Welcome to January's issue of Hotspots.
Fuel prices were hardly out of the news through 2008 so as 2009 starts we review what happened. We're also highlighting our top tips for boosting fuel economy along with a new 'eco-driving' initiative from the AA Charitable Trust for Road Safety and the Environment.
Check out our inspirational ideas for days out and weekend breaks and find out about the hot topics affecting motorists right now.
We also road test the remarkable new Toyota iQ, and bring you details of a championship drive in Monaco, and an award-winning pub in Somerset.
Jaime Cox - Hotspots Editor
Motoring - highlighting topical advice and the latest news from the world of motoring as seen through theAA.com.
If you're hitting the road this winter, a little preparation before you leave could save you
a lot of time and heartache.
Drive safely this winter
Road to hell
While music can help reduce boredom on long journeys the AA warns against playing tunes much too loud and listening to fast music.
Toyota iQ road-test
Through some remarkable packaging ideas, Toyota's new iQ is currently the only car available less than three metres long that can accommodate four people in comfort.
Campaigns - news from the frontline as AA President Edmund King and the rest of the Public Affairs team address the big issues affecting motorists today.
The AA Charitable Trust for Road Safety and the Environment is offering a free course to 2,000 new drivers who want to get more miles to the gallon.
A year in fuel pricing
Last year was a rollercoaster for motorists at the filling station. We review the dramatic changes in pump prices through the year.
A year in fuel pricing
When the day starts with a 5:45am call for a radio interview, you know it's going to be busy.
Travel - home or abroad we can help you choose your destination and plan your journey.
Bright lights, small city
Shopping can be a chore at the best of time. So if you're compelled to go on a new year bargain hunt, but fancy an exciting change, how about a short break to New York?
AA Pub of the Year
The Queens Arms welcomes all guests - from children to dogs and muddy boots - and the menu offers fresh, hearty fare.
Test drive our new route planner
It uses the best aspects of our unique routing information with added innovations.
Motoring in Monaco
Enjoy a leisurely drive around Monte Carlo with the aid of our edited extract from 'Classic Motorsport Routes.'
Drive safely this winter
If you're hitting the road this winter, a little preparation before you leave could save you a lot of time and heartache.
The number of breakdowns the AA has to deal with almost doubles whenever there's a cold snap and this winter has been particularly cold.
The return to work following the New Year break is usually our busiest day of the year and this year's (Monday 5 January) was the busiest for six years. We prepare by ensuring we have extra patrols on call.
Check AA Roadwatch for up-to-date traffic and travel information before you leave; and find out whether the Met Office has issued any severe weather warnings for the areas you're travelling through.
Assume the worst and carry a few extra items to help if you do get stuck or delayed for a long time. Carry a mobile phone with a fully charged battery, torch, first-aid kit, tow rope, blankets, warm coat, jump leads, snow shovel, warning triangle and an old sack or rug (to put under the wheels if you do get stuck).
Footwear suitable for snow and ice is unlikely to be suitable for driving - wear comfortable, dry shoes for driving but carry warm boots in case you do have to get out.
And if you do get badly delayed, you'll be very pleased if you've packed chocolate, water and a hot drink too.
Driver location signs
If you're out and about, particularly on motorways, keep an eye out for the new driver location signs that are appearing across the motorways and A–roads network.
These new signs describe and let you know exactly where you are when an incident happens or if you want to report debris on the road.
The signs are designed to be visible from the road while travelling and to identify your precise location so you (using a hands free-kit) or your passenger can report an incident accurately without having to stop the vehicle.
Road to hell
Do you rock out to Radiohead on the road, or maybe dance to Duffy on the dual carriageway? Is 'Road to Hell' or 'Bat out of Hell' the ultimate driving song?
Many AA members have been sharing their own views on the best songs to drive to in the AA Zone our new online forum.
While music can help reduce boredom on long journeys the AA recently warned against playing tunes much too loud and listening to fast music. Research has shown that up-tempo music may cause drivers to have double the amount of accidents as those listening to slower music.
Edmund King, AA President, tells Hotspots: "We're told that if music is above 60 beats per minute, listeners experience a faster heart rate and increased blood pressure. With dance music, that is fairly common. Classical music is not as fast, but the number of notes, combined with the repetitive crescendo and diminuendo can have the same effect. So the businessman blasting the 'Ride of the Valkyries' is as bad as the head-banger blasting out Motorhead. It is all down to the speed or the beat of the music."
Have your say - join the debate and tell us about your top tunes in our online forum. Discuss everything from the best driving roads to your pet motoring hates, in the AA Zone
Toyota iQ road-test
In many respects the Toyota iQ follows the conventional layout for a small car. It has a small, petrol engine mounted transversely in the front of the car, driving the front wheels through a manual or automatic gearbox. However, the difference in the iQ is in the details. At 2,985mm in length, it is currently the only car available less than 3m long that can accommodate four people in comfort.
The iQ achieves this through some remarkable packaging ideas, all of which contribute to maximising the interior space. Mechanically, alterations to the differential, steering mechanism and air conditioning unit allow the compact engine to be moved further forward, while the asymmetric dashboard means the front-passenger seat can be moved much further forward, increasing rear-passenger space.
The result of this space-saving initiative is that the iQ can fit four adults inside, although the seat behind the driver has the most restricted legroom. In four-seat configuration the boot space is understandably miniscule, but with three or two occupants there is a much more usable amount of storage space. Another huge benefit of the iQ's size is manoeuvrability: its turning radius of 3.9m is extremely compact.
Overall rating 9
Value for money 9
Costs Space and practicality 10
Controls and display 9
Car security 8
Car safety 7
Our verdict 8
The Toyota iQ is a genuinely new kind of car, offering spectacular space efficiency and usability but with a distinct premium feel and strong equipment and luxury. In terms of pure pricing it is more expensive than some rivals, but in terms of what it offers and is capable of, it actually offers good value for money.
More about the Toyota iQ
If you're going for a compact economical car, you might want to discuss ways to get the most mpg out of your car in the AA Zone
Back in February 2008, 50 AA employees took part in an eco-driving experiment. Each drove normally for the first week and then applied AA eco-driving advice to see how much they could save in the second week.
The group saved an average 10% on their weekly fuel bill with the best achieving an incredible 33% saving.
While fuel prices have dropped a long way from the record-breaking highs of last summer, energy saving remains an important issue and this month sees the public launch of the AA's new charity, The AA Charitable Trust for Road Safety and the Environment, which will be offering free practical sessions in safe and eco-driving techniques to those new drivers most at risk from having an accident.
If you've learned to drive in the past 12 months and think you might benefit from one of these free lessons you can find more details and an application form on our website.
Eco-driving tip of the month
Extra weight means extra fuel, so if there's anything in the boot that you don't need on the journey take it out and leave it at home.
A year in fuel pricing
Last year was a rollercoaster for motorists at the filling station - we saw petrol and diesel prices rise to record levels and increase at the fastest rate the AA had ever seen, though the year ended with prices dropping back to a 21-month low.
Check out the month-by-month break down
When the day starts with a call for a radio interview at 5:45am you know it's going to be busy. The Government was due to announce a consultation on drink-driving and speeding, but we weren't sure exactly what they'd say. This didn't stop the press speculating and, as I was quoted in the Daily Mail's front-page splash, the radio stations thought I knew all the details.
After several radio interviews from my studio at home I jumped on a train to the Department for Transport in London for a briefing from the Road Safety Minister, Jim Fitzpatrick MP.
After the briefing my mobile doesn't stop - BBC News, ITN, Channel 4, and Sky all want interviews. I nip across to the Westminster TV studios while confirming the line to take with colleagues at AA HQ, and start my interviews, on several occasions bumping into the Minister speaking on the same subject.
Then it's a sandwich on the run back to the AA's London office to start radio interviews. Some 20-odd interviews later I manage to get home to see myself on the BBC Ten O'Clock News. That week I clocked up 66 radio and TV interviews on this and many other issues affecting motorists - must be some kind of a record.
Our response to the announcement
Bright lights, small city
Shopping can be a chore at the best of time. So if you're compelled to go on a new-year bargain hunt, but fancy an exciting change away from your local high street, how about a short break to New York?
Manhattan is a Mecca for the serious shopper, and luckily, in recognition of that fact, customs has recently upped the value of goods you can import into the UK from a paltry £145 to £300.
As of 1 January 2009, this rises further to £340 unless you have the misfortune to travel by private boat or jet.
And with so much more than designer labels and department stores to offer, New York is the ideal choice for all.
Unless you've ever been to Milton Keynes, regimented roads may be a revelation. But once you get your bearings, the roads are simple to navigate, which saves a lot of stress.
Actually Manhattan isn't that big, and if you stay midtown (around Macy's, the Rockerfeller Center or Times Square) or upper-west or -east (sandwiching Central Park) then most things are within walking distance.
But if you want to head down to board the Staten Island ferry to see the Statue of Liberty, then you might want to hail a cab or head for the subway.
More to see and do in a weekend in the Big Apple
AA Pub of the Year 2008
The Queens Arms, Corton Denham, Somerset
The Queens Arms nestles at the heart of the ancient and quintessentially English village of Corton Denham, just north of Sherborne on the Somerset/Dorset border, surrounded by beautiful countryside.
Food is served in the bar, adjoining dining room and private dining room of the late 18th-century free house. You can also sit out in the garden at the rear.
Drink is taken seriously; choose from a range of world-classic bottled beers, locally brewed ales, and a selection of Somerset apple juices and ciders. The imaginative wine and whisky list is also well chosen and reasonably priced.
The pub's approach to business concentrates on being local and ethical - consideration is given to food miles and animal welfare, while small, local food and drink producers are used to source items, such as meat from pigs reared at a local farm.
Search for a restaurant in your area
Road-test our Route Planner
Try out our new Route Planner Beta. It uses the best aspects of our unique routing information with added innovations and improvements, including:
• detailed colour-coded text display that matches the colour-coding of road sign information you see on the road
• enhanced presentation of signpost information
• cross-channel and pan-European routing (eg Dublin to Paris)
• enhanced mapping data at street level for major city centres
• context-relevant text links to other related information
• a larger map window, which resizes to suit your browser
It's quicker to use too.
The AA's Head of Geographic Information Systems, Steve Wing tells Hotspots: "We've worked hard to make the new Route Planner more intuitive and more driver-friendly. There's no longer a confirmation page. As soon as you've entered your details the route is automatically created from the information you provided. We've maintained drop-down lists so that you can select an alternative place if necessary - as there are many places of the same name! We think this is a better way of getting the right place as other services require users to know which county or town their place is in."
Try it for yourself then tell us what you think.
New AA Route Planner
Motoring in Monaco
Enjoy a leisurely drive around Monaco with the aid of this edited extract from 'Classic Motorsport Routes'.
Distance: 2 miles (3km)
First Race: 1929
As you wind your way down from the autoroute that carries traffic along the Cote d'Azur from Nice, you'll see just what this location has to offer. Sandwiched between the Alpes-Martimes and the sparkling Mediterranean, with a palace perched on a caramel-coloured rock overlooking the sea, surrounded by lavish hotels, a grand casino and countless apartments that spill down to a yacht-packed harbour, Monte Carlo has a unique, breathtaking setting.
Incredibly, despite the pace of development and expansion that leaves Monaco itself in an almost constant state of flux, very little of the original 1929 circuit has changed, and the course and location of the circuit are remarkably true to the original.
It's this continuity, a thread of tarmac which can be traced back to motor racing's infancy, that explains why even a snail's-pace drive around the hallowed circuit is a memory to cherish.
There's never a good time to drive into the centre of the principality, so resign yourself to that fact straight away and embrace the chaos. One-way streets, four lanes funnelling into one, double-parking, suicidal superbike riders and 7ft-wide (2m) supercars are all part of the experience.
It's not difficult to find your way to a recognisable section of the lap, but it's almost impossible to arrive in such a way as to emerge conveniently onto the start/finish straight.
Better to follow your nose, and the gradient downhill, skirting the leafy gardens on the far side of Casino Square until you pick up signs for the Grimaldi Forum, a modern exhibition centre right on the seafront.
As you creep your way through the ever-narrowing streets, you'll discover that by following the signs you actually merge with the circuit at Portier, which, if you can ignore the confusingly configured roundabout, is the tight right-hander before the famous tunnel.
From here it's a short distance to the mouth of the tunnel, which curves with increasing severity almost from the moment you enter its strip-lit maw.
Disconcertingly, the tunnel's exit is blind, yet it's the fastest section of the circuit with cars touching more than 170mph (274kph) as they explode into the sunlight. Plenty of drivers - including Michael Schumacher - have had their hopes dashed in here, emerging in a shower of splintered carbon fibre.
Exiting the tunnel, you get the first opportunity to appreciate how close the circuit runs to the sea, and also that the road is still running downhill.
As it levels off you arrive at the Nouvelle Chicane, which is actually a tricky staggered junction in regular usage. It's the closest you get to the water for the whole lap.
After the chicane you head towards the tricky Tabac corner. Demanding absolute precision, this unsighted left-hander is hellishly quick in an F1 car, and the Armco stacked high on both sides creates the illusion of careering into a wall of steel.
After rounding Tabac, you're treated to a broad view of the Swimming Pool complex and the left-right chicane that marks its entry. This used to be as confined and daunting as Tabac, but recent changes have given the drivers the rare luxury of some room for error.
Next up is the awkward La Rascasse hairpin, which passes so close to the restaurant that shares its name that the drivers all but power between the downstairs tables.
Squeezing between La Rascasse restaurant on your right and the taller buildings on your left, the road makes an awkward kink to the right at Anthony Noghes before feeding you onto the unmistakable start/finish line. A straight by name but most definitely not by nature, the road sweeps gently but insistently to the right, spearing between the new permanent pit buildings and prime apartment buildings. If you fancy renting one with a balcony from which to have a bird's-eye view of the race, all you need is £15,000 or so.
Approaching St Devote - Monaco's infamous first turn - you can see why it causes the world's best drivers so much trouble. Like a metal funnel, the barriers squeeze the cars together here, initially pushing them left when they want to go right, then taking a wicked 90-degree turn to the right before the steep climb up Beau Rivage. On race day the F1 cars stampede up this smooth and sinuous ascent at 160mph.
As you crest the brow and begin to turn left, the level of surrealism ratchets up a few notches as you enter Casino Square. Stripped of the barriers that define the circuit's testing off-camber left and right, you'll doubtless be distracted by the casino, complete with lush gardens, gushing fountains and mouth-watering array of prestige cars precisely valet parked for all to see.
If you can tear yourself away and continue downhill past the Mirabeau Hotel, you'll find yourself in one of the few potential overtaking zones in the whole lap. Those incongruous red-and-white kerbs that jump out at you from your television screen are all here, tall and intimidating as you corkscrew right then immediately left into that other great Monaco landmark, the Loews Hairpin. How an F1 car gets around here is anyone's guess, for it takes some concerted arm twirling to negotiate cleanly in a normal road car.
All that remains before you arrive back at the Portier turn is a tightish right-hander, lined on your left by a tall embankment wall and on your right by a conveniently chamfered kerb, which the F1 boys cut greedily to shave a few hundredths of a second from their lap time. Despite the certainty that you'll fail to exceed 20mph (32kph) at any point in the entire 2-mile (3km) lap, driving around Monaco's celebrated street circuit gives you an unforgettable taste of Formula One's most enduring challenge and most coveted prize.
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