Saturday, 28 April 2007

Hyundai in the Czech Republic

News that Hyundai has just held the ground-breaking ceremony for its new Czech plant at Nosovice - handy timing given that many of Hyundai/Kia's top people will already have been in eastern Europe for the opening of the Kia plant at Zilina earlier in the week.

There are other links between the two sites too. The new i30 model which Hyundai will build at the plant bears more than a passing resemblance to Kia's cee'd, and Zilina will provide engines to Nosovice as well.

It will be interesting to see how these two rather similar Korean brands develop now that they are under the same corporate roof. Hyundai is positioned as a more sober, up-market proposition than Kia, which is supposed to be rather younger and sportier, but I suspect that this distinction has escaped most potential buyers so far. My guess would be that to most people, Kia and Hyundai badges still both say more or less the same thing - good, solid, if slightly anonymous, value-for-money motoring from Korea.

That's probably going to change, though, as the more of the two brands' increasingly impressive new models come on stream, and as Kia raises its profile through its sponsorship of major sporting events.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Featured web-links 1 - Fourwheelsteer

This is aspiring motoring journalist John Lambert's blog. John is especially keen on those fascinating but obscure old Hondas that had four-wheel steering. John has already had work published at the Pistonheads website and in the Independent.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Kia cee'd - the car from Carpathia

A fascinating day at Zilina finding out how those clever people at Kia, with the help of a few thousand eager Slovakians, turn this:

into this:

in what will be Europe's most productive car factory once it is operating at full speed. The full story should be coming to a copy of the Independent near you shortly but here are some of the headlines. When it's running at full tilt, Zilina is expected to pump out 100 cars per employee per year, beating the levels achieved by what I believe are Europe's current most productive plants, Nissan at Washington in the UK and Opel/GM at Eisenach in the former East Germany.

Zilina's main product, the cee'd, is Kia's first car designed and built in Europe. The company is confident enough in this new model to provide it with an unmatched seven year guarantee. After seeing the outstanding conditions for car-making at Zilina, it's easy enough to see where that confidence comes from - and the car itself is very convincing too. For the time being, the Golf has an edge in terms of its badge while the Focus probably remains the driver's choice in this category. And it's still hard to get past the combination of quality and value for money represented by the Skoda Octavia. But I think the Astra, 307, C4 and the like are all looking very vulnerable indeed to the Korean/Slovakian advance.

Monday, 23 April 2007

BioEthanol and the Road to Sustainable Transport - some more follow up

The presentation materials from this excellent conference held last week at Imperial College can be found at

En route to Zilina

A quick post from one of my favourite European cities, Bratislava. The beautiful Slovakian capital is a worthwhile destination in its own right but tonight it is just a staging post on a journey to Zilina in the north of the country, where Kia will tomorrow carry out the official opening ceremony for its new European production facility.

The Zilina factory is already turning out Kia's impressive new Golf-sized car, the cee'd. I think the cee'd and Zilina are one of the most important industry stories at the moment in Europe, so I'm expecting an interesting visit tomorrow.

A great sponsorship opportunity!

Very few women make it into the top ranks of motor sport but here's one who stands a better chance than most of cracking it. I first met Nikki Welsby when she took part in the Independent's Verdict test of the Mitsubishi CZC last year. At that time, she was among the carefully selected hundred hopefuls – of 10,000 that originally applied – vying for one of sixteen places in the 2006 Formula Woman championship, a race series designed to give women a chance to break through into motor sport. I was so impressed with Nikki's determination to succeed that I persuaded the Independent to publish a separate feature on her efforts shortly afterwards.

Nikki subsequently went on to win a place on last year's Formula Woman grid, and then, on a dramatic last day of racing, she won the championship as well. Nikki has since used her Formula Woman title to further her long-held ambition of competing on a fully competitive mixed grid, and this year she has been taking part in the Clio Cup series – that's her with her car below.

But even with the advantage of the Formula Woman title behind her, just like every other aspiring racer, Nikki is always looking for new sponsorship and has to spend as much time chasing cheques as she does in pursuit of the chequered flag if she is going to keep the show on the road this season.

I should probably add that anyone sponsoring Nikki is likely to get a lot more than just a large prominently-placed sticker on her Clio race car. In my opinion, Nikki represents one of the more interesting stories around in motor sport at the moment – and it costs a lot less to get a piece of the action with Nikki than it does with Lewis Hamilton!

Nikki is also an accomplished media performer and has several TV, radio and press appearances to her credit. The Formula Woman selection process was covered in a Channel 4 TV documentary, 'Girl Racers' last year, while the race series itself was covered in a series of broadcasts on Motors TV; Nikki has secured several other appearances in local and national media as well.

If you are interested, you can find out more about Nikki and her progress, as well as the possibilities for sponsoring her, at her website

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Bioethanol conference at Imperial - a PS

Three more points from the seminar at Imperial.

Everyone I spoke to who had an opinion on the subject thought that the 18% fuel consumption penalty we recorded for running on bioethanol in the Saab BioPower was a bit on the low side. A man from Ford put the likely figure at 30% although I continue to hear suggestions - I'm not sure how well-founded they are - that this penalty can be smaller when cruising than in stop-start traffic, and that it may be lower in Saabs rather than in Ford's E85-capable models. Given that our test was in a Saab and didn't involve any town driving (it was a mix of motorways and twisty A roads but didn't really cover any town driving), perhaps our result wasn't too far out of line after all. Of course, our test was a simple brim to brim affair but at the seminar I met the man who used to do the AA's incredibly rigorous fuel consumption tests and now does similar work on an independent basis. He told me he was in the middle of carrying out one of his highly detailed tests on the BioPower. I will be interested to see what he comes up with, which I suspect will be the closest thing we get to an authoritative answer for the time being.

The second point concerns the possible damage to the Brazilian rain forest that may arise from increased demand for biofuels. Apparently this is a red herring because the rain forest isn't really very close to the best latitudes for growing sugar cane. What may do for the rain forest, so it is said, is the growing demand for protein and therefore soya. More generally, though, cultivation for ethanol is certainly in competition with cultivation for food, which could prove to be highly problematical in the long run.

The third thing to mention is that Britain is due shortly to get its first bioethanol plant using British sugar beet as a feedstock. It belongs to British Sugar and it's located in Norfolk.

Friday, 20 April 2007

Bioethanol and the Road to Sustainable Development

A fascinating day-long seminar on this subject at London's Imperial College today - I'm grateful to Saab for putting me on to this.

Several contributors from government, the private sector and the academic world explained the role of bioethanol in tackling climate change and future fossil fuel shortages. I can't possibly do all of the arguments justice here but I've picked out what I think are a few of the most interesting aspects.

The first thing you notice at any event on this subject is that a lot of the speakers are Swedes. That's because Sweden has aggressively embraced bio-fuels - the Swedish prime minister declared that the country would be independent of oil would by 2020, although it was a car dealer that got the ball rolling by importing suitably specced American Ford Tauruses in the nineties. This gave Ford an early lead that it was able to build on with bio-capable versions of the Focus produced in Europe. Saab is the other main player with the BioPower versions of its 9-3 and 9-5 models, while Scania has been promoting the use of bioethanol in bus and truck engines that operate on diesel principles. One of the best customers for buses running on bioethanol has been Stockholm's public transport company; buses with Scania's third generation ethanol engine - which should equip it to tackle longer out-of-town journeys - are eagerly awaited there. A Scania bioethanol bus trial is imminent in London too. Not every lesson from Sweden can be applied here, of course. The country has a low population density and a large forestry industry, for example, although I was slightly surprised to learn that the Swedish market uses bioethanol from Brazilian sugar cane (Brazil is the other trailblazer in the use of bio-fuels). I had thought the feedstock for Swedish bioethanol production was cellulose derived from the timber industry; this is however, expected to play a large role in future. Nevertheless, the Swedes' efforts put those of most other countries to shame.

An interesting snippet of information came from a representative of OKQ8, a fuel retailer with a 27% market share in petrol and a 40% share in bioethanol in Sweden - while flex-fuel cars that can run on E85 (a blend of 85% bioethanol and 15% petrol) get all the headlines, most of the use of bioethanol in cars in Sweden so far is accounted for by the small amount of bioethanol - 5% - that is added in to standard unleaded; this blend can be used by cars without modification. Bioethanol can already be added to standard unleaded in the UK I believe, and the forthcoming Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) will require us to be 5% renewable by 2010.

Another important point is that different sorts of bio-fuels are not all equally beneficial in their impact. Thanks to the work of academics like Dr Jeremy Woods at Imperial we seem to be getting a better understanding of the differences between so-called 'bad bioethanol' and 'good bioethanol', which is a function of a host of factors such as the crops used, the processes used and the extent to which fossil fuels are used in production and distribution. The UK RTFO can't stipulate that only good bioethanol be used as this would be against world trade rules. However, companies will have to document the provenance of their fuels under RTFO, and it will be up to us to keep them honest with our fuel buying decisions.

I'd be lost without it

A meeting yesterday with Medion UK, the British arm of the German consumer electronics company that rode to success on the back of its Aldi special offers. Medion's products are always solid, good value for money efforts, and the company's entry in the group test of after-market sat navs I carried out for the Indy last year was no exception.

The latest Medion sat navs incorporate the sorts of improvements that you'd expect in terms of software, displays and so on but have an extra ingredient as well - with their curvy casings, they are much more stylish than the company's previous devices which had a slightly sober, rather workmanlike appearance.

Anyway, the extra features are all very well, but in my experience, the main thing you need to look out for is whether, like Medion's models, a given sat nav will accept a full UK postcode as an input address, which saves time and cuts down on errors (some work to a lower level of detail, usually the first digit of the second part of the postcode). More or less everything else is a question of personal taste and preference, and I don't think I've actually come across a bad portable sat nav in all my testing. Even the cheapest, simplest model will do a pretty good job; they all use the same basic GPS data after all.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Great spots 1 - VW Phaeton taxi

More on the Phaeton; everyone who drives it - this includes me - says it's great, but it's been a sales flop because it's difficult to persuade people to buy an expensive luxury car with a VW badge. This one, which I spotted at Munich airport this afternoon, has been put to good use as a taxi. I'm not sure this is the sort of thing its makers had in mind but I'm fairly certain it will stand up to hundreds of thousands of kilometres of hard use without any problems.

That creamy off-white paintwork, by the way, is the standard colour for German taxis, which all used to be black until the late sixties. The switch to the lighter colour scheme was justified on the grounds that it would keep taxis' interiors cooler in summer. Not sure how that looks now air-con is so widespread. Some areas of Germany have started to relax the strict colour requirements which means taxi ranks will look a lot less tidy and uniform - which is to say, a lot less German - than they used to.

Audi at Ingolstadt - day 2

Another day at Ingolstadt hearing about Audi's race programme. Audi has had a great deal of success with diesel-powered racing cars recently. To the extent that I'd thought about it at all, I'd just supposed that all that Audi had needed to do to be successful with this was to stuff a large enough diesel engine into one of their existing cars.

Apparently, it's not as simple as that; the V10 TDI engine is rather large and heavy, which affects the car's weight, centre of gravity and so on. That means just about everything else has to change too.

Now Peugeot has decided to do a diesel racer too, and the Audi and the Peugeot will go head to head for the first time at this year's Le Mans 24 hour race. I'm told that not much information about Peugeot's engine has got out, so it will be fascinating to see how the French company's car does against the Audi.

Why do car companies want to go racing with diesels? Well, despite the advances in recent years that mean diesel models are often more desirable than their closest petrol-driven equivalents (even disregarding the fuel consumption and possible depreciation advantages of diesels), some car buyers still think diesels are slow, noisy and smelly. Racing success will help dispel that. JCB set a new diesel world speed record not so long ago; perhaps Peugeot or Audi will be tempted to have a crack at that as well before too long. My guess would be that given that this is a comparatively neglected category of record-breaking, success could be fairly easy to come by.

Audi's sporting operation plugs into the resources of its parent and also relies heavily on IT. Some of the technology used comes from PTC, a US software house which keeps tabs on design, processes and all of the relevant documentation. An interesting if trivial by-product of this technology's use by the broader Volkswagen group is the VW Phaeton's handbook. Rather than getting a standard handbook that applies to Phaetons in general, owners get a tailored handbook that matches the precise spec of their own cars. A customer who orders a Phaeton with a sunroof gets a handbook that includes instructions on how to operate the sunroof. If no sunroof is ordered, the relevant section is omitted from the handbook. In fact this sort of attention to detail is typical of the care that has gone into making the Phaeton such a formidable machine.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Audi at Ingolstadt

An interesting afternoon at Audi. First the chance to see some of the production facilities - the final assembly stage for the Audi A3 - and then a drive in the second-generation TT.

The plant made an interesting comparison with MINI's facility in Oxford which I visited last week. It's all on a much larger scale than Oxford - Ingolstadt is Audi's main factory and also houses the company's headquarters - but there was the same sense of calm order at both facilities. Car manufacture really is a fuss-free activity these days. It has to be. Everything is magnificently choreographed, and sequencing is central to the whole thing. MINI and Audi both build to order, so it's essential that the right bits arrive on time in the right order at the line so that the cars are built to spec. Today, some apparently minor issue caused a brief pause on part of the A3 line. The man from Audi said that delays cost EUR14,000 per minute - presumably that's the value of lost production.

Car factories are full of robots these days, so in most cases, they're no longer anything to get excited up about. But I saw one particularly impressive piece of kit at Audi today - the robot that fuels the cars as they leave the line. This sounds like a simple activity, but consider the following. Cars for the domestic market get 5 litres in their tanks while those going to some other markets get 15. Those cars that are being collected from the plant by their buyers get a full tank. The robot also needs to put petrol in petrol-engined cars and diesel into diesel-engined cars. And it's not just a question of choosing petrol or diesel; the spec for the fuel has to be matched to the conditions in the countries for which the cars are destined. The robot has to get it right every time - the conseqences of getting it wrong are dire.

The new TT has already appeared on the Verdict; the car we featured was the fastest 3.2 litre version with the 4WD quattro transmission but the standard manual gearbox. The car I drove today was the same model, but fitted with the magnificant DSG gearbox - now renamed S-tronic when fitted to Audis, although other VW group brands still call it DSG. Jolly nice, too.

Finally a small bonus; there's quite a lot of fuss at Ingolstadt at the moment about the new A5. Saw one here today. Perhaps even more interesting was that the arrival of the A5 has provided an excuse to dust off some of the older Audi coupe models to pose for photographs with the newcomer - including this great example of the original Audi Coupe S from 1969.

Saab Biopower

A quick post while stuck on the ground at Heathrow waiting to go to Germany to try some Audis.

Today's Indy carries the write-up of our fuel consumption test of Saab's 9-5 BioPower. Since Saab and Ford introduced cars to the UK market last year that are capable of running on E85, a blend of 85% bioethanol and 15% petrol, there has been a certain amount of discussion of the pros and cons of this fuel, which is available at a small but growing number of branches of Morrisons. On the one hand, E85 has a higher octane rating and a modest price advantage (usually 2p per litre). On the other, it delivers fewer mpg.

Estimates of the exact size of this penalty vary enormously, so we decided to do a test - the answer that we came up with was that Saab's 9-5 BioPower suffers an 18% mpg penalty when running on E85 over a wide range of road conditions. We did plan a more elaborate test involving two cars running in parallel, one on E85 and one on unleaded, but after months of trying, we just couldn't get two directly comparable cars together at the same time, so we settled for running a single car in one direction on E85 and then retracing our route on unleaded - not ideal, but hopefully fairly representative.

I've been following this subject for over a year now, and the more I look into it, the more complicated it seems to get. Official CO2 emissions data, for example, just look at tailpipe emissions for cars running on unleaded, not what is sometimes called the well-to-wheel impact, or the impact over the whole life of a car. That means cars running on E85 get no official credit for using a renewable fuel that has a built-in carbon offset in the form of the CO2 absorbed by the crops that are used to produce bioethanol. Take another example, the hybrid Toyota Prius, which delivers a very low tailpipe CO2 figure of 104g/km. What about the amount of energy that is used in manufacturing this immensely complicated car? What about the disposal of the large numbers of heavy batteries hybrids use?

I'm off to a day-long conference on the subject at Imperial College on Friday, which I hope will help me understand this a bit better. I'm not really expecting to come back with clear answers, though, just more insight into how complicated the whole thing is and why.

Monday, 16 April 2007

What's outside today 1 - the MINI Cooper D

This is the new MINI Cooper D, which goes back today. Expect it to turn up on the Verdict in the next few weeks. BMW introduced revised versions of the Cooper and Cooper S a few months back and now the rest of the range is being refreshed too. The new diesel power unit is from PSA, rather than the previous supplier, Toyota. The replacement engine's extra pep has encouraged BMW to stick its neck out and make the new diesel a Cooper instead of a variant of the basic ONE model. After driving the car, I think the change is justified.

At the moment, there is no direct replacement for the previous diesel version of the ONE. The new petrol-powered ONE, which like the Cooper D was launched last Friday, gets an appealing new BMW-built 1.4 litre engine developed in conjunction with PSA. The petrol engines fitted to the closed versions of the latest MINI are all sourced from BMW's Hams Hall plant near Birmingham. The cabriolet, which has not so far seen the same revisions as the standard model, sticks with the Chrysler engine shipped in from Brazil that was adopted for the first version of the BMW MINI in 2001.

As I discovered on a visit to BMW's impressive production site in Oxford last week, the cabriolet accounts for an astonishing 25% of MINI sales these days. That Oxford plant, incidentally, is the one that used to be called Cowley in the old British Leyland days, when it pumped out Marinas, Itals, Princesses, Ambassadors and so on - but it's changed out of all recognition under BMW's ownership. BMW bought the Rover Group from British Aerospace in 1994, and kept Cowley and the MINI after it disposed of Rover and Land Rover in 2000. Annual production will be pushing 280,000 when the new estate version of the MINI comes on stream later this year.