With The Grand Tour, we hoped Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May would do something new. Freed from the BBC and given a giant production budget, the former Top Gear hosts were given a golden opportunity to break out of the formula they'd perfected. Two seasons in, The Grand Tour has shown moments of greatness, but they're tempered by the same stale jokes, catchphrases and tropes we came to expect from their final seasons on Top Gear.
Which makes it all the more surprising that the post-Clarkson Top Gear has become something great. On its third season since the departure of Clarkson, Hammond, and May—the second with Matt LeBlanc, Chris Harris, and Rory Reid handling nearly all the hosting duties—Top Gear has hit its stride.
Last week's Top Gear, an hour-long exploration of Japanese car culture, was remarkable. It began with a rather straightforward comparison test between two of the most exciting Japanese performance cars on the market today, the Lexus LC500 and the Honda Civic Type R. Chris Harris is at the wheel for this one, and he's the perfect man for the job.
Harris is a great host, and his background as an accomplished journalist and racer gives him an edge. His takes are well informed, and his passion for what he's doing is obvious. Comparison tests are nothing new in the world of cars, but Harris still manages to make this one feel fresh.
The episode's main feature revives an old Top Gear favorite, the cheap-car challenge, but even this takes on new life. LeBlanc and Harris are dispatched to Japan with ¥1 million (around $9400) to buy a 1990s Japanese sports car to bring back to the UK and attempt to sell for a profit. Before putting their cars on the boat, though, there are some challenges.
Harris buys a lovely yellow Mazda RX-7 while LeBlanc thinks he buys an R34 Nissan Skyline GT-R, but actually gets a rear-wheel drive GTS-T by "mistake." The challenges involve two celebrated elements of Japanese car culture—a Togue run and a drift competition. Top Gear imbues these with typical antics—the Togue challenge involves Sumo wrestlers, and Harris and LeBlanc tether their cars together for tandem drifting—but they still manage to celebrate Japan's contributions to the car world.
In the episode, LeBlanc and Harris are even granted permission to explore the Fukushima exclusion zone, where neighborhoods lay abandoned after the 2011 nuclear disaster. It echoes Clarkson and May's visit to Chernobyl in season 21, but this time, the location isn't treated as a punchline. It was a surprisingly poignant moment for Top Gear, one that treats a tragedy with the respect it deserves.
My only significant gripe with this season of Top Gear is that Rory Reid isn't featured as much as Harris and LeBlanc. His segment is the best part of this episode. In an exploration of Japan's underground car culture, Reid finds himself at a late-night meetup for owners of . He commandeers an outrageous Datsun 280Z for a ride through Toyko that's filmed beautifully.
As the night wears on, Reid runs into a pack of Lamborghinis all sporting crazy neon lights. He trades the 280 for a bright yellow Aventador and heads out to a quieter part of town to pick up the craziest car yet, a street-legal Porsche 962. In a drive that makes me unfathomably jealous, Reid takes the Rothmans-livery Le Mans race car out for a drive on the mountain roads outside Tokyo. It's incredible to see this car out on the street, and Reid clearly understands how special the moment is.
This episode was great, not only because of the production levels and access Top Gear provides—it was great because it approached Japan's car culture with curiosity and humility. This is a newer, humbler Top Gear than we've seen previously.
That same quality was evident in the final segment of the fourth episode of this season, a tribute to the Citroën 2CV. earlier this month, Harris explained how this feature is emblematic of the difference between old and new Top Gear.
"I think old Top Gear would have just ridiculed the 2CV and the people who drive it," Harris said. "But we celebrated it, its feats of engineering and how it’s a cultural phenomenon. It’s just a really cool car that’s charming to drive."
The setup involved Harris trying to convince LeBlanc of why the 2CV was so important, using the shaggy 1950s example he owns himself. Here, the natural chemistry between the two hosts is apparent, and it makes for a joyous view. And Harris is right—on an episode of James May's Cars of the People, May blows up a 2CV in a stunt. Here, the revamped Top Gear approaches this simple French car with love, even if it's not the typical car you'd see on this show.
"I think we’re probably a kinder Top Gear," Harris told Jalopnik. "I think the broader car community is something we like and want to embrace. So, yeah, we’re a bit different."
The Grand Tour explores car culture and history too—Clarkson’s retelling of Lancia vs. Audi in the 1983 World Rally Championship was especially great—but too often, the show feels predictable. There’s a lack of curiosity about the world around them. The Top Gear of LeBlanc, Harris, and Reid is the complete opposite. There's a real sense of joy and discovery in the show, which makes it a pleasure to watch.
LeBlanc, Harris and Reid use the opportunities Top Gear affords to create great TV, where The Grand Tour feels like it's not living up to its potential. Clarkson, Hammond, and May's Top Gear got stale in its final years, and when the trio moved over to the Grand Tour, they didn't take the opportunity to change more than what was necessary. It just feels like they're making the same show they have been for the last 15 years—just with a new name.
Top Gear, by contrast, had to reinvent itself, and while the initial results were shaky, it has finally become the best automotive TV show out there. It's not the result we anticipated, but we're all the happier for it. For the first time in years, I look forward to each new episode of Top Gear.