After two entertaining, but somewhat unremarkable episodes, we arrive at episode three of Top Gear’s nineteenth series. Thankfully, while it’s still evident that the show has passed its peak and run out of ideas, this was an improvement over the past two episodes that, at times, rekindled the old series’ spirit.
Clarkson resumed his role as chief powerrrr-tester, this time setting his sights on the tail-happy Toyota GT86. And get this: Top Gear tested a car that people in the real world could feasibly buy. These days it’s rare to see Top Gear review a car that has even a modicum of boot space, so savour the novelty while it lasts.
Costing a mere £25,000, which, as Jeremy pointed out, is relatively cheap for a rear wheel drive car, we were subjected to the obligatory shots of Clarkson happily hooning around the test track to demonstrate how easily the car oversteers around corners at low speed. If I see one waggling its tail out in my local Co-Op car park on my travels, I'll know who to blame.
As glorious as it always is watching a car get its tyres tortured on the Top Gear test track, Clarkson’s review still managed to provide some technical insight into the GT86, from its engine specification to the fact the tyres are as thin as a Toyota Prius’. It’s not the fastest car Top Gear has ever tested, and nor was it by any means the prettiest. But, judging from the disturbing, delirious expression on Jeremy’s face, it certainly looks as if you would have a whale of a time, providing that you happen to own a disused airfield. The GT86’s twin brother, the Subaru BRZ, even made a fleeting appearance at the end, which raised a valid point – given that these two cars are built in the same factory and are virtually identical both cosmetically and in spec, which one do you choose? I would have liked to have seen a more thorough comparison of the two.
Onto the news, episode three was a typical example of what the trio do best in a gathering: start to talk about cars before going wildly off topic. Such as discussing the acute pain felt when standing on hidden objects in the middle of the night and Ray Mear’s testicles. Again, this week's news was too devoid of actual car news.
The meat of this episode was another of Top Gear’s famous epic races, where Jeremy attempts to drive to a foreign destination faster than Richard and James on public transport. It’s been quite a few years since we last saw a similarly staged race, and this one harkened back to the very first Aston Martin DB9 vs. train race – it’s hard to believe that aired almost a decade ago now.
Starting at Wembley Stadium, the aim was to arrive at San Siro Stadium in Milan. The twist, however, was that Jeremy was restricted to using a car that cost less than £35,000 which, like the GT86, is within reach for many consumers. To the amusement of his mocking colleagues, his car of choice for the job was, surprisingly, a Shelby Mustang GT500, a car that wasn’t exactly designed for long-haul journeys.
At this point, I was expecting Jeremy to roar out of the stadium wheels spinning on the pristine pitch, but, for the first time ever, he showed some restraint. You can bet that every fibre in his body wanted to just floor it, but the BBC would have probably had some explaining to do as to why Wembley Stadium was engulfed in tyre treads.
The cheaper asking price of the Shelby brought an interesting new dimension to a tried and tested formula, as well as some ready-made comic relief that highlighted the Mustang’s woeful fuel economy.
Usually, these races are deliberately staged to be as close as possible to make good television, yet by the first half Jeremy was losing the race by a huge margin thanks to the speed of the thundering train. While this made the segment somewhat more believable than usual, it certainly made the race less gripping to watch.
The Star in a Reasonably Priced Car was rather refreshing in this episode. Not only was the guest a young attractive female, but also a passionate petrolhead – a combination we haven’t seen since Amber Heard took to the track. Scottish singer Amy Macdonald came across as warm, pleasant and modest for a pop star, and, if her lap time was anything to go by, is just as talented behind the wheel as she is in front of a microphone. And yet despite her fortune, she seemingly couldn’t afford a decent pair of jeans.
Amy’s passion for cars unsurprisingly meant that Clarkson struck a good connection in the interview, making it much more watchable than other musicians who have been on solely to plug their latest album.
The final stretch of the race then ensued, and the tension soon ramped up as Clarkson started to catch up with his rivals as the train slowed to a crawl. In typical Top Gear fashion, they were practically neck towards the end, leading me to assume that Clarkson would miraculously win yet again. Imagine my surprise, then, when I was wrong. Turns out French contraflows are your worst enemy in the heat of a race.
Yes, for the first time ever it was Hammond that was victorious, although I wish James had beaten him with his ingenious portable bicycle. Only then did Clarkson openly admit that, despite its striking looks, potent power and lasting legacy, the Mustang’s lack of refinement made it an ill-fitting choice for the exhaustive trip.
What made this setup work was that, unlike in last week’s US road trip, it focused on the car and the drama of the race rather than resorting to cheap laughs. Yes, some of the banter between Richard and James on the train must have been scripted, but it felt nowhere near as forced as in recent episodes.
The Shelby initially felt like an odd tool for the job, but it soon made sense. Honestly, I was expecting him to deride it for its American ancestry thoughout the segement, but thankfully this wasn't the case. Instead, Jeremy's evident enthusiasm for the car was clearly fuelled by Carol Shelby's recent death, which prompted a short but wonderfully heartfelt tribute video to the late legend. The Shelby may not have won, but it was nonetheless a fitting tribute to both Carol Shelby and the everlasting legacy of the iconic Mustang.
By making the cars the stars and evoking the passion of the presenters, episode three of series 19 managed to right the wrongs of episode two. It may not have been a particularly original episode, but it was easily the best of the series so far. Then again, I could be recycling this conclusion if next week's episode is anything to go by: not only is Clarkson back with another of his ridiculous road tests involving a Kia C'eed and a game of autmotive rugby, but Lewis Hamilton is set to make a triumphant return to the track to set the score in the Liana. Can't. Wait.