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.