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Motoring TV: Fifth Gear

It's not as funny or outlandish as Top Gear, but Fifth Gear has managed to carve out more of a consumer advice niche for itself.

Rising from the slow crash and burn of old Top Gear from about 1999 to 2001, Fifth Gear is best explained as a continuation of the original format of Top Gear, even featuring several alumni of the previous show. Fifth Gear has since become an interesting tightrope walk of a TV show, attempting to remain distinct from the loud and laddish brashness of Top Gear and give some genuine consumer advice, while simultaneously avoiding the soul-crushing dullness of early Top Gear.

Fifth Gear was first broadcast in 2002, and at the time the name was written as "5th Gear", with the name officially changing in 2005. The show’s producers had actually wanted to use the Top Gear name again, as it was first broadcast during a brief period when there was no show by this name, but the BBC did not allow this. The presenters, Quentin Wilson, Tiff Needell and Vicki Butler-Henderson, had all originally been Top Gear presenters, coming over to Channel 5 along with the show. Wilson has since left the show, and the current presenter lineup has seen the addition of Jason Plato and Jonny Smith.

Others have come and gone, but there haven’t been any more changes to the lineup since 2009. Tiff Needell, Vicki Butler-Henderson and Jason Plato are all racing drivers, with Jonny Smith being the only current presenter that isn’t (although Smith’s own website has the URL "carpervert.com", which more than makes up for this). As you might expect, this tends to mean the show is heavy on the more technical aspects of the automotive world. But then, since this is a show intended to give consumer advice, this attention to technical details makes good sense. This consumer advice includes the usual reviews and annual awards for the best of a variety of classes.

There are also "shootouts", where two or more cars (and sometimes bikes) which are roughly comparable are driven around a track to see which is faster. The emphasis here is usually on the kinds of less-expensive sports cars which are frequently overlooked by Top Gear’s leaderboard, but it has not been without the odd Lamborghini. This last fact has also become more true in recent years. It should also be mentioned that in 2007, Fifth Gear was struck by a pair of horrible accidents. In one of these, presenter Tom Ford broke his foot and actually lost a few toes after crashing a van he was attempting to drift.

Jason Plato also suffered from several burns when a Caparo T1 that he was driving unexpectedly burst into a fireball at 150mph. Each of these would be remarkable on their own, but the fact that they actually took place on the same day (albeit in two completely different locations) is truly bizarre.

A more recent addition to the show has been the Team Test, where all four presenters do a sort of group review and rating. This might not be the most exciting thing on television, but it does provide some genuinely useful information. This lack of excitement is a problem which has plagued Fifth Gear for a while.

Those more accustomed to the flashier, louder and (let’s just come right out and say it) funnier content on Top Gear will possibly find Fifth Gear a bit boring. In fact, the show was briefly cancelled at the end of a season in 2009, but was ultimately renewed in time for the new season in early 2010.When the announcement of the cancellation was first made, even Jeremy Clarkson (who likes to pretend that his show and Fifth Gear are bitter rivals) went on the Chris Moyles Show to say that he thought the cancellation was a shame. And it really would have been, had it happened. Because, although the more practical Fifth Gear might not be as popular, there is surely room for both shows on TV.

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