Choosing a chariot

Bit heavy on running costs. And the car as well.

Having decided that driving to resort is the way forward, it only remains to source appropriate wheels for the job. Not necessarily as straightforward as you might think, this one, given the variety of conditions you’re going to be dealing with and the budgetary constraints under which I have no doubt you’re operating. Gas-guzzlers are definitely out on a seasonnaire’s income, as is virtually anything which actually looks as though it might just about make it to the Alps. Small cars render the whole exercise a bit pointless, but lack of loot puts big ones out of reach unless they’re in such a state of disrepair that they fall apart just out of Calais. A thorny problem which is always going to result in some kind of unsatisfactory coalition-style compromise.

Leaving aside the initial investment, key car-buying criteria have to be running costs (cheap is good, particularly on the insurance front), size (the point of the exercise being to take three pairs of skis, enough electrical equipment to open a branch of Comet and preferably a passenger to share costs), snow performance and long distance comfort. And you might also wish to factor in extra features like ease of parking, sleeping space and whether or not you can get snowchains on over the wheels, something the youth who had to dump his pimped up Clio in the valley and hitch to resort last season clearly had not considered.

My own personal selections have included an old Peugeot 309 (good all-rounder until it broke down rather inconveniently in the middle of Paris), a Daihatsu Sportrak (very short wheelbase leading to a nasty habit of doing a 360 every time I fishtailed the back end), an extremely elderly Panda and finally a Twingo, which is actually a lot more practical than you’d think. But car choice is a very personal thing, so I’m not about to do any more than offer a considered assessment of some of the options.

Completely ridiculous, I'm sorry

The Mercedes SLK: fails dismally on every front except that of long distance comfort, and is included in our survey purely because I know someone in resort who owns one and wish to poke fun. Admit it, a car which cannot actually be driven in any sort of winter conditions is about as much use as tits on a fish. No, the leather upholstery and retractable roof do not make up for its sheer impracticality. It’s like driving a designer handbag, woman, what are you thinking about?

The 4×4: covers a multitude of vehicles, from the humble Fiat Panda up to enormous SUV things which are for the most part neither sporty nor useful, and cost twice what I paid for my house (all right, it’s quite a small house and it wasn’t what normal people would define as habitable at the time, but you get the general idea). Best of the bunch is probably the Panda, much prized for its ability to beetle past its larger, posher, newer and far more expensive cousins whose owners have failed to realise that light is the way to go in the snow and slid their miniature tanks into various ditches, lamp posts and street furniture. The Hummer is a good example of the hit-it-with-a-big-hammer school of 4x4s – popular in Courchevel, though not, I suspect, amongst the seasonnaire community, with the possible exception of trustafarians doing their one and only season on Daddy’s Amex. At 17 miles to the gallon it’s not going to win any prizes for running costs and trying to stop it on an icy downhill stretch would be a bit like hitting the brakes on an oil tanker. Beats the Panda on the luggage-carrying front but that’s about it.

Ah, nostalgia. But maybe not in the Alps, despite its cornering ability. Tragically.

The Mini: by which I mean the original Issigonis design, obviously. Scores very highly on economy and I can personally testify that it is possible to undertake a 10-hour motorway trip in one, though I’ll tell you now that it’s certainly not comfortable. But consider for a moment the logistical difficulties involved in getting a pair of skis into a car which is itself shorter than they are. Also applies to the Smart car and unfortunately the Fiat Panda above.

The camper van: a bit of a favourite amongst your French seasonnaires, this one, though you would think they’d know better than to imagine they could spend an alpine season living in a barely converted Renault Trafic. By mid-January they’ve either gone home, frozen to death or shacked up with someone who had the foresight to rent an apartment. But as long as you don’t try living in it, a camper makes pretty good seasonnaire transport – plenty of stowage, comfortable kipping space for post-season road trips and on-board tea making facilities. Bit heavy on fuel, but you can’t have it all.

The Mondeo: and other boring family estate cars of its ilk. It’s galling to have to admit it, but your Dad was right. OK, it says ‘middle aged balding accountant with expanding waistline and polyester trousers’ when the message you really wanted to convey was ‘cool dude with huge wanger’, but it will carry two people and all their gear with space to spare. And because it’s marketed at boring Dad types it boasts admirable fuel consumption and low insurance costs. Put a ding in the back panel and cover it with snowboard stickers – girlies will get the picture. Cheer up, I know a sponsored boarder who drives a Volvo (mainly because he is in fact sponsored by Volvo, but that’s not the point).

Traditional transport. Miles per mule-nut. Yes yes, it's a donkey. I know.

The mule: the traditional option round here, tried and tested over centuries of use. Copes with gradients Glen Plake would balk at, famed for its load-carrying capacity and boasts zero petrol consumption. Has a nasty temper and a tendency to bite though, and not well suited to motorway travel. Possibly a bit too specialised.

And finally, there’s the Golf 4-motion. You can’t afford one of these and neither can I, since it costs pretty much exactly what I paid for the house, but it’s what I’d be driving if I had the cash. Its estate car stablemate the Passat is probably better suited to those seasonnaires still doing the biannual commute with their entire lives in the back of the car, but unfortunately it comes with a correspondingly even larger price tag.

Meh, I wish.

When we all win the lottery we can have enough garage space for a motorway cruiser, a camper for the summer, a fleet of various quads, piste bashers and tracked vehicles and a couple of donkeys. And possibly even that Mercedes SLK, just for comedy value. In the meantime you’re going to have to bite the bullet, get the stickers out and convince yourself that  of course the Mondeo is surely the cool fanny-magnet of a vehicle you always wanted.


About misplacedperson

Camping and snowboarding for a living. It may not be a career, but it's certainly a life.
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8 Responses to Choosing a chariot

  1. Charlotte says:

    Really Christa! Donkeys and Mules are not at all the same thing – even poetic licence can’t go there. Totally different species. Pix of donkeys, say donkeys (who are not generally bad tempered BTW).

    Ditto larger cars. For many years I had 7 series BMWs, and Scorpios all around 15 years old, all low mileage, all reliable, all very cheap (most expensive £550). Boring but good buys!

  2. Dave Burrows says:

    Hey, easy on the smart cars – mine is just perfect round here and made the trip with 3 pairs of skis, a dog, two boot bags, two ruck sacks and two archive boxes..

    That said, there wasn’t enough room for my wife so I had to fly her out on Easyjet…..

  3. Newminster says:

    I have wonderful memories of my Mini.
    Especially drying out the alternator in a rainstorm the day you were born!

  4. Claire says:

    Excellent! Diesel Peugeot 106 all the way- French brand so is cheaper to repair if it breaks down- (mine never has) and you’d be amazed at what you can get in it with the back seats down. Also can get 400 miles to a tank on hills and beetling around and about 500 miles to a tank on the motorway.
    I rest my case.

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