Skullduggery at “Top Gear?
There are two TV car-review shows that come to us from England. One is “Fifth Gear” and the other “Top Gear,” and I very much enjoy them both. Actually, there are more than two, but I’ll focus on this pair due to recent shows that left me puzzled.
Both shows aired reports on the “Zenvo ST,” which you have probably never heard of. This is a new car from a relatively new (2004) company located in Denmark. Denmark, as you might surmise, has no significant history of car manufacturing.
The Zenvo is yet another supercar (as if we needed another), that costs a reported 800,000 British pounds, which is about $1.8 million to us Yanks, if we could import one and park it in the garage. It uses rather “old school” technology in that it has a steel frame. The engine is a 427 Corvette monster as used in the ZR1, with a supercharger and a lot of displacement generating over 600 horsepower, which should be adequate. The Zenvo boffins then bolt on a turbocharger to add another 100 horsepower or so.
On first glance, I liked the car a lot. Not a lot of go-boy wings and look at me bits, but a fairly straightforward aero shape with an enormous engine in the back, aided and abetted by huge brakes and so forth.
So far, ho hum. What aroused my curiosity was the treatment the car received at the hands of both shows. Fifth Gear had their pro driver Jason Plato take the car around a track, and he was not impressed. He felt the handling was not up to par and was also inconsistent. He made his opinion very clear, but it seemed he was trying pretty hard NOT to be impressed. I wondered why.
Top Gear is the most-watched car show on the planet, and in recent years has become less enjoyable because the hosts have to act more and more like “themselves” in order to top their last effort. Thus, Richard Hammond has gone from being pleasant to obnoxiously cute, and Jeremy Clarkson has felt the need to amp up his buffoonish tendencies, whereas I thought he was quite sufficient as a buffoon from the get-go. Only James May has remained consistent, but when your role is to be “Captain Slow” (he is not), and the tiresome nerdy bore (he is not), perhaps it is easier.
When it came to the Zenvo they really went after it. Clarkson drove the car around their track and mentioned that the Zenvo top engineer told him that with all the stability controls turned off the car was virtually undriveable. Top Gear then showed a minute or two of Clarkson spinning out repeatedly, and then he agreed with the assessment of the engineer. What point was made?
He posed the question, in reference to the cost, of “Why would you have one of these rather than a Ferrari or Bugatti or Aston Martin or Porsche?” Seems obvious to me – precisely because it is none of those. Rather than being “the rich asshole in the Ferrari,” some might prefer to be “the rich asshole in a car you’ve never heard of.”
The Zenvo, to me (I will never own one) offers some of the same appeal as a Dodge Viper and to some extent a Corvette. Dodge Vipers have always had a surplus of power and, until the most recent edition, no stability controls at all. Some people like that. The Corvette remains more popular with just about everyone than road most testers can understand because at the end of the day they are fun to own and drive. I think the Zenvo would appeal as a fun and very fast car that makes great sounds and is also stunning to look at, if money were literally no object.
And then Top Gear blew the lid off. First they spend a lot of time on mechanical issues the car had in their hands – including an (oops) fire. But they did not mention similar problems they’ve had with other cars in the past. When they finally got a Zenvo in one piece and had their pet racing driver “the Stig” turn a lap for time, they chose a very wet day – and turned off the stability controls.
What? They’d already proved that the car was undriveable with the stability controls off, especially in the wet. The only reason to turn them off for this test, against the advice of the company head engineer and counter to their own previous testing, was to force an artificially slow time.
Sure enough, you could see the driver virtually tip-toeing around the course in the rain, and his time was just a pip slower than a Ford Focus ST. They grudgingly admitted that the ST was on a dry track, but made it sound like a Focus ST is a slow car, which it is not.
So what is going on? A desire to protect the established in crowd who provide them test cars? A grudge against Denmark, or against one of the principals of the company?
I don’t know, but my suspicions have made me less of a fan of both shows.
Copyright 2014 David Preston