Why Top Gear Made Me Hate My Country Last Night

Why Top Gear Made Me Hate My Country Last Night

[Photo: Jeremy Clarkson, from Top Gear's US website.]

For our European readers, this item will only confirm your worst assumptions about Americans as myopic idiots who have no idea what is going on in the rest of world.

As for our readers here in the USA: we are myopic idiots who have no idea what is going on in the rest of the world.

Or, at least I am.

That became painfully obvious last night as I was watching my favorite new television program, Top Gear, which shows multiple times a day on BBC America, a sign that it's catching on in the rest of the country, too.

Apparently, the eminently watchable Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond have been abusing high-performance sports cars, wrecking tractor-trailer rigs, and generally wreaking havoc with motor vehicles for several years now, but it's just recently that they've started to hit it big in America.

I've found myself thoroughly entranced by these car worshippers, and I'm not even a car person. In fact, ditching my automobile was one of the very best things about living in New York City. And I don't miss owning a car in the least.

But one thing has nagged at me about enjoying Top Gear.
I didn't like what Clarkson and company did, in one episode, to a Toyota Prius.

Clarkson badmouthed the hybrid wondercar in the cruelest terms as a Prius was raced around their track at high speeds, something the car wasn't designed for. With all of the accelerating and braking, the Prius managed a pitiful fuel efficiency, and Clarkson said it was junk.

The Prius, junk! For those of us who actually have concerns about the environment and energy, the Prius has been something of a miracle. Drive it reasonably, and it gets an amazing 45 miles per gallon in city driving, and doesn't even put out exhaust when it's sitting still or moving slowly.

Surely, I'm not the only American who has dreamed of a future with nothing but hybrid cars in this country, or better yet "plug-in hybrids" that will get even better gas mileage.

And this is, after all, a matter of life and death: for six years now, we've asked young men and women to risk their lives fighting in a region of the world that's strategic for its oil reserves, while back at home most of us drive crappy cars that get 10 to 20 miles per gallon.

Despite a war on, we seem to have little choice: we can care about our wallets and purchase cars that get about 20 to 25 mpg, or spend more money for hybrids that get 30 to 45 mpg and help with our environmental and energy problems.

I didn't expect the car lovers at Top Gear to understand that, however. They were into horsepower and speed.

At least, that's what I thought until last night.

The fourth episode of Top Gear's 12th season aired last night, and I am still in shock. I'm angry, I feel betrayed. And I feel like a fool.

Here's why.

Clarkson, the show's lead-foot, explained that he hated the contest the producers had dreamed up for them in this episode. The three hosts would choose unmodified production cars and then, on a single tank of gas, attempt to drive the 750 miles from Basel, Switzerland to Blackpool, England.

James May loved the idea (if you knew the show, you'd know why -- he's the methodical driver). He thought very carefully and showed up to the contest with a Subaru Legacy Diesel.

Clarkson showed up with a Jaguar twin turbo XJ6 TDVi. "Because he's an idiot," May said.

And Richard Hammond pulled up in a tiny VW Polo 3-cylinder "Bluemotion," a car that made the other two laugh. But Hammond said, quite logically, that this contest was about gas mileage. And he quizzed the others what sort of mpg they expected to get.

Clarkson in his Jaguar? 35 miles per gallon, with a single tank range of about 655 miles.

May in his diesel Subaru Legacy? 50 miles per gallon, single tank 706 miles.

And Hammond in his diesel VW Polo? 74 miles per gallon, single tank 740 miles.

This was one of those "Say what?" moments. I turned to my wife and asked, "They said kilometers, didn't they? They didn't actually say miles, did they?"

But no, it soon became clear that they were talking miles per gallon, and these were not hybrid automobiles.

Over the rest of the show, I watched as each of the three managed to cover the entire distance and arrive in Blackpool on a single tank of gas.

And I was angry.

Sure, I figure plenty of Americans who know cars a lot better than I do must be aware that non-hybrid cars capable of 50 to 74 mpg are already available in Europe that put to shame the performance of the Toyota Prius or any other car you can buy in America. (In fact, here's a good story from Wired about that very thing.)

But I didn't know that. And I bet a lot of you didn't either. And I wonder how many parents of soldiers killed in Iraq know that we've been buying autos with pitiful mileage not because of technological challenges, but because of politics.

Apparently, it has something to do with American carmakers believing that even though diesel-engine cars in Europe get much higher mpg ratings than even the best hybrids available here, we won't buy them because we associate "diesel" with big trucks.

So, while James May can drive a Subaru Legacy that gets 50 miles per gallon, the Subaru Legacy that we Americans can buy currently gets 24 to 26 miles per gallon.

We are such jackasses.



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