Saturday, 30 June 2007

What's outside today 10 - Mercedes C Class; ancient and modern

The new W204 C Class (a 200K) alongside the old W202.

The old W202 belongs to me; it has left-hand drive because I bought it while I was working in Germany. It's done over 130,000 miles since I collected it from the factory in Stuttgart in January 1998. It's been thrashed and neglected but the only non-routine replacement has been a water pump that failed at over 100,000 miles.

The W204 is this week's Verdict test car. For me at least, the intervening W203 model was a deep disappointment - it felt a lot flimsier than the super-solid W202 and it didn't look very Merc-like either. The W204, though, is fantastic. It's zippy and agile but in terms of its styling it looks like a proper Mercedes again, without feeling in any way old-fashioned. It still doesn't feel as solid as the old W202, although it's chunkier than the W203. On the other hand, the latest C has a lot more standard equipment, and remarkably, the prices, model for model, haven't gone up much over the last ten years.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Anorak Corner 4 - VW Phaeton boot hinge

The Volkswagen Phaeton may be a sales flop, but it's a fabulously well engineered sales flop.

There's no better evidence for that than the car's elaborate boot hinges. I bet these things cost quite a few bob to make - seems a pity to hide them away really. If I had a Phaeton, I'd probably spend all my time opening and closing the boot in order to admire them.

Great spots 5 - Morgan Aero 8

The car parks at Goodwood's Festival of Speed usually contain almost as many interesting cars as the event itself. Here's one example, which I saw on Sunday, the Morgan Aero 8.

I have to admit, I haven't actually driven one of these but I've always thought they look rather wonderful, apart from the odd cross-eyed headlights, the appearance of which doesn't really seem to improve with familiarity. Still, under the skin, the Aero 8 is an interesting mixture of traditional ash and advanced alloy structures. And whether you like Morgans or not, you have to admit that the company must have been getting it broadly right over the years to survive as one of the very few British-based, British-run and British-owned car manufacturers.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Lord Drayson's E85-powered Aston at Goodwood

A long full afternoon at Goodwood, although the rain did turn it into a bit of a Glastonbury-style mud-fest. Anyway, it wasn't quite the day off from renewables I had expected, because I spotted this, Lord Drayson's E85-powered racing Aston.

Looks like I should get a chance to find out about this interesting car in detail - more soon, I hope. A whole new slant on British racing green, if you see what I mean!

Saturday, 23 June 2007

Goodwood tomorrow!

An overnight near Winchester on the way to Goodwood for one of the highlights of the year - the Festival of Speed. No time to report fully on last week's Swedish visit so far, hope to catch up in the next few days. But thoughts of renewables and saving the planet will now be parked for the rest of the weekend.

Friday, 22 June 2007

What's outside today 9 - Mercedes GL420 CDI

Only driven this a mile or two so far.

Two strong first impressions - the 420 CDI engine is very impressive and the GL is B I G.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Anorak Corner 3 - Saab, Ford and their differing approaches to E85

Ford and Saab have so far been the front-runners in promoting the use of E85, a blend consisting of 15% unleaded and 85% renewable bioethanol. Both have introduced cars to the UK market that have been modified to run on this fuel. I understand that the main differences between these cars and the equivalent standard models are changes to the materials used in the various bits of pipework that make up the fuel system - E85 is more corrosive than the unleaded fuel most cars run on.

E85 also has a higher octane rating than unleaded - 105 is the figure that is usually quoted, compared with 95 for standard unleaded and 97 to 99 for super unleaded. Ford and Saab differ in how they handle this characteristic of E85. Ford sets up its engines so that they don't develop significantly more power when running on E85. Perhaps the company takes the view that there will be a higher degree of acceptance for E85 if the experience of driving a car running on the fuel doesn't feel different to that of driving one running on unleaded - a question, perhaps of not scaring the horses by giving them too many horsepower to play with.

Saab, by contrast, has years of experience with knock sensors and turbo-charging to fall back on and sets its engines up to exploit the higher octane rating of E85 - its 2.0t BioPower unit, for example, delivers 20% more horsepower and 16% more torque than the equivalent unleaded-only engine. This difference certainly makes itself felt on the road.

So which of these approaches is correct? I don't think it's possible to answer that question clearly at the moment. Saab's and Ford's current engines are very much the first generation of E85-capable power units; they are adapted from existing designs and aren't fully optimised to run on E85 as they still need to be capable of running on standard unleaded as well. But if E85, or even pure bioethanol becomes universally available, it looks like more drastic changes to engines could be introduced to exploit the higher octane ratings - small turbocharged engines with lots of power that minimise the fuel consumption penalty of running on bioethanol look like the way it's going.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Blast from the past 8 - the DKW F102 and the first modern Audi

Two similar, smart-looking but slightly boxy German cars from the 1960s. In fact, so alike are they that you could be forgiven for thinking that they are two examples of the same model. But they aren't - quite. For all that these two cars have in common - which is a lot - they are in one respect poles apart. One was probably just about the last car to be launched with a two-stroke engine by a mainstream western manufacturer and therefore belongs firmly in the past; the other was the foundation upon which one of today's most successful prestige car brands was built.

The first car is the DKW F102, introduced in 1963. This was a modern design but its two-stroke engine held sales back (I snapped this example at Audi's museum in Ingolstadt earlier this year).

The answer was to add a powerful new four-stroke engine with an unusually high compression ratio that matched up to the rest of the car, which received a bit of a face-lift at the same time (incidentally doing away with possibly the coolest front indicators ever fitted to a car - they were set into the leading edges of the tops of the front wings). Internally, this new model, introduced in 1965, was known as the F103 but Auto Union, DKW's parent company decided it needed to make a dramatic statement to distance it from the F102, so Audi, an old badge last used before the Second World War, was reintroduced. This car is also from Audi's own collection.

At first, it was unclear whether Audi was a brand or a model name, but that soon sorted itself out. Audi has come a long way since 1965 but it owes everything to that revamped, re-engined, renamed version of the short-lived, long-forgotten DKW F102.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Wheelwobble wallflowers 2 - Cadillac BLS

The Swedish theme continues with Cadillac's slow-selling baby model. A couple of days ago, when I was discussing the Ursaab, I issued the usual cheap shot about Saabs being reskinned Opels or Vauxhalls. The BLS is, if anything, a re-reskin because despite its all-American looks, it's based on Saab's 9-3 and is, in fact, built at Trollhattan on the same production line.

I've always found the BLS's styling and soft, understated character fairly appealing, but like a lot of stuff that's OK rather than startlingly good this car has struggled for attention in the UK. I think only a few dozen have been sold since it was launched last year. Not having a German badge is a real handicap these days, although I suspect that the BLS's pricing was probably a bit too ambitious as well. A pity, as the BLS is nothing like as ropey an effort as the 1981 J-Car based Cimarron, Cadillac's previous go at producing a posh small (by its standards) car via platform sharing.

Anyway, it looks as though Cadillac has not been put off because an estate version appears to be in the offing, although I don't know whether that will make it to the UK.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Praktik - a stylish Skoda for white van man

Discovered this on Skoda's international site - not sure if or when it's coming to the UK.

It looks as though what they've done is blank out the side windows on the Roomster; according to a report in the online version of the Financial Times Deutschland, the Praktik has a more basic spec and lower pricing. That should allow tradesmen who want something that's both practical and nice to drive to have their cake and eat it; perhaps the charming advertising campaign Skoda is running in the UK at the moment for the Fabia should have been held back for the Praktik.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350

When it comes to planes, I've only got one rule - avoid getting into anything small with propellers. That rule had to be broken yesterday in order to make the trip north from Stockholm to see Sweden's pioneering second-generation bioethanol plant - about which, more later.

Actually, as I discovered from a quick bit of web research once I was safely back on the ground, I shouldn't have worried because, as small planes go, the twin turboprop Beechcraft King Air 350 is a serious piece of equipment. Before take-off, I asked the pilot whether we would be flying at a lower altitude than commercial airliners and to my surprise, he said 'not really'. When I checked later, I found that the King Air 350 will indeed go all the way to 35,000 ft because it has a pressurised cabin. The take-off performance seemed pretty good as well.

That said, the King Air felt a bit small inside, and it did pitch around a bit when we hit turbulence - at one stage on the approach to Stockholm on the return journey, the entire contents of my teacup jumped across the cabin onto Ford's PR man, who, it has to be said, accepted this unwelcome development with commendable equanimity. All in all, though, a great trip that provided wonderful views of Sweden's lakes and forests on a beautiful clear day.

Al Gore has been criticised and even ridiculed for flying the world in a private jet to promote the message of his film about the dangers of global warming An Inconvenient Truth. I did wonder whether flying in a private plane to report on a bioethanol plant isn't similarly objectionable. Perhaps - but activities aimed at getting across the important message about climate change and the possibilities for a low-CO2 future probably count among the better uses of scarce fossil fuels.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

A couple more points from Sweden

A very full and interesting day finding out about renewable fuels in Sweden - more detail later but just a couple of quick thoughts for now.

The first is that Britain is a long way behind not just Sweden but several other countries when it comes to policies on renewables. Remember that for all its faults, the UK is usually several years ahead of continental Europe in most areas of public policy debate. Privatisation, deregulation, public-private partnerships, labour market reforms and a genuinely open market for corporate control; all were invented or reinvented in the UK, and eventually copied just about everywhere else.

But when it comes to facing what is probably the biggest challenge of the lot, climate change, Sweden's impressively comprehensive package of measures is far superior to the UK's miserably timid and piecemeal efforts. Ford, Saab and now Volvo have done their bit by offering cars in the UK market that can run on bioethanol-based E85, while Morrisons has been offering the fuel for over a year now at a limited number of forecourts at a modest 2p per litre price advantage compared with unleaded. That's all that's left of the smallish 17p per litre tax break E85 enjoys when other factors such as the underlying price of E85 and the cost disadvantages of distributing comparatively small amounts of the fuel are factored in.

It's difficult to see E85 taking off in a big way in the UK unless a far more attractive tax regime is introduced - in particular, some way needs to be found to shift the basis of the UK car taxation system and the London Congestion Charge from tailpipe CO2 emissions (in fairness, this was considered a rather bold and imaginative approach when it was introduced) to some sort of 'well to wheel' measure that reflects the 'built-in' carbon offset provided when the crops that are used to make bioethanol absorb CO2.

The second thought is this. We've now covered a number of cars that can run on E85 on the Verdict, and this has provided an opportunity to explain the issues involved - namely the limited number of refueling points, the higher octane rating E85 provides compared with unleaded, the mpg penalty of running on E85 and the small per litre price advantage E85 enjoys. More E85-capable cars are coming onto the market but the pros and cons of these models compared with their petrol-powered counterparts are always the same, so it's difficult to take the story forward. I think it may make more sense from now on for us to treat the E85-capable version of any car as our default choice for testing so that we can be as green as possible, but no longer to make such a fuss of the fact that a particular car runs on the stuff.

E85 in Sweden

Just arrived in Sweden to see what Ford and Volvo in particular are doing with bioethanol/E85 here.

Sweden is a long way ahead of everywhere else in Europe when it comes to this sort of thing, so looking forward to an interesting couple of days - including, and this is the hot subject at the moment in this area, a visit to a second-generation bioethanol plant. Second generation = using e.g. wood waste etc. instead of plants that could otherwise be used as food. It's back to that distinction between good bioethanol and bad bioethanol again.

Motoring memories 1 – the launch of the Austin Metro at the NEC Motor Show in 1980

Back in 1980 there was only one story at the Motor Show – the launch of the new Metro, seen as a make-or-break model for British Leyland, then under the management of Sir Michael Edwardes, in the face of scepticism from the recently elected Thatcher government.

At some unearthly hour – I think it was 5am - my equally car-mad school pal Bruce and I got a lift from Bruce's dad to the station for the long journey from deepest Essex to Birmingham. If I remember correctly, we arrived at about 9.30 but the official opening time was 10. Even so, in the excitement (yes, I agree this seems fairly sad from today's perspective), we ran for what felt like miles through the station and the NEC complex to the exhibition entrance, and were rewarded with the discovery that the doors were already open. For a short while, we had the show more or less to ourselves, and made an immediate bee-line for the Metros on the BL stand. We sat in that year's hottest car and gave it a quick once over before deciding to come back later on for a proper look. Of course, when we returned, the BL stand was just one enormous bun-fight with hundreds of eager punters all clamouring to touch or even just catch a glimpse of the Metro, and we couldn't get anywhere near the cars again.

The Metro was a success but it had to soldier on well beyond its sell-by date – its replacement would have been the MINI but BMW kept that for itself, so the short-lived City Rover, based on Tata's Indica had to do the job for MG Rover instead.

Bruce and I have attended many motor shows together since, including, most recently, the latest London show at Expo in Docklands last year. But none have matched the 1980 Brum show for excitement.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

Blast from the past 7 - 'Ursaab'

Just getting ready to go to Sweden tomorrow, and this has put me in a Swedish sort of mood.

So here's the most Swedish of cars, the so-called 'Ursaab' of 1946. I think the prefix 'Ur' plays the same role in Swedish as it does in German; it's difficult to translate but in German, at least, it usually denotes that anything to which it is applied is very old, or a true original. That contraption that looks like a park bench with bicycle wheels that Mercedes claims was the first proper car, for example, is sometimes called the 'Ur-Benz'.

Anyway - back to the Ursaab. Project 92 was the first Saab passenger car and was developed over the years into the 93, 95 and 96 lines, which only finally bowed out in 1980.

Nobody could accuse this Saab of being a re-skinned Vauxhall - in those days, the design teams leant on Saab's aircraft experts for ideas rather than Opel, a fact that shows in the remarkable purity of the Ursaab's sleek bodywork. But let's not be too harsh on today's models for their part-sharing; Saab was always a small company before it was taken over by GM, and despite its distinctive identity, it often relied on links with other manufacturers to keep going. In 1966, when the two-stroke engine fitted to the 95 and 96 needed to be replaced, Saab bought in a V4 four-stroke from the German end of Ford. A little later, it asked Triumph to design the overhead-cam engine for the 99; this power unit, related to that fitted to the Dolomite, survived in heavily developed form until comparatively recently. And in the 1980s, the 9000 was the result of a joint development effort that also produced the Fiat Croma, Alfa 164 and Lancia Thema.

So Saabs have never really been quite the pure thoroughbreds some of us might like to imagine - but it would still be nice if they could recover a bit more of their former individuality.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007

New Austin Healeys on the way?

Nanjing Automobile (that's the company that bought Longbridge and what was left of MG Rover) announced today that was linking up with Healey Automotive Consultants, owner of the famous Healey brand, and its technical partner HFI in order to "collaborate with each other on the future development of the Healey and Austin Healey brands and sports cars bearing (the) name".

Now anyone with even a drop of petrol in their veins will have heard of the famous Austin Healey models from the sixties but I doubt that there's much real magic left in the badge these days for anyone under about fifty. It's also unclear what sorts of cars will emerge from the collaboration. But it's still immensely heartening to see a development that may just produce some UK car-making jobs and some new British cars, and which provides a bit more evidence that Nanjing appreciates the British car-making story it bought into when it acquired MG Rover and its stable of brands.

Selling Jaguar and Land Rover - what does it mean for Ford in the UK?

I'll return to this subject again - there's a lot to say about how Ford ended up where it is today, who might buy these established British car-makers, and what their future prospects may be, but I'll restrict myself to one or two observations on the Ford rather than LR/Jaguar side of things for the time being.

If Ford really does end up selling Jaguar and Land Rover, that will mark the end of the US company as a big manufacturing presence in one of its best national markets for the first time since it came here in the inter-war period. Ford caused a stir a few years back by running down all production of Ford-badged cars in the UK (although the Transit is still being built in Southampton) but this was always balanced by expansion at Aston Martin (already sold), Jaguar and Land Rover. Apart from that, it's all engine production.

I've long maintained that the British are the world's first genuinely post-patriotic consumers. We really don't care that much where our cars are built, and give home players little or no preferment. Government procurement here is the same; our public authorities seem to be genuinely open in their buying, in a way that those of no other country are. The Ministry of Defence, for example, gave a huge truck contract to MAN not long after that company had effectively closed the UK truck-maker ERF, rather than go with other options such as a rival consortium including LDV that could have revived military truck building as an industry in the UK. That's all the more remarkable given that EU rules on open procurement don't even apply in the case of military contracts. The police seem to buy just about anything in preference to our home-grown cars, as well.

Ford twigged to this early on and suffered no real penalty when it ended UK production of cars bearing its own name. I wonder, though, whether with the sale of Jaguar and Land Rover, Ford is now testing this to the limit. When GM announced a month or two back that Ellesmere Port on Merseyside had been selected as one of the plants that would make the next generation of Astra, for example, it said, to my surprise, that UK production was still probably worth some market share here, even if the advantage was only one or two percentage points.

Of course Ford needs to keep its production costs down, which is why it has shifted the manufacture of Ford-badged cars to other countries (although why high-cost, low-flexibility Germany, where Ford's cars are a lot less popular than they are here, should be a beneficiary, I still cannot understand). But the main reason this is an issue is that mass-market badges like Ford can't really support decent pricing these days and need some sort of 'story' to keep themselves in the public mind, as well distinguish themselves from lots of other purveyors of cars as domestic appliances. The worry for Ford must be not so much that British buyers will suffer a sudden attack of patriotism and shun Ford products - more that factors like local production and links with fancier brands like Jaguar and Land Rover probably still help a bit in terms of generating press coverage and interest in the company, and this is being lost.

Without that sort of stuff, Ford is competing with no particular entrenched advantage, except perhaps the extent of its UK distribution network, against companies like Kia, which, with its generous warranties and low-cost production facilities in Eastern Europe, has a strong story of its own with which it can capture car-buyers' attention.

The footloose pragmatism of the British car-buying public is probably a double-edged sword for Ford. It meant we didn't decide against its products when blue-oval car production was ended in the UK, but it also means we won't hesitate to switch to something else that comes along if that looks more interesting. So far, the excellence of cars like the Focus has held the threat at bay. But it's going to get harder in future, I think.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Anorak Corner 2 - The Aston Martin V8 Vantage's front mid-engined layout

These photographs show the wonderful under-bonnet view of the Aston Martin V8 Vantage and, in particular, its front mid-engined layout. It's probably worth clicking on these for the larger, high-resolution versions in order to see some of the detail.

A couple of points to look out for in the first photo - the beautifully finished strut brace, which runs from left to right across the engine bay, and also the suspension towers, which show off the car's high-tech aluminium structure. Further down, and a little bit more difficult to make out, the black cam covers of the mighty V8 engine. What may not be clear from this perspective is how far back and low down the engine is mounted, which is great for the car's handling. All that can be seen under the forward section of the Aston's bonnet is the large cowling in the foreground of the photograph; again, this emphasises how far back the position of the engine is.

This second bonnet-up shot is taken from the side of the car. The front of the engine can be seen to be almost exactly level with the centre-line of the front wheels.

Saturday, 9 June 2007

Definitions 4 – 2+0 seating

'2+2' is a term usually applied to a car with a closely-coupled coupe body; it signifies that the back seats are suitable for occasional use only.

'2+0' is the description Aston Martin applies to its strictly two-seat V8 Vantage. Hadn't come across that one before.

Which reminds me – the seating configuration is one of the main differences between the DB9 (2+2) and the V8 Vantage (2+0). The back seats on the DB9 don't look like much and the legroom offered is very limited too. But the small rear compartment of the DB9 has a remarkable Tardis-like ability to accommodate tall passengers, or at least that's what I found during the Verdict test of the Vantage's larger sister a couple of years ago, when some very large people indeed managed to insinuate themselves into the tiny space available for the glorious privilege of being taken for a spin in an Aston.

Friday, 8 June 2007

What's outside today 8 - Range Rover Sport HSE TDV8

This is the Range Rover Sport fitted with the newish 3.6 litre V8 diesel engine.

This engine is by far the best choice for the bigger Land Rover models, so it's a slight mystery that it hasn't made it into the Discovery yet (the Range Rover Sport is much more similar under the skin to the Disco than it is to the standard Range Rover, so I'm assuming it would fit), especially given that the 4.4 litre petrol V8 seems to have been dropped as an option for the Disco, at least for the UK market.

The Range Rover Sport caused a bit of disappointment when it was launched because it didn't look as dramatic as the two-door Range Stormer concept car, but I still think it looks pretty good. I read somewhere that Land Rover might produce a de-blinged version, which would probably be even nicer.

Not keen on big SUVs in general but I usually make an exception for Land Rovers on the grounds of ability, authenticity, looks and Britishness.

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Blast from the past 6 - Citroen DS Coupe 'Le Dandy'

The rarest of the rare.

The late politician, diarist and car enthusiast Alan Clark was a notable fan of the rare two-door convertible Citroen DS 'Decapotable', which was developed by the French coach-builder Henri Chapron. These beautiful cars now fetch eye-watering prices.

This picture shows an example of its even rarer sister model, the closed 'Le Dandy' two-door coupe version, also by Chapron. Snapped at this year's Techno Classica in Essen, it was for sale at EUR135,000.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

The changing face of Britain 2 - budget hotels in South Doncaster, early May 2007

These three budget hotels - a Holiday Inn Express, a Sleep Inn and a Premier Travel Inn - can be found within a few hundred yards of each other in South Doncaster. There are a number of others nearby as well.

You'll find a thousand newspaper and magazine features on the demise of the transport cafe and the allegedly dire state of Britain's motorway service stations, while every twist in the tale of Little Chef's decline produces a torrent of reminiscences and sneers in the press. Curiously, though, the budget hotel chains, arguably a far more important roadside phenomenon, hardly receive any coverage at all.

The UK budget chain hotel movement began when the first Travelodge was opened by Forte in Staffordshire in 1985. Travelodge has more than 300 hotels now; add in the hundreds of establishments operated under the Premier Travel Inn, Holiday Inn Express and other main brands and there are probably more than a thousand of these cheap hotels in the UK.

Some see the spread of these - generally architecturally undistinguished - hotels as a depressing development that is turning the UK into a smaller, scruffier version of the US, sweeping away charming local variety in favour of a soulless standardised experience. I profoundly disagree. It is often said that it is impossible to get a bad meal in France; in Germany, you can book into the cheapest independent hotel sight unseen and know you're going to get a clean room and a great breakfast. Britain, though, has no such tradition of charming, value-for-money hospitality. Grotty B&Bs, greasy spoon cafes, fish and chips, and pubs without food; that was our lot before Travelodge - and, dare I suggest it, the drive-through McDonalds - colonised our motorway junctions and trunk road roundabouts. Keep building them, I say.

Peugeot 308 - it's a minger

I've just seen my first photo of the new Peugeot 308 that's due later this year.

I'm not posting it here because, as an old Peugeot fan, I find it almost physically painful to look at this clumpy abomination. I still just can't understand how Peugeot lost its way; the days when the traditional links to Pininfarina ensured that the company produced only beautiful cars seem to be a very long time ago now.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Road tips 5 - B1248 and B1257 through the East Riding and North Yorkshire

I've mentioned here before my favourite handy 'B' road route through Lincolnshire that provides a surprisingly quick - and very pleasant - alternative to other north-south routes such as the A1 for journeys between Yorkshire on the one hand and East Anglia and the Southeast on the other.

I've often wondered whether it is possible to find a similarly attractive north-south route the other side of the Humber Bridge through the East Riding and North Yorkshire for trips to the Northeast. A quick look at a decent road atlas suggests a number of possibilities, but last week when I was heading up to Newcastle for our Verdict test of the Kia cee'd, I decided to try the following route, which starts at Beverley, a little to the north of the Humber Bridge.

Beverley, which I believe was the county town (if that is the correct term to use in connection with the artificial post-1974 authorities) of Humberside is worth a stop if you have time. As well as Beverley Minster there are several other impressive older buildings. Traffic heading north has to squeeze through a narrow archway - not sure what it's called - after which open countryside beckons.

The B1248 heads north-west; initially the landscape is comparatively flat - the former RAF Leconfield is nearby - but becomes increasingly hilly as you head for Malham in order to pick up the B1257 to Helmsley. Helmsley is where the North Yorkshire Moors start and the B1257 provides a lot of driving pleasure and plenty of attractive countryside to look at as well, before delivering you into Stokesley, just south of Middlesbrough.

I used this route in conjunction with my favourite 'B' road run through Lincolnshire and got from Cambridgshire to Newcastle in about six hours; I ran into a bit of congestion in Boston and Horncastle (but apart from that encountered only light traffic) and took a couple of breaks as well. I don't think heading up the A14 and A1 would have been much quicker - it certainly wouldn't have been as nice. The next priority is to explore other 'B' roads through North Yorkshire.

Monday, 4 June 2007

What's outside today 7 - Nissan Qashqai

An unusual one this - not quite sure what to make of it.

Nissan has been dropping cars that fit traditional market categories such as the Golf-class Almera and the Mondeo-sized Primera and is instead following what could be described as an all-niche or multi-niche strategy. Just hope the niches are large enough to support this approach, given that the UK Nissan plant at Washington is relying on the Qashqai for much of its future output. The Qashqai was also designed in the UK, by the way.

The Qashqai is a sort of SUV/MPV cross, and its styling, especially at the rear, has overtones of the larger Murano. Brief impressions from the shortest of drives - strong, quiet diesel engine, very impressive interior, apart from the leather seats on our particular test example, which are the same 'bright brown' shade I was grumbling about in connection with the Volvo S80 the other day. Spacious too.

Blast from the past 5 - Fiat 500

The Fiat 500 - seen here on Fiat's stand at this year's Geneva Salon d'Automobile. The 500 was built from 1957 to 1975 (although the estate version carried on a little longer) and was replaced by the less visually appealing 126. This 500 is sometimes referred to as the Topolino (or little mouse), although that name is more usually applied to its front-engined predecessor which was launched in 1937.

Of course, the 500 was on display at the Geneva show to promote the forthcoming Nuova 500, which borrows many of its styling themes. Not particularly convinced by most of these retro reinventions of old cars. Only the Mini (or MINI, as BMW insists on calling it) really works, and that's more because it's great to drive and all of the financial numbers stack up, rather than because it represents a true successor to the original Mini.

Saturday, 2 June 2007

Anorak Corner 1 - Subaru's Symmetrical AWD system

A few days back, I mentioned the purity of Subaru's drivetrain layout, in which the main elements are laid out in line and a boxer engine is used to achieve a low centre of gravity. This photo (click for an enlarged version), taken at the Salon d'Automobile at Geneva a couple of months ago shows Subaru's so-called 'Symmetrical AWD' system in all its glory.

Subaru has been using this set-up for 35 years and takes it very seriously. Diesel engines have had to wait, presumably because Subaru insisted on developing its own boxer diesel (now on its way later this year), rather than buying in, say, an L4 from someone else.

Definitions 3 - Land Rover

Land Rover = 'Official Jeep Recovery Vehicle'

At least that's what it said on a bumper sticker I saw on a Defender near Newcastle today. Well I thought it was funny, anyway.

Friday, 1 June 2007

What's outside today 6 - Kia cee'd

Off to Newcastle today in the Kia cee'd.

Now the prospect of driving to the other end of the country in something a) inexpensive b) Korean might look like a bit of a let-down after the chance to test the Aston Vantage earlier in the week, but actually I'm rather looking forward to it.

First, Newcastle is one of my favourite Verdict destinations - I'll be sure to get to the Sage centre for a cup of tea at some stage. Second, the cee'd is one of my favourite industry stories at the moment - it's a cracking car that isn't particularly Korean at all. Designed in Germany and built in Slovakia, it's Kia's first 'European' model. Even if it weren't a great product, you'd almost have to buy it because of its unbeatable seven-year guarantee.

I'm also hoping for some good B-road driving on my favourite Lincolnshire routes, which I've written about here before; this time I also want to investigate whether I can pick out a similarly interesting north-south B-road option through East/North Yorks. beyond the Humber Bridge as well.

PS - the c'eed has one decidedly non-European feature - a right-hand indicator stalk. I'm sure it was on the left at one stage on pre-production or early production cars, although I could be mistaken. Not that I'm complaining too much - this used to be considered correct for RHD cars and can still be found on Australian and Malaysian models (e.g. Holden/Vauxhall Monaro). For some reason, quite lot of Korean cars have a right-hand indicator stalk, but I'm not sure why, given that Korea is not an RHD market.