I'll start with the elephant in the room – by now you've probably read that Chris Evans has quit the show. Despite the many problems during his tenure, viewers should remember the radio host for his episode six feature. By throwing Evans into a resto-modded MGB, the producers let the now-former host be a car guy in his most natural, relaxed segment of the entire season. But more than that, the segment's approach is different than the numerous resto-mod features filmed during the Jeremy Clarkson era. While Clarkson pushed the seven-figure Eagle, Evans looked at a car that regular people could afford. It's informative and entertaining – other Top Gear hosts have nailed this mix in Season 23, but after floundering, Evans scored a goal with his on-road review of this charming British roadster.
Knowing what I know now, there's no way Top Gear filmed episode six's in-studio segments without the rest of the cast knowing about Evans. LeBlanc is front and center, running just about everything aside from the weekly interview. The show's only American is getting better in studio – he's more confident and relaxed among the audience and the wooden stance and vocal pattern from the first episodes is long gone. But it's LeBlanc's outing with the Porsche 911 R that has me most excited about Top Gear's future.
Personality fills LeBlanc's final feature of season 23. That's partially down to the car – the 911 R is Top Gear in car form – but it's also because LeBlanc is starting to craft his own on-screen persona. He's funny, a little bit goofy, but most importantly, his excitement and nervousness about the 911 R are palpable. The film has a few little gags, too. The sandwich thing, for example, is the absurd statement about I'd expect on old Top Gear. As far as TG track tests go, LeBlanc put together an ideal example.
This is a jam-packed episode. Even though the Star in a Rallycross Car – actor and racer Patrick Dempsey and the headmaster from The Inbetweeners – took up a full 25 percent of the episode (again), there are three other features besides Evans' MGB flick and LeBlanc's 911 R tape. Chris Harris takes a spin around Monticello Motor Club in an Acura NSX before sending it on a lap of the test track. Rory Reid, meanwhile, is testing the new, right-hand drive Ford Mustang GT and EcoBoost alongside a lovely 1967 Mustang Fastback. By now, both Reid and Harris have proven their reviewing chops, so I mean no offense when I say that both of these films are by-the-numbers Top Gear reviews – lovely videography, smart, rational conclusions, and a fair amount of tire smoke. The vehicles are the stars in these two films, and when TG gets focused on new vehicles, it's never bad.
The segment that closes out episode six is the opposite – the producers challenge the host to launch the rallycross Mini over the track's jump. The winner will get to drive through the course's water hazard at speed... while the losers stand next to it wearing ponchos. Like the reviews, it's a simple concept, but it's all about the show's six hosts. It's hard to believe the producers waited this long to get everyone together, but the payoff is worth it. There's banter, jokes, teasing, and laughter throughout the segment as each host does their best (or fails) to launch the rally Mini over the jump.
In a lot of ways, the entire segment reminded me of the speed/braking test in the SUV challenge from Jeremy Clarkson's last season. The new hosts still don't have the chemistry of the old trio, but this short, simple, and silly feature is a real sign that a bond is forming in the new team. I'm curious to see what impact Chris Evans' departure has on the team next season.
That chemistry is on display again during Extra Gear with a great interview between LeBlanc, Harris, Reid, and Sabine Schmitz. The four seem to have established a natural banter that makes this the most watchable segment between the two shows. But, and this is a theory, the interview is a kind of sub-conscious confirmation that this is the future of Top Gear. The two missing hosts got more criticism this season than LeBlanc, Reid, Schmitz, and Harris combined. I didn't think much of it when I watched episode six early this morning, but with Evans' departure, Jordan's absence on the couch is conspicuous.
Extra Gear is still a bright spot in an otherwise dim and inconsistent season. After walking the audience through how all the studio cars are acquired and staged each week – these behind-the scenes features are still the best part of EG – Reid seizes Evans' resto-modded MG for a visit to a local owner's meeting to see how purists respond to such a mix of old and new. It's another case of EG getting a segment that should have aired in the main show.
Top Gear's sixth episode is among the season's strongest. But the focus on the cars will never overshadow how the show will fundamentally transform – again – between now and next season. But unlike the end of season 22, I'm hopeful at the culmination of season 23. The cast displayed real signs of chemistry in this final episode, and as sad as it is, Chris Evans' departure will help bolster what's already started. We'll know for certain when season 24 starts.