As a childless man, there are things about the dark art of so-called ‘parenting’ that completely baffle me. Please don’t get me wrong here. I don’t want to bang on about how all my mates have been utterly emasculated by evening classes, where they’re expected to sit on the floor and talk about their feelings with other men. Neither is this the place to lament the way some friends, having never before seen fit to discuss their wives’ private parts with me, suddenly decide, unbidden, to describe in detail the injuries sustained in the ladygarden during labour. I don’t want to know, and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want the state of it to be the subject of a late-night pub debate either.
I like children, especially when they’re five or older and I can take them to the Science Museum and attempt to corrupt them by explaining the workings of steam engines or the performance characteristics of the Spitfire and how they compared with those of the ME109, and what that meant for Britain. I enjoy being a subversive element in the upbringing of my friends’ offspring, plucking them from the organic wholemeal, no E-numbers bosom of the family home and buying them ice cream and unsuitable plastic novelties.
But babies are a bit harder. What really stumps me is the effect a baby has on the people who produced it. First is that you’d be forgiven for thinking that this tiny infant, who eats a miniature jar of purée every day, needs no shoes and always wears the same clothes, costs as much to run as a light aircraft. I know there must be millions of families in Britain bringing up several children on less than the average wage – there must be, statistically – yet I keep meeting people who seem to think it’s impossible on less than £500,000 a year.
And then there’s the car issue. Let’s take the example of a couple I know, who we shall call Fiona and Nigel. For years they ran around happily in an old Citroen AX, which, despite being small, is still pretty accommodating. I know, because I often rode in the back of it. And I’m six feet tall.
But then they had a baby, and all of a sudden, they needed a Discovery. Somehow this was the minimum requirement for transporting a squawking infant no bigger than my cat and which could – though I’m not recommending this – be easily bedded down in the centre console of my Boxster. “You don’t understand how much stuff you need to take with you when you have a baby,” said Fiona and Nigel, probably having read it in a parenting manual written by someone in league with Land Rover.
They were right. I don’t understand it. For some reason, I found myself somewhere like Mothercare the other day, and was amazed at the range of baby accessories that, clearly, everyone must have, because the days when the child slept in an empty drawer in the sideboard and the whole family shared the same cup are over.
I didn’t know what any of this stuff did, but I could see it was all on the large side and recognised some of it from that indeterminate heap of crap that always occupies the back of Fiona and Nigel’s Disco. I realised then that the key to happiness in old age is not to procreate but to invest in the childcare business. It’s one of those guilt-edged industries, like undertaking, or anything to do with pornography. Even in a recession, people will still multiply and die, and when TS Eliot (I think) said life was a simple matter of birth, copulation and death, he was divulging a stock-market tip.
This brings me, finally, to MPVs, which we imagine from the ramblings of their makers are for happy families to drive to the seaside along with the dog, a couple of surfboards and a Swingball set. They might also be good for a school run, loaded up with six urchins and their satchels. In fact, they’re being bought by people with one baby and filled with hideous, injection-moulded, primary-coloured landfill.
It’s a shame, because it puts me off. I’ve often thought the MPV has been much misunderstood, especially by its makers. It functions in society like the skip round the back of the Playschool studio, yet has within it the potential to be a great car. It offers much of what I like: space, airiness, a large glass area, a lofty driving position, room for some mates. So far, though, it has offered a few things I don’t like: usually a mediocre ride, a sloppy feel, far too many oddment storage spaces and, worst of all, a lifestyle image straight off the front cover of the Dorling Kindersley pregnancy manual.
I am not alone in wanting to turn it into something else. Renault understands, and gave us the Avantime ‘MPV coupe’. And got its fingers burnt. Now Vauxhall has given us the Zafira VXR. Nice try, but it was styled by Fiona when she was already eight months gone and specified by Nigel when he was at the nadir of his mid-life crisis. It looks too mumsy and feels too frustrated dadsy if you see what I mean.
Salvation, though, has finally come from Ford. The S-Max has amazed me. It looks great and not at all post-natal, with its rakish nose and those slatty bits. The interior is solid, comfortable and unpretentious. With the five-pot ST engine it is muscular and sonorous, and the ride and handling are – and I can hardly believe I’m going to say this – just sporty enough. If I had to drive across Europe tomorrow, I’d be pleased to be going in an S-Max.
What really amazes me, though, is this. Every time I drive an MPV, I put myself in the mindset of Nigel and ask whether it would do; if the seats move around in an interesting way (they do), if the luggage area is actually usable (it is), if it’s tolerable to drive (it’s actually surprisingly good) and if it’s reasonably priced, given that most of his income is going to be spent filling up the boot with brightly-coloured paraphernalia (it’s almost suspiciously cheap compared with its rivals).
But now, for the first time in my life, I find myself enjoying an MPV as a car. And you can’t get a better recommendation than that, because I am not a parent. I am a free man.
© James May