Friday, 24 December 2010

It's A Slippery Slope...

For those of you returning from work or last minute present shopping this Christmas Eve, icy roads and snowy weather may have made driving extremely unenjoyable. If you've made it through the worst December can throw at you, spare a thought for the drivers in these cars from Washington earlier this week, proving that large sturdy SUVs with chunky tyres are no guarantee of sure-footed progress in all conditions. Any tyre manufacturer with a rapidly active PR department should start sponsoring this clip right away as an advert for winter rubber.

Apart froma  few 'fender benders', no lasting harm done however. So on a more positive note, thanks for all your continued support of the blog, your comments are always welcome. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and a prosperous New Year to you all.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Lucrative Or Timewasting: Unusual Spending

The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed my oddly-titled headline is an acronym of Lotus, inspired by the original coined to describe their inconsistent brilliance: 'Lots Of Trouble, Usually Serious. In its 58 year history, Lotus has, with or without Colin Chapman at the helm, been a pinacle of innovation and ingenuinty, both in the cut and thrust of F1 and with their lightweight, well-balanced sports cars. However, as you'll have seen from their revelations at the 2010 Paris Motor Show, 'simplify and add lightness' has been binned in favour of high capactity, high performance, high priced philosophy. That decision, and the current ambition has been debated and slated unremittingly since the reveal, and while purists may revolt, Lotus and its Proton parent need profit and have deemed reinvention as a Porsche and Aston rival the best plan of action.

The gubbins with the go on Lexus IS-F duty
 Out of all the various aspects of the plan, there's argument over, the sheer amount of the new models, their styling, expected arrival dates and how the dynamics of the Elise, Elan, Esprit, Eterne and Elite will fare with the best, once they are here.
One of possibly the more minor points, but still worth a look, is the policy on the engines that will power Lotus into its new era of luxury motoring. Despite initial reports that the 8 cylinder models would receive variations of the Lexus V8 found in the LS600h and IS-F, now word has come from Lotus that consideration is being given to fabricationg a totally new and bespoke motor, which, in different capacitites, could see service in the back of the sports cars and noses of the GTs. Benefits of this are obvious: the cars develop their own character, so important in this market where emotion rules over pramatism. Also, commonaility of spare parts and maintenance lower service costs which is of course welcome in an area where costs are usually so high.

Colin Chapman at the wheel of Lotus

However, as admirable as yet another idealistic Lotus proposal is, it does seem outweighed by the negatives which render it unnecessary. Developing a high performance engine capable of being constructed in different sizes and states of tune, powering vastly different cars, while simultaneously meeting international emmision and consumption legislation is heroically, obscenely expensive. Almost all low volume sports car makers, like Ariel, Spyker, even the first Koenigsegg, use engines readily available and pre-approved for their prospective markets. Concerns about reliabilty are also alleviated. Pagani went bespoke with their AMG-built V12 for the mighty Zonda, but never being certified for the USA proved very limiting, something which is being changed for the C9 successor. Lotus incidentally doesn't possess the luxury of being able to charge £1million + for its cars like Pagani to offset its engine costs.
At least it's better looking that a Panamera...
While Lotus's new board may fear that an ostensibly Toyota based motor won't attract Aston Martin* customers, a stronger position with new models fully on the market using existing engines would be a preferable base to start considering a new V8 mill. Certainly, with GM ex-chief and Lotus shareholder Bob Lutz admitting even he feels the new lineup has (just) "a 60% success chance", perhaps those masterminding the new operation should take insiration once again from the previous philosophy, and keep things simple.

*Of course Aston Martin's DB9/DBS/Rapide V12 is based on a 'doubled' Ford V6 design, and remains one of the most iconic current engines.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Beemer In The Eye of The Beholder

A couple of days ago I regretfully concluded that the new BMW 1 Series M Coupé was, from what I could see in the last of the teaser videos, just slightly not quite as good looking as it maybe could have been. I followed this up by saying that I had my fingers crossed it grew on me before it lands on  UK shores next May (and in car reviews well before then.)
I have to say I didn't expect the 1M to grow on me this quick, since the full reveal 24 hours ago. Firstly, the stats make for mighty impressive reading. Although the baby M gives away 79bhp to its big M3 brother, the all-important power to weight ratios are remarkably close, due to the 1M weighing in at a relatively lean 1495kg. In isolation this is yet another overweight modern motor, being nearly 200kg heavier than the original E30, which BMW are touting as the 1M's 'spiritual predecessor' in the marketting bumph. However, it's still below the 1680kg E92 M3, often criticised for the numb and lazy nature of its handling compared to the E30 and E46, due in no small part to the greater mass and inertia. The 1M is also a not-insubstantial 80kg lighter than its identically powered nearest rival, Audi's new RS3, which also aports an identical asking price. Said cost? The £39,900 1M undercuts the crucial M3 by £13k. Considering the kerbweight and 78lb/ft of torque advantages of the turbo 1 make it just as accelerative as the V8 3, and that they'll both hit the 155mph limiter with ease, the 1M looks an attractive buy. As long as you can live without the carbon fibre roof. And the non-naturally aspirated niggle under the bonnet which flies in the face of so much of the M Division's heritage.

I mentioned 'attractive' so I'm going to delve into the contiontious and subjective styling issue again. Having pored over the official press release photos of the car, I have to say the front splitter isn't quite as ugly as I initially discredited it for, though like many modern BMWs, there's a strong catfish likeness going on; not sure if that's intentional design language, or even a good thing, but it's there. I maintain the front is the least successful aspect; the lights look a bit gawky from some angles and the whole snout is a pretty punchy, but then if it had been more conservative, I, like most people, would have been quick to bemoan it for looking generic and too standard. Otherwise, the blistered arches, cambered phat tyres and stumpy tail with M Division 'pipes does look very good. The devil's really in the details, like the streamlined door mirrors and rear arch slash vents. It's also only going to be available in black, white and orange. While the tangoed look works in the press shots, I reckon that black will work to soften the blows of the aggressive styling, while white my well be the hue of choice, since it looks so blindingly good on the E92.

The comments I've read about the 1M over the last day or so suggest this is going to be a really divisive car, in terms of its styling, powertrain, weight, driving experience, and the styling all over again. One thing to consider though is that the E92 M3 took a lot of stick when it was let loose for being too remote and civilised, like a muscle car-meets grand tourer hybrid, not an Ultimate Driving Machine. It was also criticised for eschewing traditionally subtle M car exterior styling, and being too fussy. One (nameless) magazine labelled it, the new generation of the best loved sporting special for a quarter of a century, a 'chav chariot.' Yet now, if you see them on the road, with a deep V8 burble coursing out of their quad exhausts, it does look good. It's settled down with time, comes across less aftermarket, less like Hamaan or Mansory have bodykitted it; in white especially, for my money it's one of the best looking cars in the 'real world.'
So if, like me, you've been quick to write off the 1M Coupé on face value, just give it a while, you might see the light if you try hard enough. Whichever side of the fence you end up on though, you'll be in very good company.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Cars On The Mind (and Dirt Off Your Shoulder)

Apologies to readers outside of the UK, but the British among you who are keen on the beautiful game might remember a finishing feature of Match of the Day 2 when presented by Adrian Chiles known as  '2 Good 2 Bad' segment, featuring a couple of funnies from the weekend's football action. Here's my motoring equivalent with some recent odds and ends.

One of these is white. And very good.

The other is just a whiteg...
you see where this is going.
Firstly, Aston Martin have proudly announced that they have allocated 60 sales of their flagship One-77 ultra-hypercar. The bespoke £1million+ V12 car, featuring the world's most powerful naturally aspirated engine and enough tailored personalisation options to make every one of the 77 produced unique, is now to be toured around lucrative Far East markets such as Zonda loving Hong Kong and China, in order to soak up the last few available orders. Yet the Gaydon outfit have also tagged on that over half of customers so far have also opted to purchase a matching Cygnet, the Aston Martin-customer 'exclusive' city car, which for those of you unfamiliar with this abomination, is a rebadged Toyota iQ, with less than a tenth of the output of the One-77's 740bhp motor. Seems amazing to me that some of the the rich individuals blessed with the wealth and opportunity to own what is very possibly the world's most desirable car, then show a complete about-turn in taste and also pick up a bargain affront to the brand, which until now has surpassed itself for effortless cool. Can't really imagine James Bond in a Cygnet...

Next, a totally subjective piece of disappointment. Like most people with more than a passing interest in cars, I've been impatiently awaiting the arrival of the BMW 1-Series M Coupé. The turboed straight six has drummed up huge anticipation in the hope it negates the overpowered and overweight M3 and M6 coupés of late and shows a relative return to the spirit of the original M3. Beemer have been playing up to this hype with journo drives of test hacks and teasing detail shots of the finished article. However in their latest press release, the whole car is revealed at a few split second intervals, and I was very slightly let down by one aspect. It looks great from the rear, with 4 trademark exhaust tips and stout, squat, aggressive proportions. In profile the E46 CSL style wheels, in my opinion the best looking alloys of recent years, set the new M off wonderfully. It's just that from the front, where a car gains so much of its visual drama and purpose, the all-important 'face' just isn't quite as good looking as I was hoping it would be. The swollen wheel arches behind the headlamps give the car an over-inflated look from bang front on, and the lower splitter with the ducting and chin spoiler, is a bit of a mess. No doubt it'll be argued as functional for downforce and cooling, as well as setting the M Coupé apart from the standard 135i M Sport. However, it still jars the eye a little and spoils an otherwise great looking car. See what you think from the screenshots and video below, I just hope it grows on me before the worldwide press inevitably lavish it with praise.

Now for the good...

Here's Ferrari's new GT2 racer version of the 458 Italia. This must be one of the most aggresive looking competition cars of recent times. Until the racing homologated Glickenhaus P4/5 steals its thunder, this thing in racing decals with all those front vents and slashes will look evil. Interestingly, in a sign of our power-hungry times, the GT2 is restricted by the entry rules to a 470bhp ceiling, making nearly 100bhp less powerful than the road car. And, therefore, probabaly one hundred times less likely to burn to a crisp on an alpine pass.

Finally, since it's the season for giving, and explaining my tenuous Jay-Z link in the headline, the Jigga Man has revealed the 41st birthday present he scored from his star wife Beyoncé was a Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport. Ordered over a year ago to ensure the handbuilt road rocket would be built in time, the world's fastest, most expensive open top car apparently went down very well with it's Brooklyn-born owner, who already owns a Zonda, Maybach, and the usual rap star essential garage. Makes the looming Christmas holiday a difficult follow-up to pull off; nevertheless Mr Carter was very grateful to his other half. Would it be too crude to say he's got 99 problems but a b*tch ain't one..?

I've just noted that this is a car blog, not a celeb gossip column or the NME. Normal service will soon be resumed.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Coincidence? Surely Not...

Some of you may remember a post I made a few weeks back where I suggested that production of a halo sporting model hailing from a Korean or Malaysian manufacturer would be of benefit to the Far Eastern car industry. Well if that whetted your appetite, then good news from the world famous Kuala Lumpur Motor Show. Proton, long time compatriot of Lotus, have unveiled a rebadged version of the Norfolk brand's little known Europa model.
However, before the party poppers are let off to herald the arrival of a budget route to mid engined lightweight ownership, there are a couple of catches. Firstly, the Lekir, as it has been christened, is just a concept as of the moment, being showcased to gauge local public reaction as well as attract attention to the mainstream Proton brand. So don't expect this to be Top Gear's new Reasonably Priced Car just yet. 
Secondly, the changes likely to befall the Lotus-a-like aren't too tantalising. Proton are touting that the car would retain stock chassis and suspension components, but feature a 1.6 turbo from Proton rather than the tuned 2 litre motor from the highly praised Vauxhall VX220 that Lotus plumb into the Europa. Also, the Malaysian makeover isn't brilliant, with just some tarty aftermarket-looking wheels and a few swathes of black plastic to freshen up the design.
Finally though, the main problem is that the Europa isn't actually a very good car. While Elises and Exiges are hardly challenging Focuses and Corsas for the sales chart, can you honestly remember the last time you saw a Europa on the road? Based on the Elise platform in a time before the much-prasied Evora, the Europa was supposed to represent a more rounded, everyday proposition, sporting generous cabin and luggage space, together with more grand touring capability. However, the shoestring-budgetted result was a disappointment for most testers, being priced above its Cayman and 350Z nemesis, despite giving away refinement, comfort and performance unforgivably. The forgotten Lotus had also taken a  fairly severe beating with the ugly stick and as such has fallen largely by the wayside. Consider that the roadtest filmed by Clarkson for Top Gear was never broadcast due to its tedium and you see the problem.
Rebadging and remarketing the Europa as the Proton Lekir could be a smart play by Lotus. They finally open up the possibility of more profit from the platform, and assist the creation of overnight credibility for Proton in some markets. If it does see the light of day then it's unlikely to hit core European markets; it's too stark an undermining admission of defeat for Lotus. Still, if they are listening at all, may I respectfully suggest a sticker price of around half the Europa's £32k, on sale ASAP. It's about time the MX-5 had some competition.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Just Why Is The 911 So Good?

Yes, it's another post on Porsche, but bear with me. This is a petrolhead's site, written for car lovers, by a car lover. And if there's one car which every enthusiast has at least a minor opinion on, it's the Porsche 911. When I was born the 964 series was just preparing to pass the torch onto the 993, so half of the 911 models have been made in my lifetime. With the new car about to take centre stage following final sign-off testing, I thought it'd be appropriate to take a quick look at just why this legendary automobile has acquired such status, adoration, and infamy.
Ferdinand Porsche's baby went into production in 1963 with a template that has remained largely the same. The standard 911 coupé is, as then, a rear engined, 2+2 seater powered by a six cylinder motor, driving the rear wheels. The biggest departure from the original philosophy aside from the growing proportions and power of the car was the switch from air to water cooling on the 996 generation. So for nearly 38 years, the car has remained true to its original design principle, which must certainly be a factor in its popularity. The fact that these defining principles brought about some inherent flaws challenges which have been engineered around and into the car's character make the 911 nigh-on unique. As everyone knows, having the heavy engine out over the rear wheels increases traction both from a standing start and out of corners, as well as packaging the car efficiently, creating enough space in the cabin for 2 small rear seats. Of course, the caveat of this has always been the pendulum potential of the engine mass to swing round and induce snap oversteer, creating the 911's reputation as an undoubted driver's car, but also something of an animal. No wonder extreme variants like the 993, 996 and 997 GT2 have carried the dubious nickname of 'widowmakers.' At least the engine has consistently made a textbook sports car noise, a gravelly flat 6 howl remaining constant even without the clatter of the older air-cooled systems.
So the 911 is practical, fast, challenging yet rewarding to drive, and has pedigree. Until the very latest 997.2 generation, it was often muted as having one of the most direct and feelsome steers in the car world, though the motoring press conceded some of this had been dialled out with the latest version's push for refinement. Still, if you're after an unrefined, unplugged, unsanitised 911, Porsche do still make them, as part of the genius range of different models. And the same motoring press have conceded that these are some of the finest driving machines in the world.
The 996 GT3 from 1999 was slightly lightened, slightly more powerful, more stiff and more stuck to the road. It was not the first stripped and fettled 911 variant to hit the streets but it was the most mainstream. The GT3 road racer won over even the harshest 911 critics, with long time sceptic Jeremy Clarkson admitting in his Sunday Times column that it was 'the first ever 911 he'd thought long and hard about buying.' This was followed by the even more hardcore RS model, rivalling the Ferrari 360 Challenge Stradale. Porsche had obviously realised by this point they were onto a winner, allowing them to move the 'base' 911s to the grand tourer end of the spectrum and charge a premium to enthusiasts for the motorsport-esque specials. The 'poseurs' car still exists with the Targas and Cabriolets, but they are redeemed by the track based machines. This reached its zenith with the current 997 generation, with the GT3RS in MkI and Mk II forms winning evo Magazine's Car of the Year as well as Autocar's Best Driver's Car of 2010 respectively. It also totally altered my opinion on 911s.

I've never been a fan of the 911 before, in any form. I didn't buy into the 'engine in the wrong place/overpriced Beetle/all look the same/yuppie runaround' school of thought, but I was unable to comprehend any of the desirability of the car. More emotional cars, with prettier styling seemed more appealing. Despite reviews praising their unsurpassable drivability, the 911 still appeared humourless. Yet now, having become a driver myself, I've begun to understand the rewarding sensations a car transmits to you as the driver, through the seat, the steering wheel, the pedals, and its inertia, I have begun to respect the 911 hugely, and yearn to have the chance to pilot a GT3 in the future. Not only is it showered with plaudits, but it marks something of a dying breed; lightweight, naturally aspirated, manual transmission, rear wheel drive. These halo 911s are the ultimate expression of a performance sports car, not in terms of arrogant output figures, but (from what I've read, and watched), the manner in which they encourage and thrill the driver with their feedback and feel. I thoroughly recommend catching recent tests of these cars, for which I've added some links below. These contain all the stats about the cars I've deliberately neglected from this post, but also provide ringing endorsement for progress.
They may just alter your prejudices, should you have any, about the 911, and its status as the benchmark sports car.

It's been a master of reinvention yet altruistic to its core values. The standard kiss of death for a promising car is to label it a '911 rival', as Lotus, Noble, Marcos, Aston Martin, Jaguar, and TVR have all found out to their own cost. (All British...there's something in that.) Audi arguably got closest with the V8 R8 but compulsary four wheel drive, and amidships V8 configuration move it conceptually far away from the Carrera. Even Porsche's own attempts to kill the 911 off with the 928 were unsuccessful, proving the longjevity and original design success.
I now for the first time look forward to the emergence of the new 911 range. I'm excited to see if the base cars still hold firm as the sweet spot of the range, while I wonder just how much more power the Turbo flagship will be bestowed with. And eventually, what will the next range of GT3s be like in a world of PDK gearboxes and forced induction?
Referencing my daunting question, why is the 911 so good? I've barely scratched the surface on this legendary car here, but in my view it's the enduring appeal of evolutionary styling, covering a practical body, propelled by an iconic powertrain, with perfection-approaching dynamics. And the fact that the range is so large, there's a 911 for just about anyone, yet far from everyone could (or would) ever have one. A final thought is that all this opinion on the fabled 911 drive I've learned from various motor journos expressing boundless enthusiams for the car they're in. Yet a common trait among them is the agreement that once (and only once) you've driven a 911 for yourself, you know the reasons why. Roll on that day.

Autocar 997.2 first drive:
Autocar 99.7.2 Turbo review
evo 997 GT3 RS v Francois Delecour

Follow the related links on YouTube to check out some of the group tests from Autocar and evo, involving GTRs, R8s, 458 Italias and even the new Cayenne Turbo. All well shot and presented clips from the best two car mags around.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Driven Round The Bend

The new Audi A4/5/6/8...

Just a quick one this, regarding something that crossed my mind while reading about the features on the newly released Audi A6. Ignoring the déjá vu styling that renders the A6 almost indistinguishable from its A4 and A8 brethrin, one aspect which caught my eye was the availability of options that can control the A6 independently, allowing the car to steer, brake, and park itself. For over a decade now this technology has been filtering down the automotive car pecking order. Radar-guided cruise control first debuted on the previous gen Mercedes S-Class, and is now available on most large saloons. Volvo has been beavering away with systems which automatically brake your vehicle for you should a pedestrian stumble into the road ahead before you can react. (Though as seen in the test video below, it may need tinkering with.) Lexus and Volkswagen both produce cars which are capable of parking themselves with no input from the driver whatsoever, and even more mainstream manufacters have been pioneering, as with Citroen's lane departure warning system, which vibrates the driver's seat should the car wander across dual-carriageway lanes without correction, in case the driver has fallen asleep at the wheel.

Now it's long been a fantasy of the future that we will all one day be chauffered around in totally automatic cars, just like scientists of the past predicted Moon colonies and entirely pill-based nutrition. But autopilot cars may actually be on the way, above and ahead of all the other pie in the sky fantasy. Not only have we got all the aforementioned mainstream tech, but Audi (again) have recently pushed the boundaries, with some help from students at Stanford Univeristy, USA. Their autonomous car project, based on the current TTS model, has gained steady progress over the last couple of years, culminating last month in the car, known as 'Shelley', completing a pilotless run of the infamous 12 and a half mile Pikes Peak rally course in Colorado. Using its array of cameras, sensors, and high speed memory-acutuated on board command centre, the TTS completed the hillclimb in 27 minutes without incident.
A professional rally driver in a purpose built car would hope to achieve a time of around 17 minutes. We may well ignore with good reason the aspirations of flying cars, or miracle-powered concepts, but in a few years with consistent investment, the idea of a 'driver's car' may well begin to disappear altogether. And it'll probably be Audi at the head of the wave. Remember that scene in 'iRobot' when Will Smith's character provokes horror from his female passenger, by engaging manual override of his Audi RSQ and driving it himself? Maybe Hollywood was onto something for once.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Don't Porsche Your Luck

'..and news just in from our state the obvious correspondent. Porsche have confirmed the worst kept secret in Stuttgart and pledged to produce the long-rumoured Cajun, the baby Cayenne SUV.'
I'm not really sure this is what critics of the motoring industry had in mind when they talked up the advantages of downsizing in the recent economic crisis. But Porsche have done the sums and seen that with yet more platform sharing, this time with the Audi Q5, they can stamp out a mid size 4x4 to their own spec while expoliting their position in the VW Group, and have an undisputed winner on their hands. The fact is, they're right. The end result will, I predict right now, look unfortunate from the front and okay from everywhere else, have a gorgeous interior, handle and drive extremely well for an SUV, and be so desirable despite the cost that the new and already highly credited BMW X3 and Range Rover LRX won't know what hit them, despite not even being in direct competition. Worrying news for brands like Infiniti too, as now those who can't stretch to a Cayenne won't have to look outside Porsche for an alternative.
As long as Porsche sidestep the landmine of not making the Cajun different enough from it's Q5 sister, they'll be home and dry, and private school runs will never look the same again. Of course a big draw for potential Cajun customers will be the opportunity to buy into Porsche relatively inconspicuously, avoiding the stigma a Cayenne Turbo GTS drums up as it rumbles past.
I'm not going to totally slate the Cajun, despite not being a fan of its name, or much of the reasoning behind it, because as a car in its own right, in isolation, it'll be very good. I will however take issue with Porsche, and their ever-swelling model line-up. BMW got a lot of stick when it brought out the 1-Series for brand dilution, but the same badge was already available on the back of diesel repmobiles and softroaders; not very Ultimate Driving Machine. With Porsche's new strategy however,  I'm ever reminded of the point made by one Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear a few years back concerning the Cayman, during one of his last credible road tests before the programme descended into more juvenile artificial nonsense. Clarkson pointed out brilliantly (at 4 mins 53s) that the Cayman slotted 'rather too perfectly' into the Porsche sports car range in terms of price, power, and performance, leading him to conclude it was designed not 'to be as good as a car can be', but to just 'fill a gap in the market.'

Now Porsche are up to the same trick with the Cajun, and it doesn't stop there. Before 2015 there'll be a baby Boxster with blown 4 cylinder engines making an appearance, all in an effort, as with the new SUV, to 'attract younger buyers to the brand.'
By this point then, Stuttgart's exports will be 2 mid engines soft top sports cars, a hardtop coupé mid engined sports car, a rear engined GT/track car, a mid size SUV, large SUV, large super-luxury-coupaloon and at some point, halo mid-engined hybrid hypercar, in the form of the production 918 Spyder. Furthermore, despite the Panamera's dire styling and slight driver disatisfaction, it was Porsche's fastest selling model ever, so the revered performance exec market held by the M5, XFR, and E63 incumbents will no doubt prove too tempting to miss out on in the future. And don't forget the new '928' Panamera based coupé in the works.
Apart from the impressive 918 project, the rest of the model range is starting to look a little bloated, with too many cars competing chiefly with each other. Upcoming releases like the new 911, seen testing frequently, and the 918, have to be 'got right' to maintain faith in the Porsche marque, and the top brass will argue that profit from their more practical offerings funds this. And yet perhaps Porsche should slow down its diversification away from the sports car, not forget the the 911 is still The Sports Car, before the soul is lost in the accounts department. To quote Mr Clarkson again: You can't argue with that.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

MPG: Motoring Propaganda Golddust

In the 'real world', with company car tax bands, high fuel prices, emissions tax, and dwindling resources, the only performance figures for a car that really matter are the claimed fuel economy and emissions. The critical word in that last sentence is 'claimed.' It's a long held trusim that the miles per gallon a manufacturer inserts into the small print at the bottom of a glossy car advert is optimistic at best. The neat loophole of heading it under the 'combined fuel cycle' umbrella allows car makers to justify their totals, by arguing they reflect a mixture of standard driving practices and situations, and in turn this variety produces such impressive numbers.
However the audacity of these claims has seemingly been taken to new heights (or lows) by the findings of a very recent examination of the Fiat 500 TwinAir, in the unsurpassable Autocar Magazine roadtest, which I thoroughly recommmend. Fiat claims that the cute little Cinquecento, powered by a revolutionary (no pun intended) 875cc 2 cylinder turbocharged engine, will achieve a faintly ludicrous 68.9 combined mpg. Now fundamentally frugal diesel cars have been able to get this kind of mileage for a couple of years, such as the VW Polo Bluemotion and BMW 318d. A naturally revvier petrol motor would struggle under normal circumstances, so Fiat have taken inspiration from the original vertical twin engine out of the 1957 Cinq and brought in 21st Century knowhow to create the TwinAir. And at first look, the benefits are quite tangible.
Two cylinders, ie half the number in a normal city car, equals less weight and internal friction. Less energy is lost through heat transfer, and the miniature turbo provides mid range boost to provide a par-for-class 84bhp. CO2 emmisions are a paltry 95g/km, the lowest of any internal combustion powered car on sale, meaning the lucky owner saves further money on tax.
So how then, did this lightweight, well designed, thoroughly tested city car manage just 35.7mpg on the combined cycle? Autocar's route covered the sort of driving you'd expect any modern city to be able to cope with when called upon, mostly urban miles together with occasional motorway and B-road work, and yet the Fiat coughed out only just over half the mileage it is allegedly capable of. How can this be allowed? If Apple released the new iPad ina  year or so's time and lauded it to have a fortnight's worth of battery life, only for consumers to discover it died after half an hour, trading standards and suchlike would have a field day. The credibility of Apple's designers and marketing dept. would be (further) decimated. Yet car makers continually appear to flout the rules by advertising their cars to be a damn site easier on petrol than they actually are, though customers are so used to this swindle that it fails to generate a meaningful fuss.
The fact is that somewhere, somehow, manufacturers have calculated on powerful virtual systems, taking into account all factors and actuators, what the maximum economy of their product is. Then they will put a trained test driver into an immaculately prepared example, on an empty, billiard-table smoooth test track, in perfect weather conditions, and achieve said mileage by monitoring all the car's systems and eeking out the very limits of its thirst. They are then perfectly within their rights to advertise these grand totals, despite the fact it would be irresponsible, leave alone unrealistic, to even attempt to drive in such a manner on the public highway. Traffic, impatience, human error, local geography, and carrying passengers mean it's practically impossible to get a Prius up past 72 mpg in proper usage. The cut and thrust of city driving puts so much stress on the tiny TwinAir powerplant that for all its green credentials, the fuel bill will still leave gullible owners in the red. And red-faced.
Don't expect this global fraud to be brought down anytime soon though, because the fact is, it brings about the most important aspect of the motor industry. It sells cars. It's even creating new ones. So by all means try a VW Bluemotion, a Mercedes BlueEfficiency, a BMW EfficientDynamics, or a Skoda GreenLine. Perhaps a Ford Econetic, a Vauxhalll ecoFLEX, a Volvo DRIVe, a SEAT Ecomotive. Maybe even a Ferrari HY-KERS. Just be ready to suffer two things. One is falling hook, line, and sinker for cynical marketing propaganda. The other is driving around in a car with a bloody stupid sounding badge on the back.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

A Big Crash, Big Cash, and a Tad Slapdash

Just a short bit of housekeeping regarding motoring news from the past couple of days.

Firstly, Jaguar's recent roll, thanks to the XJ and CX75, has ground to a halt. Quite an abrupt one, in the form of hitting a solid barrier at 40mph. The critically acclaimed XF saloon caught the headlines for the wrong reasons in the most recent series of Euro NCAP safety tests for only scoring 4 stars. Since the Renault Laguna first produced a full house of stars back in 2000, it's been generally accepted that any mass produced car bigger than a supermini needs to be scoring 5* also to look credible. Yet the genesis of Jag's current renaissance was marked down due to 'limited occupant protection for adult and child.' Hang on. Where's the safest place to be in this big cat, the boot? The foremost point of safety cells and crumple zones is to protect at all cost those unfortunate enough to be inside the car during an accident. Nevertheless the XF gets a rather embarrassing and one suspects quite preventable black mark for letting these critical elements slip. Next to 5* E-Classes, 5 Series, even a humble VW Polo, the XF is a stand out failure. Yet in so many ways, it's not. It still scored 4*, a thoroughly commendable result, and one which a decade ago would have made it nigh on the safest car in the world. Ironic how since the benchmark has been breached, only the best is quite literally good enough. Jaguar have of course vowed to explore the shortcomings from this and also the unsatisfactory side impact pole test, and implement them into the car's 2012 facelift. Until then, the XF, for all its interior theatrics and apparently superlative drive, will be wading into battle with damp powder against the usual foe.

Still, if your hard earned £35k+ is burning a hole in your pocket while you wait for these issues to be rectified, but you still fancy an attractive British set of wheels, then  look no further, though this offering may require putting in a few late shifts. McLaren Automotive have announced that the base price for their hotly anticipated but rubbishly named MP4-12C supercar will be £168,500. This includes the 2011 VAT rise, though not the relatively minor registration and road fund licensing fees. Still, the veritable bargain baby Macca will still undercut its nearest and bitterest rival, the Ferrari 458 Italia, but the thick end of £3000 when they go head to head late in next year. As with the Italian Stallion, once you've specced lightweight forged alloy wheels, carbon fibre trim, curiously heavier-than-steel-equivalent carbon ceramic brakes, and other unnecessaries like upgraded infotainment, Woking's new flagship will set you back getting on for £200k. I found it a bit cheeky that McLaren had elected to undercut Ferrari by such a petty sum. Both marques have pedigree, both have invested heavily in development, and both are fighting for a marketplace where for the most part, money is no object. Pretty cheeky of the British outfit then to deliberately set out to make Maranello's finest look a bit of a rip off.

Finally, rumours are abound of a partnership between VW Group members Porsche and Bentley over a tie-up regarding their future large luxury models. Demand from the Middle East and China is causing manufacturers to re-evaluate their stance on lavish leviathans, with even Maserati announcing this week that it is planning designs on a rival Cayenne-esque superpowered SUV. (Hopefully this won't be styling wise, having seen the monstrous effects of grafting 911 features onto a mud-plugger, the result of adapting a Quattroporté grille onto a psuedo-off roader would create a road-going black hole with Channel Tunnel likenesses.) Anyway, these lucrative markets care not for the intricacies of platform sharing, since despite two cars sharing an identical base architecture, two different badges of the bonnets will probably equal twice as many sales for Volkswagen. Porsche chief Matthias Müller is apparently keen to allow Bentley access to the shortened Panamera platfom, to be utilised by Porsche in the upcoming 928 successor. 
This would allow Bentley to fast-track production of a similarly sized and powered grand touring coupé (and possible cabriolet.) Despite the economical benefit, many remain skeptical of the ever-growing VW parts bin incest which becomes increasingly evident, and controversial, with each new release. Nowhere is this dilution of brand attributes more evident than in the usage of VW's 1.4l TSI, DSG-equipped platform to underpin the new Polo GT, Audi A1, Skoda Fabia VRS and SEAT Ibiza Cupra. All are small promising hot hatches, criticized for their lack of individuality and uniqueness, the exact traits and preferences that are so vital in any performance car. 

This evidently counter-argues that platform-sharing actually inverse-proportionally increases the choice and variety of cars around today, rather than erodes it, and has created some of the best loved and most revered automobiles of recent past, present and future. Lambo Aventador anyone?

However, this perception of a slapdash attitudes to streamlining automotive creativity isn't completely watertight. Without such practices, Audi  couldn't have sourced the masterpiece Lamborghini V10 which resides in the back of the R8. The Continental GT wouldn't have been able to save the Phaeton investment from being a waste of time by becoming the most profitable car in Bentley's history. And the profitability of all these companies would have been unavailable to utilize in the purchasing of Bugatti and perfection of the Veyron project.

Monday, 22 November 2010

The Korean (Car) War

Pop quiz time...
The car in that picture, just there. What is it? To a totally untrained eye, it's a big, imposing businessman's express, most probably German. To many Europeans, it's totally forgivable to see the hints of LS in the tail and bet on it being some kind of facelifted Lexus. However, this car is in fact a Hyundai. It's the Equus, the Korean outfit's shock success in North America, where it retails at a base price of $58,000.
For a car this size, and loaded with an obscene amount of kit as standard, the Equus is an undoubted bargain. However, in the luxury saloon marketplace, where one is chauffered, rather than to be so vulgar as to drive oneself, one doesn't do 'bargains.' Yet the Stateside motoring press have lavished praise of the car as being a credible alternative to other cars in the class from Bavaria or the British.
In Europe, a Hyundai with a five figure price needs to come in at under £20k or it gets laughed right out of town. Call it badge snobbery, or discerning tastes, but nevertheless the Korean and Malaysian marques, specifically Hyundai and Kia are largely still seen as cheap, unemotional transport, the stereotypical way from A to B, especially for the more elderly in society. Years of drab superminis with silly names trying to undercut a vastly more desirable Fiesta by a few hundred quid mean that the Far East, Japan aside, simply has no desirability whatsoever as a maker of good cars.

How much do you need an X3?
Defeatist attitudes never achieved anything though, and by slowly plugging away at a market they can dominate, the Koreans are now emerging as a major worldwide force in the automotive industry. Kia have savvily poached ex-Audi design chief Peter Schreyer, and the latest offerings he has penned aren't just unoffensive, they have real flair and originality. The aggressive, dynamic lines evident in the new Sportage, Soul and Optima aren't going to win the Turner Prize in the near future, but the Germans have been dropping the ball lately, with the 5 Series and E-Class, and A8 coming in for particular scrutiny thanks to their frumpy proportions and odd detailing. Next to the premium norm, Kia seems to have much more flair in its new design language, rather than just
I know you got Soul... no it's not a concept
throwing LED running lights at a headlamp until the supposedly subtle Germanic approach ends up resembling a disco ball.
Hyundai meanwhile have also turned out a brace of attractive cars in the past couple of years. The soon to be replaced Coupé still looks fresh, and the new ix35 and Santa Fe are remarkably well-proportioned SUVs for such an infant manufacturer. Unlike the Chinese offerings, the Korean motors have vastly improved build quality, Euro-equal levels of safety, and the killer cominbation of generous trim and low price to create great value for money cars. In a period as families look to downsize and diversify, these cars are very much of their time. The Korean outfits may lack the immense size of the Volkswagen group, but in what they can offer to the customer they are probably more of a People's Car.
I believe however there's just one final obstacle obstructing the expansion and full acceptance of Kia and Hyunda et al into European motoring. They've got basic no frills superminis nailed, their crossovers and saloons are intruiging in the extreme and even the rather unspectacular Cee'd has a starring role as the infamous Reasonably Priced Car on Top Gear.

The most fun you can have in a far
What they need is a proper, pucker, halo performance car.
That's not the greedy, juvenile, clichéd petrolhead inside me wailing for another Fast and Furious prop to drool over. It's simply that in Europe, every major nation has a proud history of producing cars, in the past or at present. And plenty of this is built around sports cars.
England make the world best lightweight specials, in Lotus, Ariel, and Caterham, together with fabulous luxury grand tourers from Aston Martin and Jaguar. A history of MG's, Triumphs, TVR's and something called the McLaren F1 are handy too. The French have consistently produced the world's best hot hatches since the 205GTi. Italy is home of the supercar, and the Germans produce arguably the definitve sports coupé, the Porsche 911. If Kia or Hyundai could somehow conjure up a low volume, decently set up sports car, regardless of the badge adorning its no doubt handsome body, they'd be home and dry, in the same way the NSX, Type-R, Evo's and Impreza STI's helped cement Japan's place as a respected source of cars. It's ambitious, and perhaps unfortunate, that many Europeans are so cynical in their opinion of the Korean cars that they need a rear wheel drive, high revving, low slung slap in the face to make them sit up and take note of such a burgeoning talent. Fingers crossed then, for a potentially brilliant halo car to start the surge.

A Pointless Performance Car, or Perfect?

Most petrolheads will have discovered this morning from various sources the arrival of a brand new, pedigree hot hatchback on the scene, with the unveiling of the 2011 Audi RS3. After reading about the new arrival for a short while, drinking in its appearance, quantifying its vital stats, I've changed my mind on my opinion of it at least 3 times.
Styling wise, I reckon the RS3 is a job well done. It looks aggessive, and suitably different from the cooking A3 and S3 models, with the modern Audi top-of-the-line trademarks all present, big wheels, big grille, daytime running lights, larger, angular griles picked out in contrasting trim. The alterations are 'there' enough to appeal to those in the know about cars, and inoffensive to those who aren't. There's a bit of BMW M-car there in the way the body is hunkered down onto the wheels, some classic Quattro in the body surfacing especially around the blistered wheel arches, and a general look of hot-rod esque purpose. Sure, the 'diffuser' rear bumper is a bit pretentious, and its downforce isn't going to stick you into the road on the way to pick up the kids from school, but at least it's evidence the Germans have a sense of humour.
Meanwhile, the RS3's practicality makes it very cool. Like any hot hatch, its performance credentials haven't impeded on its usability, so you get 5 dooirs, a big boot, plenty of fun ways to fold your seats and all the usual optional luxuries Audi can rip you off with. The ride will no doubt be pretty firm as with any Audi but the car's still going to be able to pick up those kids.
The thing that started to get me as a read about the RS3 was the clichéd question: 'Does the world really need a 335bhp, four wheel drive, DSG transmission hot hatch?' Like I said in my last post, the automotive industry's ego is pushing engine output figures through the roof to get one over on each other. But it's not just in supercars, in the last 12 months we've seen the 345bhp Ford Focus RS500, the 395bhp Subaru Impreza Cosworth, test hacks of Renaultsport and Vauxhall VXR's new offerings each with substantially more than 300bhp promised, and now an Audi with power on a par with a 1990's Ferrari. This could have been justified a while back, when all of these sorts of cars were seen pounding round rally stages and touring car circuits in different championships. But now, with even Mitsubishi no longer sending the Evo rallying, these are just halo cars, a finishing touch the the model range. If proof were needed, just peruse Audi's press release for the RS3. It states that the car will only be sold as a 5 door Sportback model. Don't be fooled for one moment into believing this is because it's a low volume, limited edition special, or because of complicated manufacturing processes. It's simply down to the fact that Audi put the same 2.5 litre turbo 5 cylinder motor in the (125 kg lighter!) TTRS, the more stylish, less practical, 2 door coupé. A racier 3 door RS3 would nick sales from the £50+ TTRS, so it will never exist. Not because it's a car Audi can't make, but because it's one that can't make Audi more money. And anyway, the Volkswagen group will sell you a three door, four wheel drive, 2 litre turbo hot hatch in the form of the Golf R, so the RS3 three door never stood a chance.

Would Sir prefer a Q-Car stealth bomber...

And yet, after deciding that this car is a cynical ploy by the marketing dept, to sell Audi's RS heritage down the river by topping every range with a bodykitted, souped up badgefest, I've yet again changed my mind, and decided that in fact, cars like the RS3 are actually a very savvy bit of kit.

Like it or not, environmentalism is catching up with the performance car. Aston Martin will sell you a rehashed Toyota iQ now to bring its average CO2 emissions down. BMW, makers of 'The Ultimate Driving Machine', base their annoying recent 'Joy' campaign around their EfficientDynamics policy. Ferrari are copyrighting hybrids.

..or a badge-engineered whitegood?
Obvious sports cars are going to have to bend
over backwards in the coming decades to comply with everyone's emission and consumption regulations, while in the meantime, hot hatchbacks are starting to occupy the sort of performance benchmarks which were monopolised just a few short years ago by the likes of Ferrari, Porsche, and the M division.
A far more practically packaged bodystyle, impeccable safety, inherent mass-produced reliability, plus more change in your wallet. And you'll still get from 0-60 in 5 seconds or less.

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