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.

What's outside today 17 - Aston Martin Vantage Roadster

Or at least it was until this morning.

Yes, it really is as good as it looks!

But I still think the coupe has a very slight edge...

Monday, 20 August 2007

Cars on TV 1 - NDTV's Car and Bike Show

NDTV is an Indian 24 hour news channel; it's carried on Sky as Channel 513. Every Sunday morning at 10.30 it broadcasts its motoring programme the Car and Bike Show.

This provides a window on a different motoring world altogether. There's none of your knowing Top Gear style irony and cynicism here but a lot of breathless enthusiasm for the latest scooters and budget motors. Interesting to see what's available on the Indian market, too. Last week's show had a review of the Chevrolet Avea (not sure whether that's a small American Chevy or a Korean Daewoo-style effort) which majored on the chrome strip on the bootlid, chrome being quite a big subject that features quite heavily on this programme.

Truly fascinating and well worth a look.

Friday, 17 August 2007

MINI Clubman - how Mini, how British?

It's hard to believe it but the BMW MINI - or the 'shouty' Mini as I always think of it because of BMW's insistence on spelling the name out in capitals - has been around for about six years and is now in its second generation.

Even today, old bores like me scrutinise BMW's every move for evidence that the company is compromising on the car's Britishness. On the face of it the new Clubman seems to confirm the worst. The single rear side door is optimised for left-hand drive markets, which is to say, it is mounted on the right. That means British rear seat passengers step out into the traffic, not on to the kerb.

Continental and US markets favoured over British buyers? In fairness, I think not. The main reason no rear door can be fitted to the Clubman's left side is that the fuel filler is in the way. And the fuel filler is only on the left hand side because that's the traditional location - the nearside - for the fuel cap on a British RHD car.

Personally, I'd like to have seen BMW be just a little more ambitious with the Clubman, giving it a bit more of a stretch both within the wheelbase and in the tail, i.e. more of an 'estate' shape, in order really to sort the rear legroom and provide some decent luggage space. I think a couple of Italian coachbuilders were offering conversions along these lines. And I'm not too sure I like the - I hope optional - trim that can be seen on some publicity shots, which presumably pays homage to the rear wooden exterior frame on the original. I believe the wood was purely ornamental on the original Mini, compared with the Morris Minor, on which it was structural (I think I've remembered that correctly). But it's still a welcome addition, and I'm sure that like everything else BMW has done with the MINI, it'll be a raging success - and at least the original squared-off Clubman nose hasn't been revived.

What's outside today 16 - Chevrolet Lacetti

This weekend a panel of Independent readers in Yorkshire will get to be the stars in a reasonably-priced car when they try the Chevrolet Lacetti.

I'm especially interested to see how it performs on the journey north. The Lacetti is one of those cars that have somehow escaped me until now, but I always take a particular interest in what is coming out of Korea, a country that represents one of the bigger motor industry stories at the moment.

Initial impressions are that the interior is just a little on the grey and plasticky side but well equipped and not too bad for the price. Of course, the real proof is in the driving. Another Korean Chevrolet, the Captiva, featured on the Verdict a few weeks ago - that was generally a rather likable machine but could perhaps have done with just a little bit more polish.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Anorak corner 6 - Bentley's individually signed engines

A bit of under-bonnet detail from the Bentley Azure test. At least on the more expensive models using the most recent versions of the traditional Rolls/Bentley 6 3/4 litre V8 that dates back to the fifties, the company still fits a little plaque bearing the name of the person that put the engine together. The engine on our test car was assembled by P.A. Titley. I'm happy to report that Mr Titley appears to have done a magnificent job (at least I'm assuming it's a Mr Titley rather than a Ms Titley, even in these liberated times) in this case.

Aston Martin fits these little plates as well but recently they have borne the name of the person who carried out the final inspection, presumably because that company's engines are no longer made the old-fashioned way. I don't suppose making people put their name to their work is an absolute guarantee of quality (think of all those corny Verdict test write-ups that have appeared under my by-line) but I'm sure it helps.

UK bioethanol update (2)

I've now been to most of the Morrisons forecourts offering E85 but today was my first visit to the pumps at Wellingborough in Northamptonshire. This required only a minor detour from the A45 which I often use in combination with the A43 as a handy northeast-southwest cross-country route through the Midlands.

As far as I could tell, there was no outward sign at all that the Wellingborough site was offering E85, although the fuel was available at a full set of pumps - which, unlike those at Norwich the other day, weren't padlocked. As usual, E85 was 2p cheaper than unleaded.

It looks like Morrisons now has 16 sites offering E85. The expansion of the network is proceeding only slowly (I think Morrisons has undertaken to provide E85 pumps at every new forecourt it opens) but significantly, there are now six sites - Wellingborough is one - outside the two original clusters in Somerset and East Anglia. The others are at Cardiff (which we used on the Verdict test of the 95 BioPower estate earlier this year), Swadlincote (Derbyshire), Crowborough (East Sussex), Speke (Merseyside) and Johnstone (Scotland).

Sunday, 12 August 2007

UK bioethanol update

As I mentioned below, when I was out for a spin yesterday in the 93 BioPower, I filled up with E85 at Morrisons in Norwich. Morrisons is still maintaining the 2p per litre differential between E85 and unleaded (E85 is the cheaper) that it set at the launch of the new fuel over a year ago, at least in Norwich.

As I've said before, Morrisons and Saab, as well as Ford and Volvo have done their bit by making the cars and the fuel available but we probably still need the Treasury to give E85 a bigger tax break than it enjoys at the moment for the fuel really to have a chance of taking off (cars deliver far fewer mpg when running on E85).

I was slightly depressed to see that Morrisons had actually had to resort to padlocking the E85 pumps at Norwich, presumably to prevent motorists accidentally filling unsuitable cars with it. I didn't exactly get the impression that they were doing a roaring trade in the stuff, although one of the Morrisons staff told me that quite a lot of police vehicles were now using E85. I knew that Somerset and Avon police were using E85-capable cars but this was the first time I'd heard of Norfolk police adopting them as well. As usual, I got the feeling that the Morrisons staff had been well briefed about E85.

I'm doing this week's Verdict in Somerset/Wiltshire which is where one of the main clusters of Morrisons E85 pumps is, but I notice that the company has now opened its first outlet for the fuel in Scotland - a good excuse to get up there for the Verdict the next time a suitable car comes up.

What's outside today 15 - Saab 93 BioPower

This is the BioPower version of the Saab 93. That means it can run either on normal unleaded or E85, a mix of 85% bioethanol and 15% unleaded. Externally, it's more or less indistinguishable from the standard model - apart, that is, from the enormous BioPower stickers attached to the sides of this test example.

Yesterday, I took it out on one of my favourite test routes - setting out from Cambridgshire to Norwich on the A11 before heading north to Cromer on the North Norfolk coast and than back home via Cley, Fakenham and Swaffham.

All jolly agreeable, and a route that allowed me to take in a stop-off at a Morrison E85 pump for a quick top-up - the one at the Norwich store, which lies within the shadow of the Carrow Road football ground, in fact.

Got back home in a good mood late in the evening, my head full of moderately warm thoughts towards the comfy, inoffensive if rather bare Saab. Made a cup of tea and casually picked up my copy of the delivery note for the 93 in order to take a closer look at it. What followed was the worst case of what Americans call 'sticker shock' I've had in connection with a Verdict test car since Ford sent us an admittedly very impressive Focus diesel estate about two years ago that had been specced up to the eyeballs for an on the road price of about 25 grand. The Saab - which I should, in fairness, mention is the priciest Vector Sport variant fitted with a few options like metallic paint - comes out at a scarcely believable GBP28,000.

I've always had a soft spot for Saabs and I'm a strong supporter of what the company is doing in promoting E85 with its BioPower models. But that price seems to be hopelessly ambitious to me. Remember that a Skoda Octavia is probably at least as well built as a Saab and, despite being Golf-based, is probably as roomy (in particular where luggage, as opposed to passenger space is concerned) as a 93. But Octavia prices start at about 11 grand; the deeply impressive and very rapid vRS estate version costs about GBP18,500.

Some other yardsticks - Mercedes C Class prices start at GBP23 thousand, BMW 3 Series prices at less than GBP21 thousand. And the Vauxhall Vectra estate starts at less than GBP16K - that's relevant because, as General Motors products, the 93 and the Vectra have quite a lot in common under the skin.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

What's outside today 14 - Bentley Azure

This just went back to Bentley about an hour ago. I think it's the most expensive car we've had on the Verdict, with the possible exception of the Maybach that featured a few months ago. How expensive? GBP225,000 - and that's without counting in the value of that number plate which I'm guessing must be worth as much again, recalling as it does the initials of W O Bentley, the original founder of the company.

There's no experience quite like that of driving the Azure - the view out along the long, long bonnet topped with the traditional winged 'B' is simply terrific.

Just like the octagons that appeared everywhere on Austin Rover's reinvented MGs in the 1980s, that Bentley 'B' is ever present in the Arnage. It appears on the wheel centres and on the button on top of the gear selector, for example, and even on the little dust caps on the tyre valves. I was especially relieved that these beautiful and highly covetable items survived until the end of our testing un-nicked.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Blast from the past 9 - Nissan 240Z

Or, as it was known in the UK, the Datsun 240Z. This was the first of the 'Z' line of coupes and perhaps also the first car from Japan to sell on desirability and performance rather than value for money and dependability. It's quite hard to believe that those sleek clean lines date all the way back to 1968. I snapped this well-kept example on Nissan's stand at this year's rain-soaked Goodwood Festival of Speed - which accounts for the large number of people with umbrellas in the background!

Later generations of Z were flabbier but remained popular (although to a far greater extent in the US than in Europe) because they continued for years to benefit from the rosy glow generated by the great original.

With the latest 350Z (there's a silver one in the background of the 240Z photo), though, Nissan is right back at the top of its game. We've already had the 350Z on the Verdict - where it proved immensely popular with our reader-testers - but I'm just wondering whether the extensive revisions this car has received lately provide enough of an excuse for us to get away with featuring the magnificent 350Z a second time...

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Hyundai i30

I've become a really boring Johnny-One-Note on the subject of the latest Korean cars and the severe competitive threat they represent for some of the more complacent European manufacturers. Give me half a chance and I can bore on for hours about Kia's new Cee'd, its fantastic seven year warranty and the staggeringly impressive Slovakian factory in which it's built.

Today, Autocar gives the Cee'd's sister-under-the-skin, the Hyundai i30, the full test treatment and rates it very highly indeed - I think more and more people are sitting up and taking notice now. Will try to get an i30 booking for the Verdict soon. I'm sure it won't be as popular with the Independent's reader-testers as some of the more exotic stuff we have on the test, but it's a lot more significant in industry terms.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Road tips 7 - Bundesautobahn A555 between Cologne and Bonn

Today is the 75th anniversary of the opening of the A555, the road that is now generally regarded as the first German Autobahn. It's not the only contender for the title; the older AVUS motor racing and testing circuit in Berlin, now integrated into the Autobahn network, is one - and if my memory serves me correctly, another section between Frankfurt and Darmstadt also has a claim.

In fact, the A555 didn't formally become an Autobahn until 1955 and only got a second carriageway as part of a huge construction project in the mid-sixties. Until then, it had a single carriageway layout providing two lanes in each direction. What marked out the A555 in comparison with earlier roads when it opened in 1932 was that its use was restricted to motor vehicles and its junctions were grade separated.

On this basis, I reckon the claim of the A555 to be the first Autobahn is a fair one. It's worth noting, though, that this isn't just a dry technical matter but a slightly sensitive political question for Germans as well. Classifying the A555 - opened the year before Hitler came to power - as the first Autobahn allows the motorways to be regarded as an invention of democratic Germany, rather than as a product of the Nazi regime. Personally, I think that's probably irrelevant - the big construction push that gave the Autobahn network the basic outline it has today certainly did take place under the Nazis, so I don't think it makes much difference whether the birth of the Autobahns can be traced all the way back to 1932 or only to some politically inconvenient later date. I can't really see that this valuable infrastructure project deserves to be tainted by its links to the 1933-1945 period either way; it would probably have been built anyway - if at a slower pace.

So what's the A555 like today? I lived in Bonn for a number of years in the nineties, so I had the A555 on my doorstep and know it well. Large sections have no speed limit and the long, straight southern stretch nearest to Bonn is of the best pieces of unrestricted road anywhere on the German network. It's also one of the closest decent unrestricted sections of Autobahn to the UK, but please, please don't take that as a recommendation to take your car there for a high-speed blast unless you have a lot - and I mean a lot - of experience at driving at speeds that are much higher than those that are common on British roads. Traffic on unrestricted German Autobahns does move faster than traffic in other countries, but opportunities to go much beyond 100mph safely and responsibly are comparatively rare these days because of the weight of traffic and the condition of some of these roads. Those opportunities are hard to judge if most of your driving has been done in countries with speed limits, however good a driver you might think you are - and the consequences of cocking it up don't bear thinking about.

That apart, you may be asking why the Germans should have all the best roads (sorry if that sounds a bit like the question about the devil and the best tunes - didn't mean it to come out that way). The answer is that I'm not sure that they do. There are about 12,000km of German Autobahn (more than three times the British total of about 3,700km) but the standard of much of the network is surprisingly low. Often there are no hard shoulders and most sections have four (i.e. two in each direction) lanes, rather than six. New Autobahns are still being built according to this comparatively low standard. The age of some Autobahns also means that route alignments, slip-roads and junctions are often poor. Britain has avoided many of these problems - not through skill or foresight but simply because we started building our motorways much later.

One of the most interesting facts published in the German press today in its coverage of the A555's 75th birthday was to be found in the Financial Times Deutschland; only 3,000km of the German network has six lanes, the standard that is almost universal in the UK, so on this measure, the two countries are probably more or less equal. Remember too that much of the UK A road network would be classified as motorway in almost all continental countries - stretches of the A14, A34, A55, A19, A38, A13, A12 and A2, to name some of the most obvious examples, would qualify - and things don't look so bad here.

That said, I'd have to admit that we still don't have anything to match the gloriously long, flat, straight unrestricted southern stretch of the A555 near Bonn. I'd love to have been able to take the CL500 there this week.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

What's outside today 13 - Mercedes CL500

The magnificent ninety grand Mercedes CL500.

What can I say? Looks wonderful, goes like stink and built like an old-school Merc. The black alcantara roof-lining is an especially pleasing touch.

The only little snag so far is that one of the motors in the front passenger seat apparently gave up the ghost for about 24 hours, leaving the seat in an unusable position, although that seems to have corrected itself now. Perhaps I was just pressing the wrong buttons, although I don't think so - if there's no recurrence, I'll give the car the benefit of the doubt.