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'Top Gear' tests celebs in clutch

Guest stars take to the racetrack as part of a car-themed revue on BBC America.

September 02, 2007|Jon Caramanica | Special to The Times

OH, to be even a C-list celebrity in the United Kingdom! It carries many privileges, certainly, but none so ludicrous or fantastic as the opportunity to appear on the "Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car" segment of the automobile enthusiast show "Top Gear." This season, that means racing a Chevrolet Lacetti against the clock around a specially outfitted racetrack. While the show's hosts sip tea trackside, the stars -- ranging from TV presenters to soccer stars, from Justin Hawkins, frontman for the heavy metal ironists the Darkness, to Rick Wakeman, keyboardist for the '70s prog-rock brooders Yes -- eagerly take their turns. Not surprisingly, potty-mouthed chef Gordon Ramsay is flustered over whether his lap time is the fastest of all the celebs'. (It is.) More surprisingly, so is Ewan McGregor. (It's not.)

As celebrity diversions go, this is a compelling one. Forcefully maneuvering this lumpen car provides the rare on-camera moment in which famous people are voluntarily unguarded. Everyone loves to drive fast, and almost no one looks cool doing it.

"Top Gear" (8 p.m. Monday) premiered on BBC America last month, though some version of the show has aired in England for the better part of the last 30 years. Once a sober consumer-oriented show, it's since morphed into a jolly, bruising and entertaining car-themed revue, a combination no American concoction on the Speed Channel can hold a candle to.

The show's hosts -- Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May -- are like the "Jackass" crew with degrees in engineering and marketing or the guys from NPR's "Car Talk" on a drug binge. In previous seasons, they've demolished a building with a Toyota pickup truck atop it to test the truck's indestructibility, and tested a Range Rover by using it to evade an army tank in the woods. The tests recall the late consumer advocacy show "Fight Back With David Horowitz," which would subject products to rigorous examination, seeing if they indeed held up to the claims advertised on their behalf.

Often, though, the hosts' stunts have little to do with informing the consumer and much to do with indulging their penchant for juvenilia. In the season premiere, they transformed a minivan into a convertible, sorta, then subjected it to challenges: driving through a game reserve, where monkeys hopped on the shabby new roof, and then through a carwash, which all but obliterated their work. Last week, the three squared off in a challenge to create an amphibious car in just a few days; needless to say, no one fully succeeded, though the sight of a Triumph Herald driving around the British countryside sporting a 20-foot-high mast made up for it nicely.

At root, though, just as it was when it first arrived in the '70s, "Top Gear" exists to report on and rate new cars. When the hosts enjoy a car, their praise is fulsome and more potent than any commercial ever could be. They're filmed driving the cars through stunning terrain, and interstitial clips of the cars -- softly lighted and doused with water, like Brazilian supermodels -- are essentially pornographic. Of cars they dislike, though, the hosts' critiques are more than vicious. It is at these dismantlings that the trio excels. Hammond dubs a pink Nissan mini-car "possibly the most embarrassing car in the whole of human history." Clarkson then declares, dryly, "It looks like a scrotum." In the same episode, Clarkson test-drives a Koenigsegg CCX, a Swedish supercar that tops out at around 250 mph. But it's not without flaws. "Koenigsegg says this is more comfortable," Clarkson notes, comparing it to an earlier incarnation of the car, "but more comfortable than what -- being stabbed?"

How "Top Gear" survives the publicity machine is a wonder -- presumably the chance for a slot on the correct end of the show's "cool wall" is worth the risk of scalding reviews. (In a country where the beef industry can sue Oprah Winfrey for defamation, could an American version of this show survive?) Or maybe the "Top Gear" brand is more powerful than any automaker's. After a disastrous test run, the Koenigsegg people tweak their car according to "Top Gear" recommendation -- this week, they bring it back in hopes of securing the show's lap-time record. Even the poor Lacetti, which will undoubtedly take several beatings, physical and verbal, before season's end, has still earned itself a weeks-long commercial. In the world of "Top Gear," it's important to be nice, but it's much nicer to be important.

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