Sunday, 29 May 2011

Luxury Redefined? (....and a Yaris)

 After a long slog on a motorway experiencing TRAVEL CHAOS of whatever flavour I was dealing with this week, be it snow, cancelled trains, volcanic ash clouds or elephantine tarmac-eating shrews, It had been the one thing I was looking forward to on my journey North. That humble bowl of teabags and UHT milk capsules was sure to be waiting for me, there on the desk in my Travelodge room. It's one of life's great constants. You can rely on it. 

I wasn't disappointed. After a two hundred mile haul, after work, well after dark I arrived at my overnight stop. A quick flirt with the lady on reception and I received the clunky, worn key to my room. No Holiday Inn style passcard here. Room 132, upstairs, third on the right. I opened the door and the pressure-change sent out a wind of lightly stale air.

Surveying the room, there was a good-sized double bed, in plain white. White curtains and chair cushions, plain décor, no blinds, no coving, no wallpaper. It was like a student bedsit before you moved in; ordered, inexpensive. Stark. The en-suite bathroom was clean but basic.

But there it was; the bowl of teabags. And lo; a kettle. There was a television set, too. Pretty quickly a plan hatched itself. Within two minutes of crossing the threshold I had stripped off to my underwear and put the kettle on. A further three minutes later, I was laying on my back in a hot (but cramped) bath, reading a quite excellent book by Griff Rhys-Jones, with a steaming cup of English Breakfast Tea within reach, balanced on the toilet cistern.

Just twenty-five minutes ago I had been stuck in traffic on the A1(M), waiting patiently as the construction workers put the road back together again. At that point the journey seemed endless. Now, though, I was in an oasis of calm, here in my £49.95 a night motel room. This, I decided, was luxury.

Except it wasn't, was it? The bath was tiny and the backrest rose at too sharp an angle. The water could have been a touch hotter, and I wish I'd had the foresight to bring some bath foam; shampoo really isn't a viable alternative. Nor, being honest, was my cup of tea actually perfect; UHT milk always has a taste of cheapness, a thin, unconvincing quality to it. But at that moment none of those things mattered even a jot.

My luxuries were quietness, solitude and refreshment. And, crucially, having everything I need all together at exactly the right moment.

Tonights luxury was experienced in a Travelodge, a budget hotel aimed at travelling businessmen and holidaymakers looking for somewhere convenient to stay on their way somewhere. This isn't luxury acommodation; it's intended as just somewhere to crash for the night. But at that moment where you're about to suffer a traffic-congestion related aneurysm, a Travelodge room is just as welcome as a suite at the Hilton, Savoy or Ritz-Carlton.

I mention all this because I've just been driving a Toyota Aygo. This is one of three cars to result from project B-Zero, a tripartite arrangement with Peugeot and Citroen which allowed them to share development costs. The Aygo opened Toyota up to a market it had never competed in before, whereas the near-identical Peugeot 107 and Citroen C1 joined an already cramped French hatchback market. The concept behind the three cars was Chapman-esque in its ethos, but this time the design was minimalist to save cost, not weight.

This car has been carefully designed to be built to a price, and the way they achieved this was by leaving out anything seen as not essential for the car to remain functional. The splendid by-product of this was that quality could remain reasonable; there may be a lot of things missing, but that which remains is all good stuff.

The cost-cutting isn't blatantly obvious, but clever. For example, the two front seats, rather than being mirror images of each other as per convention, are both identical; the adjustment controls are in the same place on both. The rear parcel shelf is held in place by just one string, because that's all it needs. The tailgate itself is made of one simple glassy moulding; it's a non-structural part so why make it from metal? And on 5-door models, the rear window-glass pops out for ventilation, rather than using a conventional winder mechanism. This is all neat stuff; these are things that make so much sense you wonder why this kind of thinking isn't more widespread.

Interior plastics are nothing special, but this is hardly a damning statement; cars in this price bracket are usually shorn of Bentley-style interior appointments. The important thing is that clever touches and neat design flourishes abound, and add to a feeling that this car hasn't just been thrown together. The dashboard itself, who's design is made up of a number of separate pods to house the various dials and controls, looks tidy and up-to-date. The translucent surround to the HVAC controls is a novel and appealing touch. There is a standard-fit 3.5mm jack-socket via which you can connect your MP3 player to the car stereo, and all the other toys you could reasonable demand are available, either standard or optionally.

The greatest expression of what this car is all about, though, is seen in the swathes of exposed, body-colour metalwork adorning the interior and bringing the outside in. This, of course, is cheaper than plastic mouldings or carpet, yet doesn't bring the tone down one iota. What it does, in fact, is remind me of the original Ford Ka.

Ford don’t make the Ka any more. Well, they do by name, but the current machine is a far more plush, weighty conveyance than the friendly motorised igloo of 1996. I’m well known for my fondness of Fords smallest model, I loved the pared down nature of its design, its youthful exuberance; and the fact that it happenned to be an absolute hoot to drive, with lightning responses, fantastic grip from those wheels that were pushed right out into the corners, Issigonis-style; and the memorable retro soundtrack from that ancient crossflow-derived OHV engine. 

The Aygo isn't quite as spellbinding to drive as the Ka was, but it's well up to scratch and can provide a lot of fun when it wants to. Its lightness of weight assures that performance is always adequate, less than 800kg gives the one-litre three-pot engine a surprisingly easy time of things. In fact, that engine is one of the cars highlights. It makes an entertaining noise, a low-pitched thrum that makes you think you're always a few gears higher than you actually are, and caused me to forget to change into top on more than one occasion. Most importantly, it adds to the cars sense of character.
Cars like the Aygo and the original Ford Ka represent what has to be the minimum amount of car you can buy on the UK market while still having a good time. Inexpensive, simple, but crucially not rubbish. If looked at logically, they mark a watershed point in choosing a new car where anything more expensive begins to look like a bit of an indulgence. What do you really need from a car that these can't provide?

If I come across as hypocritical, I know; I am. I love big, luxuriously lined cars with massive torque and reckless performance. But I know that it's only due to my innate greed. A few years ago my girlfriend and I covered three thousand miles in a week, driving across Europe in her 1995 Peugeot 306. It was a 1.4 XN, the entry model in the range and completely devoid of what you'd call luxury features. But the seats were comfortable, the driving position sound and the noise level tolerable. We were in that car for seven days, driving, eating, sleeping. It was our home, and I cant imagine that any number of plastic mouldings, electric windows, deep carpets, leather seats, digital clocks, padded glovebox-lids, oddments trays, rev-counters, reading lights, central locking systems or alloy wheels would have enriched our experience by any measurable amount. Air-conditioning would have been nice, but we didn't really miss it.

And, of course, the Aygo I had today had A/C! And alloy wheels. And a fairly diabolical yellow half-leather interior, but the purity remains.

Back to the Travelodge; when I first entered the room I saw an abyss of basic-ness. I thought a night of misery and loneliness would lie ahead. But then I saw it for what it was; everything I needed in the right place and the right time, nothing more. Any extra embellishment would have just been garnish;- nice to have but not really essential.

It's actually taught me something; a new way to be satisfied more easily. I now believe that luxury begins when what you've got is more than enough.