Still in France

lupogti3_2_4920a82a1ccb4-lightboxWell that is nothing compared to a normal day in Marseille. It is quite possibly one of the most dangerous activities I have ever taken part in. If you’ve seen Luc Besson’s TAXI, you’ll have some idea of the driving standards in this windy, sun drenched Southern Port.

My daily commute in the Lupo is heart stopping at times, a life threatening mix of tight city streets and not much wider Autoroute, neither of them particularly well surfaced. It appears the Mairie de Marseille doesn’t deem road repairs as its priority, preferring instead to dig up a large proportion of the city centre to construct a tramway system. Thus, the Lupo’s slightly lowered suspension has some problems with the crater sized potholes here. I’m getting very good at identifying the varying degrees of size by the sound and vibrations through the car alone. Forget a Pagani Zonda in this city; it would simply be too cruel an environment for the Italian super car.

On the plus side, it doesn’t half sharpen the senses, and as nobody else in this city appears to look where they are going you really, really have to be on the ball. But true to its Germanic heritage it stays cool and focused, its city car roots being a perfect layout for the challenge. Plus, having some poke under the bonnet (or at least, more poke that your average Marseillais commuter Twingo) means that going for gaps in the traffic and getting out of trouble is light work for the normally aspirated 1.6.

Thankfully on the weekend I’ve managed to escape the city and explore the vast local countryside. I thought Wales was my driving Nirvana, but I’d never driven on the remote, cliff hugging N and D routes of the Var and Alpes Maritime until now. A Sunday trip to the medieval village of Le Castellet gave a taster, although I was dismayed to find a speed camera along an empty straight near the Paul Ricard circuit. But it was on an adventure to discover the N85 – known by its famous name of Route Napoleon – that the driving treats came. Twisting North from the hillside town of Grasse and eventually all the way to Grenoble, it is miles and miles (and many more miles after that) of mountain roads, beautiful gorges and rocky ledges where the road weaves. The whole route to Grenoble would be an epic trip and not one for this particular day, but something I must find the time to do on another visit to this region.

I was planning on heading as far up the route as Castellane and then taking the D roads West to take in the Grand Canyon du Verdon and eventually ending back near Aix-en Provence and then home to Marseille. Disappointingly, rapidly fading daylight and a low fuel warning light meant looping back towards Grasse and the Autoroute. However, in doing so I discovered some wonderfully deserted D roads through thickly wooded gorges. Xenons on full blast, the well surfaced roads were a joy for Lupo and pilot alike. Tight and not particularly fast, these roads are a hot hatch dream, suiting the size and power of the car perfectly. Once again, in a Zonda you’d have serious visibility and width issues and planting the throttle would probably leave you in a pile of broken carbon fibre parts at the bottom of a gorge.

Tank nearly bone-dry and having not seen another car for hours it was time to refuel both the car and passengers back in civilisation. Looking at the Lupo, taking a fill of super unleaded and with the engine ticking now and again in the lavender scented air, I was again still struggling to think of a car I’d rather have been in. Elise with the roof off or a sporting Clio of recent times, maybe, but little else I’d say.

I feel reluctant to mention the one or two niggles it’s developed after such a rewarding drive, but this is what auto-journals is all about. The drivers side seat ‘pull’ that lifts the front seat forward to gain access to the rear came off in my hands, but was easily fixed. Rather more annoying was a new and unpleasant noise coming from the steering wheel/column when turning the wheel. While I’m hoping it’s not serious (it’s coming from the wheel itself, not in the mechanicals of the steering), it’s possibly the most annoying noise you can imagine: a scraping sound like two pieces of sand paper being rubbed together. It comes and goes, but as time’s gone on it’s stayed more than gone away. I’ll be testing the warranty for the first time when I come to sort that. Watch this space.

So, some pretty extreme conditions for the little GTI to cope with of late. I’m hoping the car survives the abuse that Marseille throws at it so I can enjoy more roads like the N85. That was one of my all time great driving experiences, filed in my head somewhere under ‘Yes, that was a rather good day’.

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Andrew Woodall