“Top Gear” Has Become What “The Grand Tour” Should Have Always Been

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 wild Bosozoku Style cars. 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. Speaking to Jalopnikearlier 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.”