would.

Position: Approach the roundabout according to which exit you’re taking. Keep to the left lane to turn left or go straight and the right lane when taking an exit on the right. Watch for any road markings guiding you and try to give other vehicles plenty of space.

Speed: Slow smoothly to a speed appropriate for the roundabout, taking into account the position of other road-users

Gears: Once you’re at the right speed, and before turning, select the correct gear. Do a final mirror check, especially the mirror on the side you are turning towards.

Accelerate: At a roundabout choose a gap in the traffic and accelerate smoothly into it – the same applies to any other junction

IAM chief examiner Peter Rodger  said: “At roundabouts, it is useful to try and consider the whole thing as one manoeuvre – that way you have a plan about which lane to be in, when to move into that lane and what signals you expect to use. But you need to prepare to be flexible – other road users don’t always behave as we’d expect them to.”

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