‘Hit a deer”, explained the driver of a purple Lotus 7, its face smashed, being trailered north up the M5 after the fracas in Spain. Husband and wife were unharmed, still bemused, smiling even. A glitter of other sports cars were making their way home from the landing at Plymouth – a Porsche 718 heading to Stirling, a Morgan to the Borders, hood still down as night fell. A gorgeous lime over white/gold Elan Sprint, destination unknown, plus dozens of bikers spraying out into the Devon landscape, as beautiful as you could hope for south of the north.
These longer channel crossings operated by Brittany Ferries are popular. Each year some 395,000 of us travel from northern England and another 5,000 from Scotland.
The favourite crossing is Portsmouth-St Malo. After the long drive from northern England and Scotland the overnight crossing gives us time to wind-down, or even wind-up, before heading into France.
On the 24-hour crossings from Spain there’s deck time watching whales and dolphins. Alexander James “AJ” Roberts, a native of Aberdeen who is based in Plymouth at the Orca research centre, was on board. Some majestic gannets kept company but of sea creatures we saw none. AJ saw 42 fin whales on one crossing. At 27 metres it is the biggest animal after the blue whale.
Boats and planes are heavy polluters. Liquid natural gas is replacing marine diesel, reducing carbon dioxide, and cutting sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and particulate emissions to almost zero. LNG complies with new regulations from January 2020. BF’s Salamanca and Santoña will follow in the wake of Honfleur (currently under construction in Germany and due to ply the Portsmouth-Caen route next summer). The company was founded by the farming community in Brittany in 1967 with first crossings in 1973.
Driving through France remains a quiet delight. True, the Brexit pound is not what it was, making petrol and diesel cheaper at home, but the Continent mostly remains good value. It was a rare chance to test the long-distance ability of a car with the characteristics of the classic French cruisers, Peugeot’s 508SW, a low-slung, sleek estate car. It was the only one we saw and it attracted attention from the French as well as the Brits. At the docks one admirer lost interest when she heard it was a Peugeot. She drives an Audi. Lucky lady.
This bleak antagonism is a stigma on brands trying to get on in life. Yet Peugeot has been voted “most dependable UK car brand” in the JDPower survey. Some swankier brands are not as reliable.
The chic cleaner at our lodgings in Pays Basque (her car, a Golf Sportsvan, chilled underfloor compartment) chuntered about the 508’s low-profile tyres no doubt affecting ride quality over pitted roads and being expensive to replace.
She was once married to a car company executive and lives on a hill in a grand house, making ends meet as a femme de ménage, ironing with a ferocity that flattens bra clips. Nickname, l’Ouragen. She is worthy of a Jacques Tati film.
Well, the 508 comfort was surprisingly good, I told the “hurricane”, (and clothes fastenings remained usable). It reminded us how cosseting French cars can be for grand touring. Even with the seats folded away so that it could be packed to the windows (including a dozen boxes of wine) the ride remained level and nimble enough to make twisty cornering feel safe. Its lower centre of gravity helps stability.
The hunkered down chassis gives a luggage floor height of 25 inches which reduces effort when loading all that wine. The offset is a lower roof height, so watch your head. Passengers complained at the absence of roof grab handles – which would help less than nimble bodies. The door windows are frameless so you can’t put too much strain on them.
French roads are smothered with a confusing variation in speed limits. Traffic cops seem to have handed over to cameras to keep the speeds down. They don’t spot impatient tailgaters, a fussy French trait.
The 508 was fitted with speed limit recognition, sometimes advising a lower limit than visually evident. Communities without “gateway” speed signs usually have a 30mph limit. The Peugeot knew them all. Its navigation was brilliant, too, alerting us to detours around recent incidents.
Prices are on average £1,500 higher than the Fastback, giving a starting price of £26,845 for the 1.5-litre turbo diesel SW, the only version with manual gears. There are three choices of diesel power, two of petrol, and at the end of the year a petrol hybrid with plug-in electric battery charging – aka a PHEV.
The entry price for petrol is the 180hp Allure automatic at £31,495. Coming in October 2019 will be the PHEV version, with a combined 225hp from the 1.6-petrol engine and the electric motor.
Verdict: Happy motoring memories. I have yet to love touch-screens.