Thursday, 20 December 2007

C-Charge chopping and changing

I was interested to see a brief report in yesterday's Times suggesting that Ken Livingstone was about to drop the Congestion Charge exemption he had planned to introduce next year for cars with official CO2 emissions figures of 120g/km or less.

Apparently, so many cars are now sneaking in under the limit that Ken is worried they will flood the streets of central London. I can see why he feels he has to make the change; after all, I don't suppose the BMW 318d was the sort of hair-shirted economy car he had in mind as benefitting from the exemption when he first suggested it. But on the other hand, the prospect of avoiding the C-Charge has obviously provided a useful spur to the car manufacturers to improve their emissions performance; they and their customers are probably entitled to feel cheated now that the proposed concessions won't be available. The real problem is that having been burnt once, the car-makers might not respond to incentives and initiatives of this sort in the future for fear of being messed about again.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Great spots 11 - hydrogen-powered bus in Hamburg

Saw this on my trip to Hamburg last week. There are a number of these operating in the centre of the city - the stuff coming out of the exhaust is just steam, so local pollution is minimal.

I'm a bit hazy about hydrogen engine technology, but I think this is a fuel cell vehicle, rather than one that takes the BMW approach of using hydrogen in a normal combustion engine, which, as I discovered when I drove the company's Hydrogen 7 model earlier this year, is more or less indistinguishable from the standard product, at least from a driving point of view.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Lessons from a life on the road 3 - don't touch Windows Vista with bargepole, at least not yet

Looks nice and has lots of good features but crashes and freezes constantly, at least in my experience. Problems arise in particular when you have several Internet Explorer windows open - this tends to make it difficult to use paid-for public wifi services which use small windows for time counters, inputting credit card details and so on. Exactly what you don't want when you're on the road without the back-up of an IT department and you have limited time to get stuff done because you're running on batteries.

I think I'll go back to one of my older XP-based laptops until Vista gets sorted out - hopefully at the first big revamp.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

What's outside today 33 - Mercedes E-Class taxi

Outside the main railway station in Hamburg that is. The only car I've been in over the last 24 hours was a W210 E-class estate taxi that took me from here to my hotel last night.

The W210 (the version of the E-Class built between 1995 and 2002) has always been considered a bit of a poor relation in quality terms compared with its predecessors, the W123 and the W124, but I noticed that the one I was in last night was still running well with over 400,000 km on the clock. The only area in which these cars seem to show any significant deterioration is their damping, which tends to give the impression of being a bit worn and floaty. The diesel engines always sound super-fit, and the interiors stand up well, even on the W210, it seems.

Even so, as the photo shows, other cars are making inroads into German taxi ranks these days - look at that Touran, for example. That would have been unthinkable a decade ago. Mind you, in Schwerin in eastern Germany I did see a Dacia Logan being used as a taxi earlier this year. At least things haven't slipped that far in prosperous Hamburg - yet.

MINI Colorado to be built in Austria

Didn't expect to return to this subject so soon, but the online edition of the Financial Times Deutschland reports today that BMW will use Magna in Austria to build the new SUV model in the MINI range, the car that is often referred to in press reports as the Colorado (not sure if that is an internal project code or whether it really will be called that once it is on the market).

The FTD looks at this very much from a German perspective, and focuses on the dire consequences for Karmann of failing to win this contract. The possibility of UK assembly isn't even mentioned - I suppose the factory in Oxford is bursting at the seams already.

Anyway, apparently, the Colorado is due to be launched in 2010 and sell at a rate of about 40,000 per year. From memory, I think BMW is in the process of ramping Oxford MINI production up from something like 240,000 to 280,000 per year, so most MINIs will still be British.

I wonder whether a MINI SUV will really work. So far, everything that BMW has done with the MINI has been a success, so I suppose you'd have to bet on the Colorado being a hit as well. On the other hand off-roading and 4x4 aren't really part of the MINI tradition, and BMW always seems a bit timid about doing anything that isn't a reinterpretation of some past Mini theme - you only have to look at the interior of the MINI to see that.

Incidentally, Karmann and Magna were both mentioned as possible suppliers to Aston Martin for the four-door Rapide; it's even more important for Karmann to secure that work now.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Definitions 6 - Trabant government

'Trabant government' = the administration of Mr G. Brown.

In last Friday's Telegraph, Jeff Randall likened the present government to a Trabant, on the grounds that we had to wait ten years for it only for it then to fall apart within six months.

Well it tickled my funny bone, anyway.

Friday, 30 November 2007

A fascinating visit to KWE near Newbury

A very interesting outing today to Jaguar restorers KWE who are based in a small industrial estate on the grounds of the former Greenham Common base.

Chris Knowles - the 'K' in KWE - showed me around the company's facility, which specialises in particular in XJs, especially the post 1979 Series 3, and the mechanically very similar XJS. Chris thinks that what he calls the 'third market' for cars is going to get a lot more important in future; let me explain that term because I think it represents an interesting idea that we may hear a lot more about in the future. The first and second markets for cars are the new and mainstream second-hand car markets respectively. What Chris calls the third market is that for substantially remanufactured 'as new' cars that aren't just enthusiasts' occasional play-things, but vehicles that are a practical alternative to new cars for everyday use on modern roads.

The third market will probably be driven by eco considerations as much as anything else - while these old Jags don't normally have modern environmental kit like cats, the use of a restored car saves the energy and other costs involved in building a new car.

This visit also provided an unexpected treat; Chris let me sample his V12-engined demonstrator, and I think I would have to agree with him that it really is a viable alternative to a modern prestige car for someone who wants something a bit different. I'd never had the chance to try the famous Jag V12 engine before, a fact I'd long regarded as a huge gap in my experience, so it was great to be able to put a big fat satisfying tick in that particular box.

The photo above from KWE's workshop shows the XJ's rear suspension assembly (actually it's upside down) - the famous inboard disc brakes and half-shafts that double as suspension wishbones in this sophisticated set-up can be clearly seen.

Anyway, more on this in my piece in the Indy in the new year; Chris tells me it may be possible for us to borrow a KWE car for the Verdict as well, which should be a lot of fun.

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Anorak Corner 7 - the eyeball vent

These were very popular on British cars of the sixties - Cortinas and Hunters, for example - but I was surprised to see them on the 1977 Capri I had on test recently (see below). I thought they'd been phased out by then.

I've always thought this was a very simple and effective design but I recall reading somewhere that they tended to be leaky and draughty, and that's what eventually did for them.

Anyway, so keen was BMW to plunder the back catalogue of British car design for the retro detailing on the MINI that it reinvented the eyeball (see above for an example from last week's Clubman test car). I think the first BMW MINI had just two but the latest revamped version has four. Can't remember whether the 'proper Mini' had eyeballs back in the sixties, though.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Alistair Darling - Sonata Watch Update 1

Mr Darling is still using the Sonata - saw him getting into it live just now on Sky News - so it looks like it's a permanent part of his transport arrangements.

He looked a bit glum but I don't know whether that was because he was getting into a Hyundai, or whether all that other stuff is getting him down. Perhaps he was cheesed off because he's been watching TG and therefore realises his Sonata is no longer the latest model. I noticed that he got into the front seat alongside the driver, rather than getting into the back - very democratic.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Alistair Darling - last year's model

According to the 'News' section of last night's Top Gear, the Hyundai Sonata has had a bit of a face lift.

So as if Alistair Darling didn't have enough to feel depressed about with the collapse of Northern Rock, the loss of two CDs containing half the nation's personal data, and tax receipts running at far below the expected level as the economy slows down, his shiny new Sonata is now out of date.

Mind you, although most of his problems were inherited from his predecessor, I fear Mr Darling is now in danger of becoming last year's model himself.

What's outside today 32 - MINI Cooper Clubman

Although I love the BMW MINI, I have to confess I was a bit sceptical about the Clubman, especially after all that fuss about the 'door on the wrong side' (the second side door on the right-hand side of the car, which opens into the traffic when the car is parked at the side of the road in RHD markets).

But a few hours with this car were enought to dispel any doubts. It goes just as well as the standard version, and coped easily with a long trip north to Newcastle for the Verdict on Saturday and Sunday. I needed a few cans of Red Bull on the return leg but the Clubman itself was as fresh as a daisy when it arrived back at 1.30 this morning.

I think the combination of maroon metallic (well, Nightfire Red as BMW call it) and silver pillar trim on this particular one looks brilliant and the divided rear van-style doors are fantastic.

I also think the Clubman's stretched styling looks better than that of the normal MINI - especially, and somewhat perversely, on the left-hand side where the lines aren't spoiled by the fussy shutline of that second side-door.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Aston Martin Rapide to be built abroad?

Today's FT had what appears to be a detailed, well-sourced story saying that the new four-door Aston Martin Rapide is likely to be built outside the UK. Four continental European supppliers - Valmet, Pininfarina, Karmann and Magna - are named as possible partners.

The first thing this list tells me is that this is probably not a classical cash-driven off-shoring move. Pininfarina has a great pedigree both as a designer and maker of fully-built cars. Karmann and Magna have also assembled specialist models for prestige manufacturers such as Mercedes, including, in Karmann's case, cars with such challenging features, from a design and manufacturing point of view, as folding metal roofs. Valmet, of course, has produced a very large proportion of the Porsche Boxsters on the road today; as far as I know, nobody has ever suggested that these Finnish-built cars are not as good as their German-made counterparts. On the basis of these companies' track records, I have no doubt Aston will be able to get the Rapide built to the required standard. As I've mentioned here before, some of Karmann's big contracts for fully-built cars are running out over the next year or so, so this company will especially welcome the chance to bid for Aston work.

Free trader that I am, though, I still feel very slightly uneasy about Astons being built abroad, simply because Britishness is such an important part of their identity. Mind you, nobody seems to get too upset at the German Ford-built engines fitted to some of the current models, or the sought-after Zagato cars that have featured in Aston's range in the past.

So if cost isn't the main reason for this possible outsourcing of Rapide production, what is? It looks like capacity constraints at Aston's existing UK facilities are the main reason - the current models are selling very well, and deservedly so.

I think the next UK manufacturing operation to bump up against capacity constraints is likely to be BMW's MINI plant at Oxford, where the new Clubman has joined the standard model and the convertible on the production line. Once again a manufacturer will have to try to judge whether the appeal of a quintessentially British product is likely to be fatally undermined if it is actually built outside the UK (for better or worse, I suspect the answer to that question is a resounding 'no').

Talking of the Clubman, I have now got my hands on this at last, which is the second car I'm testing during a busy two-Verdict weekend. More on that later.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

What's outside today 31 - Volvo V70

Volvo's big new estate.

I must admit I rather like modern Volvos' styling - the strong shoulder line inspired by that on the old 140/240 mixed with smooth curves produces a look that's both handsome and distinctive.

Not sure about the back end though, which looks a bit awkward.

Still, as I discovered on my recent trip to Gothenburg, there's no better car than this to have a crash in. Heading west with this one for the Verdict.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Mr Darling's Hyundai Sonata

During government crises, the 24 hour news channels follow the main players' every move - that includes hanging around just to get a shot of, say, Mr Darling getting into his car outside 11 Downing Street for the short journey to Parliament. Completely pointless in terms of advancing anyone's understanding of the real story but moderately interesting for the automotive anorak.

As chancellor, Gordon Brown seemed to stick for ages with a maroon metallic '51' reg Vauxhall Omega. That looked to me like a not so subtle attempt to highlight his supposed modesty and parsimony with the public purse by way of contrast with you-know-who next door at Number Ten.

Anyway, yesterday, I couldn't help but notice that Mr Darling was being shuttled about in, of all things, a Hyundai Sonata. I can't think of any other country in the world where the finance minister would be issued with what amounts to a Korean-built minicab as his chauffeur-driven car, but the more I think about it, the more I like the idea. The Sonata says 'I've got nothing to prove' and also demonstrates Britain's commitment to free trade and the genuine openness of its public procurement policies.

It would be nice if the Rover 75 were still available or if the budget would stretch a Jaguar S-Type or XF, but I wouldn't like the UK to be like protectionist France, where the car manufacturers seem to feel obliged to produce big, crap, unprofitable cars that don't sell, just so that French politicians can travel in a home-produced vehicle.

Actually I have to admit I quite like the Sonata. Apart from the rather vague steering, it's a fairly good effort - although the one I saw Mr Darling getting into on the telly yesterday was only about the second or third I've come across since we featured this model on the Verdict over two years ago. And the Treasury could have saved even more if it had gone for the Sonata's cheaper sister model, the Kia Magentis.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Car of the Year

The European Car of the Year rankings are great fun but the organisers' insistence on using a large, diverse international jury has produced some very strange results indeed over the years.

Nobody could complain about the NSU Ro80 (1968), Peugeot 504 (1969) or the Citroen GS (1971), but what about the Talbot Horizon (1979) or the Renault 9 (1982)? Mercedes has only won once in the CotY's history while BMW has never won at all - barmy.

I haven't yet driven this year's winner, the Fiat 500. Anyone who likes cars will want it to succeed in order for Fiat to have a secure future but I still have a few doubts. The 500 probably has even the BMW Mini beaten for cute retro looks, but it will struggle to match the Mini on the road. Unlike that car, which is based on an expensive bespoke platform, the 500 shares with other small Fiats. Then there's the ownership experience; will the 500's quality levels and Fiat dealers' performance be able seriously to compete with the proposition offered by the Mini - just about the best resale on the market and staggeringly cheap multi-year servicing packages? We shall see.

Of the other cars short-listed this year, I particularly liked the new C-Class (brilliant steering - the thing everyone keeps mentioning) and the Kia cee'd - a great car with keen pricing and a fantastic warranty. But the new car that really got under my skin this year didn't even make it onto that short list. I'm talking about the Land Rover Freelander 2. Normally I think of soft-roaders as being a particularly pointless class of car, and the first-generation Freelander scarcely registered with me at all. But the all-new model is a supremely polished product. Subtly improved styling, a great diesel engine, a beautiful interior and a commanding driving position surprisingly reminiscent of that offered by the larger Land Rover models. Great stuff.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Jaguar XF - again

Last week, at the MPH section of the Classic Car Show, I had the chance to sit in the new XF. If there are any doubts at all about the exterior styling, there can be no concerns about the XF's cabin, which is stunning. Like the interiors of older Jags it contains a fair amount of wood, but it's not remotely pipe and slippers.

The big reservation I still have about the XF is not whether it will turn out to be fantastic (I suspect it will be) but whether its market positioning is correct. Mercedes spins the fabulous CLS off the high-volume E-Class; Jaguar has produced a car that's a CLS competitor but without that E-class volume - and therefore cost - advantage to back it up.

Look at the engine options, which only compete with the upper end of the E-class range, or the CLS. What's really needed is a convincing XF version fitted with the 2.2 litre diesel from the Freelander 2 to go up against the 520d and E220 CDI.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

2007 Classic Car Show at the NEC

An absorbing few hours at this year's show. It's been ages since I attended any event at the NEC. I think the last thing I went to there was the last of the Birmingham motor shows before the shift back to London. Then, the NEC was very old and tired but now it seems to have had some sort of makeover - I have to say, I was quite impressed.

Hundreds of cars and a similar number of photos - hope to come back to some of those later. I'll just mention two highlights for now: the first was seeing the expensive sister model of the 1977 Capri II I've had on test lately, the 3.0 Ghia. As well as having a lot of extra kit and a motor that actually fills the engine bay, it had the one thing the 1.6L lacks that I couldn't really do without - head restraints, in this case built into the seat backs.

The other was an intriguing story about the return to production of a car that has always interested me and which I narrowly missed the chance to drive when it was still a current model. A possible for the Verdict, or maybe a feature, I think. As always with such shows, the entrance fee was worth it for the work ideas and leads generated - quite apart from pleasure of seeing the old cars of course.

Friday, 9 November 2007

What's outside today 30, Blast from the past 11 - 1977 Ford Capri 1.6L

A fine example from Ford's own collection.

Apparently it was donated by the proverbial one careful lady owner, and it's done only 25,000 miles from new.

Verdict testing this weekend in - where else - Essex.

From a driving point of view, the Capri really shows its age - especially where the brakes are concerned - but it has a certain charm, nevertheless. This 1977 model just predates the facelift that produced what was widely but unofficially known as the Capri Mk III, the one that featured so heavily in The Professionals.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Lord Drayson goes racing in the USA

Lord (Paul) Drayson's departure from the government in order to concentrate on motor racing is widely covered in today's newspapers. I spent a fascinating day at Brands Hatch earlier this year interviewing him for an Independent feature about his racing career, which was topped off by a few laps of the circuit passengering Jonny Cocker - Drayson's talented young co-driver - in the peer's bioethanol powered racing Aston.

Some reports have suggested that there may be more to this development than meets the eye, but for me, the reason he gives for this change - that he wants to further his motor racing career while at the same time promoting the use of renewable fuels - rings true. When I interviewed him, he spoke openly about his desire to race internationally with the ultimate ambition of competing at Le Mans with a bioethanol-powered car.

As a motoring enthusiast and a firm believer in the benefits of biofuels, I can only wish him well in his campaign. As a UK taxpayer, I hope that his departure from government - described officially as leave of absence - doesn't turn out to be permanent. Defence procurement and supply, the area for which Lord Drayson was responsible, is a notoriously difficult part of the MoD, and with his strong business and engineering background, he seemed to be one of the few recent holders of the defence procurement post who was up to the epic financial and technical challenges involved.

One area in which he expressed a particular interest when I spoke to him was the possibility that the defence industry, with its very long lead times, might learn from Britain's successful motor racing sector, which innovates very rapidly and routinely incorporates these innovations almost immediately into its products. About a month ago, it was reported that the first meeting of UK motor racing firms and defence contractors had taken place - it will be interesting to see whether this initiative now continues and bears fruit.

Incidentally, the defence procurement job seems to attract motoring enthusiasts. The late Alan Clarke (of diaries fame) was one - Lord Drayson was another. I've got no idea whether the new minister, Ann Taylor, is a closet petrolhead, though.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Wheelwobble Wallflowers 3 - Fiat Croma 2

Snapped this one when I was in Italy a month or two back. You hardly ever see them in the UK and they're fairly thin on the ground in Fiat's home market, too.

Once again, an example of a car that's perfectly adequate but which, because it doesn't have a fancy badge, is completely ignored by most buyers. Actually what's under the skin is pretty good - the GM Epsilon platform that's shared with cars such as the Saab 93 - and the semi-MPV body is roomy and practical too. The only drawbacks I recall from our Verdict test of the Croma were the surfeit of light grey plastic in the cabin and the rather bland styling. I have to confess to rather liking it once I'd put in a few hundred miles behind the wheel.

The Croma was removed from the UK price lists earlier this year, although I think officially it's still available to special order.

Fifty years of Trabants

Tomorrow is the fiftieth birthday of the former German Democratic Republic's most famous automotive product, the Trabant. This gives us a useful reminder that while capitalism isn't perfect, it at least provides us with an enormous choice of excellent cars at reasonable prices. Imagine being a car enthusiast in the GDR and having to wait years - or even decades - for the privilege of handing over your life savings for a piece of crap like the Trabant.

That said, it should also be borne in mind that the makers and designers of cars in the old planned economies of Eastern Europe operated under severe constraints. Access to certain materials and mainstream western parts suppliers was limited, while funding was restricted to what could be squeezed from the latest five or seven year plan in a system that emphasised the collective and communal over the sort of individual aspiration and ambition represented by car ownership. I still think that the Skoda Favorit, for example, which appeared in the then Czechoslovakia in 1987, and in western markets from 1989, was a remarkable achievement, given that it was close to being competitive with western cars of the time, despite being developed under these limitations. Certainly, it was good enough to get Volkswagen interested in the company, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, what made the Trabant famous wasn't its qualities as a car but its starring role in the film footage of the night the Berlin Wall came down - celebrated in this commemorative model, which I am sad to say, still sits on my mantelpiece gathering dust almost twenty years after the event.

Nevertheless, it's a pity that the grotty Trabant got the limelight when there were so many more interesting GDR vehicles - nothing you'd actually want to to have owned at the time, of course, but more interesting nevertheless. The Wartburg 353 for example, wasn't too bad when it was introduced in the mid-sixties, although it was hobbled by its two-stroke engine. The Barkas van occupied the same popular role in the GDR as the Ford Transit in the UK or the VW 'Bulli' van in West Germany, while East German trucks such as the IFA W50 and the smaller Robur were widely used not only in the domestic 'market' but in the Third World as well. The only East German brand that wasn't absorbed or closed after the Berlin Wall came down was Multicar, a manufacturer of very small vehicles for municipal use such as street sweeping. Anyway, more on some of this interesting stuff another time.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

What's outside today 29 - Honda CR-V

This is broadly comparable with the Chevrolet Captiva and the Land Rover Freelander 2 which have featured on the Verdict over the last few months.

The Freelander represents a particularly interesting comparison. The first Freelander and the first CR-V had fairly similar styling, which was hardly surprising given that Honda and Rover would still have been close partners during the early part of the two cars' development, although AFAIK they never actually shared any parts.

Honda has just launched the third generation of CR-V - the car tested here - while the Freelander is just into its second model generation, which gives you some idea of the funds available to the two manufacturers for new development.

The two cars are now very different in appearance; Land Rover has very successfully kept the best elements of the first Freelander's styling while at the same time linking its smallest 4x4 more directly in visual terms to its more expensive models such as the Range Rover. Honda's car looks good but a bit anonymous given that it doesn't have sixty years of 4x4 design heritage to tap and therefore has to do its own thing. The Freelander's interior is a lot classier as well, in my opinion.

The CR-V is very car-like to drive - there's very little roll on corners for example - although I'm not especially keen on the steering. Diesels work best in something like this, and Honda's petrol engines, which tend to be revvy with a strong top end would normally be the exact opposite of what you'd want, but the petrol unit in our test car worked reasonably well.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Definitions 5 - launch paunch

If you ever meet a tubby motoring writer, what you see is not an example of beer belly but of launch paunch, the thickening of the waist produced by the excellent hospitality provided by motor manufacturers when introducing their new models.

More Volvo safety stuff

Just about to embark on a second day of finding out about some of Volvo's new safety technology.

Yesterday was all about Volvo's emerging active safety applications - stuff that helps you to avoid an accident or minimise your speed on impact, rather than protecting you once you are in one.

This included hands-on demonstrations of systems that either warn you about conditions - for example the presence or behaviour or other road users - that may cause an accident, or intervene in order to take over the braking or even steering of the car in such a way that an accident is avoided or takes place at a lower speed. Much of this involved deliberately driving cars at large obstacles and relying on Volvo's technology to avoid a collision. It's actually quite difficult to do this without instinctively braking or steering away, rather than letting the car do the work, even when pedestrians are represented by dummies and other cars by huge inflatables - hitting those is enormous fun, by the way. I'm sure there's a market for some sort of car-based game that uses those.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Lessons from a life on the road 2 - subscribe to 3's Mobile Broadband service

For anyone who spends a lot of time on the road and can't afford to be offline for long periods, 3's near-flatrate mobile broadband service is spectacularly good value for money - GBP15 per month for 3GB gives a connection over 3's UK mobile network that is as fast as most domestic broadband services, especially if you are in an area where 3 has upgraded its UMTS network to HSDPA.

But here's the really good bit - the service can be used for no extra charge in other countries where 3 has a network, such as Sweden, Denmark and Italy, avoiding those exorbitant roaming charges that always provide such a bitter after-taste to an enjoyable trip abroad when they turn up on your bill.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Volvo Cars Safety Seminar

A night at Heathrow before nipping over to Sweden tomorrow for Volvo Cars' Safety Seminar. Back in the seventies and eighties, if there was a single manufacturer whose name was synonymous with safety, it was Volvo. That link seems to have faded a bit since then; Mercedes, if anything a more important safety pioneer than Volvo, has probably been less shy than it was about its role in important advances, while, more recently, manufacturers such as Renault have established their own safety credentials through their success with the modern NCAP crash tests.

Perhaps Volvo wasn't too sad to lose some of its prominence in the area of passive safety as this was probably also associated in buyers' minds with less positive attributes such as tank-like styling and stodgy handling.

Now that Volvo may be on the block - I know no more than has appeared in the papers on this subject - perhaps it wants to put some of its expertise in this area in the window in order to increase its attractiveness to potential buyers.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Blast from the past 10 - Mercedes 280SE Cabriolet (1968-71)

Afternoon tea at Petersham Nurseries cafe in Richmond today - a haven of tranquility in busy London.

This - a favourite model of mine - was in the car park. Nice to see that this car seemed like it was in daily use rather than being pampered and locked away - the Mercedes star was missing from the top of the radiator grille and the front bumper had a ding too. Unfortunately this one has also picked up those chrome trims on the wheelarches that some people fit to older Mercs. Not so keen on these myself.

Still great to see, though.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

What's outside today 28 - Mercedes A150

Testing with readers in and around London this weekend.

What's interesting about this car is that, give or take a couple of options, it is the cheapest new Mercedes you can buy - prices start below £14K. What I'm trying to work out with our reader-testers' help is whether this is cheap for a Mercedes or expensive for a smallish hatchback.

Haven't reached a conclusion on that question yet, but in general this is a likeable car; small petrol engines are very much out of vogue at the moment, but the one in this car is surprisingly smooth and lively Plenty of interior space, too, and a tasteful all-black interior. Doesn't feel quite as solid as Mercs of old, though.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Lots of BMW stuff

Just back from Wiltshire, where I had the chance to try a lot of new BMW model variants. On the face of it what was on show was a range of mid-life updates to the X3, 6 series coupe and 5 series saloon, as well as the new coupe version of the 1 series. Some of this stuff was nevertheless very impressive.

First, the 1 series coupe; I tried two versions of this. The first was the 123d, which despite its name has a 2.0 litre, rather than 2.3 litre diesel engine. It's not just any old 2.0 litre diesel engine though - with 204 horsepower, it's actually the most powerful production 2.0 litre diesel in the world, and, as one of the men from BMW pointed out, provides a specific output of over 100 horsepower per litre, which is the sort of thing you'd traditionally expect from one of the BMW M cars. I also tried the 3.5 litre petrol version of the 1, which was very quick indeed and good value at about £26,000, considering how much performance it provides.

From the most powerful 2.0 litre diesel engine in the world to the most powerful 3.0 litre diesel you can buy, fitted to the misleadingly titled 635d. Wonderful, that's all I can say.

But my personal favourite was the superficially less exciting 520d - this has had its power boosted to 177 horsepower, and when it is equipped with an automatic transmission, as in the case of the one I tried, it is extremely refined. The only drawback of this car from BMW's point of view must surely be that anyone who tries it just won't see the point in buying one of the more expensive models in the range. The same engine does a similarly effective job of powering the X3, which seems to have a much classier interior than it used to.

As well as their impressive on-road performance, these cars all turn in some of the best official fuel consumption and CO2 emissions figures around.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

UK car production on the up

According to the SMMT, UK vehicle production was up 2.1% at the end of September on a year-to-date basis, at 1.29 million.

This means full year production is likely to be not far off the highs achieved in the early Seventies and then again in the first few years of this decade. Thats a remarkable achievement considering that the last few years have seen the closure of Peugeot's plant at Ryton, Vauxhall's Luton works, and the final car assembly end of Ford's Dagenham operation - not to mention the demise of MG Rover.

It is a little remarked upon fact that Britain has lost almost an entire car industry in the last twenty or so years but gained almost an entire new one as well. The old 'Big Four' volume manufacturers - Leyland, Ford, Chrysler/Rootes and Vauxhall, have with the exception of Vauxhall largely disappeared in terms of UK production. What we have in their place are new Japanese plants run by Honda, Toyota and Nissan, as well as revived, previously niche-bound but now massively expanded prestige operations such as Bentley, Aston, Rolls, Land Rover and MINI - only Jaguar isn't really living up to its potential, and even that may change once the new XF hits the market.

One by-product of this shift is that not only is the industry almost as big as it's ever been, but the average value of the cars being made is probably a lot higher. Notwithstanding the possible rationalisation of Land Rover's and Jaguar's production facilities after Ford has sold these off, I think we will now hold on to most of what is left of the British industry.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Great spots 10 - '57' reg MG TF

Driving south from central Birmingham to the M42 earlier this evening, I spotted a bright yellow MG TF with a '57' registration plate. I know there were quite a few unsold MGs and Rovers that were registered well after MG Rover went down, but my guess is that this car was something to do with the planned relaunch of small scale Longbridge production of the TF. I noticed that the TF badge was centrally located on the rear panel, which I don't think was the case with the pre-2005 examples, but apart from that, this car looked pretty much standard.

Personally, I've always thought the TF looks pretty good, especially the frontal styling, which I think gives the car a much better face than the original F's round headlamps. It's worth remembering that while the F was introduced over ten years ago, the TF update was a much heavier revamp than it appeared - for example, the main side panels are a single piece item, and the TF achieved good crash test ratings, especially for pedestrian safety. I think from the point of view of looks and the basic layout and mechanicals, the car has aged very well - it's the interior that needs most work if any relaunched TF is going to be a success.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

What's outside today 27 - Kia Kee show car

Frankfurt am Main, 18.10.07. Outside Kia's impressive new European headquarters - in fact on a quiet piece of road at the exhibition complex that hosts the Frankfurt motor show.

A bit of a lull in the Verdict testing programme this week, but I was kept busy carwise on Thursday with the opportunity to nip over to Germany to drive Kia's Kee design study. The chance to get behind the wheel of manufacturers' show cars, prototypes or design studies is a rare privilege. Normally, car-makers are extremely nervous about letting journalists anywhere near a car that isn't the finished product, so it was interesting not only to be able to sample the Kee but also get a long chat with its designer Peter Schreyer, formerly of Audi.

The picture shows the car being loaded onto its transporter after a few days of being sampled by UK motoring journalists, a process which it survived in one piece - presumably much to the relief the people at Kia, who were about to ship it straight out to the LA motor show, where I'm sure it will appeal to the Americans.

Herr Schreyer was very generous with his time when explaining his work to us - I hope my forthcoming piece for the Indy will do this interesting story justice.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

More detail on Karmann's difficulties

The online edition of Financial Times Deutschland carries more information on the problems at Karmann. Apparently, Karmann's boss, Peter Harbig, has given an interview to one of Germany's leading car mags, Auto, Motor und Sport, in which he disclosed that in the worst case, an additional 600 and 700 jobs over and above the 1800 or so that have already been reported could be at risk.

Specifically, the Rheine works will need to close in autumn 2008 when production of the A4 Cabriolet ends. At Osnabrück, the company desperately needs a follow-on contract for the Mercedes CLK convertible by July next year.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

What's outside today 26 - Virgin Pendolino

My dirty little secret - I may be a motoring journalist but I also enjoy a nice long train journey. I'm on an off-duty visit to Manchester at the moment and I decided to let the train take the strain - here it can be seen this afternoon at journey's end at Piccadilly station. A very good job it did too.

A special thank you, too, by the way, to the bearded one for providing so many laptop power points on his new rolling stock.

Today's trip reminded me of another journey I took on the West Coast Main Line way back in 1984. A student friend of mine who was a bit of a train-spotter tipped me off that the British designed and built tilting train, the APT (Advanced Passenger Train) was running as an unadvertised relief train on services between London and Glasgow. With his help, I was able to make sure I got a ticket for the APT, which I remember as a great performer - I experienced none of that stuff about spilt coffees and queasy stomachs that filled the British press at the time and finished the APT off. I think I read somewhere that the queasiness was caused by the amount that various hacks had to drink on the demonstration trips rather than the characteristics of the train itself, although I don't know how much truth there was in that.

Anyway, apparently, our British tilting train technology ended up in Italy where it was incorporated in the Pendolino line on which Virgin's trains serving the Northwest are based, so it made it onto the WCML in the end.

Karmann in trouble

An interesting story that's been bubbling away over the last week in the German press but hasn't really featured much in English language publications. Karmann, the German coach-builder, has run into a very sticky patch indeed. The company says it needs to cut about 1800 of its 7000 jobs, including about 870 of the 4000 positions at its main Osnabrück site in North-Rhine Westphalia.

So - what's the problem? Well, let's go back to that description coach-builder; that's how Karmann is normally classified but in truth it is something rather more impressive. Like Magna-Steyr in Austria and Valmet Automotive in Finland it is really a contract manufacturer capable of manufacturing complete cars from the ground up - it's just that it does this for other car companies rather than selling those cars under its own name.

Over the years, Karmann has worked with a wide range of automotive groups but its relationship with Volkswagen has always been central to its business. Convertible Beetles were churned out in Osnabrück for decades, and of course, there were the two families of Karmann Ghia coupes in the sixties (not many people realise that there were two distinct model families, but that is an interesting story for another time). More recently, Corrados and Golf convertibles have been built in large numbers too.

Anyway, Karmann says its existing contracts for delivering fully built-up cars will come to an end in late 2008. One problem, according to the German media, is that Volkswagen isn't putting business Karmann's way, a decision that is being put down to Porsche's growing influence at VW; apparently there is bad blood between Karmnn and Porsche that dates back to a legal dispute in the nineties in which Karmann claimed that Porsche was copying its ideas. A further report suggests VW is actually interested in buying Karmann.

I'm not sure where all this will end but the automotive world would be a poorer place without the cars from Osnabrück, so let's hope some better news turns up soon.

Monday, 1 October 2007

What's outside today 25 - Ford C-Max Flexifuel

Outside my parents' place in Gloucestershire, that is - Morrisons is slowly expanding its network of forecourts that provide bioethanol-based E85 but any test of an E85-capable car still means heading for East Anglia or the West Country where the main clusters of pumps are to be found.

Same story as before - the fuel is slightly cheaper than unleaded but not by enough to offset the typical mpg penalty suffered when running on E85 (variously estimated at up to 30%). More movement is needed on the tax front before E85 can really take off - but if the fuel pricing can be got right, the E85 thing is a great concept. Unlike, say, LPG, E85 doesn't require a separate tank; cars like the C-Max FFV can run on any mixture of petrol and bioethanol in a single tank. And Ford doesn't charge a premium for FFV models, so you can buy one and just wait for the price of E85 to come down. If it doesn't, you can just run on unleaded without any drawbacks.

BTW renewable fuels have come in for a bit of criticism over the last year or so. It's important to bear in mind that bioethanol has nothing to do with the recent fuss about palm oil, which is an issue connected with bio-diesel. I'm still convinced renewables are an important part of our motoring future - if we're to have one at all - as long as sustainable and efficient methods of production can be enforced, either legally or by pressure from well-informed consumers asking lots of questions.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

What's outside today 24 - Binz E220CDI Limousine

29th September 2007, outside the headquarters of Binz UK. Yes, that's right, Binz, not Benz.

Now don't go thinking that this fine car (GBP80K plus) has anything to do with those ghastly cut-and-shut American stretch limos. Binz is a German coach builder and Mercedes fully approve these vehicles which are built this way from the start, often with heavier duty parts than the original. Unlike most conversions, this car comes with a full Certificate of Conformity, a full DaimlerChrysler guarantee and even the more unusual parts can be ordered through the main Mercedes system. All vehicle systems such as ABS are preserved and the limo is crash-tested.

Our test car was fitted with the same E220CDI engine found in the standard E Class that we featured on the Verdict a few weeks ago; it was more than capable of hauling around the longer, heavier Binz model. The increased length is scarcely noticeable, even on tight roundabouts.

I've been keen to get this car onto the Verdict since trying it at the SMMT test day a few months ago, and it didn't disappoint.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Brits and their shiny new cars

The British have a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards cars. Nobody gets very upset when UK car factories close, taking proud names with them, and, over the years, we've had enormous difficulty sustaining even a small to medium-sized national motor show.

But we buy more cars in relation to our population than just about anyone else in Europe. A few years ago, I produced a quick piece of analysis for the Independent that showed that Britain bought more cars per head than any other European country apart from Luxembourg and, if I remember correctly, Belgium, which just shaded us for second place. But the UK was significantly ahead of car-mad Germany, for example, an indication of how prosperous Britain has become since the seventies, when we were the EU's poor relations. I mentioned this last finding to one of the industry's foremost analysts and so at odds was it with his picture of the sector that he simply refused to believe it. But I checked my numbers and they were correct.

I haven't done the figures but I think Germany nosed ahead of the UK again last year in terms of car sales per head of population, but that was probably a one-off brought about by a mini-boom in German car sales ahead of a VAT increase that came in at the end of 2006. Yesterday, the Financial Times Deutschland was reporting that German car sales have gone off the boil again this year but also mentioned some other interesting facts. The average age of the cars on German roads is 8.1 years - only Portugal, Greece and Finland have older cars - compared with 7.1 years in the UK.

The Germans like their sausages but these days, it seems, bangers are what they drive, rather than what they eat.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Gadget update

Lately for most of my travels I've been using the Garmin nüvi 310, mainly because I was able to get hold of this with full European mapping at not too bad a price. This has generally performed very well, although it has delivered a few 'prat nav' moments, sending me on slightly off-beat routes; I think like most sat navs I've used, it is a bit biased towards recommending the shortest, rather than the fastest or most sensible routings, even when set to 'fastest' rather than 'shortest'.

I also had a chance to look at Medion's latest stuff last week - although this has traditionally been a budget supermarket brand for consumer electronics, there seems to be a determined effort to push the latest stuff up-market, so there are lots of piano black high-gloss casings. Hope to get my hands on some of their latest stuff for testing, so hopefully will be able to let you know whether Medion's latest gadgets are as polished in terms of performance as their flashy appearance suggests.

Monday, 24 September 2007

What's outside today 23 - Seat Altea 2.0TDI DSG

Outside my brother's place in South London, which I am using as a base for this week's Verdict test with southern readers.

By far the most impressive thing about this car is the combination of VW's 2.0 litre TDI engine - a lot less rowdy than the 1.9 - and the DSG gearbox.

I'm a bit less convinced by the Altea's styling - the best looking of Seat's current mid-range models is the Leon, the least attractive is its mid-sized MPV, the Toledo, with its dumpy rear. These two cars and the Altea all have similar frontal styling, and the Altea lies between the Leon and Toledo both in terms of size and attractiveness. Very roomy and practical, though

Friday, 21 September 2007

High speed running in Germany

I've just been fiddling with my sat-nav after using it extensively on my recent trip through Austria, Italy, Switzerland and Germany.

I noticed that it has recorded a maximum speed for the trip of 129mph, which I reached (legally and safely) in a brief burst on a completely clear stretch of the A5 between Basel and Frankfurt. The Alfa 159 (2.2 litre four cylinder petrol version) I was driving at the time felt like it had more to give, but I would have required a much longer piece of empty road to max it safely.

But don't go thinking that the Autobahns are a high-speed paradise. Long stretches of the A5 have a 120 km/h limit, have only two lanes in each direction, or are clogged with traffic - that means average journey times probably aren't much better than they would be in the UK.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Road tips 9 - Swiss motorway A2 and Gotthard Tunnel

Came this way today heading north from Italy to the Frankfurt motor show. The A2 is interesting in its own right - a very large percentage of it runs in tunnels or over high Alpine bridges, but the centre-piece is the single-bore, single carriageway Gotthard Tunnel, which runs for over ten miles.

Driving such a long distance in a tunnel can be a bit disorientating. It makes you wonder whether a road tunnel under the Channel would ever have been a practical proposition - from the driving point of view, that is, quite apart from the technical and financial obstacles.

Opinion has apparently turned against completing the originally planned second bore; the Swiss resent their country being used just as a transit route between Germany and points south. This brings pollution but few economic benefits, despite the 'Vignette' flat-rate toll system imposed on visitors.

On Friday, I also did the Arlberg tunnel in Austria on the S16; that's almost as long as the Gotthard (14km as opposed to 16.4km) but less well known.

Why recommend the A2 and the Gotthard Tunnel? Well the engineering is deeply impressive, so they are worth seeing for that reason alone. They also save a lot of time compared with going over the Gotthard pass, although that could be an interesting experience in itself. Haven't been that way recently enough to comment.

What's outside today 22 - Opel Vivaro

16.09.07 Casal dei Fichi, Francavilla d'Ete, Marche, Italy. Had a go on this while helping out with transporting people around at my pal Bruce's wedding. It can carry an awful lot of people and their stuff and it's fine to drive, although I noticed that it has a big gap between first and second gears.

Anyway that's enough on the Opel Vivaro - more on the wonderful Casal dei Fichi another time.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Great spots 9 - Porsche Panamera prototype/development car

Undergoing testing on the Stelvio pass - Porsche's forthcoming four-door saloon/coupe. The silhouette of the car appeared to be the real thing, but there were various bits of superficial disguise that were apparently designed to divert attention from the true window and shut lines, although these could, for the most part, still be made out. No photo, I'm afraid - just couldn't get my camera out in time. The Panamera was coming the other way and was gone in a flash, if you'll forgive the pun. Anyway, have a Google and you'll find that there are plenty of surreptitious pix of this thing out there already. I'm not sure it looked quite as nice as the Mercedes CLS or the photos I've seen of the Aston Martin Rapide - my impression was of something that was slightly dumpy at the rear, although that could have been a trick induced by the light disguise.

My guess would be that Porsche wasn't exploring or tuning the car's outright handling capabilities on the Stelvio because you can't really get up enough speed for that sort of thing on large sections of the pass. So it was probably stuff like brakes, transmission and cooling system that were being put to the test here - and how.

I also saw a Vectra on the pass that seemed to have one or two small pieces of superficial disguise at the front or rear and a deep, rumbly engine note - not sure what that was but again, it could have been a manufacturer's car undergoing testing of some minor mods, or something more exciting hiding under a plainish skin.

Friday, 14 September 2007

Road tips 8 - Ss38 Stelvio pass

About fifteen years ago, I discovered Hugh Merrick's The Great Motor Highways of the Alps, which was first published in 1958, in a second-hand book shop in Charing Cross Road. As its title suggests, this is a guide aimed at British motorists of the day who were interested in exploring the main Alpine passes.

It's a fascinating book, not just for the information it contains about the passes themselves, but also for the now hopelessly quaint and antiquated advice it dispenses for drivers of British cars that weren't really designed with high-speed cruising and mountain driving in mind. Bear in mind, for example, that most British drivers in those days wouldn't have seen a motorway in their lives, so they needed to have the basics of Autobahn driving explained to them from scratch.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I was always very taken with Merrick's write-up on the Stelvio. This is not quite the highest pass over the Alps, but it's famous for features such as its challenging hairpins, and for that reason is often considered to be 'the big one'. Every year since I found Merrick's book I've promised myself I'll take a crack at the Stelvio during the few months it's open each year but other stuff - usually work - has intervened. This year, a trip to a wedding in Italy finally provided me with the excuse I needed and yesterday was the big day.

Of course, in the last minute rush, I forgot to pack the book so I did this the twenty-first century way - I just punched the destination 'Stelvio Ss38' into my portable sat-nav and set off from my starting point, Friedrichshafen airport down on Lake Konstanz.

Anyway, one result of relying on the sat-nav to get me there was that I ended up traversing the Stelvio from the northern/eastern end, which I think is called the Prato side.

This seems to be by far the tougher option as it involves ascending, rather, than descending, the famous sequence of 48 tightly packed hairpins near the top on that side.

The right-handers on this section are deadly. They need to be negotiated very carefully, often in first gear and on full lock, taking you onto the other side of the road under conditions in which you are almost blind to approaching cars coming downhill. The only way to look out for this oncoming traffic is to crane your neck up and to the right and look for it out of the very uppermost portion of the right-hand rear side window of your car as you approach the bend. There also seems to be the risk of grounding either your car's front end or nearside sill, although the long-nosed Alfa I was driving escaped without any such scrapes. If there's a knack to tackling these nasty right-handers, I didn't discover it.

If I'm honest, at least the way I did it, the Stelvio probably wasn't quite the great driving experience I'd been imagining it would be all those years. It was just a bit too extreme for that with all that first gear work - and there were too many nutty cyclists and bikers around to make for a relaxing drive, even on a quiet day. Generally, the hairpin bends on the southern/western (Bormio) side aren't anything like so tightly radiused - I think it would be much more fun to blast up this side fairly quickly and then descend the tight hairpins on the northern side facing the great views on that slope, which include several glaciers.

That said, the scenery was far more impressive than I'd imagined, and at the end of a long day's driving there was a real sense of achievement at making it across.

I'd certainly recommend the Stelvio but it really isn't for the faint-hearted, not least because of the almost unimaginably deep sheer drops that can occasionally be glimpsed through the sometimes incomplete safety fencing. Tackling the Stelvio also commits you to long drives on fairly demanding roads either side to get in and out as well, especially at the Italian end, so you probably need to allow a full day for this, all things considered. Also, if you set off and decide part of the way through that you've bitten off more than you can chew and want to turn back, that may involve a challenging drive too.

And please don't tackle this unless your car is in good condition. I can't imagine how Merrick's readers in their miserable fifties British motors, complete with drum brakes and hopelessly puny engine braking, ever made it through.

What's outside today 21 - German Hertz hire car Alfa 159 SW

Outside the Holiday Inn Padova that is. En route to a pal's wedding further south at the weekend. The booking was for a Mercedes C Class 'or similar' and 'or similar' turned out to be the Alfa Romeo 159 SW - no complaints about that all.

In fact, if they'd given me a Merc I'd have been stuck as the German end of Hertz doesn't allow its hire cars from German prestige brands to be taken to Italy or eastern Europe (presumably because there's too high a risk that they will be nicked), a fact that I didn't discover until I started reading the boring hire documentation on a coffee stop in Italy because I didn't have a newspaper or an Internet connection to hand. Alfas are OK though.

I hadn't driven the 159 before but I was impressed by its performance on a long demanding day of driving across the Alps yesterday - but more of that later.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

What's outside today 20 - Smart For Two Passion

This is the Smart For Two Passion which we have been using for the Verdict test.

This thing really impressed me. If you accept the limitation that it's a strict two-seater, there are virtually no compromises. The passenger cabin is actually pretty spacious and there's even a fairly useful amount of luggage space (over 200 litres - which is enough for, say, two bags/cases that use the full airline carry-on baggage dimensions). The 1 litre engine is easily powerful enough to keep up with other traffic, even on the motorway, and the For Two stays very well planted for something that looks a bit topply.

Our test car had an automated manual gearbox - this one seemed to change gear a bit more quickly than those on some previous models, where this arrangement came in for a bit of criticism, but still seems to suffer a slight delay. The cheapest models don't have the 'automatic' function but still do without a clutch pedal; you change gear either by nudging the gear-stick forwards (to change up) or backwards (to change down), or use the steering-wheel-mounted paddles that are provided. Overall, a cracking effort.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

What's outside today 19 - a load of Smarts

Actually, this was yesterday, rather than today, and this is the scene outside the Hotel du Vin in Bristol, the location of the launch for the Smart For Two, rather than my usual gaff.

This one is the slightly hairy Brabus version - there were two LHD examples to try.

I was able to take away what is expected to be the big seller in the range - a Passion - for the Verdict test and completed most of the testing with our readers down in Devon and Somerset yesterday. To be honest, I'm not too keen on the Brabus, which I think is a bit pointless, but the basic car is excellent; it's extremely roomy for two people and although this new version represents a consolidation of the Smart concept rather than a big leap forward, it still contains an awful lot of clever thinking.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Great spots 8 - 'Porsche Design' sat nav at the IFA trade show in Berlin today

A quick snatched post at Schoenefeld airport on the way back from a brief visit to Berlin to take in the IFA broadcasting and consumer electronics trade fair. Excellent show, but extremely difficult to navigate given the mind-boggling complexity of Berlin's exhibition complex.

Not all of it was automotive stuff but today I came across Porsche Design's sat nav. I think it's from the branch of the family that designs sunglasses rather than sports cars but a highly stylish item nevertheless. No doubt it will command a hefty premium but I doubt it'll do a better job of getting you to where you want to go than the stuff that's already out there from Garmin and the rest.

Monday, 3 September 2007

What's outside today 18 - Mercedes-Benz E220CDI

Just back from a long Verdict trip to Scotland during which this mile-munching Merc scarcely broke sweat.

It's scarcely possible to believe that this is the slowest and cheapest of the three E Class diesels - in most UK conditions, the E220CDI has more than enough go.

Anyway, two reasons for testing the E220CDI - first, it had a lot of detail improvements aimed at boosting quality last year, and second, it's going to provide a useful baseline comparison for another Verdict which I'm expecting to be one of our more interesting tests - that's not finalised yet, so more detail later.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Autocar's excellent Jaguar coverage this week

Lots of coverage of the new XF in this week's Autocar, which is well worth checking out. All very encouraging, especially some of the photography which provides a bit more confidence that this car will be a hit. Also, there are the usual updates from the apparently well-informed Julian Rendell on the latest developments in the bidding for Land Rover and Jaguar, which Ford is in the process of selling at the moment.

However, there was also an interesting letter in the mag from a reader touching on the subject I raised here a day or two back in connection with the XF and S-Type - Jaguar's failure to exploit the full range of power units that are available to it in order to provide what would appear to be attractive car/engine combinations. In this case, the reader's letter focused on the X-Type and asked why the company doesn't offer this model with the 2.7 litre diesel V6 in combination with the four-wheel drive transmission fitted to the 2.5 litre and 3.0 litre petrol-powered X-Types.

I've often wondered myself why no diesel/4WD combination is offered because especially in estate form, this would be a great car to sell in Bavaria, Northern Italy, Southern France, Austria and Switzerland to people who want something a bit different and like to go skiing at the weekends. If the 2.7 litre V6 doesn't fit, why not try the existing 2.2 litre diesel already fitted to the X-Type in combination with the 4WD transmission? As I was able to establish in the relevant Verdict tests, this engine is a convincing performer in the existing 2WD X-Type and also in the new 4WD Freelander, so I'm sure a 4WD 2.2 litre diesel X-Type wouldn't feel underpowered. Perhaps there's more to this than meets the eye, but surely this is something that could be addressed at minimal expense just by assembling various bits that already go into the car in different combinations?

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Euro NCAP ratings for the Fiat 500, Renault Twingo, Kia Cee'd and Peugeot 308

The Euro NCAP results have just been published for these four cars. When these ratings were first introduced, it was quite common for even fairly grand models from manufacturers with a good safety reputation to achieve only two or three stars out of five on the main Adult Occupant Protection score.

Over the years, it has sometimes been argued that the tests don't capture the complicated sorts of challenges presented by real-world accidents and that manufacturers may be designing their cars to get good test results rather than for ultimate safety. But I suspect these grumbles are overdone and that the tests have played an important role in driving up standards.

Now, a five-star result for Adult Occupant Protection has become almost essential in market terms, so when a mainstream model gets only four stars, that tends to attract a bit of comment. All of the models listed here get five stars except the Twingo, which gets four. What's remarkable about this is that, of the mass manufacturers, Renault was the one that really appreciated early on how important these ratings could be in building its reputation, and, over the years, it has bagged a whole series of five star scores for its cars.

These days, with the five star rating for adult passengers becoming so common, it's the ratings for the protection of child occupants and pedestrians that really separate cars. None of these four models achieve the maximum five stars for Child Occupant Protection, or four stars for Pedestrian Protection. In fact no Child Occupant Protection score is published for the Twingo at all. Not sure what is going on there.

Oh, and a quick PS - sorry to be so boring by going on about the Kia Cee'd again but the five star rating awarded to this car is yet another piece of evidence that it is right up there with the best comparable models from the european manufacturers.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Jaguar XF - great car but too few choices?

This is the new XF, the successor to the old S-Type. If the photos and initial reports are anything to go by, this is going to be a great car. Jaguar seems to have finally shaken off its obsession with retro and produced something stunning - dare I say it even looks a bit like a four-door Aston?

But I still have one or two concerns. In the initial line-up, there's no room for the brilliant 3.6 litre V8 diesel that is used to such magnificent effect in the big Land Rovers. In fact, this hasn't made it into any Jaguar model so far. The XF makes do with the admittedly very agreeable 2.7 litre V6 diesel but could do with the extra firepower in order to compete more effectively with the Germans. Come on, Jag, get cracking. This is urgent stuff.

It's lower down the range, though, that I see the biggest problem. Mercedes and BMW sell far more units of the E Class and 5 Series than Jag does of the S-Type. IMHO, that's not because the Jag is inferior but has much more to do with the fact that Jaguar only competes with the top end of the 5 Series and E Class ranges. The lower-end BMW 523i and 520d, and Mercedes E220CDI are convincing products to which the S-Type range had no response, a mistake - for that is what I think it is - repeated with the initial XF line-up. There was a 2.5 litre petrol version of the S-Type for a bit, but this always seemed to be the poor relation of the range.

Really, there are no bad Jags. Rather, I think the problem has always been that the company tends to produce good cars that slightly miss the mark in market terms (too small, say, or too big or too retro) - unlike Land Rover, its sister company, which hits the bull's eye every time. But I'd love Jaguar to prove me wrong with the XF - and I can't wait to get the chance to drive it.