Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Overfinch - still going strong, apparently

Years ago, Overfinch used to produce drastically modified versions of the original Range Rover. If I remember correctly, a typical change involved the replacement of Rover's own Buick-derived 3.5 litre V8 engine with a 5.7 litre small-block GM V8 combined with suitably uprated brakes and suspension. These cars cropped up regularly in Autocar and other motoring mags where they got a lot of favourable coverage.

I hadn't noticed any reporting on Overfinch for ages, and to the extent that I thought about it at all, I'd assumed that the Overfinch concept had probably been overtaken by Land Rover's policy of producing its own performance derivatives of the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport models.

So I was interested to see that Overfinch still seems to be in business, a fact I discovered when I popped into Tesco near Farnham during my recent Verdict testing with readers in Surrey for the Kia Picanto, and discovered the company's smart modern office next door.

Perhaps there's a way of getting our hands on one of these for the Verdict. We shall see.

What's outside today 37 - Vauxhall Antara

This is Vauxhall's newish SUV, the Antara. It looks remarkably similar to the Chevrolet Captiva which is hardly surprising given that they are more or less the same car.

Unlike the Captiva we tested for the Verdict last year, this car has a diesel engine, a much better choice for a heavy 4x4.

Where the Antara disappoints a bit, perhaps because it tries a bit too hard, is with its interior; our top-end SE spec test car was fitted with lashings of leather and wood which didn't quite come off - looked a bit over the top IMHO. I suspect the less expensive versions may actually have nicer interiors.

The Antara isn't bad to drive though - flat, fairly car-like handling and a high driving position make for a relaxing drive on long journeys.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

What's outside today 36 - Kia Picanto Ice

Actually, this went back yesterday but I've only just had a chance to post these pics.

I'm not sure the facelift the Picanto recently underwent did its looks any favours but apart from that I was pretty impressed.

What's best about the Picanto is that it offers four doors, lots of equipment and enough space, at a pinch, for four adults. That's pretty remarkable when you consider it's a whole class - at least in terms of price - below mainstream European cars such as the Polo and Clio.

It's not a bad drive either - more evidence that Kia is on the up.

Monday, 28 January 2008

That explains a lot

Today's FT has an interview with Jaguar's design boss Ian Callum about the prospect of the company being taken over by the Indian group Tata. While he is not particularly critical of Jaguar's current owner, Ford, he does let slip a real gem:

"Offering a rare insight into events at the British luxury carmaker following its purchase by Ford for $1.4bn in 1989, Mr Callum indicated that there had frequently been tensions in the relationship. He disclosed that, in spite of Jaguar management denials at the time, the X-Type small Jaguar – sales of which have fallen far below expectations – was essentially designed in Detroit and presented as close to a fait accompli to reluctant designers and engineers at Jaguar’s Whitley design centre, near the Midlands city of Coventry."

It will be interesting to see what happens to the X-Type once the links to Ford have been cut. It's no secret that sales have been far lower than the company had originally hoped for but I recall reading that the X-Type's financial numbers don't look anything like as bad as they used to now capacity utilisation at the Halewood plant is much higher following the decision to switch Freelander production there with the introduction of the latest model.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

What's outside today 35 - Volvo C30 F

This one went back today. It's the bioethanol-capable version of the C30 - it uses the same 1.8 litre engine as the Ford Fusion FFV that featured on the Verdict last autumn. The fuel itself is called E85 because it's 85% bioethanol and 15% petrol (the petrol is required for cold starting in northern Europe, apparently).

I had a chance to do the standard C30 about a year ago and I think its a fairly nice machine - and a good-looking one as well. I have to say I'm a bit surprised there aren't more on the roads, although pricing that's a little bit on the high side may be holding it back.

Unusual colour scheme - it's a sort of off-white pearlescent paint. More evidence, I suppose that the manufacturers are trying to find, if not the new black, then the new silver metallic.

Anyway, I've been testing and reporting on E85 capable cars since they first appeared in the UK about two and a half years ago and progress has been painfully slow - the car manufacturers and the supermarkets are often held up as the bad guys when it comes to environmental matters but in this case they've done their bit by making the cars and the fuel available. It's the government that's let the side down by not providing bigger tax incentives for renewable fuels, along with us, the car-buying public, for not buying the cars or the E85.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Saturn - what planet is GM living on?

An interesting report today by the UK Newspress service from the Detroit motor show about the GM Saturn brand. Apparently, GM has decided that Saturn is now going to be its 'green' brand, and launched three eco-friendly models at the show.

Two of these cars are supposedly environmentally friendly versions of a clumpy SUV called the Vue, which looks suspiciously like the Chevrolet Captiva and Vauxhall Antara to me. One is a hybrid due to appear late this year, and the other is a plug-in hybrid that's expected to appear in 2010.

That's all very well as far as it goes, but why doesn't GM just make a bit of an effort to get its US buyers off SUVs and US-market bloatmobiles and into something a bit more like its much more fuel efficient (and much better) European cars. A more fundamental objection is this; if we're going to crack climate change, I think GM needs to do a bit more than just offer greenery (or what passes for it) as a bit of a gimmick for one of its smaller brands - it really needs to do something across its whole operations.

Anyway, I find all this chopping and changing when it comes to the Saturn brand a bit depressing. I can remember following closely what GM did with Saturn from the time it was founded as the group's sixth North American brand (next to Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac) in 1985, through to the launch of the first Saturn car in 1990. It was a fascinating story; at the beginning, Saturn was kept entirely separate from the rest of GM, and had its own plants and models. The idea was to get out from under the burden of legacy plants and practices and reproduce some of the conditions that allowed the Japanese 'transplant' factories built on greenfield sites to flourish. At least in the early years, GM's efforts and the products themselves got a fairly good press but Saturn has never, apparently, been that successful in financial terms, which is no doubt why it has lost much of its independence in the last few years, and AFAICT, its cars no longer seem to be produced in separate plants.

Monday, 14 January 2008

RIP The Independent's motoring section - long live The Independent's motoring coverage

Tomorrow is the first Tuesday in many years that no motoring supplement will appear with The Independent. The good news is that in future, you will still be able to read some of the regular long-running motoring features at the weekend; the Verdict will be published as part of the Save & Spend section in the Saturday paper while other favourites such as the great John Simister's road tests and launch coverage will appear in the Independent on Sunday.

What will be lost are the Indy's one-off motoring features, often on off-beat subjects, which gave the section its quirky, distinctive character. Over the years, a number of big-name writers were persuaded to write for the motoring section, including the late, great, LJK Setright, Alexei Sayle and Brian Sewell. The Independent's coverage of the motoring scene was also well regarded by our colleagues in the motoring press. These achievements are all the more remarkable when you consider that Sean O'Grady and Carl Reader, who edited the section during its four-year life, had to get by on an editorial budget that was probably only a fraction of the size of those enjoyed by rival publications.

I will be doing my best to ensure that the Verdict continues to justify its presence in the paper by, in particular, upholding the test's two greatest strengths - the wide range of vehicles tested and the enormous lengths we go to to involve readers from every corner of the country, an effort that is probably unmatched anywhere else in the overwhelmingly London-centric national press.

Tata's 1 lakh car

Tata's new cheap car caused a bit of a stir last week. It was originally touted as the first 1 lakh car, a slightly obscure description for an international audience (1 lakh is an Indian counting unit of 100,000 and this is a reference to the car's target price in local currency), so at the launch it was described as the Nano, which I think is a pretty good name if Tata can secure the rights to use it in its main markets.

In its press releases, Tata also referred to its new baby as the People's Car and said that it was part of a 'blitzkrieg' of new product announcements. I assume this unfortunate echo of Nazi language is unintentional, although if the Nano does as well as the Beetle, I'm sure Tata will be very happy.

Anyway, to the car itself - I haven't driven it and I haven't even seen it in the metal but I like what I've been able to find out about the Nano very much. A few observations. The Nano's mechanical layout - a small rear-mounted engine in a five-door hatchback body - is broadly similar to that of Mitsubishi's 'i' car, and the Smart For Two, two of the more interesting small cars on the market today. The other thing I found interesting about the Nano is that it is recognisable as what you might call a 'complete car'. By that I mean that every element that anyone would consider essential in a proper car is present, even if in pared down form. The Nano has four road wheels, a steering wheel, and space for a full complement of passengers. I had feared that in its efforts to cut costs, Tata might have been forced to produce, say, a three-wheeler or something with motorbike-style handlebars, or without full bodywork.

Although it doesn't seem to be everyone's cup of tea, I also quite like the Nano's styling, which, at the rear, is similar to that of Tata's larger Indica, the car that was briefly sold in the UK in modified form as the City Rover. That was sneered at by some reviewers because it had a few rough edges by western standards, and Rover probably pitched its price a bit too high, but its industrial significance - that Tata was capable of producing a car that was broadly competitive in international markets - was completely underestimated.

I'll be very interested to see whether Tata really can deliver the car for INR1 lakh, which, according to my calculations, is almost exactly £1,300. From the coverage I've seen, Tata seems to be conceding that this is the target for a very stripped down version (something like the red car in the second photo above with unpainted bumpers), but nevertheless, the Nano is still going to be a lot cheaper even than other bare-bones specials aimed at developing countries, such as the Renault/Dacia Logan or the Fiat Palio.

There seems to be a certain amount of angst out there about the prospect of large numbers of Nanos flooding onto the roads in the hands of India's growing middle class, and the consequences that may have for climate change. I have to say I don't particularly share that concern; I think it's just impossible - as well as wrong - to insist that Indians shouldn't be allowed to get onto the lowest rung of the motoring ladder when we ourselves in the west drive far heavier and thirstier cars. A better idea might be to ask whether our big, heavy European motors shouldn't look a bit more like the Nano. Most of the car journeys we make on this small and crowded island are short and are undertaken at fairly low speeds - a suitably adapted Nano would probably be able to do the job in the overwhelming majority of cases.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

What's outside today 34 - Skoda Fabia

This is a bit of a cheat - the Fab, as I like to call it, was actually a visitor to my drive shortly before Christmas but I've had a lot of non-car stuff to deal with lately, so I've only just got around to posting this.

Liked this one quite a bit - it's very big inside and very easy to get in and out of for a small car. The other thing I liked about this particular car was its three cylinder diesel engine. Not everyone likes the slightly raggedy beat these engines have but I'm a fan.

One or two things I wasn't so keen on where our particular test car was concerned. The rather drab green metallic paint didn't really show off the Fabia's styling to its best advantage - this model looks a lot better in lighter and brighter colours as these show up, for example, the black roof pillars better. Also, the mid-level '2' trim on the test car features a lot of light grey plastic; the cheaper '1' and more expensive '3' have an all dark-grey set-up that is a lot more tasteful.

The only real drawback of the Fabia, though, as I mentioned in my piece for The Verdict is that the larger Octavia - also an attractive car - is not much more expensive.