Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Definitions 5 - launch paunch

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

More Volvo safety stuff

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

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

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

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

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

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

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

Monday, 29 October 2007

Volvo Cars Safety Seminar

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

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

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

Sunday, 28 October 2007

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

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

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

Still great to see, though.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

What's outside today 28 - Mercedes A150

Testing with readers in and around London this weekend.

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

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

Friday, 26 October 2007

Lots of BMW stuff

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

UK car production on the up

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Great spots 10 - '57' reg MG TF

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

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

Saturday, 20 October 2007

What's outside today 27 - Kia Kee show car

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

More detail on Karmann's difficulties

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

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

Sunday, 7 October 2007

What's outside today 26 - Virgin Pendolino

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

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

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

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

Karmann in trouble

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 1 October 2007

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

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

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

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