Alan Judd

Dependable or exotica?

Two visitors this month.

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Two visitors this month. One, the latest iteration of the VW Polo, now in its fifth generation and with ten million Polo ancestors. The other, a 1968 Bristol 410 whose ancestors can probably be numbered in the hundreds and siblings in scores, maybe dozens. The first was for a week, courtesy of VW, the second is for a few months, courtesy of a friend who wants to sell but wants it used while he’s away.

Think Polo and you think smaller Golf, runabout, district nurses, retired primary- school teachers, reliable, sensible choice for modest budgets. That’s still largely true, except that, as Golfs have grown and put on weight, the Polo has kept in step, this five-door model being larger than any of its predecessors and less than nine inches shorter and six narrower than the new Golf. What constitutes budgetary modesty is another variable: with only a fiver’s change from £12,000 for the 1.2 SE version tested this is not one of the cheapest new cars, though it’s comparable with supermini competition from the Fiesta and Corsa. And the range starts at £10,035. Depreciation of the SE over three years would be about £2,000 a year.

But it’s more than a runabout. A 320-mile round trip to the Cheltenham literary festival was perfectly comfortable, not at all the wearying, droning, choppy-sea trip it can be in small cars. Granted, with only 70PS (69bhp) available from three cylinders you use the gearbox more than with the three larger-engine variants, but it revs freely up to the limit. It sounds a bit harsh under throttle but at 70mph and 3,000rpm the main noises are wind and tyres, neither too intrusive. Combined consumption is given as 51.4mpg; I achieved about 45. The electrically assisted steering is fine for normal use and the brakes are instantly reassuring.

Think VW and Audi interiors and you think sobriety and quality, which is what you get here. Good, height-adjustable seats (though no lumbar support), adjustable steering, tight fit and finish, quality materials, reasonable boot space and rear legroom (though the long-backed may find their heads brush the roof) and an excellent, simple, clear dashboard layout and lighting. Radio and aircon are accessible without a PhD in keyboard skills. As with the Golf, windscreen reflections are distracting, particularly to the sides when you use the wing mirrors, but you do get a full-size (steel) spare wheel. The exterior lines are clean and precise, sharp-edged and stylish; it’s a good-looker.

But the Bristol 410 is beautiful, a masterpiece of understated elegance, with a leather and wood interior that offers a complete sensual surround and a driving position and bonnet view that make you feel you’re motoring at last rather than merely driving. With 5.2 litres of Canadian Chrysler to help you along, a meaty automatic and the wide, slim steering wheel, it’s easy to persuade yourself they got it right in the Sixties. However, Sixties motoring also meant ineffective wipers, worryingly variable brakes (despite recent replacement by Bristol), a brake light that was on as much as it was off, inadequate and incomplete dashboard lights (reading glasses advisable), a speedo that offered estimates rather than readings and a sunroof wind deflector that could scalp you in an accident. Yet at five feet eight inches wide it’s less than two inches fatter than the Polo and handles and drives almost disconcertingly well. 

This weekend it’s a long run to Nottinghamshire. Dependable Polo or Sixties exotica? Economy or ageless style? A fluid top-up seems to have sorted out the Bristol brakes and their light. Do I feel lucky?