Review: Top Gear USA

An Early Review of the American Version of <em>Top Gear</em>

There have been plenty of rumors, speculation and Web chatter about the American version of Top Gear. Well, I can now lay them to rest. I've seen the first three episodes in their entirety. Not just clips or random segments. And with no PR spin. Yep, just sat down with some yogurt-covered pretzels and had my own personal Top Gear USA marathon. Here's what I took away from it.

There are two ways to look at the new American-based version of Top Gear that premieres on the History Channel November 21. First as an American car show and second as Top Gear.

Hosted by comedian Adam Ferrara, drift driver Tanner Foust and Speed Channel's designated NASCAR chortler Rutledge Wood, it's easily one of the best car programs ever to make it onto U.S. basic cable. It's beautifully shot and professionally edited, the content isn't beholden to whatever manufacturer that's paying for it, there's no segment where they pimp aftermarket parts, and it actually tries to be (and often succeeds at being) entertaining. This isn't Motorweek, Two Guys Garage or one of those Saturday afternoon ESPN2 time-slot fillers where they run B-roll video shot at car shows while the hyperventilating host reads press releases in voiceover. It's better. A lot better.

But it is called Top Gear (just Top Gear, not Top Gear USA or any other variation of the name), and that invites comparison with the Brit-built original. And in that heads-up battle, it's a pretty pale imitation that's burdened with unforced errors and, so far, missing the critical chemistry that makes the original such goofball perfection. I've only seen the first three episodes, so it may be that it gets better over time. Well, it needs to.

Most of the familiar Top Gear elements are present and accounted for in this new version. "A Star in a Reasonably Priced Car" becomes "Big Star, Small Car"; the stars still wander around a set built in an old hangar; and the show travels all over America to shoot segments. And, yes, there is an American version of "The Stig" around to flog every car around a track set up at what used to be the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Southern California. And as in the U.K. version, all those elements work OK.

What's missing from the American Top Gear is razor-sharp writing, the easygoing mutual ego slaughtering of the U.K. trio and some of the familiar music cues.

Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May are all excellent, insightful writers and true wits; they slalom around the car test clichés their American counterparts slam head on into. They're also veteran car testers who have experienced enough machinery to keep their enthusiasm holstered until it encounters a car truly deserving of it.

In contrast, the U.S. guys gush with enthusiasm over obvious things (like that the Viper has a lot of torque), use terms like "driving on rails" and don't have the breadth of experience to critically assess cars like the Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera with any depth. It's easy to be blown away by a Gallardo, but much tougher to put it in critical perspective against cars like the Ferrari 458 and Porsche 911 Turbo.

The lack of solid writing is most apparent in the stunts. Tanner Foust racing a Mitsubishi Evo down ski slopes against stunt skiers is inspired stuff, but Foust himself never really says anything interesting. A segment on "moonshine runners" meanwhile is just dopey; the interplay between the hosts just isn't substantial enough to carry the bit.

In these early episodes, it's apparent that the U.S. trio is just getting to know one another. So don't expect the sort of high-level badmouthing that makes Clarkson, Hammond and May so hilarious. Having said that, however, what Ferrara, Foust and Wood have going is already light-years ahead of the forced, cloddish clowning that goes on with other U.S. car shows. Yeah, I mean you, Spike TV Powerblock. There may not be as many laughs in the U.S. version of Top Gear as the U.K. one, but some laughs are there. And the groan factor is low (but not at zero).

Some of the reason why the British guys can harangue each other on camera so much is that each of their episodes run about 60 minutes. The American version, which must accommodate commercials, only goes 44 minutes. Here's hoping that three American amigos get enough episodes to find their mutual harassment sweet spot and somehow find the time to express it.

The U.K. version of Top Gear uses music brilliantly from the opening riffs of Greg Allman's "Jessica" as the theme song through all the familiar tunes that underscore every taped segment. If there's any place where the budgetary restrictions put on the U.S. version is apparent, it's the music. The same generic version of "Jessica" is used as the theme, but after that most of the music is sort of indifferent and innocuous — the sort of stuff they didn't have to spend a lot of money paying licensing rights on. They do drop in a few familiar tunes now and then, but it's nothing compared to how the Brits use familiar themes.

Ultimately the U.S. version of Top Gear seems worthwhile. No, it won't make you forget or forego the British version. But there's no downside to having two Top Gears around to choose from. It's a good solid start for the series, even if it isn't yet a match for the original.