I'VE DRIVEN plenty of cars that cut out every time they stop at a traffic light. Since none of them cost more than pounds 500, the cacophony of hooting and abuse from drivers behind almost seemed worth it.
The last car I drove was different. It cut out not just at every traffic light and roundabout, but even when going downhill - and it cost pounds 11,500, which could have bought 20 or 30 of my old bangers.
The car in question was the Volkswagen Golf Ecomatic, an attempt at a green car that goes a good deal further ecologically than most other vehicles on the road. It cuts out at all stops longer than one-and-a-half seconds, and on the downhill overrun, but restarts at the gentlest touch of the throttle. Until you get used to it, this can be disconcerting. All those miserable moments stalled in a jam come flooding back, and hearing the starter churn while cornering or advancing across a frantic roundabout goes against every driver's instinct. For most, being in control means having power at all times.
The Ecomatic's engine is an adapted Golf diesel, connected to the gearbox by a clutchless drive: when the revs drop as the accelerator is released, the gears are automatically disengaged. The cut-out mechanism is disabled in reverse to make slow manoeuvring easier, and can be over-ridden by a button on the wiper stalk - so the car can be driven more urgently, with more conventional use of the gearbox, if needed. Moreover, everything works - lights, brakes, power steering and heating - even when the engine is dead. There's even an auxiliary battery to stop the lights flickering when the starter turns.
So what are the drawbacks? To begin with, ecological driving and enjoyable driving are not the same thing. Quickish A-road spins are limited in appeal by the lack of engine braking, and the difficulty in keeping the revs up for gear changes. There's also an admonishing orange light when you're in a higher, unecological rev band.
The Ecomatic is a fascinating innovation, a sharp reminder of how much of the time engines are burning up fuel when going nowhere. But buying one is a symbolic act, aimed at saving the world's resources rather than the owner's. Though the fuel benefits are good, they must be weighed against the premium you pay for this unusual car in the first place.
GOING PLACES: Unique fuel- saving adaptation of standard 1.9 Golf diesel engine. Limited power from 64bhp unit, 0-60mph in 17 seconds, 50-70mph in 18 seconds. Conventional gearshift but clutchless changes, easy to get used to.
STAYING ALIVE: Heavy bodyweight and no front anti-roll bar make cornering ponderous, though OK at these performance levels. Golf construction excellent, with class-leading rigidity and passive safety features. Ride very good, steering weighty and positive, brakes good, though pedal-feel poor, height-adjustable seat belts.
CREATURE COMFORTS: Driving position adjustment good, passenger accommodation and legroom good, elbow-room at the rear even better. Flat, uncluttered boot-space, drab but clear and practical instrumentation and
sensibly placed controls.
BANGS PER BUCK: No electric mirrors or windows standard, but power steering, rear wash/wipe, removable Sony sound system all included. Fuel economy approximate average 45mpg in town, 55mpg on open roads. Price: pounds 11,495.
STAR QUALITY: Unusual concept car that tries hard to reverse automobile unsociability and do its bit for the planet. Also rarity value.
TURKEY QUOTIENT: Expensive, lack of refinements, slow.
AND ON MY RIGHT: Very little, actually - it's unique - but comparable on fuel economy, if not emissions grounds, with these: Citroen AX Echo D ( pounds 8,195) - lighter, tinnier, much cheaper, but sharper on the road and capable of 57mpg too; Peugeot 106 XRD ( pounds 8,435) - slow but quiet, very good handling, stylish, reasonably priced; VW Golf D ( pounds 9,600) - all the same Golf virtues, not so economical - but much cheaper.
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