Wednesday, 20 July 2011

How to make Top Gear

Top Gear. It's one of the BBC's biggest, most successful exports. It's made global stars out of three argumentative blokes who share a penchant for petrol. And week in, week out, it completely divides opinion, between those who long for it to be a car show, about cars, and those who protest it's a tongue-in-cheek hour of Sunday night escapism which shouldn't take itself too seriously.

I, as a fairly serious motoring enthusiast, fall firmly into the former camp. Top Gear makes up exactly half of the car-based shows on British television, the other half being 5th Gear. This is, incidentally, pathetic; cars are as much if not more a part of people's everyday lives as buying houses, decorating, and auctioning your unwanted crap, so why so little coverage? Anyway., as it is we have a maximum of two hours petrolhead airtime a week, so we have a right to expect it to be worthwhile.

What I'm not going to do here, is prattle on about how Top Gear isn't a car show, and is a waste of license fee, or needlessly offensive, etcetera. Those arguments all have their place, and their merit, but they're very predictable and completely subjective; Top Gear really is Marmite television, and whether you find the formula mouth-watering or wretch-inducing, it's so successful, it's here to stay.

What I am going to do is take a sideways look at Top Gear using themes I've just mentioned: Predictable. Formulaic. As someone who's watched the show for years, it's now far too predictable. Have a look at my run through of a typical Top Gear's starting screenplay below, and ask yourself, honestly, if it doesn't ring any bells.
The familiar remix of 'Jessica' by The Allman Brothers Band plays through, and the show is introduced by the melodramatic tones of Clarkson, showing three innocuous incidents from the upcoming show:


  • I wear some SOCKS
  • Richard stubs his TOE
  • James says 'Oh 'C*ck."
After the adoring applause dies down, Clarkson introduces the first item, usually a supercar track test. Nothing really wrong with that, after all this is Top Gear, and what brings the viewers in are the headline cars, not a Which? magazine verdict. It'd be brilliant to have more road tests on Britain's pockmarked and scarred roads, with some good scenery, as Dunsfold is a bit dull week after week, but it is at least an even playing field for all cars.

The stylishly shot film begins with much use of colour and imaging effects, and some Daft Punk.

"WELCOME to the improbably named, very fast, fantastically expensive..."

The car is then tested over the course of three or four minutes. Sadly, the damning verdicts and inspired turn of metaphoric phrase Clarkson used to possess have been replaced by a caricature version of the man, not dissimilar for Harry Enfield's send up. 

Cue a launch control demonstration, and as the car accelerates:
  • spleen torn from mountings
  • lungs are going to explode
  • like a housefly
  • like an axe murderer
  • like a F-18 fighter
  • enough to tear your face off
"Then there's THE NOISE, which sounds like:"
  •  a wounded animal
  • A thunderstorm
  • certain Second World War fighter aircraft
  • GOD
No mention of induction noise, exhaust blare, or previously, the explanation for why a car has steering feel or good mid corner balance. Just shouting. Sound familiar?

The ride is usually best summed up not with words such as 'informative, uncomfortable, communicative, or exemplary, but rather:
  • I could run over a painted line/insect/rodent and tell you the colour/breed/its last meal.
  • Spine-shattering.
Also, the boot is usually big enough 'For things', and there'll be a smattering of saying either 'Sweet', or 'Jesus' in an odd and unfunny squeaky accent. 

Week after week, are these really all that funny? On YouTube, people like Jason Plato, Chris Harris, Jamie Corstophine and Steve Sutcliffe have all proved that being informative and accurate about a car's components, set-up, and performance, comes in no detriment to being entertaining, or watchable.

Enter a competitor, a drag race, and a summing up, comparing the cars not to chalk and cheese, but
  • tights and suspenders
  • training shoes and brogues
  • iPod versus gramophone
  • Manchester United versus Sheffield Wednesday
  • Usain Bolt versus Anne Widdecombe
Then it's back to the studio for lap times, and the rest of the show, with a celebrity with something to plug doing a slow lap, an improbable homemade challenge, or three-way race across Europe.

With its consistently high ratings and revenue, you might well say 'it ain't broke, so don't fix it. The fact is though that in the eyes of  (a growing) many, the tried and tested formula is so overused it's no longer worthwhile. And when Top Gear has so much influence, not using its time to best effect is a great shame. When Clarkson gave the BMW 1M Coupé a glowing report, enquiries went through the roof and now the entire run is almost sold out. So how must Jaguar feel when Jezza turns round and tells his legions of fans that their new 542bhp XKR-S is only capable of a 9 minute Nurburgring lap, when in fact it will drop well under 8 minutes. 
You could counter with the 'lap times don't matter' argument, but Top Gear centres its car verdicts on a track test and lap time, and no-one, not even Sir Jeremy of Clarkson, has the right to pluck incorrect figures out of thin air to support their opinion. He and his cohorts have a job to do, and to neglect it is bad research, bad journalism, and ultimately, bad television.

Here's a fairly typical Top Gear track test, flashy, but lacking in substance:
And here's evo's take on exactly the same cars. Less glossy, but so much more satisfying to watch.
And here's proof Clarkson could once marry being entertaining, informative, and sensible with normal cars, while being thoroughly enjoyable to spend your Sunday evening with.

They can do serious items. The Senna tribute was a high point of the past few years, while this series' McLaren MP4-12C test was one of the best track films on the show ever. But because children apparently found it too boring, out comes the puerility. But like all children's entertainment, it's way too easy to see what's coming next. Top Gear should celebrate motoring, not reduce it to pantomine. Here's Clarkson on why his children don't like TG unless caravans are on fire.

Still, the car enthusiasts are small fish in a big pond of television viewers, and the majority find the silly spectacle of Top Gear brilliant as it is.

"...Oh no it isn't...."

Sunday, 17 July 2011


Better late than never, here's a Tyre Roar review for what is, with the possible controversial rival of Cars 2, the petrolhead film of the year: Senna.

Firstly, if you haven't seen it, go and see it as soon as possible. If you have, you'll know why. Senna is a great documentary, a wonderful piece of film-making, and it has universal appeal, whether you're a fan of the man, or the sport he competed in, or otherwise.

The problem for people of my generation is that for a large proportion of us, Ayrton Senna da Silva is just a name. We've heard about his wonderful driving, legendary rivalries, and infamous demise, but short of seeking out the evidence on YouTube and Wikipedia, he remains very much a figure in the past. What Senna does is bring his career and legacy right into the present. The simplicity of it is quite beautiful. A chronological run through his Formula One career, with concentration on the more pivotal events within it, interspersed with the voices of those who knew him best; family, team-mates, reporters. None of them are show being interviewed, they simply chime in at the appropriate moment, allowing Ayrton Senna, quite rightly, the lion's share of the audiences' attention.

There's a very human quality to this film, it isn't simply a self-indulgent montage of Senna's greatest overtakes, set to a rousing soundtrack and ringing endorsement from his modern successors, which it could so easily have been. Indeed, I'd estimate in the entire 104 minute running time, there's only about 20-30 minutes of actual racing footage. The majority of the film brings you Senna, the man, not Senna the racer, through home videos, behind the scenes race prep, and rare slices of interview.

Of course, this concentration on Senna as a fellow human being, with a family life and concerns for his countrymen, rather than a yellow-helmeted entity who existed purely in the cockpit of a racing car, accentuates the tragic poignancy of the story. In that, it grants the same viewing experience as a production of Hamlet, or Titanic (bear with the poetic license.) Senna is a film you desperately try to enjoy in its early stages, because anyone familiar with the name will be horribly aware of how the latter part culminates.

This 'climactic' point is dealt with gracefully, by virtue yet again of employing a simple, frill-free chronology of events on the fateful San Marino Grand Prix weekend of April-May 1994. Because the audience has already seen Senna's expertise in safety measures, and how he was proved right in occasions where authorities failed to heed his warnings, the increasing displays of his dissatisfaction with the 1994 Williams Renault FW16 on that fateful weekend, as well as his devastation at the Barrichello and Ratzenburger accidents, make for viewing that's harrowing and compelling in equal measure.

At 'my' screening, as the 'San Marino GP: Imola 1994' subtitle rolled onto the screen, there was a definite mood change in the cinema. There was a palpable sense of people bracing themselves for what they were about to witness. At the point that Roland Ratzenburger is seen joking with his engineers about how ludicrously hard he's pushing the car, the lady next to me began to sob quietly, while there was a collective flinch a few moments later when the footage of his fatal qualifying accident was shown.

One deft touch was to conduct Senna's final lap in a Formula One car, to the moment of the Tamburello impact, purely from on board the car. Having the audience ride along with Senna, and helplessly watch as the accident unfolds, is far more sensitive than endless replays of the crash itself. I've seen the deadly Senna crash several times on various documentaries and racing biographies, and it is one of the most brutal, sickening impacts one could ever witness.

The film continues to impress in the aftermath of the horror, by simply showing what all worldwide television viewers saw as it unfolded live. No "hindsight is a wonderful thing/if only he'd..." commentary, just reverential music and some respite for the audience to absorb and come to terms with what they've just witnessed. It's the gentle, honest, mature treatment of a terrible event which really makes Senna a great film, in my opinion.

Other things I liked? The slightly pantomime villainy of Alain Prost and Jean-Marie Ballestre against the heroic crusade of Senna is well handled and very entertaining, yet the audience doesn't end up hating or blaming either of the men, simply appreciating how their impertinence brought out the best in Senna. Showing Prost solemnly bearing Senna's coffin at his state funeral is an artefact which could have been easily omitted in an effort to smear the Frenchman, but it's refreshingly present.

The montage at Senna's funeral of team-mates, rivals, and family paying their respects to his coffin, interspersed with footage of Ayrton joking and laughing with each of them in happier times was yet another simple yet elegant idea.

The film also creates a wider effect on its audience. The men present at the showing I saw watched the film with a resolute stoicism, as if they understood exactly why Senna had to go out and prove he was the world's greatest driver, and the harm that befell him, and his peers, was an occupational hazard. Female members of the audience, in contrast, seemed to express a maternal instinct, as if wishing they could protect the dashing yet falable young men risking their lives for the glory of victory. If this sounds melodramatic, so be it, but watch Senna with an open minded audience before you judge.

Things that could have been improved upon? Few and far between in my humble opinion, really. At times the racing fans among us could do with more footage of Senna's amazing behind-the-wheel skill, but then that's readily available online; a world champion's family home videos are not. And although shown in the credits, a short segment on the heroism of Senna to stop his car and risk his own life to save Érik Comas at the 1992 Belgian GP would have been a canny move to marry the racing driver/charitable hero sides on Senna's character than run deep through the rest of the film.

Overall, Senna is a wonderful achievement; essential viewing for race fans and newcomers alike. It's also fantastic to know this excellent film has been definitively executed and acclaimed, so all future generations can, over the course of 104 gripping minutes, delve into the Ayrton Senna story.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Woking Class Hero

I've been waiting to write this one for some time. Reactions to the biggest, most important, most influential sports car test of the decade.
The dust has settled now on the majority of group tests in UK magazines featuring the McLaren MP4-12C. The general consensus, as played out in Car, Evo,  Autocar, Top Gear (magazine) et cetera all arrive at uncomfortably similar conclusions: that the McLaren MP4-12C is an unengaging super sports car, and therefore, by sidestepping its very raison d'etre, is a disappointment. Moreover, it loses to its arch enemy and main rival: the Ferrari 458 Italia. Let the post mortem begin. (I'll try to keep the Latin and French to a minimum now, apologies.)
Firstly, there's the infinitely contentious and thoroughly subjective business of the styling, which I will largely ignore, as most magazine testers promised to do also. Granted, the McLaren is not as dramatic, or as beautiful, or as memorable, as the 458, inside or (more importantly) out. But it may age more gracefully, just as the McLaren F1 looks far fresher a similarly elderly Ferrari, like the 512 TR. Time will tell if McLaren cannily played the long game aesthetically, but I couldn't help thinking, as I digested the musings of Britain's finest motoring journalists in the aforementioned tests, that the relatively plain styling, versus the more extrovert, esoteric, and downright sexy Italian, didn't get the machine from Woking off to a flyer in any of their perceptions, subconsciously or otherwise.
Never has any car needed butterfly doors more.
The central hub, for me, of why the 12C was second-bested in its hour of reckoning, was summed up best by Henry Catchpole of Evo, who concluded:

"It seems to do up to five-tenths pace brilliantly and we've found that it does ten-tenths pace round a track phenomenally well, but at the moment I'm not sure if it's capable of being really satisfying in that crucial seven- to eight-tenths where so much fast road driving is done. So it'd be fantastic on the long boring journey to a European circuit cruising all over the horrible Belgian motorways with all the serenity of an A8. And you know that with the push of a button it could drive straight out of the pitlane at Spa and nail the braking point into Les Coombes, but it seems they've completely missed the middle ground."

It's that last clause that seals the McLaren's lacklustre fate. In trying to create an all-conquering car, the talent of the 12C was stretched to such an extent that it wears thin in the most crucial area, the usable, playtime area, when the driver wants to engage with the road and process of driving, and therefore the car itself.

At that point the driver isn't thinking about how the car looks from the outside, the comparative heritage of its badge, or any of the other factors that might put of an armchair pundit. But according to the best hacks around, the MP4-12C is another car whose absolutism, its sheer competence, renders it an ultimately incomplete device, because although it performs the functions of a sports car better than any other on the planet, it fails to garnish them with involvement, and de facto (sorry) enjoyment.

You might be thinking, at this point, that I've got no right to comment on the car like this as I'm not an experienced road tester, and I haven't driven either car. I've not even seen a 458 in the metal, though I have studied a 12C at McLaren's new Hyde Park showroom, where it did look miles better than in any pictures I've come across.

It's a fair criticism, since my sources are basically other people's perceptions of the car, translated into a digestible magazine format. What I'm trying to do is just study and appreciate where these verdicts have arisen from, and I reckon I've nailed it down. The McLaren MP4-12C is a victim of its own success, slaughtered by the sum of its parts. In short, it is a device detrimentally ahead of its time.
There's a lot under the 12C's skin. But it'll struggle to get under yours.
There are two ways in which a car can be ahead of its time, and two reflections that can emerge from this. The first is a favourable one, where a car's construction and features elevate it above the competition to an untouchable dominance. Some examples?
The Ferrari F40, the first carbon fibre bodied road car. The McLaren F1, the first carbon tub in a road car. The Citroen DS, with its adaptive headlamps and hydro-pneumatic self levelling suspension.
All things not unusual today, some even mainstream. But all these features, the former adapted from racing, the latter from original designs, elevated their respective cars to greatness, both in their own era, and in automotive history.

McLaren, by their own admission, developed the MP4-12C as a direct competitor to the 430 Scuderia. The 458 may have arrived earlier than expected. and have possessed a far greater leap forward over its forbearer than predicted, but the McLaren still has all the right numbers.
The 12C is more powerful, more torquey, lighter, faster to 60, 125, and 186mph, has a higher top speed, shorter stopping distances, lower fuel consumption, and produces less CO2. It is a stunning engineering achievement, giving more than the Ferrari, and using less.

But it's with these higher figures that the McLaren's rich tapestry of talent begins to unravel. The 3.8l, 592bhp V8 outpokes the 562bhp Ferrari, but in being turbocharged, it suffers from the old adages of (incredibly slight, but still perceptible) turbo lag, and a more muted noise than the 458's flat plane crank howl. The 458 may have an active exhaust and electric engine management for which it has been bemoaned for sounding synthetic, but it still blares a more tuneful, more special tone that the softly-spoken Brit.
Meanwhile, it's the chassis that is the game-changer, both for and against the McLaren's favour. If I were to tell you (and this is true) that McLaren bought another performance car with which to compare, challenge and beat with the 12C, you'd immediately be able to predict what sort of experience it would turn out to provide. So did the Woking boys get hold of a Gallardo, or F430? Maybe a GT3RS, or a Lotus Exige?

They actually bought the giant-killing, technological powerhouse that is: the Nissan GT-R. With that in mind, here's the handling side of the coin.

It's the chassis 'advances' that have really set the tongues wagging and pens scribbling. In short, the 12C shuns anti-roll bars and a limited-slip differential, two inefficient 'necessary evils' of chassis construction, in order to forge its own path and create an all conquering, all road machine. And McLaren dideth create it, and world's motoring journalists saw it, and they saw that it was good.

Both systems are beautifully simple principles. Instead of rigid anti roll bars connecting adjacent suspension systems, the 12C is suspended on hydraulic shock absorbers, and when the car's ECU detects roll into a corner, it forces more fluid into the stressed damper to pump the car back up level, to a calculated point, and keep it flat. Flat cornering means faster corning, and therefore faster progress (and lap times.) So when in track mode, the suspension can be 'pretensioned' to a very firm setting, yet unlike stiff dampers on conventional sports cars, the 12C isn't saddled with the same harsh characteristics on the road. The hydraulics actually do make it more compliant.

Other systems, such as the adaptive magnetorheological in Ferraris and Audis, aim to deliver similar 'have your cake and eat it' benefits, but the presences of ARBs and the lack of flexibility in the settings available leave them as a halfway house next to the McLaren, which has a ride to embarrass a purpose-built luxury saloon. Look out for similar systems on all the next generation S Class and 7 Series barges.

So McLaren are way ahead of the game, pats on the back all round? Not according to our journalists. All have noted that in the fraction of a second it takes for a swift turn to be recognised and reacted to by the suspension, there's a small dead phase to the steering, an unnerving lack of feel before the 'wheel weights up and pushes through the curve. Unlike the engine criticisms, this isn't simply a foible you'd work around over time, like turbo lag, its a confidence-denting admission. The 12C's case isn't helped by the fact its sworn enemy, the 458, boasts hyper-sensitized steering, with only two turns lock-to-lock, so instant response is very much the order of the day, like it or not.

The other revelation is more theatrical, and probably less 'relevant', but it contributes to the entertainment a mini-supercar should deliver. The Brake-Steer System, which independently slows the inside rear wheel in a turn to force a tighter line, (just like the XDS differential on a Seat Ibiza Cupra!) doesn't allow for the big oversteer moments and controlled slides that motoring types love. I told you it was a largely irrelevant point.

Can't help feeling though that the McLaren seems to want to get you to your destination as quickly as possible. The Ferrari, with its five-way manettino and flamboyant fandango ways, is more of a willing companion to play in/with.

 It's not irresponsible unless you are, but given that turning off the traction control in the McLaren requires a secret button code from the Woking factory, whereas on the Ferrari you simply twist a convenient switch, it's the Ferrari that wins the heart of the inner child.

All of these features do indeed make the McLaren perform better than the Ferrari, but perform seems the wrong word, because it's not really 'performing', it's simply 'doing'. It possesses the same party trick as a Veyron, in that its real quality comes not from the outside of its talent envelope, but how politely it conducts itself at the opposite end, during the mundanities of driving. But who honestly buys a supercar on the basis it will be more co-operative in traffic, and more comfortable when not on maximum attack?

Of course the Veyron has its ridiculous top speed trump card to fall back, whereas the 12C, although a royal flush to the Ferrari's two pairs in terms of numbers, has to succeed as a driver's machine, and purely because of its technological advancements, it doesn't.
Ironically, the very promising MP4-12C GT3 race car, which has an LSD and ARBs to comply with FIA regulations, would arguably prove a better platform for a true Modena beater.

Where next for the 12C? McLaren have reported strong pre-orders, and there'll be new versions to come. A convertible will add drama, at the expense of dynamic focus (perhaps no bad things, for once in a supercar?) and inevitably there'll be a slightly lighter, slightly more powerful version in a few years in the Superleggera/Challenge Stradale vein. I don't expect McLaren to pull any kind of u-turn to the extent of using conventional ARBs and an LSD to really stick it to the triumphant 458 Italia though.

I do feel for McLaren, because to see their brainchild, their baby, beaten up by the same subjective issues in every test must be heartbreaking, after all the investment, time, and effort that's gone into the car. Whether it's anyone's 'fault' is debatable, because although McLaren did lose sight of why we love supercars, they never lost sight of their philosophy for the 12C.

Its attention to detail is exquisite; my favourite snippet is that rather than embossing the 'McLaren' motif onto every component, it was engraved, to minimise added material, and save weight. That's a fabulously intricate idea. But it does betray the idea of how every aspect of its construction and performance has been pre-planned, whereas I get the impression the Ferrari will always surprise its driver. The McLaren is a great deal of finely honed parts working in a unison never seen before. The Ferrari is, well, a Ferrari. It's the greatest sports car on Earth.

Both can be beaten. Taking Evo's test as an example, neither are as demanding as a Noble M600, as theatrical as Mercedes SLS, and both are more impractical than a Porsche 911 Turbo.

There's so much more to say on these two. The ergonomics and titillation of their respective cabins. The track performance. It's interesting that following Chris Harris' infamous Jalopnik blog, there is great suspicion over the dominance of the 458's lap times. Both Ferrari and McLaren used pit crews in all comparisons, the McLaren with Pirelli P Zero Corsa tyres for the headline grabbing 3.1s to 60mph, while the Evo Ferrari was Italian registered, nurturing conspiracies it may have received last minute special factory treatment. Until a customer model is tested, this remains unconstituted rumour.
Both cars also carried obscene amounts of cost options and garnish, something which needs to be addressed The 12C and 458 press cars were well over £200,00 worth, heading for hypercar, Aventador money. There's a very interesting, and somewhat shocking Car Magazine blog here on that very subject: 'How to blow £70k on options'.

Let's not also forget that this is McLaren's first attempt at a series production car, and its first road model since 1994. Given the amount of legislative and technological evolution since then, that McLaren can run the Ferrari so close at all is a triumph for the marque. Despite this, the car itself has been soundly defeated.

The irony is that the performance car world is moving to McLaren. It's already very efficient, very usable, very advanced. But it is ahead of its time, and simply, while we can get away with objects like the Ferrari 458 Italia, they'll always come out on top. Now, let the ageing process begin.

Here's a link to the 5th Gear twin test, which plays out many of the things I've explored here. 5th Gear clip.

I've deliberately written this prior to the Top Gear television review, since I feel that programme no longer does justice to any car featured within it. I'll predict Jeremy Clarkson will, amidst the shouting and metaphor-ing, come to the same conclusion in the 12C as his peers, but it'll be dummed down to a sickening level. It will, importantly however, likely discredit the McLaren to a much wider audience, and if the technical causes of this are not covered properly, it'll be a huge disservice to McLaren. But that's the way of Top Gear these days. McLaren more than anyone else, will be hoping for a refreshing verdict.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Red Is The New Black Series

After all the recent comment on Tyre Roar about hybrids, electric cars, and failing business, it seems ripe for an injection of colour, and brawn. So here, leaked fashionably early, as is par for the course with any new car of recent years, is the upcoming Mercedes C63 AMG Black Series Coupé.

After the brilliant looking, and much lauded CLK Black of 2009, there's been a great deal of hope (and pressure) for Mercedes-Benz to follow it up honourably.

The SL Black sported similarly outrageous flared wheel arches, but was generally regarded as 'too much', in its weight, cost, and brutality, and a retrograde step as far as driving dynamics are concerned.

Of course there's no word yet on what the C63 Black will be like to pedal, but the C63 AMG Coupé has already received good reviews, while AMG has a strong and expanding fan base.

I reckon AMG have really nailed the looks of this one. The standard C Class coupé has been criticised for the clumsy styling around its rear flanks, with a large expanse of uninterrupted panel making the side appear rather bland and spoiling the proportions around the dwarfed rear wheels.

The Black however, with its steroidal blisters, air intakes, and what appear to be 20" forged rims from the SLS, gains the purposeful stance of its CLK lineage, and looks delicious.

My favourite details are the rear arch outlets, which looks like they've come straight from the back of the £300,000 Ferrari 599 GTO.

As a possible last hurrah for the venerable 6.2 litre naturally aspirated V8, the Black will get around 517bhp, up from the 487bhp available on the C63 with AMG Performance Pack. There'll be a small weight saving from those gorgeous bucket seats and some carbon trim, but the DTM-esque bodywork mods mean that the overall drop will only be in the region of 20 kilos.

Arriving next year, hopefully the C63 Black Series will also show BMW the error of their ways in making the M3 GTS a limited production model sporting a ludicrous £100k sticker price. BMW may have been vindicated somewhat by selling out the entire allocation, but for those who view cars as more than speculative profiteering exercises, the M3 GTS was slightly obscene.

Having a price more around £80,00 and existing as a standard production model, rather than a limited run halo special could, and should, mean AMG have a winner on their hands. After the CLS 63 and SLS of late, Mercedes' in-house tuning skunk-works really is on a roll. Certainly, it's starting to embarrass the M Division in Munich, who are desperately seeking petrolhead redemption with the 1M and M5 after the sorry debacles of the X5 M and X6 M.

Leaving the business case aside, the main comfort from these leaked pictures is that the C63 Black Series looks right, inside and out, even in red. A possible modern classic, and a candidate for most desirable car of 2012. You saw it here first.

As a final thought, a big part of this car's draw will be it's normally aspirated growl-and-crackle noise. It's a shame to write a blog on AMGs and not include this most wonderful of their assets, so here's my favourite motoring journo, Chris Harris of evo Magazine, demonstrating some of those 'good reviews' for the C63 Coupé I mentioned earlier. Volume up...

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Ugly Ducklings Hatching Out

Anyone who watched last Sunday's Top Gear might remember the discussion had over how some of the best looking cars on sale today are not exotic supercars, but actually certain superminis and saloons, basically 'real-world' transport. We expect a Lamborghini to look outrageous and immense, and the Aventador quenches that thirst. But when there are the mundanities of consumption, efficiency, safety, and practicality to consider, its refreshing to see manufacturers still manage to turn out handsome looking machinery.

Examples of the breed are the Vauxhall Insignia Sports Tourer, Saab 9-5, Alfa Romeo Giulietta, and Kia Sportage. Moving up a couple of classes, I happen to think the current shape Jaguar XJ is the best looking car on sale today, regardless of price.
Pity then, that there's one particular section of the market that seems resolutely determined to let the side down. I won't allow this to turn into an eco-car bashing session, and this will remain purely an (entirely subjective) debate on the aesthetics of these cars and nothing more, but it appears more and more evident that electric cars are really quite unattractive, which does nothing for their attempt to break into the mainstream.

For the buying public to take electric cars seriously, even before we delve into the minutiae of range, cost, and reliability, we need to feel that we ourselves will be taken seriously when behind the wheel of our eco investment. Forgetting all the milk float jokes and sticking purely to the looks, the current crop are hardly pageant worthy.

 Long-time brunt bearer of this has been the sinfully boxy G-Wiz, which even as a common sight in London, remains an awkward and ugly design. In fact, there seems to be little actual design present; the body merely acts as a device to keep occupants dry, and the headlights and mirrors attached. But as a pioneer of the class, it could be somewhat forgiven for its Quasimodo proportions.

Murray's T27. Clever. Not cool.
Unfortunately, it looks instead like the tip of a fairly gopping iceberg. The long-awaited Murray T27 may benefit from the kudos of Gordon 'McLaren F1' Murray design, a three seater layout and big range claims, but the impressive innovations within are clothed in yet another ungainly, awkward body that looks dangerously close to a Tata Nano rival, rather than a game-changer for city motoring.

Twizy: £8.5k
The Renault Twizy's open side, open wheel layout is little better, looking like a quad bike/BMW C1 cross-breed that's been inspired by a roller-skate. And while the Nissan Leaf is undoubtedly the most conventional looking of all the current EV crop, due to its family hatchback status, rather than city runabout, Nissan's efforts to differentiate it from internally combusted cars has blessed it with frumpy proportions it didn't deserve.

Nissan Leaf. Looks like compost heap.
I think the problem here is that electro-hybrid cars, like bacofoil suits and pill based diets, are promises of The Future. And now that they've arrived, are commercially viable and topically relevant, car makers seem compelled to adorn them with the looks of The Future as well. Just like the totally fantastical concept cars which draw all the zoom lenses at Geneva and Detroit, having 'the car of tomorrow, today' is an extremely appealing (and marketable) concept, but it's also one fraught with flaws, which is why such outlandish design is always watered down before cars ever see a registration plate. 22 inch chrome rims, cameras for mirrors and gullwing doors just don't work on a family saloon.

Still, electric and hybrid cars attempt to rise above the everyday dross with their powertrains, so why shouldn't their image? The issue that arises is that electric cars depend on a usable range, which invites the elephant of compromise into the room.

Lighter body styles are good for range, but the plastic panels needed for featherweight stats are inevitably slab sided and cheap looking.

Small wheels with skinny tyres reduce rolling resistance usefully, but when the wheels are the most important part of any car's aesthetic, using dinky castor-like rims on each corner will never a handsome car create.
And then to keep the cost down to increase those all-important profit margins, pricey-to-design necessaries like light clusters and door handles become generic add on afterthoughts.

Do not adjust your set: the wonderful Karma
There are exceptions. The Fisker Karma is an impossibly gorgeous hybrid saloon; the picture to the right is not a rendering or concept, it's the stunning production model. And while nothing original, the Tesla Roadster uses its Lotus base to good effect and looks like a proper sports car. But these cars retail at over £100,000, so they should look special.

The only affordable electric car which manages to look contemporary, conventional, and fresh all at once is the Mitsubishi i-MiEV. It has a silly name, typically featureless flanks and tiny wheels, but it successfully combines a (dare I say it) futuristic theme with sensible normal car looks. In that respect, it is, as far as I'm concerned, in a class of one.

iMiEV: Wrong name, right looks.
Proof then, it can be done. Come on, car makers, if you want us all in save the world chariots with your badge on the boot, start making them look like proper automobiles with a touch of flair. That's the way to spark desirability.

Don't forget, cars of the future have failed in the past too...

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