Motors »

  • Should auld acquaintance be etcetera

    December 26, 2012 @ 7:00 am | by Neil Briscoe

    A humble Toyota, the best car of 2012? You betcha...

    In motoring terms, just as in culinary ones, you do tend to get to this part of the year feeling a bit like the guy in the Bisodol adverts on TV. By which I mean stuffed, over-filled, distended. It’s funny; I always begin a new motoring year worrying that there won’t be enough cars to drive or write about and that some point of the year will be fallow or dull. And then yet another tranche of exciting new metal comes along and suddenly I’m gorging myself again…

    But through all the bulk and spice of a full year’s motoring, one peppy, citrus-y delight has cut right through to my palate (I’ll stop the torturous food analogy in a minute, honest) and its taste lingers still. It’s the Toyota GT86.
    When first I drove it, up a steep, winding hill just outside Barcelona, I actually, literally began bouncing up and down in my seat, such was the fun I was having. That was a sensation that became ever better when I glanced down at the speedo and realised that, for all the fun, I was never exceeding 100kmh. In a world where most sporting cars have to be driven at warp speed to bring them to life, this was a revelation indeed.

    Back home, with the GT86 on more familiar roads, it proved even more impressive. The kids were able to squeeze into the back. It did an average 35mpg over a week’s mixed driving. It would go happily sideways on the way out of the driveway, yet felt sure-footed in nasty weather conditions. And it’s a Toyota, so it’s unlikely to break. It was without question, the funnest car of the year and the one that still defines 2012 for me.

    As for the rest, there were some other highlights…

    Such as realising that the new Porsche Boxster is actually a better all-round car than the new 911. It’s a verdict that may not please Porsche, or Porsche purists for that matter, but the basic 2.7-litre Boxster has much in common with the humbler GT86, see supra. Like the Toyota, the Boxster feels reactive and compelling at low (legal) speeds and yet has performance in reserve. The 911 is now dangerously close to becoming an Earth-bound missile, with the S model’s output now up to a staggering 400bhp. It’s still a wonderful car, but the Boxster is more useable, more relevant.

    It was a similar situation over at BMW. The mighty 560bhp M5 made its debut this year, and while I have always been a passionate fan of the M badge, and the M5 in particular, this new generation left me feeling a bit flat. Yes, it’s a wonderful car and an astonishing piece of engineering, but at anything more than a quarter throttle in any gear, you’re into licence losing territory and driving it in the wet, even with a full battery of electronic aids, is something of a tip-toe affair. Better by far was the 640d Gran Coupe, which provided a healthy percentage of M5-style thump, but did so in a better looking body, at a lower rate of fuel consumption, with a more useable day-to-day drivetrain and for about €30k less. Potentially better than either was the new 3 Series Touring which, in 320d form, may be just about every car you’d ever need.

    Also having a tilt at that title was the new Jaguar XF Sportbrake, a car which proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that estates are superior. They may still struggle against a brewery rep image in Ireland, but the XF with a conservatory is, if anything, better looking than the four door, rides better (thanks to standard rear air suspension) and handles just as well. It is, without doubt, the Jaguar of choice, at least until the new F-Type sports car arrives.

    Mercedes’ sexy CLS Shooting Brake could be considered in the same breath, were it not for its inflated price tag, but the best Benz of the year was the new A-Class, which proves that conventionality, when done well, beats innovation, executed poorly. The old A-Class was like Albert Einstein compared to the new one’s Kim Kardashian (in engineering terms) but that’s an apposite comparison of their looks too.

    I seem to have been speaking mostly about premium brand cars thus far, for which I can only apologise, but actually some of the cheapest cars of the whole year proved that you don’t need to spend big to get your hands on some proper automotive royalty. The Fiat Panda and Volkswagen Up (and its Seat and Skoda kissing cousins) demonstrated, ably, that even the smallest of cars can provide not only practical family transport but transport that feels several notches above basic. Both cars are engaging to drive, and if the Up is quantifiably superior in some areas, then the Panda got my vote by simply being so typically Italianate and engaging. Ford’s updated Fiesta, likewise, proves that if your car buying budget is less than €20k, then there’s still no excuse for accepting anything less than near-perfect dynamics, a classy cabin and an engine (the brilliant 1.0 EcoBoost) that defines sweetness.

    Of course, if it’s a bargain you’re looking for, then there’s the Dacia Duster. The Duster will be shortly joined by the Sandero hatchback, which will doubtless have an equally arresting price tag, but it was the Duster’s entry this past summer, with a price about €10k less than an equivalent Nissan Qashqai that really put the cat amongst the value pigeons. Yes, you are compromising on safety (a poor NCAP rating and no standard ESP) but the Duster is pleasingly handsome, spacious, rugged and good to drive. I can’t help thinking though, for all the Duster’s fashionable SUV appeal, that a better bargain is being driven by the new Skoda Rapid, an utterly conventional hatchback which nonetheless gets the important bits right (space, comfort, quality, reliability) and does so for a price not dissimilar to that of the Duster. The all-but-identical Seat Toledo does a similar job.

    I can’t quite close a review of 2012 without pointing out that, this year, I did that thing that is most shocking for any car critic and got down off the fence, put my hand in my pocket and actually bought a car. It’s not a new car (what, do you think I’m made of money?) but it came with a 2-year warranty and is in such good condition that it may as well be new. Despite my family man status, it’s not an SUV nor an MPV and it’s certainly not conventional. It is also, really, my wife’s car, but I’m taking the credit for it. It’s a Mini Clubman (remember what I said about estates) and I love it to bits. Characterful, engaging and just practical enough, it along with all the above, has provided the highlights of my motoring year (and kudos are due to Colm Quinn BMW & Mini in Athlone for finding us the right car at the right price).

    I wonder what 2013 will bring?

  • Classic shouldn’t mean old

    December 10, 2012 @ 5:20 am | by Neil Briscoe

    Photo courtesy of Classic Car Weekly Magazine

    Fellow car-spotting nerds will appreciate that the five minutes or so I spent traversing the N18 the other day were the most enjoyable five minutes of that day. How so? Because I saw two cars on that road that I had never before seen gracing Irish tarmac. The first was a Volvo P1800 ES, the shooting brake version of the car Roger Moore drove in character as Simon Templar. Now, a P1800 is hardly the rarest of beasts, but it’s certainly not common in Ireland and this one, on a Tipperary North Riding numberplate and with its coachwork finished in a rather stunning metallic emerald green, just looked fabulous, standing out amongst the sea of conventional grey, black and silver boxes it shared the road with.

    I was feeling happy after that. It’s always a pleasant feeling to catch sight, however brief, of a nice car, especially one you’ve often coveted ownership of, and I was left with a pleasantly warm feeling inside.

    And then, just a moment or two later, I saw something I had not just never seen on Irish roads previously, but never seen outside of the halls of a motor show or the boundaries of a race track. A C-Type Jaguar. The low, sinuous shape, shorn of all but the most vestigal windscreens, was unmistakable and suddenly the roundabout by the industrial estate became Arnage corner, and the driver, a mechanic bringing the car out of a quick test squirt, became in my mind Duncan Hamilton or Tony Rolt, at the end of a long stint, carving out a lead over the chasing Ferraris at Le Mans.

    Of course, the illusion was a double one. Not only was this still resolutely Galway in November and not La Sarthe in June, the car wasn’t a true C-Type, but one of the popular replicas of the original Jaguar endurance racer, made by companies like Proteus or Lynx. The 72-D numberplate on the back gave the game away – under that aero skin lay not a purpose-built racing chassis and engine, but instead the humbler (albeit still rather impressive) mechanical parts of a Jag XJ saloon. Still, replica or not, it made my afternoon, and I spent a happy ten minutes following it around, the windows of my charmless modern Euro-box wound down to better appreciate the crisp sound of an XK straight-six engine.

    Classics have that power in a way that modern cars cannot hope to emulate. Their rarity and the hobbyist nature of their ownership gives them a relaxed and charming mien that a plain daily commuter-mobile just can’t match. Even at the extreme end of the scale, it holds true. Take a Ferrari for example. See a modern-day Ferrari blast past you on the roads and your first thought as to the owner is likely to be “wanker.” See a classic Ferrari though (let’s indulge and imagine here a peerlessly beautiful 205 GT Lusso LWB) and you’re more likely to give a low whistle of appreciation before considering the resale value of your children.

    Classic cars are many things, including it must be noted, expensive, unreliable, fragile and, on the days when they just won’t start, occasionally depressing. But they are lovely, make no mistake.

    And yet, when was the last time you saw someone under the age of 30 driving one in Ireland? This thought occurred to me as I saw the C-Type blast off into the distance. Attend almost any classic car show or run in Ireland (usually, largely factually incorrectly, called a vintage run – vintage refers specifically to cars manufactured before 1930, or 1925 if you’re American) and you will notice most of the owners and drivers are, how shall we put this, of a certain age. To an extent, this is inevitable. The desire for ownership of a classic car is often driven by nostalgia for the car your dad drove when you were a nipper, or the memory of seeing something exotic on the telly as a child. Frequently too, it is only with age and commensurate financial success that you can afford to indulge in buying and running a classic.

    But we also manage to put some specific barriers in the way of classic ownership for younger drivers, and I do think that is not just a shame, but fundamentally wrong.

    OK, so price is always going to be an issue as is rarity. Classic cars are naturally thinner on the ground here than in the UK, where one is liable to trip over a Morris Minor or MGB at every turn. We have traditionally sold fewer cars in Ireland, so statistically there will be fewer survivors and our lack, until just recently, of an NCT test has hardly encouraged the preservation or maintenance of vehicles down through the years.

    But let’s take insurance for a major example, indeed the most significant reason as to why younger drivers are actively discouraged from going classic. In the first instance, most insurers won’t cover you for classic ownership unless you’re becoming something of a classic yourself. 30 seems to be the lowest limit. Secondly, most insurers will demand that you also have a ‘modern’ car insured as your daily transport, a feat of finance that few younger drivers can afford.

    Why am I so up in arms about this? Well, for a couple of reasons really. In general, I just think it’s a shame that this is the case. My love of cars was sparked initially by classics. I fell in love with old Minis, Series 1 Land Rovers and Jensen Interceptors. Instead of reading Max Power my teenage years were spent devouring Classic & Sports Car and Practical Classics. Classics are fabulous things, and the community that surrounds them is often fun and engaging, so why must we be ageist about it?

    And then there’s the safety aspect. Yes, classic cars do without modern brakes, steering, electronic safety nets and, occasionally, seatbelts, so perhaps encouraging younger drivers into them seems perverse. But classic driving therefore takes on a slower pace – you have to drive within the limits of the machinery, and you won’t be long in figuring out where those limits are. Modern cars insulate and isolate you from the world outside. A classic will leave you well and truly upside down in the outside world if you don’t pay attention. If all learners were compelled by law to begin their driving instruction in a Morris Minor, or an original Issigonis Mini, on crossplies, imagine the levels of car control and mechanical sympathy that would be built in to the next generation of drivers. And learning in one of those cars would be way more fun than in some cheap and nasty modern hatchback, encouraging an abiding love of cars and driving. And if you love driving, there’s more of a chance of you taking the time to become good at it…

  • Budget Blues

    December 5, 2012 @ 5:07 pm | by Neil Briscoe

    If you just look at the precise changes to motoring related taxes and charges made in Budget 2013, then you might be forgiven for thinking that we (and by we I mean those who sell, own and run cars) have partially dodged a bullet. The increases in Vehicle Registration Tax (VRT) and annual motor tax are, in some cases, significant, but in the overall scheme of things, they don’t seem too onerous. Nonetheless, rises are rises and any increase could be a barrier to people buying cars next year, at a time when the car trade in Ireland is still trying to recover from its Annus Horibilis in 2009.

    “It is a shame that the motor business here in Ireland again appears to be seen as something of a cash cow and that the Government is again seeking to drain more revenue from the beleaguered motorist,” said Volkswagen Group Ireland Managing Director Simon Elliott. “While any increase in VRT and motor tax might worry consumers we must welcome the news that there will be a second registration plate in 2013 which is something that we in particular in Volkswagen Group Ireland lobbied hard to achieve. We also welcome the decision not to increase duty on petrol or diesel. I am also delighted that in terms of our retail offers that they are stronger than they have ever been which will give some comfort to those new car buyers for the New Year.”
    OK, here’s the nitty gritty, and I’ll post the full VRT and motor tax changes at the ned of this blog so you can have a proper look. Let’s take VRT first. The top band, Band G, sees no increase at all, so anyone planning to buy a V8 Range Rover in 2013 can breathe a sigh of relief. The rest of the increases vary from 2-3% jumps. Obviously, at the higher price tag end of things, a 2% jump is a significant increase in price, but for Ireland’s best-selling car, the Ford Focus, the increase in price should be limited to around €450 – not exactly a small sum of cash, but you’ll probably be able to claw at least some of that back with some sharp negotiation tactics.

    For a BMW 520d, the car that, publicly at least, did more than anything else to drive the change in the car tax regime, that figure amounts to around €960 (assuming you’re going for the 130g/km M-Sport spec) – again, hardly a deal-breaker when you’re already dropping €48k on the purchase price.

    In terms of annual motor tax, the rate rises are somewhat sharper, especially at the lower end of the scale. There is a new 0g/km rate specific to electric cars, which costs €120 a year, representing a €40 decrease for electric car buyers. Not much of an incentive, perhaps, but something.

    There are now four further Band A rates, numbered 1-4, and the cheapest band starts at 1g/km of Co2 and rises to 80g/km. At the moment, only one current production car with an internal combustion engine, the Toyota Yaris hybrid, which has quoted Co2 figures of 79g/km, slots into that band, and its buyers will pay an extra €10 a year over the old Band A cost of €160.

    More significantly, anyone buying that most popular Focus model, the 117g/km 1.6 TDCI Edge, will have to fork out €190 a year for tax now, an extra €30. Again, not an overwhelming amount for most of us, but you could certainly see how those who specifically went out to buy low emission cars following the original tax changes in 2008, and did so specifically with environmental (as opposed to strictly monetary) benefits in mind, might be feeling a bit betrayed.

    Indeed, speaking to former Green Party minister Eamon Ryan before the Budget, he was hoping that the Government would see sense in not increasing the motor tax rates, as that would be to fly in the face of encouraging people into greener cars:

    “The first thing they should not do is unwind some of the huge success we’ve have in recent years in terms of making a switch to more efficient vehicles. We need to keep heading in that direction, because it’s a huge benefit to the economy.

    “The balance of payments benefit to the economy of that efficiency leap in vehicles standards is bigger than any of the tax implications one way or the other. The economic crisis that occurred and is continuing, I think it was Martin Wolf in the Financial Times said that it was more than anything else a balance of payments crisis. And if you look at what the IMF is saying, based on the research they’ve been doing, the biggest threat to an economy like Ireland is if something like a major increase in the price of oil occurred, and the effect it has on the balance of payments. Because it has an immediate effect.

    “Money spent on oil is just sucked straight out of the economy, so when you’re taking the economic effects, if you just look at the tax revenue effects and not at the balance of payments effects, you’re missing the bigger picture.”

    The most significant motor tax increase now comes at the top of the new two-part Band B, for cars emitting between 131 and 140g/km of Co2. Buyers in that band are now going to have to pay an extra €55 a year for their motor tax, and seeing as that band contains many of the cheaper cars (including the new Dacia Duster) then it could be seen as hitting those who can least afford to pay it. (There are also large rises, as much as €92 a year in Bands C-G, but with 92% of new cars this year falling into Bands A 1-4 and B1-2, we can pretty much ignore them for now.)

    That’s an accusation you could equally throw at the 7.5% increase in pre-2008 motor tax rates, for vehicles based on engine capacity. Prior to the Budget, those cars had been bringing in an average of €450 a year to the exchequer, and the word coming out of Government sources was that that figure was a healthy one, and it was the Co2-based bands that needed attention as the rush to lower emissions vehicles had damaged the overall tax take.

    The rises here range from a relatively insignificant €14 a year extra for cars with an engine smaller than 1,000cc to a whopping €129 extra for anyone with an engine larger than 3,000cc. And well those V6 and V8 engined drivers can afford it, you might think, but look at the 1,701cc to 1800cc category – one which includes an awful lot of pretty average family cars, including the likes of the old Ford Mondeo, Renault Lagana, Opel Vectra, Mazda 6 and more. That goes up by €44 to €636 and crossing the €600 barrier is one that will be difficult at best for more than a few hard-pressed families, who are desperately trying to keep an older car going, just to stay mobile.

    Given that we (that’s the motoring we again) avoided an increase in carbon duty or excise duty on the price of petrol and diesel (and indeed, hauliers are going to get something of a diesel rebate come July) you might think that was the end of the bad news. But it’s not. True, petrol won’t be going up as of midnight tonight but the price of oil is staying stubbornly high for anyone buying in devalued Euros and that means that the pump price is still on the wrong side of €1.50 a litre. And every increase in the wholesale price of fuel will bring in extra revenue for the Government. (Then again, seeing as the 48-53% exchequer take from each litre is significantly lower than most of our European neighbours, perhaps we should just keep our heads below the parapet on that one…)

    Finally though, the biggest issue facing the motor trade in Ireland is not the rate of VRT or the shifting of the motor tax bands nor even the price of petrol. The bald fact is that sales of cars in this country, which directly and indirectly contribute many billions to the Government coffers and directly employes more than 35,000 people, are inextricably linked to financial prosperity.

    Those families facing cuts in child benefit, having to fork out for the property tax, absorbing the changes to PRSI and the Universal Social Charge, are they seriously going to be considering a new car purchase next year? Will the change in the numberplate system, the set of new tax bands or a relatively mild increase in VRT be of any interest to them? Doubtful. This semi-fictional They, like the very real rest of us, will simply continue to struggle along as we have done, trying to work our way through the appalling fallout of the financial crisis that struck in 2008 and the legacy of which will afflict us for many years to come.

    Simon Elliot from Volkswagen told me that “clearly any hand In the consumers pocket is a concern especially the PRSI and the local property tax. However at times like this we need to look for the positives; we have no increase in fuel duty and an interesting change to the number plate system.”

    Interesting, yes. But of how much real use? Come back this time next year to find out.



    Private Cars  CO2 emissions (+19.8% average)        
    Band Emissions g CO2/km Existing Rate (2012) New Rate (2013) Difference Actual % Increase/ decrease
    A0 0 €160 €120 -€40 -25.0%
    A1 1-80 €160 €170 €10 6.3%
    A2 81-100 €160 €180 €20 12.5%
    A3 101-110 €160 €190 €30 18.8%
    A4 111-120 €160 €200 €40 25.0%
    B1 121-130 €225 €270 €45 20.0%
    B2 131-140 €225 €280 €55 24.4%
    C 141-155 €330 €390 €60 18.2%
    D 156-170 €481 €570 €89 18.5%
    E 171-190 €677 €750 €73 10.8%
    F 191-225 €1,129 €1,200 €71 6.3%
    G > 225 €2,258 €2,350 €92 4.1%


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