Author Archives: Nick Caunter


Phaeton makeover – 10 years younger, for cars?

According to Wikipedia, a Phaeton ‘is the early nineteenth-century term for a sporty open carriage drawn by a single horse or a pair of horses, typically with four extravagantly large wheels, very lightly sprung, with a minimal body, that was fast and dangerous.’

I recognise the description of the wheels but that’s it.  My 6 year old VW Phaeton is not sporty, doesn’t even have a sunroof, has a hefty body, is variably sprung, is drawn by 230 odd diesel ‘horses’, is slightly lumbering and rather than being dangerous, is surely one of the safest and most comfortable cars on the road.

For VW, it was a financial disaster as despite being pitted against the Merc S Class and the 7 series BMW, never sold in the volumes expected or needed.

For me, it was relatively cheap to buy and has been my long distance vehicle of choice for the 5 years I have owned it.

However, 5 years and 55,000 miles of motorway driving through all weathers (and the Phaeton is, surprisingly, 4 wheel drive) had taken their toll.  The paintwork began to look drab, the front grill had a stone chip which looked like a bullet hole and the ‘extravagantly large wheels’ were looking tatty.  But, inside and when driving, the car looked and felt as good as new.  So, I decided an exterior makeover was needed and booked it in at the VW authorised repairer, Crawley Down Group(CDG).


The grill was replaced and the bodywork valeted and treated with Lifeshine which, quite simply, does what it says on the tin. Meanwhile, the wheels were removed and sand blasted to be repainted, but when the tyres were taken off, the technician found a small 2cm hairline crack in one of the wheels…a consequence, no doubt, of the horrific, pot-holed state of British roads in recent times.  Worryingly, this probably wouldn’t have been found if I had decided to leave the wheels as they were.  The problem wheel was dispatched by courier to a specialist welding shop to fix and within a few days, the Phaeton was back to looking as good as new.


So, I spent a little on the car rather than replace it and personally I feel good that this was the right choice for a car which feels like it has 200,000 more miles left in it.  In fact, I am sure if I had decided to sell it on and buy a newer car, the makeover investment would have been repaid in resell value.  Looking after the cosmetic appearance of a car is just as important as the mechanical side – and in this case highlighted a potential future safety concern.

Want to find out more on how we can help your car look a few years younger? Read all about our bodyshop and SMART repairs here: 


SKODA Octavia

Gatwick to Stansted and back at 60MPG!  Not bad for a 5 door family 1.6 diesel with a 7 speed DSG box; not bad at all.

The new Octavia is quite a package, especially, in my view, when it comes with the VW group’s brilliant auto gearbox.  At the touch of the gear stick you can select full auto Sport and Economy modes as well as clutch-less manual changes if you feel so inclined.  I stuck mostly with the economy mode and this proved more than capable for the busy M25/M11 route between airports.  The resultant MPG was surprising good.

This was a well equipped car, with Sat Nav, full auto air con, reversing sensors and all the other gadgets you’d expect.

Build quality is easily up to the usual SKODA standard; a standard which is winning business from drivers of some unexpected marques.  Savvy, value- seeking motorists seem to be switching from more traditional luxury brands and as a result SKODA has seen good share growth in recent years.  SKODA’s tend to be a bit larger than the equivalent from other VW group badges; this one has an especially large boot, accessed as though it’s a hatchback, even though it looks like a saloon car.

The new Octavia offers a lot for the money and is well worth a test drive.


The SKODA Yeti

“Hello, it’s Mr…(let’s say, Spooner) we’re back at Gatwick and you have our white Yoda Sketi, we’ll be back soon to collect it”

That’s how a recently mis-dialled call to my desk went…I acknowledged the message and passed it on to the reception desk at APH Gatwick, which was the intended recipient.  Oddly, perhaps, I understood that this was nothing to do with the Jedi and I could picture the exact car.  A few days earlier I had test driven a white SKODA Yeti, a diesel 4×4 version (that’s right, some models are not 4×4).  It is a very accomplished and practical car with great build quality, rugged, understated styling and a go anywhere, in any conditions, drivetrain.

I really enjoyed driving the car and began to understand why it is so popular with so many people.  Rather than the ungainly over styling of some crossovers, the Yeti is simplicity itself; some might think boxy, but I like the look.

Top Gear loved the car and I now know why.  Looks especially good in white!

Peugeot 208 GTi Badge

Does the Peugeot GTi provide the Grin Factor?

Back in 1987, somehow I managed to have climbed far enough up the corporate ladder to qualify for my very own choice of company car, within a budget of around £9k. This was a rare privilege as lower down a choice of 2 or 3 cars was the norm.   In those days £9k would buy a selection of very desirable cars.  For me the choice was easy; a Peugeot 205 1.9 GTi in dark grey metallic paint.  At the time, the 1.6 version had become a very acceptable alternative to the Golf GTi among Maggie’s Yuppie generation not to mention the Hoorah Henrys and Sloane Rangers.  But the 1.9, now that was very special.  Grin Factor, that’s what it had…by the bucketful.

So, despite the lame guitar riff fanfare of the somewhat lame Peugeot TV ad, I was eager to see if the Grin Factor was reborn in the 2013 Peugeot 208 GTi.  Black with red detailing, with a similarly hued interior, the demonstrator at looked every inch the son (or is it grandson?) of my old “one point nine”.

My drive was to Heathrow and back and was rewarding, very rewarding, especially when I ventured off the M25 on the return journey.  Just like the 80s car, this descendent was made for twisty roads; ultra sharp steering and ultra sharp throttle response all bundled with a super slick gear change.  Did it have Grin factor?  Yes, but the new car is soooo much more sophisticated in every single way; from cabin comfort to progressive power, touch screen sat nav to full auto air con.  That level of sophistication is what makes it a very usable, fast and fun car for a new generation.  For die hard 1980s born-again GTi fans they’ll miss some of the raw go-kart feel, but that should be more than made up for by the comfort and extra power.

Peugeot RCZ Front

RCZ to Richmond

A lunchtime meeting beckoned, just an hour away at Richmond.   The sun was shining on what would turn out to be the warmest day, so far, of this chilly Spring. had loaned me an RCZ, Peugeot’s sports coupe, but this one was slightly different being a diesel.  The car certainly looked the part with the contemporary white body and black roof.

After a few adjustments, the seating and steering position was comfortable and that feeling of sitting in a sports car was immediate.  With the dual zone auto aircon set, I fired up the engine, half expecting the diesel engine clatter to be very noticeable, but it wasn’t.  At all.

The journey was uneventful with the M25 being on good behaviour.  The RCZ performed impeccably, with a slick, easy gear change through the six forward gears and plenty of torque if you felt less inclined to use them.  I didn’t drive very quickly, but the performance, ride and road holding qualities were definitely sporty.  It certainly feels like a car that could be driven hard if you felt so inclined.

Off the Motorway and in slow moving traffic, this car in this colour scheme turns heads with both men and women giving it admiring glances.

Parking was easy with the fitted parking sensors and the large back window affording plenty of rear visibility.

But why diesel in this type of car?   Well I can think of 3 good reasons:

  1. I easily achieved 40mpg on my return journey and I think even for much shorter commuting, this car would deliver 36-37 mpg
  2. 130 g/km emissions – giving a lower road tax band
  3. No one but you need know it’s a diesel, until it comes to resale (then, it’ll help your bank balance)
SEAT Alhambra

Surrey to the Savoie in SEAT’s Palace on wheels

For our household, the Easter Holidays means the annual must-have ski trip to the French Alps.  This year, in common with the last 3 or 4 we had chosen to drive to our resort and courtesy of we had the use of a new SEAT Alhambra. The car in question was the Ecomotive 2.0 diesel with the brilliant VW group DSG auto gearbox.  This vehicle had lots of other clever features which would suit any family on the move: built-in child seats; lots of storage; stargazing double sun roof; reclining 2nd row seats, cruise control, flappy paddle gear change (not really needed in a car like this), parking sensors…the list goes on.

The one missing item was a Sat Nav.  Having done the journey a few times before this wasn’t a great concern, but it is nice to have the security of knowing where you are and the predicted journey duration, as well as a fall-back in case of a diversion.  So, we borrowed a Tom-Tom.  But, more on that later.

The Alhambra was indeed palatial in terms of the space.  We loaded 4 pairs of skis, 4 pairs of ski boots, a snowboard, several ski helmets, jackets, clothes, copious food and drink for the journey and still had 4 of the available 7 seats free for passengers as well as full vision out of each of the many windows.

This year, without needing a roof box due the Alhambra’s internal space, we slotted comfortably into the standard car section on our pre booked Eurotunnel departure.  Arriving in France, fully equipped with the requisite hi-viz vests, breath test kits and spare bulbs etc, we were impressed to see that diesel was priced at 1.46 Euros per litre – the same numbers, just a different currency, as in the pre-departure fill up in Surrey.

The first leg of our journey was uneventful, cruising effortlessly on the peaceful toll roads at the dry weather speed limit of 80mph.  Such a sensible law; to have different dry and wet weather speed limits – score one up to the French.

The Tom-Tom unit fitted easily on to the large windscreen and setting the destination was completely intuitive, not requiring any reference back to the instructions, which for me is the acid test.  While a lot smaller than the typical in-built unit we have become accustomed to, its accuracy was spot-on throughout the journey.  There are very easy to follow countdown and lane indicators (I can’t comment on the audio instructions, we have to turn those off on any Sat Nav).  All in all the Tom-Tom was easier to use than some built-in units.  This was a pleasant surprise and completely overcame our disappointment in there being no unit in the dashboard.

By the time we reached our stop-over point – a hotel near Beaune, in the Burgundy region, we had topped 41 MPG and it remained above this level throughout the rest of the journey. We had also developed a great deal of respect for the low noise and high comfort levels the Alhambra delivered.

The next day and the final leg to our ski resort turned into something of a Top Gear style Jezza vs Hamster & James race.  Our eldest son was en route to the same resort, but instead of the comfort of the Alhambra, he was in an overnight long-haul coach with 52 other students from a London Uni.  The Alhambra team had slept in until 08:30, by which time we discovered via the miracle of SMS that the coach had over-taken us and was an hour further down the road!  Resigned to losing the race, that wasn’t even meant to be a race, we breakfasted leisurely and then plodded on at the legal cruising limit.  Not very Top Gear like, I know.  After a couple of hours another text was delivered, which gave us new hope. The coach had stopped for provisions at 1992 Winter Olympic host town of Albertville.  While the students stocked up on nutritious provisions (yeah right!) we closed the gap.  We later learned that 1 or 2 of the students were very, very keen shoppers, so to cut a long story short, the Alhambra glided past Albertville and took the lead and, inevitably a comfortable win as the last 12 miles or so, were uphill on the classic winding Alpine road.

The return journey was equally comfortable and economical but otherwise uneventful, apart from the torrential rain we encountered as we drove the last leg in England! Interestingly, at one of French services we stopped next to a new VW Sharan of almost identical colour.  The badge was different, the alloy wheels were of a slightly different pattern, but otherwise these two cars are the same, the SEAT is just a good deal less expensive.

SEAT Alhambra 2.0 Diesel Ecomotive

Best features:

  1. DSG auto gear box
  2. Clever folding seats
  3. Quiet engine
  4. Comfort for front and rear passengers
  5. +40 mpg with a full load