This was the series it was all meant to come together. The new Top Gear trio were established, Matt LeBlanc, Chris Harris and Rory Reid venturing where Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond had gone before.
The ‘c’ word, we were told, had been found.
“We now have some chemistry and we know where our funny bones are,” Chris Harris said.
“We have now got all the little inside jokes,” added LeBlanc. The three amigos were reborn.
Are they right? On the evidence of the first episode of the new series, yes – up to a point. While there is a greater effort at broadening the appeal and injecting humour, the ‘banter’ does still a feel a little too forced. But it’s not to say there aren’t some good things to say about our first taste of the new run.
What struck me about the show, which featured studio segments round a lengthy celebration of the V8 engine with various escapades in the Wild West of America, was that they need to stop trying so hard.
Take their quip about whether Matt’s Mustang was a ‘real’ American V8 – an interesting radio chat as they drove along in their separate cars ended with Chris joking that Matt’s car was in fact “as American as Silvio Berlusconi”.
“Who’s she?” Matt shot back, playing the dumb American, which brought a raised eyebrow from Chris and a guffaw from Rory. Like I say, very scripted.
And all those times they turned up at a Nascar racetrack or a disused industrial estate and pretended not to know where they were didn’t help. To be fair, Clarkson & co do exactly the same on Amazon – but here the ring of inauthenticity just sounded louder.
The good news is that when they are allowed to just relax and let their characters shine, all three presenters really have something about them. Their love and knowledge of cars is palpable: the moment when all three delivered an ode to the V8, that beloved emblem of American engineering, was rather beautiful.
Carbon conscious Rory Reid may point out the obvious, that petrol cars are “on the way out”, but that makes his description of the V8’s appeal almost elegiac: “For me the V8 is sacred.”
Good use was made of their car choices too – Harris’s McLaren and Reid’s Jaguar waved the Union Jack against LeBlanc’s Stars ’n’ Stripes Mustang.
And it was good to see Sabine Schmitz back and enjoying her role as the show’s crazy driver. As she put it with a real gleam in her eye, “Let’s smash some stuff.”
In true Top Gear style It looked absolutely stunning too – a combination of breathtaking scenery and brilliant editing made for some really exciting sequences.
There was also a good choice for Star in a Reasonably Priced Car; Rob Brydon was a relaxed and witty addition. “Is that an issue for normal people?” he asked when Harris and LeBlanc went a bit geeky about the look of the Land Rover Discovery.
And that seems to be quintessential Top Gear. It is a car show, which needs to reflect the obsessions of die-hard petrol heads but offer a broader appeal. If the trio relax and let their exchanges flow naturally, then they may well have found the essence of the show.
Top Gear is back on BBC2 on Sunday nights