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Life on Cars: Virtual Test Drives for Locked Down Drivers!

Life on Cars: Virtual Test Drives for Locked Down Drivers!

by Tom Martin (February 2021)

Hurrah, B-road hedonists of Britain. Abarth’s given its latest offering a thorough going over on some of Snowdonia’s finest switchbacks, so that you don’t have to. 

Earlier this week it launched what it’s billing as the world’s first “virtual test drives”, perfect for a nation still ordered to stay indoors, so that you can sample the Abarth 595 Scorpioneoro without breaking lockdown rules. You strap on a headset, flick it on and you’re instantly transported to the helm of a hotted-up Fiat 500 flitting its way through the mountains of North Wales, exhaust crackling on the overrun. Marvellous. 

Abarth says it’s trialling the idea, crafted in response to the weekly will-they-won’t-they game of guessing whether lockdown rules will be relaxed, down in Exeter, but if it’s successful it’ll be rolled out right across Britain, including right here in the north west. It all sounds like a wonderful exercise in lockdown escapism, but would it make me want to spend £22,345 on one? 

Nope, not even a little bit. 

It’s nothing to do with the car, which with its black/gold paintjob is a neat nod to Abarth’s A112 of the late Seventies and – if my outings in Abarth-tweaked takes on the Fiat 500 in the past are anything to go by – should be an absolute riot on the right roads. But you need to sample Italy’s answer to the Volkswagen Up GTI on the right roads, not by looking at a pixelated appropriation of them, to really know if it’s the better buy for you. 

I know this all sounds a bit Ready Player One but there’s no way a VR headset can tell you, as you flick down a few cogs and tap the brakes in preparation for a greasy left-hander, what sort of feedback you’ll get through the Abarth’s steering wheel, whether the throw of the gear lever works for your particular gait, and whether the ride and handling are as beautifully balanced as the notes on The Lark Ascending. Of course, you don’t need to go all the way to North Wales to find that out – there are plenty of roads just outside Ormskirk and Parbold, where in more normal times you could discover all of that perfectly legally – but I think that a test drive through a VR headset is neither a test nor a drive. Even Abarth admits it’s never going to match up to the real thing, but to suggest it’s a “fully immersive” alternative is patronising people who really love driving, and value all the little facets and feedback a properly engineered, well balanced car offers. 

I appreciate that with there being no end to this rather hard lockdown any time soon, it’s difficult to get and do the real thing – but I’d rather wait and find out whether the Abarth or the VW deserve your £22k more by doing it properly and actually driving them. 

The North Wales tourist board will thank you, that’s for sure… 

 David Simister is the editor of Classic Car Weekly

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