I thought I would take a moment today to answer the question that really is on the minds of everyone across the nation: which British car show is better? By now, everyone probably knows that I’m a huge fan of BBC’s Top Gear but I also watch Channel Five’s Fifth Gear…usually when TG is off the air, which seems to be more often than not in recent years because of Clarkson’s bad back and Richard Hammond crashing at almost 300MPH. It’s not that I don’t like Fifth Gear because I do but I simply prefer Top Gear. Every car enthusiast watches one of the two or both. There are those that believe Fifth Gear is the superior show in many ways so I thought I would look closer at both and give everyone an in-depth breakdown. We’ll split up the categories into two…categories: production (the show itself) and presenters (the hosts).
1. Production – Location: Top Gear is filmed at Dunsfold Park, an old airfield that has been converted into a racing circuit and the news/random rambling segments are held in a converted aircraft hanger. I don’t know about you but I think that’s just absolutely perfect. It’s a setting synonymous with speed and while it does look like a bit of a sparse soundstage at times, the hangar is well decorated with Top Gear historic memorabilia such as the indestructible Toyota truck. A couple seasons ago, Fifth Gear adjusted their format a bit to compete with Top Gear since the inane conversations between the hosts make them incredibly popular. Most recently, they have moved their home-based to a cafe on a race track. They’re both very cool locations since the Fifth Gear set is very homey and colorful while the Top Gear hangar just has all kinds of awesome stuff lying around. Unfortunately, Top Gear will not be back at Dunsfold Park next year as their lease is up but it is quite exciting to see a whole new set. Verdict: Tie
2. Production – Segments: Fifth Gear is a much more grounded show, with fewer supercars and more sensible econoboxes. What they don’t have is a Bugatti Veyron racing a plane from Italy to London or idiots seeing if they can buy a car for less than a 100 quid. This isn’t to say that Fifth Gear doesn’t have interesting films. Oh, by no means since I found stuff like the visit to the Maybach dealership and the world’s most expensive car wash interesting but they don’t feel epic in scale like the films on Top Gear, which most recently threw the three hosts into downtown Miami, told them to buy cars for $1000 and then complete a series of challenges while they drive from Miami to New Orleans. Both shows have a good deal of celebrities but Top Gear attracts more star power with their weekly Star in a Reasonably Priced Car segment. Verdict: Top Gear.
3. Production – Information: With that being said, Fifth Gear, being the more sensible show, does provide more useful information, especially for living in Europe. They review more cheap cars and film more segments with actual news. Top Gear on the other hand, answers questions such as how many bouncy castles you can jump in an ice cream van. No, I’m serious. Verdict: Fifth Gear
4. Production – Film Style: While both shows use fancy filters and such to emphasize the cars, Top Gear obviously has a higher budget and a better film crew. The photography on the show is often absolutely stunning, especially on their cross-continent races. Oh, and the camera keeps moving around during Fifth Gear‘s news segments which is really annoying. Verdict: Top Gear.
5. Production – Entertainment: The first thing you’ll notice about Fifth Gear when you watch is that it seems so much more stiff and scripted. While there are some genuinely exciting and funny moments, they are few and far between compared to Top Gear, which is about entertainment first, information second. Top Gear is easily one of the most entertaining hours of television you can find today. Everything is far more ridiculous and there’s just a sense of grandure to the whole thing. Verdict: Top Gear.
6. Presenters – Charisma: Fifth Gear just isn’t funny, which is a shame because the British have a fantastic, ironic sense of humor, something that Top Gear takes full advantage of. Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond have a great chemistry, like three regular guys talking cars. Their personalities off-set each other well with May being sensible and old-fashioned, Clarkson being obsessed with power and…kind of an idiot and Hammond as a sort of everyman that most young people can identify with compared to the two oldies. While Tiff Needell is definitely a cool guy and Vicki Butler-Henderson…well, it’s hot when a girl can powerslide better than me…they don’t have the same appeal as the hosts of Top Gear. Everyone else on Fifth Gear is kind of like a pylon, especially the new guy: Tim Lovejoy, who is just plain boring. Oh…and Top Gear has a cute dog…named Top Gear Dog. Verdict: Top Gear…by a lot.
7. Presenters – Credibility: No one on either show is really an expert when it comes to cars. Most of them are journalists with a great love for cars but that’s like me saying I have a great love for surgery. You wouldn’t really want me to give you a new heart valve. However, Tiff and Vicki were once professional racers which gives them the slight edge, especially since Clarkson usually just gives his incredibly biased opinions on everything anyways. He’s got star power going for him but I think most people would rather have Tiff’s opinion. Verdict: Fifth Gear.
8. Presenters – Driving Skill: Again, Tiff and Vicki were pros and drive better than Clarkson. James May is nicknamed Captain Slow (although he has shown an affinity for speed at appropriate times such as maxing out the Bugatti Veyron) and Richard Hammond isn’t spectacular either, although he is above average. Jason Plato, who was a presenter on Fifth Gear until last season was also once a pro racing driver. The only person with possible racing credentials on Top Gear is The Stig but since we don’t know who he is or if he is just one person (he might even be Tiff…), we can’t seriously factor that in. Verdict: Fifth Gear.
The tally gives Top Gear a 4-3-1 edge over their Channel Five rival but personally, the race wasn’t that close. As with everything, there are intangibles involved. Fifth Gear is wildly inconsistent with their programming as one episode might be good but two others might be snorefests. There are entire segments of Fifth Gear that you just don’t want to watch while the boys of Top Gear can make paving a road entertaining (which they do in the season premier for season 9). There’s rarely a dull moment on the BBC show. Top Gear is also much more…believable. While the show is probably scripted, you never think it is since Clarkson, May and Hammond have such a great rhythm and they have a serious passion for cars. I have no doubt that Tiff loves driving and Vicki giggles affectionately every time she finds a great car but they don’t convey it as well.
So say what you want about how they promote irresponsible driving or hurt the environment by running over moss or melting polar bears but as a television show, Top Gear wins by a mile. And on that bombshell, it’s time to end. We’ll be back tomorrow.