Top Gear has an Extra Gear problem | Episode Review
Extra Gear is still awesome, but we're wondering if that comes at Top Gear's expense.
We'll start with Chris Evans, inarguably the most heavily criticized member of the new Top Gear team. Evans is progressively less shouty and more comfortable filming while driving in each episode – the fifth is no different. He's almost likable in the Zenos E10 video, like a ginger James May, and he delivers accurate and eloquent driving impressions.
The review is entertaining, until Extra Gear shows the producers cut a huge element – an old-versus-new sprint around the Race of Champions circuit at the Olympic Stadium in London. Former Formula 1 ace David Coulthard would drive a Caterham 360, while current F1 pro Daniel Riccardo rocked the Zenos. If the entire premise of Evans review is that the Zenos E10 is the newest of the new for British super-lightweight track toys, why did the producers decide to leave a race against the segment's standard bearer for Extra Gear? It's a baffling move, cutting a segment of the film that reinforces Evans' excitement over the Zenos.
Rory Reid's Jaguar F-Type SVR piece is excellent. Fifty five years to the day after Jaguar test driver Norman Dewis raced to the Geneva Motor Show in a second E-Type for display, Reid would attempt the same feat in an SVR. If he failed, Jaguar wouldn't have a car to display. Dewis made the 750-mile trip with 13 hours of notice, and Reid would need to do the same. It's a brilliant, simple premise that reminded me of Jeremy Clarkson's so-called "Race against God" in a Jaguar XJ, way back in season 16. The history of the challenge and Dewis' gravelly commentary add gravitas. But the entire film goes by so fast. It's longer than Evans' Zenos video or Harris' BMW M2 film, but at less than ten minutes, Reid and the SVR deserved more screen time.
Extra Gear poured salt in that particular wound with a great segment featuring Norman Dewis that deserved to be in the main show. Reid takes the famed test driver for a spin around the Dunsfold track, then, instead of the comedian of the week, the hosts interview Dewis on Extra Gear's couch. The producers could have stretched out these short segments into something more substantial, giving more time to Reid and the F-Type SVR trip and making for an interview that's worth watching – it's better than the obscure British celebrities in the rallycross Mini.
Matt LeBlanc's two-part Rolls-Royce Dawn film suffers the most to feed Extra Gear. The solo segment in the first half is strong – prepare to have your TV filled with Ireland's lovely landscape. The cobalt blue Roller provides a beautiful contrast against the brown, yellow, and green countryside. TG's tame American continues to be a natural on camera and behind the wheel, but he sounds like a sleepy documentarian in the voiceovers.
The second part adds Chris Evans and his personal Rolls-Royce Corniche, but it feels like the producers are trying to manufacture chemistry between its top dogs (again). The pair try to determine which is better, a new Rolls or an old one, by polling the citizens of Dingle, County Kerry, Ireland. It's a fair question with no right answer, which should mean a great on-screen contrast between supporters. But it doesn't work without chemistry between the hosts, which LeBlanc and Evans still don't yet enjoy.
Extra Gear takes a different approach to Rolls-Royce, sending Rory Reid behind the scenes at the company's Goodwood factory. It's a great look at not only the process that customers experience while ordering their bespoke cars, but what goes into manufacturing. Reid tries his hand at painting a coachline, and then checks out the company's monsoon test. Finally, viewers get a look at the spectacle Rolls-Royce puts on when delivering a customer's vehicle. It's excellent, despite not reinforcing LeBlanc's argument for the Dawn as well as the Zenos/ROC segment. But unlike the film that aired, Reid's Rolls-Royce piece is about the car. And that's when Top Gear, regardless of who's hosting, is at its best.
Chris Harris' BMW M2 film is the only one that doesn't have an Extra Gear analog. This is fine, because Harris continues to rock the traditional, Clarkson-style track video. This week's M2 feature has all the tinsel of a good Top Gear film – smoky drifts, a brief comparison with a (true) rival, and a silly metric for comparing the two cars. But cut through that, and Harris' driving impressions, which continue to be some of the best on the show, are front and center. Our only criticism here is that Harris's conclusion is the same thing we've been reading about since BMW launched the M2. That's okay – if Harris and every other journalist around the world are coming to the same conclusion, it's probably true – but a little extra depth would be nice.
While it's easy to focus on the differences between Top Gear and Extra Gear, ultimately, Evans, LeBlanc, Reid, and Harris' fifth episode is a solid, entertaining 90 minutes of television. It's not the best of the new show, but what's important is that the pieces of a traditionally good Top Gear are on full display, even if they air as part of different shows.
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