Top Gear US Full Review: Spoiler Alert!!!

Okay, so I’ll say it right here, right now: I have every episode of the current Top Gear on my computer… each one. I even have a crap ton from the original series that ran from 1977-1999. I’m obsessed. So obsessed, in fact, that I quote Top Gear UK on a regular basis. People always say if I go a day without quoting Top Gear or talking about Eric Clapton, that’s amazing…

Now Top Gear is the greatest automotive show of all time. It’s literally one of the most important television shows on today. Think I’m wrong? Tell that to the 350+ million European viewers every live episode. Again, that’s for one full hour of uninterrupted automotive crack. And if you don’t what I’m talking about, then just get the hell out of here. Go ahead, get out, now. Bye!

And so with this automotive pleasure, the US of A has tried to hack its way into watching the original UK version for years. We’ve even had 2 failed attempts at making the show (Info here). I even remember the pilot episode for Top Gear USA on Discovery Channel with Jon Favreau. At least, he’s the only one I can remember seeing. The latest attempt was from NBC in 2008, but because of issues with the crappy Knight Rider sequel T.V. series, they canceled their contract with the BBC to produce an American version.

The BBC shopped around and found the History Channel to be a promising one to have produce the new show. And we as American Top Gear fans have been salivating ever since with teaser videos, etc.

Spoiler Alert!

Okay, now it’s time to talk about our version of Top Gear.

I first saw the press premier in Las Vegas at SEMA recently, and I’ve got to be honest; I was extremely disappointed. Not disappointed because it wasn’t good, but because it wasn’t good enough. You can tell that History took some of what Top Gear UK is about and added Americanisms to it. The camera stability in the cars is not that great, especially at high speeds. And, in certain instances, you can barely see the person driving the car. That’s not good. Also, the contrast and color of the cameras are not good at all.

But more about that later. First, I should actually tell you about how good the shows actually are.

UPDATE: I should let you know, a little more in depth, that we didn’t get to see a full episode at the premier. It was simply an introduction to the cast and crew, as well as four challenges from the first three shows chopped up and made into one long video. So when I say I wasn’t impressed, it’s because I didn’t see the final product. I have now, and here’s the story:

Top Gear sent me, as well as other writers, the first three rough-cut episodes of the show, so that we could review it.

The hosts are:

Adam Ferrara is a top-notch comedian. One of my favorites, in fact (not even kidding). The most surprising of the three, and he’s actually the best on screen. As a real actor and comedian, he has the best timing and delivery, obviously.

Rutledge Wood is an on-air personality for SPEED during NASCAR season. Interestingly enough, he does a good job of playing second fiddle to Adam’s comedy. He has good timing and has excellent quips. In the studio, though, he seems to not be as comfortable as the other two are, but when driving a car, he’s pretty on point.

Tanner Foust… Isn’t that enough to say? Okay, so Supercars Exposed wasn’t the greatest show, but it was good and entertaining to watch. Battle of the Supercars, with he and Paul Tracy, is fun, but it’s no Top Gear. And Mr. Foust never seemed to be the best on camera, but getting better each time. On this show, though, he’s right on cue.

But there’s no clear host… Adam and Rutledge take turns with the stars, and a different person ends each episode, which doesn’t work. Adam Ferrara seems to be the best fit as the main host.

When I saw the crew in Vegas, on stage before the premier, Tanner seemed to be the odd man out. Rutledge and Adam were joking and having a good time with the audience, but Foust just didn’t seem to have much to say, or was nervous in front of people, I don’t know. However, when you see him on the show, you’ll be quite surprised and impressed. He can seem scripted, but so did Jeremy, Richard and James the first 5 or 6 seasons.

Episode 1 is comprised of the Dodge Viper racing an AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter. The premise is simple: try not to get a missile lock from the chopper while driving to a destination and then back to the airstrip where they started from. It’s a simple take off of the original Top Gear episodes where Jeremy takes on the UK military. It highlights some great attributes about Tanner’s driving, as well as some entertaining comments from Rutledge riding shotgun, trying to be the guide.

Once the feature is over, it goes back to the studio where Sir Stig Americana takes the keys to a Dodge Viper ACR and does a great lap around an equally impressive Top Gear test track. It’s nowhere near the same as Top Gear UK’s, but it’s equally as difficult, if not more.

Unfortunately, the lead in for The Stig isn’t the same as in the UK original, but something that is new and really cool is how he’s displayed in the studio. You know the tall banner that drapes down from the hanger ceiling in Top Gear UK? Well instead of a giant picture, it’s now a giant, long video screen that shows Stiggie in different stances. So it’s not dull, it is now very 3Dish.

After The Stig wrings the ACR out, it’s time to welcome “Big Star, Small Car”. That’s our version of “Star in a Reasonably Priced Car.” Only, we get a Suzuki SX4… The first star is Buzz Aldrin, the second man to ever walk on the Moon. So already it’s the same as Top Gear UK, only slightly different.

After Mr. Aldrin shows us what he can do in a small, affordable, hunk of junk family car, it’s on to bigger and better things: three grown men in three grown-up Lamborghinis trying to outdo one another. Each host takes a new Lambo and goes down the long stretch of an airfield to see how fast they can go. All I can say is, I’m so glad there are bleeps and not full-on language edits. Ahh, the joys of being on cable. Try and get NBC to do that… not gonna happen.

I won’t tell you how fast the guys go, nor which cars they pick. All I will say is that the cars for them to choose from are the LP550-2 Valentino Balboni, LP670-4 SV and the LP570-4 Superleggera. And just because you’re wondering, yes Stig takes them around the track. I won’t reveal any lap times, because you should either watch the show, or set your DVR to watch it later.

Episode 2 features Tanner Foust racing some skiers down a mountain while driving a Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution on the road and in the snow. The only problem is, it seems too scripted and a take off of older Top Gear episodes. It’s still good fun, though, for American fans who haven’t seen as many original episodes as I have. And in the screening I saw in Las Vegas, the kids (they were adults, but they laughed and chattered like school children) behind me couldn’t stop ooing and ahhing, as well as laughing. They loved it. So that’s a win for Top Gear US.

While Tanner is driving the Evo, he makes a rather offensive joke against the Japanese military of WWII… and I loved it. We’ll see if he gets away with it when the show airs. If he catches hell for it, mission accomplished. But still, a little too old Top Gear for my tastes.

Next up, Rutledge steps into the Aston Martin V8 Vantage to then into the V12 Vantage to show the differences. He also makes some sly remarks about the Brits. And then, of course, big daddy Stig takes it around the Top Gear track. You’ll have to watch the show to find out a lap time…

The “Big Star, Small Car” of this episode is Dominic Monaghan from Lost and The Lord of The Rings fame. Oddly, though, it’s Rutledge interviewing him instead of Adam Ferrara.

The coolest and most unique thing I’ve ever seen on any Top Gear is a challenge from our version: Tanner versus the other two hosts in a burnout, donut and handbrake parking (Flip A Bitch -make sure to watch the other episodes) challenge. The only thing is, Foust wouldn’t be driving… Ferrara’s comedian friend, Brian Fishler, who just so happens to be blind. This is by far the greatest skit I’ve seen on the show. Hysterical and perfect.

If you don’t like that we’re getting our own version of Top Gear, you’ll love this challenge. If you watch it and still don’t like it, don’t come back to the car community. Ever.

Episode 3 can only get better, right? Correct.

They come down to my back yard, North Carolina, and buy cars for 1000 dollars that they will do moonshining runs in. Moonshiners created NASCAR, so they’re paying their respects. This is where Rutledge Wood starts to shine in a special way. Let’s put it this way: it’s sincerely entertaining. The chemistry is starting to really shine on this run. All I can say is, I laughed my ass off, literally. They get drunk and spit moonshine into an open fire.

They take a break to do the news! During this portion they come up with excellent jokes about Buick. Then they show off the new Boss 302 Mustang.

Ty Burrell from Modern Family is the latest “Big Star, Small Car”.

The guys make a little fun of Rutledge, NASCAR and the dirty south before going back to the moonshine running challenge, and it’s oh so great to watch. It’s one of the funniest and most entertaining things I’ve seen on Top Gear. Again, originality is key and works perfectly in this case. One of the coolest parts of the challenge is The Stig in a Dodge Charger police car chasing each one of the hosts in their cars around Rockingham Speedway.

And that’s the end of the three episodes for me to watch. Honestly, I wish I had more.

Where the first episode has some drawbacks with too few backing tracks to what’s going on, shaky cameras, shoddy video quality and no BBC style cinematography, the second episode seems to correct those issues.

The Verdict:

Top Gear US is actually pretty good, so far. There is some obvious work to be done. Whenever you watch the first episode, you’ll be a little disappointed, because it’s not the best, but it is a good platform to start with. As you watch the next couple of shows, however, you’ll notice where they learned from their mistakes in such a short time. Which is good. It took the original Top Gear a few seasons to get it right once they came back on the air, and this one will too.

If there’s one piece of advice I can give to the guys behind our version of Top Gear, it’s this: Don’t be so tempted to take what Europe has had for so long and just copy and paste it to us. We’ve been watching for a long time, too. We know what it’s all about, and you can’t fool the die hard enthusiast on this one. Stop taking ideas from the original and adding them into our American version. If you do happen to take a feature from the real Top Gear, add Americanisms to it. Make it so you may be able to see the similarities, but make the differences very apparent. And another thing, let these guys be themselves. Don’t edit what they say and do because of ridiculous American PC (political correctness) customs. We need a good bit of honesty in this country, and I know Top Gear can bring that to our living rooms and be relevant all at the same time.

Top Gear US is certainly far from perfect. But it’s not even close to crap American television. So at the end of the day, I give it a 6.5 out of 10. It’s better than what I was expecting, and far better from the premier I saw out at SEMA, yet it still needs some work.

Let’s give them time. However in the meantime, Hooray for History and BBC pulling off an American Top Gear!