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  • Are we ready for simpler cars?

    November 26, 2012 @ 10:30 am | by Neil Briscoe

    I have been spending some time lately with a Dacia Duster. I hand’t intended to spend quite so much time, in fact, but a scheduling snafu meant that it was needed for a couple of long drives, en famille, so by the time I handed it back, I had racked up more than 1,400km in it.

    Now, we all know the headline grabbing bit. You can buy a new Duster for just €14,990 and finance one on a personal lease for just €149 a month, depending on how much of a deposit you can afford and how big a bubble payment you’re willing to leave dangling.

    How can Dacia do it for the money? How is is possible to bring a brand new Qashqai rival to the market with an effective €10,000 discount? Simple really; by building it in a low-cost environment in Romania and making it from old Renault bits whose investment cost has long since been amortised by all those Clio and Megane sales.

    Buying a Dacia is the equivalent of going into a major electrical retailer and finding out which cheap-o brand you’ve never heard of uses the same electronic parts as last year’s Sony or Panasonic. As long as you’re not bothered about the badge, you’re still getting something that works just fine.

    Except just fine doesn’t really cover it. Really quite very fine might actually be a better assessment. The Duster may be cheap and it may use parts from way down the back of the Renault warehouse (I spotted switches and buttons that Is suspect came from a 1990 Clio in there) but it proved mostly comfy (the seats are a bit to narrow if you’re tall and, ahem, broad like me), spacious (plenty of room in the back for the kids) and surprisingly dynamically adept. OK, so no-one is going to confuse its light steering and roly-poly suspension settings for those of a Lotus Elan, but pounding back up the M9 in thoroughly horrible rain, coping with spot floods as we travelled, the Duster felt secure, planted and unflappable.

    It isn’t particularly economical though, and average fuel consumption over those 1,400km of 35mpg wasn’t especially clever. But even this flaw comes with a caveat; our test model was the range-topping four wheel drive version. So not only is it lugging more weight around than its cheaper front-drive brethren, it’s also hamstrung by lower gearing, designed to make it more agile off-road and on rough tracks. So you should be able to pretty easily break the 40mpg barrier in a front-drive Duster.

    Quite apart from the fact that the Duster is arriving at an auspicious time for a car offering such value for money, there is the fact that it is the future. In a big way.

    You see, much has been written about the current crisis faced by the European car makers. Aside from the big premium brands, and Volkswagen (if you can describe Volkswagen as anything other than a premium brand) they’re all making too many cars, in too many expensive factories, for too few buyers. It’s a toxic recipe that makes fixing the banks look like child’s play (ultimately, we all still need banks; we do not necessarily need a car, or at least not a new one) and as it all plays out it will get bloody. Ford has already made dramatic cutbacks, Fiat is considering canning anything but future spin-offs of the 500 (no more Punto, no more Bravo – a shame on both counts) and Peugeot, Citroen and especially Opel are all in deep trouble. Europe’s car industry is looking worryingly like Detroit’s did in the dark days of the seventies. Will we go the same way as Motown?

    “I don’t think that has to happen here, but certainly it’s a possibility” Dr Mia Grey, an economic geographer from Cambridge University told us. “That’s the sort of thing we really want to be careful about, and policy makers need to be aware of. But that route is not one that we have to take. I think we need to look very carefully at the industry and at nourishing the industry and keeping it healthy. And what that means often is really helping these firms pursue non-price competition, help them to compete on things other than price, to move upmarket if you will, in order to retain those jobs.

    “That scenario that I laid out, the permanent shedding of skilled, well-paid jobs, is by no means likely, but at the same time we want to make sure that isn’t the path we take.”

    The Duster though represents the road to some kind of survival, even if it will take a major shift in both marketing and customer perception to make it work. Ever since the early nineties the levels of sophistication in everyday cars has been rising and rising, a trend triggered by the explosion in sales of the premium brands. If BMW, Mercedes and Audi set the benchmark for quality, luxury and toys, then all others must to a greater or lesser extent follow. Sit inside a current Ford Mondeo or Opel Astra and see if you can tell the difference between its quality and that of a 3 Series or A6.

    It doesn’t need to be this way, though. Possibly, it shouldn’t even be this way. After all, as long as your car is reliable, comfortable, economical and has sufficient equipment (let’s set air conditioning, Bluetooth and a decent stereo as a bottom end, shall we?) then do you really care if your plastic have the same soft-touch sheen as a Beemer? Should you?

    No, you shouldn’t and as any of us with kids can attest, the interior of any car swiftly becomes nothing much more than a mobile skip. Hardy, hose-down surfaces are a positive boon.

    Such is the Dacia model. The Duster (and the forthcoming Sandero) has sufficient sophistication to make it a viable modern car. In fact, given its excellent 1.5 diesel engine, its ABS, the fact that it can be specified with air conditioning and stability control (both of which should really be standard, but let’s gloss over that for the sake of argument) it is vastly more sophisticated than any of the cars we were driving when I got my provisional licence almost two decades ago. And I don’t recall any of us thinking our cars were under-specified back then.

    If, as the experts tell us, Ireland’s economy and GDP has reverted back to 1993 levels, then perhaps it’s appropriate to drive a car whose cabin plastics seems to have come from that year. We will need to dramatically recalibrate our expectations of what a car can do and can be if Europe’s car makers are to survive. No car maker, save Volkswagen, has ever successfully negotiated the tricky path from mainstream to premium (and even VW has to keep a couple of stripped out price-point models on its lists) and expecting any of Opel, Renault, Peugeot or Citroen to be able to do the same is laughable at best. We see them as everyday cars, no matter how much sophistication they may tout. The world of BMW-like premium is simply beyond them. Harsh, perhaps, but true nonetheless.

    Their only hope is to turnabout and do a Dacia, do a Skoda. Make simple, effective cars whose desirability comes from their usefulness and their prices, not their shiny badges or extensive options list. It may seem a radical idea, but the success of Skoda and Dacia, and of Hyundai and Kia, proves that it’s not merely possible, it’s essential.

  • Your car awaits, Mr President…

    November 9, 2012 @ 7:11 am | by Neil Briscoe


    So, Barack Obama has taken a second win at the world’s biggest popularity contest and has himself another four years in one of the most iconic structures around. No, not the White House, but the official presidential limousine; the vast, armour-plated Cadillac that is officially known as the Presidential State Car but which insiders know best as “The Beast.”

    Yes, it’s the same car that was stymied two years ago by a speed bump on the way out of the US embassy in Dublin, but there are few, if any, other threats that the massive Caddy couldn’t meet head on and defeat. In fact, calling it a Cadillac is something of a misnomer. It’s actually built on the chassis of a Chevrolet Kodiak, what the Americans call a ‘medium duty vehicle’ and what you or I would call a pretty hefty lorry.

    On top of that chassis is basically a giant, heavily armoured survival cell that is designed to protect the president’s life in the event of an attack, as much as it is to whisk him in traditional Cadillac comfort from engagement to engagement. Mind you, if you think The Beast is impressive, you should check out the Chevrolet Suburban escort car that follows along behind it. Nothing much to be impressed by if it were a regular Suburban, but this one has a 6-barrel 20mm rotary Gatling gun that pops up from the rear roof section and which can instantly convert most exterior threats to little more than vapour…

    The US Presidential limo has, of course, a long and distinguished history, but it’s surprising how equally chequered that history is.

    President William McKinley was the first US president to so much as ride in a car, but he was assassinated in 1901. Perhaps future presidents should have taken note of this unfortunate confluence of presidential motoring and presidential death. (There is also of course the conspiracy theorists’ favourite footnote that while Kennedy was assassinated in a Lincoln Continental, a car made by the Ford Motor Company, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Ford’s Theatre… We’ll come back to Kennedy in a moment, but seeing as Honest Abe died twenty years before Karl Benz invented the car, we should probably just leave that particular slice of history well enough alone for now.)

    It was Theodore Roosevelts adminstration which began the tradition of using an official state car (a Stanley Steamer, bringing alternative fuels to the White House about a century ahead of anyone else) and it was Roosevelt’s successor, William Howard Taft who converted the White House stables into a garage, and ordered a brace of gorgeous Pierce-Arrows to be used for state occasions.

    However the whole armour plating thing doesn’t come into the presidential equation until the Franklin Delano Roosevelt era. Roosevelt’s Lincoln V12 convertible was the first purpose-built presidential limo, but following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the Secret Service got nervy about FDR riding about in an open car, so the dragged a 1928 Cadillac 314A, with heavy armour plating, out of government storage. It was this car that delivered FDR to the Capitol Building to deliver his famous “Day of infamy” speech. There was just the unfortunate fact, hanging in the air, that the armour-plated Caddy had once been the property of Al Capone… It had been seized by the Department of the Treasury when Capone had been put away for tax evasion, and Roosevelt would continue to use it until the Lincoln could be armoured with bullet-proof plates in the doors and machine guns for the Secret Service agents tucked into the doors.

    FDR's 'Sunshine Special' Lincoln V12 presidential car

    Two specially built armoured Cadillacs would be used by Roosvelt, Truman and Eisenhower until we come to the most famous presidential car of all time, the 1961 Lincoln Continental, as tragically used by John F Kennedy in November 1963. We all know what happened that day, but interestingly (and rather gruesomely) the car was not destroyed after Kennedy had been killed riding in it. Rather, the interior was replaced, it was converted (sensibly, if rather too late) to a hard-top and continued to do service in the White House motor pool.

    President Lyndon B Johnson greets the arrival of Pope Paul VI in a Lincoln Continental

    A later Chrysler Imperial LeBaron presidential limo was also nearly responsible for the untimely death of Ronald Reagan. When wannabe assassin John Hinckley opened fire, Reagan’s Secret Service team reacted fast to get the president into the cover of the car, but the bullet that hit, and almost killed, “The Great Communicator” in fact ricocheted off the armour of the Chrysler, striking the president below the ribs. If the Chrysler had been a normal car, the bullet would just have passed right through it…

    Since 1983, the presidential fleet has been entirely Cadillac-based and the current car was delivered to the White House in 2009. There is more than one, of course. There are always spare limos in any presidential motorcade in case of a breakdown or an attack that puts one out of commission, and the White House uses similar cars to transport suitably important VIPs. At a rough cost of $300,000, it’s not even that expensive, although the 8mpg fuel economy might mean that President Obama might want to have another look at that whole Stanley Steamer thing…

  • Skepticism receding?

    November 2, 2012 @ 2:46 pm | by Neil Briscoe

    I have developed something of a reputation as an electric car skeptic, and while it’s true that I remain somewhat skeptical of the hopes of batteries doing all our driving in the future, I’m certainly not anti-electric car. In fact, I have thoroughly enjoyed driving every single Electric Vehicle (EV) that I’ve thus far driven. It’s just that, for a majority of us, their combination of limited range (normally aroungd the 160km mark) and long recharge times (eight hours or so from a domestic socket) means that as things stand right now, battery EVs are just not a practical option for the vast majority of us.

    This is frustrating. Three years ago, in an unconscious echo of the post Chariots Of Fire Oscars domination that “The British are coming!” we were told that an electric future was imminent. Charging points were being installed, cars like the Nissan Leaf were arriving on sale and pretty soon we’d all be swooshing silently about. It hasn’t, clearly, happened and I find that immensely disappointing. I would love to go electric, to leave the old days of internal combustion behind, or at least to one side.

    Thankfully, while we have all been expressing frustration and doubts, things have been quietly moving along in the background. I spoke to Dermot McArdle from ESB eCars, which has been tasked by the Government to get electric cars up and running for Ireland. While sales of the cars have been slow thus far (just 200 in three years) the charging network has been slotting into place.

    “It’s not just something that we want to do, it’s something that we have to do” says McArdle. “The macro factors are only moving in one direction, Fossil fuel prices are increasing on almost a daily basis. As a country, we’ve also signed up to a lot of international agreements, which informs Government policy, and that policy is to move transport into a low carbon environment.

    “How do we do that? By making electric vehicles a realistic possibility for as many people as possible. Choice is a factor, and every major car manufacturer is currently working on bringing either a battery electric vehicle to the market or a plugin hybrid, and a lot of that is being driven by EU directives on carbon emissions.

    “What makes it realistic from a consumer point of view is an efficient network of recharging.”

    Nothing to disagree with there, but it has been disappointing that the roll-out of public charging points has been slower than expected. The ESB says that this has been because it has adopted a wait-and-see attitude to the final numbers of charging points needed, and is waiting for a sufficient number of electric cars to come into use so that it has some reliable data on how people will use their cars and the charging network. I made the point that perhaps the egg of a wide-ranging charging network has to come before the chicken of electric car sales, but perhaps there is some validity in the ESB’s point; there’s little point in investing in charging points if no-one is going to use them in the longer term.

    There is better news when it comes to emissions. There is a long standing argument that running an EV is pretty pointless if your electricity comes from a mucky coal-fired power station. Indeed, according to the ESB’s own figures, taking electricity from the coal station at Moneypoint and using it to charge the batteries of a current EV results, when all the sums are done, in an equivalent emissions level of 130g/km. Not very clever when a VW Golf BlueMotion diesel can get you 99g/km in current form, less when the new MkVII Golf arrives.

    But it’s not that simple. For a start, there is already significant wind power in Ireland and the ESB is already well on the way to achieving its 2020 goal of having 40% wind power. On top of that, all of the more modern electric generating plants are gas-fired, which results in an average figure of 85g/km.

    In fact, it’s even better than that. The ESB works under an emissions cap, so any additional power that it has to generate to ‘fuel’ electric vehicles has to be offset elsewhere in the network, so there is no commensurate rise in emissions. Better still, road transport has no emissions cap, so anyone who buys an EV and not a petrol or diesel car is not only removing their emissions from the road transport system, they’re not, effectively, adding to the emissions from power generation.

    Further down the line, the ESB has plans for a smart-grid system which can momentarily interrupt charging of plugged-in EVs if there is a drop-off in the power generation system (a move that saves considerable emissions and power-up time, but which has virtually no effect on charging your car – the delay amounts to seconds of charge time) and, further down the line again, to use EVs and their batteries as storage units for wind power that would otherwise disappear, unused, into the ether, even being able to draw power from plugged-in, partially charged EVs to plug a momentary gap in the grid if one of the power generating stations has a systems failure.

    Now, that’s all aspirational and somewhat in the future, and it still does leave us with the problem of EVs not being, right here, right now, practical for most of us. That will improve (Tesla can right now sell you, albeit for a steep price, a Model S saloon that can go a claimed 500km on a single charge) but potentially we need another, possibly major, breakthrough in battery technology to finally bridge the gap. The existence of such a breakthrough is far from guaranteed.

    There is though, one utterly compelling argument for buying an EV, even now when they are still compromised and expensive. According to Dermot McArdle “an EV, on our own calculations is about 10% of the running cost of an equivalent petrol car, and about 20% of a diesel car.” That is an equation that will only grow more in favour of the electric car.

    Finally, I posed McArdle the last resort question of all EV skeptics. What about hydrogen power? Why go to all the trouble to invest in EVs and charging networks when they are, potentially, the Betamax of the motoring world?

    “The hydrogen thing just doesn’t make sense” he responds. “Most hydrogen production, currently, is from fossil fuels anyway, and electrolysis, to get hydrogen from water, is only about 30% efficient. And then you have to take the hydrogen, transport it, store it, put it in a fuel pump, put it in your car and then pass it through a fuel cell which turns it back into… electricity. With an electric car charging network, everything is mostly already in place, you just have to put the posts in.”

    That’s still a big just, and major car makers such as Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and GM are all betting against McArdle and the ESB, but he has a point.

    Skpetical still? Yes, but perhaps a little more hopeful than before.

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