Drives: BMW 325i
Join Date: Mar 2011
Clarkson says 5er>A6
I spent a day last week recording the voice for a new satellite navigation system. This meant sitting in a darkened room saying: ďIn 200 metres, turn right. In 200 yards, turn right. In 300 metres, turn right. In 300 yards, turn right. In 400 metres, turn right. In 400 yards, turn right ...Ē It wasnít as interesting as it sounds.
It also felt slightly ludicrous, like I was the kettle on the bridge of a nuclear-powered Nimitz-class aircraft carrier: an old-fashioned ingredient in a world thatís not old-fashioned at all.
Have you ever stopped and wondered how the sat nav system in your car works? Itís astonishing. There are 24 American military Navstar satellites in space, around 12,500 miles from Earth. At any point on the planetís surface, there is a direct line of sight to at least four of them.
But theyíre not standing still. Theyíre moving. Which means they are not fixed points as such. So, the little receiver in your poxy Volkswagen has to find them, and theyíre only the size of wheelie bins, then work out precisely how far away they might be at any given moment. Weíre talking major algebra here.
And bear in mind that the device must work out how long it takes for the signal to reach an object in space that is moving at several thousand miles an hour. That means a clock which can keep up with the speed of light. Get it wrong by a thousandth of a millionth of a second, and your VW will think itís just outside Kiev.
And then, when it has worked out where you are on the surface of Earth, it must compare the information with an onboard road map. And it still isnít finished because youíve just asked it to get you from where you are now to a postcode just outside Pontefract. This means it must analyse the 246,000 miles of tarmac in Britain and work out the fastest route. And if it takes more than five seconds, it knows you will be sitting there saying: ďOh, for Godís sake. Come on. You useless piece of junk.Ē
In the early days of satellite guidance, mistakes were common. The first time I ever used such a system, it tried to direct me through Leicester Square, which had been pedestrianised by the Iceni. And only recently, the systems fitted in BMWs absolutely refused to acknowledge the existence of the M40.
I spent a lot of time thinking: ďCrikey. This whole thing was designed so the Americans could post a cruise missile through a letter box 7,000 miles away and it canít even find a sensible route from Beaconsfield to London.Ē Now though, I have to say, mistakes are extremely rare.
Which is why Iím always surprised when an old lady driver tells hospital staff the reason she drove her car off a cliff, or through a river, or into a cave full of wolves, is because the sat nav system in her car told her to.
You hear these stories all the time. People who turn left at a level crossing, straight into the path of the 4.50 from Paddington, or left at a crossroads that isnít there, and into the saloon bar of the White Horse in Tiverton. Iíve always assumed that people like this must be stupid. However ...
Earlier in the summer, while filming in the south of France, I set off in a large convoy of camera cars and crew vans to a pre-determined location. We were being led by a man whom we shall call Rod. Which is a bit annoying for him because Iíve just remembered that is his actual name.
Anyway, Rod had set his portable sat nav to where we were going and off he set. Alarm bells began to ring in my car when we turned onto a very small country lane. And they became very loud indeed when the lane became a track. And then it stopped.
Rod was absolutely perplexed. His sat nav system was saying we were just 500 metres from our destination, which may well have been true, but the only way we could have got there on the route it had in mind was if weíd turned ourselves into goats. Many people blamed Rod for this. Me? I blamed the French.
Sat nav was fitted to the all-new Audi A6 I was driving last week. But it could do something other than find wheelie bins 12,500 miles away and get you to Pontefract. It could also operate your headlights, altering the shape of the main beam, depending on whether you were on a country or urban road or a motorway, and even switch everything on at junctions so other road users could see ... that youíve apparently gone mad.
And this is just the flake on the tip of the iceberg. Because there is also a device that can spot bikes and suchlike in the blind spots, and another that flashs up a warning message on the windscreen via a head-up display if it thinks you are travelling too close to the car in front. Then you have night vision, which puts a Blair Witch Project image of the road ahead on a screen in the dash.
You can even drive this car when you are fast asleep. CitroŽn was the first car manufacturer in Europe to introduce lane assist, a device that buzzes if it thinks youíre drifting out of lane on the motorway. Audi, though, has gone one better. Providing you are travelling at more than 40mph, its system will actually steer you back in line. And if you have the active cruise control switched on, it will even brake on your behalf if thereís an obstacle ahead. All thatís missing is an alarm clock to wake you up when you arrive at your destination.
Wi-fi? Well, as we know, this doesnít work in a house if the walls are more than 2mm thick, but somehow, Audi has made it work in a car. Which means that actually you could drive down the motorway, catching up on your emails, safe in the knowledge that the steering, braking and navigation are all being taken care of by electronics.
Of course, you might think that this veneer of mostly optional electro-trickery has been fitted to mask the shortcomings of a fairly dreary car. But no. Itís lighter than the old A6 and even though itís shorter, itís more spacious inside. It is also extremely well made and finished beautifully. It is a wonderfully nice place to sit, and thanks to absolutely fantastic seats, comfortable too.
Until you set off. Yes, you can adjust the way the gearbox, the throttle and the suspension behave but the simple fact is that no matter what settings you select, this new car does not ride quite as well as the BMW 5-series. It doesnít handle as well, either. And the entry-level 2-litre turbodiesel engine is not quite as refined as the unit that BMW uses. But that said, it should be capable of averaging 57mpg, which is remarkable.
So. Yes or no? Well, I much prefer it to the overstyled Mercedes E class, which was designed mostly to take Carol Vorderman to the airport. And I think for a number of reasons it is better than Jagís XF, but what about the 5-series?
Tricky one. Taken in their base forms, thereís no way to split them, really. The Audi matches the 5-series for economy and the Beemer is slightly nicer to drive. They really are Manchester City and Manchester United.
For sure, if you fit a few options to the Audi, you will have something that is mind-bogglingly good. But if youíre not careful you could end up spending more than BMW charges for the bigger-engined 530d. And thatís better than mind-bogglingly good. All things considered, thatís probably the best car in the world right now.