Reviewing the First Two Episodes of Grand Tour Nation

Nearly every gearhead (petrolhead for you in the UK) has some familiarity with the long-running BBC program Top Gear. Based around the on-air chemistry of automotive journalists Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, Top Gear managed to be a television program that would appeal to both car nuts and the wider general public. It was something like mixing PBS’s Motorweek if it were hosted by three Stephen Fry-like characters with some reality TV contests and news chat. It was an oddly effective blend of seemingly disparate parts. It was about cars, of course, but that’s like saying Iron Chef is a cooking show. Eventually, in a series of events that don’t need rehashed, the BBC decided they no longer wanted to produce the show and cancelled it. Enter Amazon and its Prime video service which was willing to throw a considerable amount of money at the veteran British car show hosts for an ambitious program that sent them around the world to talk cars, do crazy things and needle the BBC when the chance arrives.

The first episode begins with news of the end of Top Gear being ended voiced over some walking about in the rain by Clarkson. It feels similar to many movies that set a tone this way as opposed to some sort of voice over single narrator. Eventually Clarkson makes his way to the USA and is handed the keys to what appears to be a Roush Mustang. He then heads off out into the desert to be joined by Hammond and May in their own Mustangs for what seems like a recreation of scenes from Mad Max: Fury Road. And off they go, weaving in and out of other vehicles until they reach the famous Burning Man festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. It might be trying to make a point about spiritual rebirth, self-awareness, the overcoming of obstacles or something else really deep given the roots of said festival, but it’s definitely proving that Amazon has money to burn (intended puns) on this show.

We get to see the new tent-based mobile set that Grand Tour Nation (GTN) will utilize as they gallivant about the world shooting cars and stuff, which is impressive, for sure. They banter with the audience and then finally, finally, get down to reviewing some cars. And what cars they are! It’s a hypercar shootout between a McLaren P1, a Porsche 918 and a Ferrari “The Ferrari.” All of the cars are expensive, like seven figures and up, and they are notably all forms of hybrid assisted gasoline engines that do a “Prius in reverse” trick of having the electric motor amplify the gasoline engine’s horsepower. This is the future of automotive engines, once this trickles down to mass-market cars. The crew is in Portugal and the beautiful helicopter/drone shots of Portuguese terraced orchards call to mind more philosophical musing about man’s mastery over nature and how these cars represent the automotive pinnacle of the creation of a tool to traverse distances our foot or hoof bound ancestors could only imagine gods doing.

Anyhow, the cars compete, tires are smoked, insane speeds are reached and there is good fun. It’s predictable but enjoyable nonetheless. We do see Amazon inconsistently censoring swear words. I’m not sure what their rule on this is going to be going forward. It’s not FCC regulated so they can let the boys curse as much as they like but they seem to be trying to keep it from being adults only.

There are some humorous references to Top Gear’s format that follows that I’ll not spoil. Then they introduce their new track and driver, whom the BBC lawyers won’t let them call “The Stig” anymore, the former of which seems to be a good place to do some car tests and the latter of which fell flat for me as another gag. You can be your own judge as to whether the new driver segments are going to be fun or tedious. They test a BMW M2 on the new track, christened the Eboladrome, and like it enormously, unsurprisingly.

Episode Two sends the team to Johannesburg, South Africa and gives us one clue to the goal of the show: explore car culture in different countries…and burn money. Oh, and burn lots of tires. I mean until they blow. GTN is going to be a tire holocaust from what we’ve seen in the first two episodes. Clarkson goes back to the Eboladrome to test a non-street legal Aston Martin Vulcan. It seems like this car’s lap time will set a benchmark for a while and it’s a truly magnificent machine, for people who can afford seven figure cars that can only be hauled to the track. There’s more inside joke type stuff and then the journalists head of to the desert in Jordan (I guess they like sand) to participate in a training exercise for special operations troops. It’s a long, wacky and perhaps a bit out of control segment. It shows that Amazon is going to let GTN have a long leash to do what it wants with its own judgment, for better or worse. I’m looking forward to seeing what other shenanigans this part of the show gets into, but I’ll temper my enthusiasm by noting that this part of the show was probably three times longer than it needed to be.

So, final verdict? It’s an inconsistent show. It is at times more awesome than any automotive-based program I’ve ever seen. I’ll surely watch the rest of the series. It’s also clearly going to have more than a few WTF moments and it is going to be walking a fine line as it tries to continue the Top Gear tradition of pleasing both enthusiast and casual car fans. At times, the car nuts will wish the gags would run shorter and the car data go deeper. The other audience of the show may be happy with the reality TV elements or not, I can’t speak to how that audience will react as well. Anyway, it’s worth checking the thing out on Amazon Prime if you have it. The first 5 minutes alone are must see stuff. Then you can decide whether you’re up for multiple seasons of this thing.