Motors »

  • Feature creepy

    August 31, 2012 @ 11:08 am | by Neil Briscoe

    Volkswagen has been titillating us with details of the upcoming seventh generation of Golf, which will be shown off to the public for the first time on the 4th of September. Longer, wider, more roomy and more sophisticated than before, VW claims that its new best-seller (and don’t forget, preceding Golfs have sold almost 30-million models since 1974) will also be 25% more economical (just as well given the forecourt price of petrol and diesel) and will be lighter. A frankly staggering amount lighter. In fact, the base 1.2 TSI petrol should weigh in at around 1,050kg, a car weight more commonly seen with a Fiesta badge attached. Or even a Lotus one.

    But in amongst all this laudable engineering work, I have a bit of a worry about the new Golf and it’s to do with the steering system. If you sit in to any current Golf and take it for a spin, you’re guiding it between the hedges with a relatively simple electric power assisted system. In a standard Golf, it feels light, but accurate and very direct and almost incredibly smooth and sophisticated. Like many electric power assist systems, it’s not possessed of sports-car-like reflexes or feel, but for a mainstream hatch, it’s just fine. Step into a GT, GTD or GTI and you basically get the same system, but tweaked for a bit more sportiness. Once again, it’s pretty close to ideal and part of what makes the Golf feel like such a premium driving experience.

    So what’s worrying me? Well, there is a long-recognised problem with long-gestating design programmes and that’s feature creep. It can best be described by the hypothetical design of an on-off switch. A switch for switching things on and off. As simple a device as can be imagined, and once designed, you would think it should be simplicity itself to get it into a box and onto shelves.

    Ah, but the marketing department would love it if the switch was red. And maybe lit up somehow. And senior management wants to make sure that the click sound that is makes is a more high quality click sound than anyone else’s. And engineering wants to include a dimmer switch and a pre-loading system that nudges the contacts closer together when it detects your finger is near the switch, to make the switching reaction .003secs faster. And then marketing gets on again and wonders if you could make the switch more like something Batman would use. Batman is very big right now.

    You get the idea. Something that starts out as simple becomes unrecognisably complicated once it has passed through a few more hands. And this is what is happening to the Golf right now. Bigger and more spacious but lighter and more economical are ideal engineering goals to aim for and even better to attain, so well done to Volkswagen on that score. But who exactly needs a Golf with an Overhead Parking System that uses micro-cameras to give a faked bird’s eye view of the car to help you park? Then there’s adaptive cruise control, lane assist, fatigue detection, traffic sign detection, automatic parking, automatic lighting and dipped beam. All functions that can just as capably and easily be done by someone’s hands, feet or eyes. Indeed, a competent, clued-in driver has no need of any of these.

    And then there’s the steering. The new Golf’s electric power steering system will come, optionally, with five setting that can be chosen by the driver. Eco, Sport, Normal, Individual and Comfort. Sweet Jesus, who in their right mind needs to choose between five steering settings? Who, for that matter, will be able to detect all but the most infinitesimal differences between any two of those settings? Who amongst us reckons that they would ever use anything other than Normal for 90% of the time and Eco when the fuel needle dips into the red? Any hands? Anyone? Bueller?

    Such systems do not have a happy back catalogue. Fiat’s ‘City’ system which makes the steering go all ultra-light for parking manoeuvres is pretty pointless when it’s already attached to steering that all but the most underfed can twirl with one hand. One finger even. Kia’s Cee’d and Hyundai’s i30 have a three-mode Sport, Normal and Comfort steering setup that just really makes you long for them to have spent that part of the development budget on one setting that feels any way nice or natural. Even the mighty BMW M5, with its three-position steering weights, feels no better to wrangle than a 520d and, actually, quite significantly worse than the old E60 version.

    The fact is that feature creep like this is the flipside to good engineering. Yes, it’s very clever that you can choose between what steering setting you want but is that actually a good or even necessary thing? F1 drivers constantly bang on about ‘setup’ and tweaking things the way they like them, but that is done by mechanics and engineers wielding spanners and corner weights, not by a computer setting. Offer Fernando Alonso a button on his wheel to choose between five different steering weights and he’ll simply pick the one that makes him go faster and ignore the other four. Offering choice for choice’s sake is not a good thing and just try ordering a simple black coffee any more and tell me I’m wrong. I can choose to buy the new series of Mrs. Brown’s Boys on DVD if I like but that then only really gives me the option of how hard I fling it out of a 20-storey window. Choice is not an automatic good.

    So please, VW; forget this electronic silliness. Bin four of those steering modes and just give us one that feels good, OK?

  • The one? Or the other?

    August 25, 2012 @ 2:36 pm | by Neil Briscoe

    We’re (and by we I mean that particular coterie of car nuts and motoring writers) building up anticipation and hype for the upcoming Paris motor show. As one of the three ‘big’ motor shows of the year (the other two being Geneva and Detroit – Paris alternates years with the fourth biggie, Frankfurt) it’s always a spotters’ paradise for the latest production metal and far-out concepts.

    In the past few days, two of the most significant debutants planned for Paris have shown their hands with the release of the first photos and details of both the all-new Range Rover and the equally all-new Toyota Auris. Both are hugely significant cars for their individual markets and, in their individual ways, both are eagerly awaited by their acolytes.

    (There is a side issue here of the internet essentially making traditional static motor shows rather redundant, as cars can be revealed and seen from the comfort of your own sofa rather than having to track all the way to the Port De Versailles to see them. It has rather taken away the old magic of the motor show. A shame, but I digress…)

    Now, by the normal rules of motoring fan-dom, I should be raveningly excited about the prospect of one of these cars and rather lassiez-faire about the other. If I may drop for a moment the mask of objectivity that all motoring writers should wear, I can tell you that I’m a massive Land Rover fan. I love off-roading far and above any other form of motoring activity, a 1948 Series 1 was and is my dream car and the outgoing model of Range Rover is such an impressive car that, a decade after first driving it, I remain staggered by its breadth of abilities and its natural charm.

    The Auris is a replacement for the outgoing Auris and, much as I admire Toyota as a company and a producer of high quality product, even the mad car fan that I am, I can sometimes find it hard to work up much excitement for some of its offerings.

    So why am I dead keen to sample the new Auris and rather worried about the new Range Rover?

    Let’s start with the Range Rover and go back to datum, back to the 1970 original. Back then, Land Rover was a one-model company (actually back then it was really still a sub-brand of Rover) and the idea of a rugged, tough 4×4 that could be hosed down and cleaned up for trips into town or weekends away was a pretty novel idea, never mind that Land Rover had been beaten to the punch by Jeep’s Grand Wagoneer. The combination of easy, lazy torque from Rover’s classic 3.5-litre V8 petrol engine, David Bache’s clean, crisp styling and Spencer King’s subtly clever engineering solutions made for an instant classic and a car that has been frequently imitated but rarely, if ever, bettered.

    Spool forward four decades and while the name has remained, the song ain’t the same. From its simple beginnings the Range Rover has become a true luxury car, easily at home amongst the likes of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series and even able to meet the likes of a much more expensive Rolls-Royce or Bentley head-on in image terms. Yet in spite of that, the outgoing L322 Range Rover remains a rugged mountaineer at heart. No matter how crisp the tuxedo, you can still hear the clink of crampons and carabiner clips in its pockets. It’s all to do with form following function. Those iconic square corners on the bonnet are there to help you aim the car when passing through forests. The split tailgate not only eases access to the boot but also gives you a place to sit when having a picnic. The big vents in the front wings look cool but also aid cooling.

    Now, there has been a subtle shift. The new Range Rover is not only 400kg lighter thanks to all-aluminium construction, it’s also more aerodynamic, easier on fuel and more spacious thanks to a 118mm longer wheelbase. But those vents. The creases of the vents are still there, but they’ve been moved from the wing to the door. They are no longer functional, merely decorative. This is worrying. A Land Rover should never be a car that allows form to dictate function, never mind the success that the firm has had by allowing just that with the smaller Range Rover Evoque. And Land Rover should be first and foremost capable, pretty and decorative second.

    “Designing the next generation Range Rover, following over forty years of success, came with a huge responsibility to protect the DNA of such an icon,” said Gerry McGovern, Land Rover Design Director and Chief Creative Officer. “Our design team worked incredibly hard to capture the elegant proportions and pure surfaces which have been a feature of the best Range Rover designs.”

    There’s no doubting the stylistic weight and imposing qualities of Mr McGovern’s latest work, but those vents and the fact that the Range Rover is turning its blinged-up face away from the rolling hills of Warwickshire towards the sunlit uplands of the Chinese and Middle Eastern markets is worrying me. Yes, that’s where Land Rover expects to sell more Range Rovers than ever before, but those buyers are looking for a proper Range Rover and not necessarily something so obviously tilted towards their own market tastes.

    But what of the Auris? Well, there’s not much wrong with the current Auris but its hardly what you’d call a barrel of laughs and its styling light is most definitely sub-bushel. So why am I excited about the new one? Simple answer; the GT86. Toyota’s return to the sporty coupe market has been one of my flat-out favourite cars of the whole of 2012 and it proves once and for all that Toyota can make a car with great steering feel and peachy chassis balance. Now, I’m not expecting the new Auris to 100% mimic the GT in its feel and feedback. Such a move would not only be unlikely, it would be counter-productive. Toyota’s army of loyal customers would be scared stiff if their new hatchback displayed the kind of pin-sharp responses that the 86 does. There would be Auris deposited in hedges and ditches the length of the land…

    Here’s what the official press release on the new Auris says though: “New Auris further benefits from a lower ride height, driving position and centre of gravity. The steering and suspension have been revised to help give a more comfortable, responsive and enjoyable drive.
    “Attention has also been paid to weight management, with greater use of high tensile steel, particularly in the upper part of the body structure. This contributes to a 10 per cent increase in body stiffness and an overall vehicle weight saving of up to 40kg (according to version), while also helping to lower the car’s centre of gravity.”
    Now, pretty much every car maker makes similar claims for any new model and most of it is bunkum. But I just have the sneaking, hopeful suspicion that, with uber-car-nut Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda signing off the prototypes and the GT86’s magic dust lingering in the air, the new Auris could be rather more fun than many are expecting.
    Here’s hoping…

  • I’m ready for my closeup, Mr Smithee…

    August 10, 2012 @ 6:08 am | by Neil Briscoe

    Well, would you take public credit for something like this?


    I love the hubristic life story of hack Hollywood director Alan Smithee. Never heard of him? Not surprising really. This is a man who will never burst into tears of gratitude to the Academy while clutching a gold statuette and who will never have a retrospective season of his films screened at the IFI. He’s the director of such non-classics as Woman Wanted, Hellraiser: Bloodline and, yes really, the OJ Simpson Story. He’s the Anti-Spielberg, the inverse function of David Fincher. He is the worst director in the world.

    Except he’s not. He’s not real at all. He’s a Chimera, an invention. The Director’s Guild Of America has a hard and fast rule regarding directorial credits. If you yelled cut and action on set, your name is listed as the director. If the film was a total, unmitigated, steaming heap of cack and you fear that having your name officially credited as creating it would lead to shame, penury and reprisals against your family, then Smithee’s your man. The DGA won’t allow randomly chosen pseudonyms. You either take the rap or hand the clapper board over to the fictional Alan Smithee.

    I’ve been wondering if something similar might also be needed in the car industry. Not just for the embarrassingly bad cars but also in the case of a car being so brilliant that everyone want to take credit. In which case we would have the fabulous case of both the Lamborghini Miura and Alfa Romeo Arna both having been designed by Alan Smithee, engineered by Herr Dr Ing Alan Von Smithee and sold and marketed by SGM (Smithee General Motors).

    The Miura was a classic case of success being the child of many fathers, all scrambling for credit. Gianpaolo Dallara, Paolo Stanzani and Bob Wallace all jointly, and amicably, took the plaudits for the chassis and engineering but for th styling credit for this most beautiful of cars there was an unseemly meleé. It came down to a slug-it-out fight between legendary Italian stylists Giorgetto Guigiaro and Marcello Gandini. Decades on the two are still barely on speaking terms and perhaps it would be better for all if final credit was simply given to Gian-Alan Smithioso.

    And the Arna? A terrible mismatch of eighties Japanese styling and rustproofing with eighties Italian engines and electronics, it was a car so unloved that you could easily imagine a glowering teenage Arna grumpily awaiting the outcome of a paternity test on the Jeremy Kyle Show while Alfa Romeo and Nissan shift uncomfortably in the are-they-or-aren’t-they seats. Changing its production credit to the Smithee Motors Arna would just be a relief to all and would get the monkey of Alfa’s back as it gears up for its new Japanese collaboration with Mazda to produce the new Spider and MX-5.

    Presumably, some other car makes would be happy to unload their howlers onto the hapless Mr Smithee. Pontiac, post-mortem though it is, would probably happily despatch the unlovely Aztek SUV into Smithee’s orbit and you get the feeling that the Peugeot 1007 would also find a happy home there.

    And, God knows, Smithee would find some gainful employment in motoring journalism. I bet the un-named soul who banjaxed the first Jaguar XJ220 engine in a half-million-quid mistake wishes Smithee would take retrospective blame and I personally would love to hand over credit to him for that time I said the Fiat Stilo was a better car than the Ford Focus. Oh dear.

    Actually, a greater societal good could be done by Smithee if he became a blame hound for all our bad motoring purchases, a sort of fictional NAMA to absorb all the unnecessary depreciation we’ve put ourselves through. Thus, when I finally come to trade in my 2003, petrol, automatic, estate Renault Laguna (I know, I know…) I could devolve responsibility for the catastrophic loss of resale value. “It wasn’t me. It was all Alan Smithee’s fault…”

  • No room for Trevors any more.

    August 3, 2012 @ 3:34 pm | by Neil Briscoe


    I can still remember pegging out of the morning part of my Junior Cert maths exam, a mere hour and a half ticking down in front of me before it would be time to turn my papers over again. Dashing (I could dash in those far off thinner days) out of the school, along the road and into the village, I grabbed the volume I was looking for off the shelf and sat down to read. Last minute cramming? No. The TVR Griffith was on the front cover of Autocar magazine and I was desperate to find out what it was actually like to drive…

    It seems so odd now that even in the midst of my exams, a tiny Blackpool-based car maker should be able to cast such a bewitching spell. That Griffith, all compound curves and barely restrained aggression, seemed to me at the time to be the epitome of the true thoroughbred sports car. Never mind that it was made from glass fibre, its engine was lifted from a Range Rover and its rear lights were off an Opel Vectra – I hungered, even at the possible cost of my maths mark. (I passed, just. Thanks for asking.)

    TVR, which had been founded in the sixties by Trevor Wilkinson (the name was a shortening of his own) was always a bit of an oddball company, founded on the principles of stuffing hairy V6 and V8 engines into light, simple spaceframe chassis and draping them with bodies variously artful (Griffith, Cerbera, V8S) or shonky (Tasmin, 350i). Reliability was predictably woeful, safety wasn’t even a consideration (“Airbags? ABS? Traction control? I think you’ve got the wrong number sir…”) and the quality was variable, not surprising when you saw that bodies and chassis were wheeled across open courtyards between big sheds during construction.

    And yet, the pull of a TVR was indescribably powerful. This was a time, remember, when if you wanted a two-seat sports car you essentially had the choice of a Mazda MX-5 or a Mercedes SL. There really wasn’t much else on the shelf at the time, and certainly nothing with the Porsche-bothering power outputs of TVRs. Thanks to their muscular Ford V6 and Rover V8 engines, combined with those light, plastic bodies, they went like stink and sounded like artillery. And when TVR, then under the chain-smoking control of arch-enthusiast Peter Wheeler, started making its own V8 and straight-six engines, it was a move so audacious that one contemporary commentator described the very thought of a small sports car maker building self-designed engines as “like Dad’s Army developing a tactical nuclear weapon.” Quite.

    I got to sample one of those feral, late-era TVRs almost exactly a decade ago. A Tuscan, with swooping, almost sci-fi bodywork and an interior to match with a bellowing, roaring 4.0-litre straight-six. Even at a time when airbags were generally fewer in number and stability control was still a loftily priced option, it felt raw and uncompromising. Its power was prodigious, its noise like putting your ear to the speaker at an AC/DC gig. Its handling was… entertaining. If you were in the right mood. Terrifying if you weren’t. It was hairy-chested fun but playtime ended early when the electronic door release on the Tamora we were testing on the same day started to play up and we had to limp back to Blackpool.

    Not long after which, it all started to come unravelled. Wheeler sold up to a youthful Russian millionaire, Nickolai Smolensky, who very quickly realised that the only way to make millions from a small sports car maker is to spend billions. By now, Porsche, Mercedes, BMW and others were making light, fast, noisy sports cars which may not have been quite so outrageous as a TVR but came with warranties, reliability and safety equipment. The writing wasn’t so much on the wall as it was on the sign on the door; closed. TVR’s moment had, it seemed, passed.

    There were some murmurings over the past few years. Production would be restarted at a new factory in Blackpool. Production would be restarted at a new factory in Turin, with the engines built in Blackpool. Smolensky came, went and came again as TVR’s owner. Electric cars were even spoken of. Then, finally, a couple of weeks ago came an official announcement; TVR would go back into production. As a maker of wind turbines.

    Coming at a time when, once again, Lotus is in financial trouble and the likes of Mercedes, Audi and BMW are all planning more sports variants and models, is there any space left for the small, focused sports car maker? Can someone called Trevor still knock up a world-beater in a shed somewhere, or is all that game down to Ferdinand and Soichiro now?

    Steve Cropley, editor-in-chief of Autocar magazine saw the whole TVR saga, from the glory Griffith days through to the sad Russian decline: “It was the change in regulations really. It got so hard for people who built cars in low volume and didn’t really have lots of money to invest in engineering to make make cars that were compliant, make them clean enough and all the rest of it, even to meet the noise regulations. It just got hard.

    “I think there is a place for companies like this. TVR just sort of fell into the middle, into the wrong volume. Morgan has a business because it either sells cars at the very low end of type approval like the little three-wheeler, or they sell their Aero series which has full worldwide type approval and can be sold into any sophisticated market. There are still people like Ariel and Caterham, they use a thing called small series type approval, which works OK, in the UK at any rate. So it can happen but what you can’t do is have a very big company with a lot of overheads and continually change the models. You have to know what you’re doing it for.

    “I think Wheeler did realise what was coming and he did the last good deal that could be done. Smolensky was a very young guy with wealth that he hadn’t earned, that came from a family source, and he didn’t realise that the world had changed and it was all a bit of a shock to him. Not only had the regulatory world changed, but the demand for cars had changed. All of those people who were used to taking a risk and living with the unreliability of a TVR suddenly found the Boxster, which had the same prestige, started every morning and was worth quite a lot of money when you came to resell it. It was a better proposition.

    “I’d love to see them come back, I still think that they were special, those cars. They just had a special persona. What would have to happen would be that a very modern minded manager, someone like Simon Saunders at Ariel, if he were running TVR at the scale of his business, with very low overheads, then I bet a car like that could be successful. But not with too many employees and too many models, and too little reliability.”

    Could TVR come again? Yes, potentially. There are plenty of examples of small car makers having a successful go, but, as Cropley suggests, it will probably have to be structured around one, relatively simple, model and a very small staff to keep the overheads under control. It’s doubtful in the extreme that we’ll see the TVR of old ever again; a daring, innovative company that tried to build a four-car range of garden-shed-Ferraris. Cars as beautiful, swift and as awkward as a thoroughbred horse, twice as exciting and enough to tweak the imagination of any schoolboy.

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