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Motoring Contributions

A showcase of independent motoring journalism and automotive travails

JTurn Fleet Special: MR2 Turbo in France
Back in 2008 when I bought my first 2-seater sports car, I envisaged a never ending stream of glamorous European road trips cruising down the Cote D'Azur or screaming along German Autobahns. The reality is that I have unfortunately spent rather more time as a sports car owner sitting in stationary traffic at the M6/M5 interchange on a Friday evening than I have recreating the opening scenes of The Italian Job.

I redressed the balance a little over the Easter weekend with a driving holiday around Normandy and Brittany in my MR2 Turbo. The splendour of a European road trip seems tempered somewhat these days by the cost of ferrying a car across the channel to a point you'd actually want to visit (i.e. not Calais) and sharing that ferry with families and retired couples on a bank holiday weekend away. I don't remember James Bond having to do that in his Aston on the way to Monte Carlo...

Having landed at Dieppe and ploughed through Le Havre at rush hour, we crossed The Normandy Bridge (well worth the Péage) and dropped down into the charming harbour at Honfleur for dinner.

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Fuelled on ham and cheese crepes and coffee, I barrelled along the D675 (conveniently parallel to the motorway but avoiding any tolls) to our first overnight stop at Bayeux, taking the total distance covered in the first day to 350 miles. Shattered, smelly, and with only a French dubbed version of Wedding Crashers to entertain me, I have to say at this point driving on the continent wasn't proving to be quite as glamorous as I had imagined.

After taking in some culture in the form of the Bayeux Tapestry, where parking is free (National Trust and District Councils of the UK take note), we were off again. Aware that French petrol is not brewed to the same quality as their coffee, I took the MR2 for its first non-V Power drink in at least 3 years at a trusted BP garage (BP Ultimate, naturally...).

The next leg was much shorter, stopping off for lunch by the sea in Granville on the way to cardboard cut-out style UNESCO World Heritage Site, Le Mont-Saint Michel. The wide, arrow-straight roads of agricultural Northern France made for extremely easy overtaking and plenty of opportunities to hear the MR2's turbo spool and whistle behind my right ear.

There's a definite knack to overtaking in a '90s turbo - anticipating a gap with a shift down, balancing the throttle to build boost whilst maintaining speed, before pinning it when your chance arrives and treating your victim to a volley of turbo whine and engine noise on your way past. Modern turbocharged engines employ all manner of mechanical valves and electrical controllers to do this job for you and provide much more immediate power delivery. As with most things I'm an advocate of the old-fashioned method, where I'm allowed to decide the raw control inputs and the engine responds to me rather than an electronic middle-man.

After numerous laps around the largely unfathomable medieval streets of Dinan, I found our stopping point for the next two nights. The harsh English winter caught up with us on the next day and snow greeted our trip up the E401, along with a strange chirrup behind my right ear that I feared may be timing belt and/or tensioner related. Whilst this made for a slightly nervy onward journey - the fears proved unfounded when I got back to Britain and a new alternator belt silenced the squeak.

Ridiculously, the next day brought bright sunshine as the journey continued to its final stop in the port of St Malo. From Dinan, we took a detour over to the fishing village of Cancale to buy some lunch, and then north towards Pointe du Grouin to eat it. In an advert for the kind of gems you can stumble across on a driving holiday, my sense of direction pulled us up short of the crowded Pointe du Grouin at a dead end on the Rue de Port Briac. Luckily, this dead end consisted of a deserted car park looking out on to a small beach with beautiful views along the coast and out to sea (top picture).

The remainder of the journey to St Malo along the D201 was just as picturesque, and the driving holiday began to measure up to some of my expectations. A bright clear day, quiet roads and stunning scenery (including a further stop at the wonderfully isolated Fort du Guesclin) removed even my desire to make quick progress, preferring to soak up this small taste of an experience I had been waiting for since 2008.

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Even the debacle that is parking in St Malo (and the rude French woman who somehow hadn't worked out that "Complet" means "Full" in her language) wasn't enough to ruin a great day for a fan of motoring and pretty scenery.

This last minute revival was enough to convince me that the dream of the European road trip isn't dead in 2013, with a few provisos; it is not a cheap break as once you've paid as much as a return flight to Eastern Europe to get your car across The Channel; you still have to factor in petrol costs and road tolls. You could reduce costs by taking a more economical car - but that sort of defeats the object.

My intention for the next trip is to do quite the opposite and buy something with a V6 engine so I can watch the miles disappear in comfort and relative peace. As quick as the MR2 is, there's a certain here we go again reluctance to waking the turbo that makes it far from the ideal cross-continental cruiser. I think a V6 purr might be less wearing over a long journey than a 4-pot sitting inches behind my head at 3500rpm.

A little extra comfort might also allow me to strike out further than the largely featureless agricultural plains of Northern France - possibly pushing west into Germany and the Nurburgring, or south into the more culturally-rich areas of France and the aforementioned Cote d'Azur. I can just picture pulling up at Monte Carlo, and being instantly refused entry based on whatever shed of a 90's V6 I've arrived in...

Regular Features
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20th January

Just when you think everything is going well...

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7th October

Puma passes MOT despite struggle

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28th June

MR2 Turbo in France

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31st March

Further money "invested"

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6th January 2013

'90s reigns as the current JT Fleet is introduced