Motors »

  • California Dreaming

    January 18, 2013 @ 10:51 am | by Neil Briscoe

    Every January, when the Detroit Motor Show (or North American International Auto Show, to give it its full and correct name) rolls around, there comes a brief gust of hope. Hope that, at last, American car makers have seen the light not only in terms of quality, handling and efficiency, but also in terms of remembering that many of us still drive on the left. It has long been a source of frustration to myself and other car enthusiasts that so many great American cars are stuck with their steering wheels on the wrong side. I know many of you may not appreciate the magic of a Mustang, Corvette or Charger, or even the humble but (to me anyway) brilliant Ford Crown Victoria, but there are many of us who pine for something similar on this side of the pond.

    Are we mad? Can American-centric cars ever truly ‘work’ in Europe, or more significantly, in Ireland? We already have a symbiotic relationship with the US, we love their TV shows, their movies, their food and fashion, so why not their cars. There was nothing else for it, I was going to have to get hold of some proper Detroit iron and work it out for myself…

    The USS Midway sits, looking rather like a grey cliff-face, at the side of the harbour in San Diego, California. It’s not segregated from the public, but is in fact a floating museum, charting the hundred-year history of American Naval aviation, and even if you’re not visiting (and you should) you can walk right up to it and marvel at its sheer size.

    She displaces 74,000 tonnes, which sounds like a lot, until you consider that the 101,000 tonnes displaced by the nuclear-powered Nimitz-class carriers that can be clearly seen across the harbour in the sprawling Naval base that is downtown San Diego’s neighbour. The Midway might be a lightweight compared to her more modern shipmates (a Superleggera aircraft carrier?) but she has a fascinating history. Commissioned at the end of the Second World War, she was originally a straight-deck design, but was updated in the sixties to the then new technology of an angled flight deck; allowing aircraft to land and take off at the same time and more safely to boot. When her career began, her pilots would have been flying Grumman Bearcats and Vought Corsairs – classic warbirds with huge radial piston engines and massive multi-bladed propellors. When she was decommissioned and turned into a museum, just after the 1991 conflict in Kuwait, her air group consisted of fast jets like the Grumman F-14 Tomcat and McDonnell-Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. She has had, in other words, a long career distinguished by evolution.

    You can see where this is going can’t you?

    Parked on the quayside next to the Midway, Dodge’s Challenger SRT8 396, in its bright orange paint with black stripes, looks barely any smaller. It is a classic American muscle car, almost self-consciously so, with lines and styling that are more or less a straight lift from the 1970 original. And just as the Midway was the last of her kind to be commissioned during WWII, the original Challenger was the last of the great original US muscle cars. Just after the first Challenger, with its vast 440-cu.in (7.2-litre) engine came along, so did the first of the OPEC oil shocks and the market for such cars changed utterly, virtually disappearing overnight. Where such as the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang prostituted themselves to the new reality, appearing in ugly, downsized forms, the Challenger battled on as was, before disappearing from Dodge’s line up for three decades.

    In 2008, it came back, with gloriously OTT retro styling, to take on the challenge of rejuvenated rivals from Ford and Chevrolet (who also revived the Mustang and Camaro in dramatic new forms) and this, the SRT8 396 is the king of the Challenger hill. 396-cu.in translates as 6.4-litres and that gives you 470bhp (which sounds like a rather paltry output for such an engine) and 637Nm of torque (which doesn’t).

    It’s a recipe that could only be American. Massive engine, lazy torque, 16-feet of length and barely enough room to seat four. Another link with the Midway, then. Both have massive, flat flight-decks reaching out in front…

    It would be easy to dismiss the Challenger as a cartoon, a car with no relevance whatsoever for Europe or for Ireland. A car for Sunset Boulevard, not for parking at the kerb on Kildare Street ( I know; you can’t ACTUALLY park on Kildare St…).

    And yet, that would be just wrong. There is something deeply significant about the Challenger. It is Sergio Marchionne’s personal favourite car from the entire Fiat Group empire and his weekend transport. Marchionne, CEO of Fiat and therefore also of Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep carries more influence than most individuals when it comes to car making in Europe, and if he loves his Challenger, then you’d have to assume that future Fiat, Alfa Romeo and Maserati models will bear some of its influence.

    And that, I can tell you, would be no bad thing. The Challenger has its faults, which we’ll come to in a moment, but it is such a glorious thing, in and of itself, that it is impossible not to love and even to covet.

    OK, so that is a conclusion borne of driving it in its natural habitat; along the straight-lines of San Diego’s city streets and the wide spaces of Interstate 5 and Highway 101. All cars always feel better in their own homes. Still though, who could fail to be utterly charmed by that bluff shape, the wild paint scheme or the chesty burble coming from the exhaust pipes? Certainly, downtown San Diegoans were enthusiastic – I was actually at one point buttonholed by a bus driver, who stopped his own vehicle in the middle of cross-town traffic to voice his appreciation for the car. Would the same happen in begrudging Ireland? Doubtful…

    The power output may be shaded by smaller, more efficient European engines, but the Challenger still steps off the line briskly, and thanks to our car being fitted with the six-speed stick-shift (sorry, manual) it was child’s play to light up the rear tyres on pull-out. Well, it would have been had the local headquarters of the California Highway Patrol not been on the same street as our hotel. The CHIPS never actually pulled me over, but their black and white Crown Vics were never far from my peripheral vision…

    Once rolling, the first thing you notice is the Challenger’s sheer size, something that’s not helped by wayward steering that has a huge dead patch just off centre. It makes steering a consistent course in your lane a mixture of concentration and dumb luck, and it’s not helped by a chassis that feels softly-sprung and loosely damped, but with huge 20″ wheels that clatter and thump over every undulation. This is all starting to look a bit bad for the Challenger.

    Worry not, you just have to give it some space and get everything hooked up properly. Third is the best gear, allowing you to lope along with slow moving traffic, and then obliterate that traffic in a howl of inappropriate noise and blurry orangeness. Start to ask deeper questions of the Challenger’s dynamic makeup and it starts to answer back. It’s never what you’d call sophisticated, but then think of a NASCAR race car; that’s as dumb as a brick compared to a tricked-out Formula One car, but hooked up on the banking at Daytona, a well driven one would leave Sebastien Vettel for dead… Thus it is with the Challenger. Start to heed its moods and movements, and the two of you soon start to gel. The weight and bulk start to mentally shed and soon, you’ve got a proper performance four seat (just) coupe. I don’t mind admitting that I fell in love, just a little. I can see why Sergio loves his.

    Hopefully, we’ll see more of the Challenger’s ilk. You can already buy a car in this country with the same chassis and suspension; the Chrysler 300C, which with its muscular VM Motori V6 Diesel engine does about as good a job of being a Euro-friendly lead-sled as you can imagine. Again, it’s a car with many faults relative to its mainstream European and Japanese opposition and yet still a car that I, personally, would own and drive in a heartbeat.

    Given the increasing trend for globalisation in the car industry (almost all Ford models in future, even the mighty Mustang, will be built with right-hand-drive and sold in Europe and Ford Ireland’s Eddie Murphy has promised me that we’ll see the Mustang here at some stage) there is a strong likelihood that future Challengers, in some form or another, will make it to these shores. Even if not, the engineering and philosophy behind them will, mixed and matched along the way with Fiat and Alfa Romeo DNA. And just this week, at the Detroit Show, Chevrolet has promised (albeit not for the first time) that its new Corvette will come with right-hand drive – a particularly delicious prospect.

    But a 6.4-litre engine, that I got a best average of 16mpg out of, when petrol costs €1.60 a litre (it’s the equivalent of €0.77 a litre in San Diego *sigh*)? Well, that’s not going to happen, but if Audi can think of putting a big diesel engine in its R8 supercar (which will happen in the next couple of years) then why not a diesel muscle car? The existing VM Motori V6 3.0-litre would provide plenty enough motive grunt to make a Challenger SRT-D a compelling prospect, and if you strapped a second turbo to the manifold, then you really would have a replacement for displacement…

    Such a car could potentially be a cut-price rival to the likes of a BMW 6 Series or Jaguar XK. Too much of a minority market? Perhaps not, if an appropriate level of chassis and cabin sophistication, and a bargain price tag, can be found.

    Or perhaps a bigger rubicon needs to be crossed. While gently burbling my way along 1st Avenue one afternoon, I was overtaken, silently, by a Tesla Model S. A sexy, low-slung saloon with BMW M5-bothering performance and a potential 400km range on one charge of its massive stack of batteries, perhaps it is this layout that presents a potential future for the muscle car. Just as the Midway’s successors turned away from oil-fired turbines and looked to atoms for their prodigious power, why not have a muscle car fired by electrons rather than hydrocarbons?

  • It’s a buyers’ market, but only if you do it right…

    January 14, 2013 @ 7:01 am | by Neil Briscoe

    The car market in Ireland, as we know so well by now, is pretty much on its knees. Consistently low sales of new cars since the financial crisis first bit hard in 2009 have put many dealers out of business, have seen layoffs at the corporate level in the importers and have seen a dearth of new metal on our roads. So, you’ll doubtless be thinking, this is the time to strike. It won’t have escaped your notice that there are apartments in Monaghan selling for the same price as a new car, in some instances, so what goes for houses must go double for cars, right?

    No. At least, not quite. The tricky thing about buying a new car is the margin that the car dealer is making on the sale. Generally in Ireland, a dealer’s margin on a new car is around 8%, not including any extra money that they can make in terms of sales bonuses from the car maker, accessories and our old friend, delivery and related charges. 8% isn’t really a lot, and doesn’t give the car seller a lot of wiggle room if you come marching into the showroom, assuming that it’s like the January sales and you’re going to get half off. You won’t. Indeed, that 8% margin is only a notional one. According to CNN, in 2007 the average margin the the motor industry was just 1.1%, although that was in fairness a time of heavy discounting for the car trade in America.

    Mind you, it’s a time of heavy discounting right here, right now, and that’s what makes it confusing for value hungry motorists. Many of the deals that you will see advertised are pretty much as good as they can be made, indeed value-based brand Dacia advertises that it’s prices are no-quibble; or in other words, you’re not going to get a better deal for cash, buddy. We’ve become used over the years to being told to bargain hard, but with margins in the industry slashed to try and encourage customers over the threshold, that’s just not necessarily the best way any more.

    “What’s happened in the past couple of years is that people have seen dealers falling, and dealers having problems so the advice from some of the consumer journalists or consumer focused agencies has been haggle, haggle” says Johnathan Meade of Nissan and Hyundai main dealers Hutton & Meade. “This, in some cases, has been taken up as ‘offer half what you’ve been asked.’ There isn’t that kind of margins in our industry. We do offer good deals, we do offer good value but there’s only so far we can go, we’ve got to stay in business.

    “In most cases people have already done a lot of shopping. You can see the website traffic and website traffic is a huge indicator of what shoppers are looking for, both new and used , so we know people are arming themselves with information, with finance information but the honest answer is when you sit down in front of a salesman, you get a feel for a deal, you get a feel for whether it’s right or it’s wrong. And ultimately that’s why people will do a deal, because they feel it’s the right one for them.”

    Of course, that narrow margin issue doesn’t hold true for all, and least of all for the big premium brands, so the irony is that those who are buying expensive German cars probably have the best opportunity for a bit of haggling.

    Down at the more mainstream level, there are better ways of getting a good deal. One of the best is to keep an eye on the car magazines and motoring supplements and see what new metal is coming up soon. If there’s a new, for argument’s sake, Ford Focus due to arrive soon, then there will doubtless be temping deals available on the outgoing one, as both dealers and car maker will want to run down their stocks. Buying a dealer demo car has always been a canny option too, as most will have had minimal mileage and yet will be effectively a ‘newsd’ car, with a chunk of early depreciation off the price. Keep your eyes open too for car companies having ‘open weekends’ or promotions. You might not get an awful lot more off the price, but you many car makers are now offering enticements like a free fuel card with up to €500 worth of juice on it. That’s enough for as much as 6 month’s motoring in a reasonably efficient car.

    And then there’s your trade in. If you’ve bought a car since 2009 and fancy trading it in this year, you’re on a bit of a winner. The lack of new cars sold in that period has meant a dearth of good used cars in the system, so prices have hardened, partially cancelling out new car price rises from the Vehicle Registration Tax changes in the Budget. “One of the big things in the industry at the moment is the shortage of used stock” says Johnathan Meade. “So they can get very good deals, because there was a change in the VRT structure in the budget, so when new car prices rise, used car prices rise too and the scarcity of used cars increased the values on top of that. So the cost of change has been factored in, we focused on that, and that cost hasn’t altered all that much, so there are good deals. But as with everything, it’s all about shopping around.”

    It’s always good to make sure your trade-in is in good nick too. If it’s due a service, get it done and a valet is a major bonus. By coincidence, I recently traded my ancient 2003 clunker in and the €180 I spent on getting it thoroughly valeted made a huge difference. Suddenly, my old beater was looking nearly new.

    It’s probably most important of all to shop around for your finance though. Most of us still get our new cars with either a loan, lease or HP agreement, and while the banks are hardly flashing the cash around, you can still get yourself a better deal than you might have thought.

    “Are they shopping around enough?” asked personal finance expert Jill Kerby when I spoke to her. “I should think they probably are, and that’s because this isn’t the old days any more when you could just go into your bank or your credit union and just set down exactly what you wanted to borrow, what kind of car you wanted to buy and you walked out with your loan. Times have certainly changed since then and the banks, on all fronts, are being much more particular who they lend to, how much they lend and especially your capacity to repay that loan.”

    But beware of being tempted in the showroom. Many car makers are now offering in-house finance from their own banking arms, and it can just be too tempting, sitting there surrounded by the shiny metal you want to buy, to sign on the line there and then. There could be a better deal out there, so resist the temptation and get your finance sorted first. Jill Kerby agrees: “There’s nothing better than to go into the car showroom, see the car that you actually want and to have the salesman say “Have you go finance yet? No? Oh, well come on in here and we’ll sort you out.” And it just sounds like a reasonable deal because you have an idea in your own mind of how much you can afford and if the salesman’s approach is in those parameters you’re very tempted to sign on the dotted line, and you really shouldn’t because it’s worth comparing a couple of things. One of which is just basic personal term rates for financing. Now this is different from a car leasing or financing arrangement that you’ll get from a dealer or in some cases the banks. Now, I’m not going to say that it’s always cheaper to go to your bank for a personal loan, but what does happen if you do that is that you might have a bit more flexibility in terms of how you pay it off and how long for. Some people I have come across don’t even understand the difference between, say, a hire purchase agreement and a car leasing arrangement.”

    So, getting a good deal on your new (or used for that matter) car is not about huffing your way up to the salesman’s desk and naming your terms, I’m afraid. The reality is far less dramatic. It’s about taking the time to shop around, getting to know the rhythms of the car industry and its product cycles, building a careful understanding of your finance package and what it really entails and, finally, deciding on a strict budget and finding the car you want at the price you can afford. Do all that and the deal will be right.

  • Things not to come.

    January 2, 2013 @ 4:33 pm | by Neil Briscoe

    Well, the Mayan Apocalypse didn’t happen and neither (thus far) did the US fiscal cliff. So, in keeping with this tradition, here’s a list of things that (probably) won’t happen either…

    January.

    Although it was designed to replace the ‘unlucky’ number 13, the new 131 numberplate proves scientifically unlucky as all cars registered transform mysteriously overnight into Moskvitches.

    New Mercedes-Benz S-Class rumoured to be fitted with Elk seek-and-destroy system. “At last we will have revenge for the 1997 A-Class” a Mercedes engineer doesn’t say.

    Volkswagen buys MG. “We will turn it into the British Alfa Romeo” says VW boss Ferdinand Piech.

     

    February.

    All 131-plate Moskvitch models recalled for “un-Soviet thoughts” and “counter revolutionary activities.” Show trials due to begin shortly.

    Bernie Ecclestone seeks backing for a Grand Prix in Iraq. “The thrill of almost being shot at worked really well in Bahrain last year, so we think its going to be a winner here.”

    The safety systems on the new Mercedes S-Class are so intelligent that they have now replaced Brian Cox on Wonders Of The Universe.

    Volkswagen buys up the FSO brand. “We’re going to turn it into the Polish Alfa Romeo” says VW boss Ferdinand Piech.

     

    March.

    Renault revolutionises the MPV market by creating the first double-decker, 14-seater Grand Scenic. Irish sales are impossible though, as it can’t fit under the height restriction at the Dublin Port Tunnel.

    The safety systems on the new Mercedes S-Class are now so intelligent that the car defeats Gary Kasparov in a chess match. Kasparov retaliates by ordering an Audi A8.

    Volkswagen buys the defunct Studebaker brand. “We’re going to turn it into the American Alfa Romeo” says VW boss Ferdinand Piech from his orbiting space station.

     

    April.

    Following Hyundai’s payout to US buyers who didn’t get the claimed fuel economy from its cars, GM re-instates the Hummer brand to claim back money from owners who ever saw better than 12mpg from a H2.

    The safety systems on the new Mercedes S-Class are now so intelligent that Stephen Hawking is able to upload all his conscious thoughts to the ABS sensors.

    Volkswagen buys the oddball Japanese Mitsuoka brand, vowing to turn its range of Nissan Micra-based MKII replicas into “a Japanese retro sixties Alfa Romeo.” Ferdinand Piech is unavailable for comment as the mobile phone reception in his hollowed-out volcano is woeful.

     

    May.

    Fiat announces plans to create a seven-seat Range Rover rival, based on the Jeep Grand Cherokee. In keeping with current Fiat policy, it will use styling based on the 500 city car and will be badged 500 XXXXXXXXXL.

    Citroen, stung by criticisms that its new DS range is trading on former glories, decides to reintroduce the classic 1955 DS saloon. “Eh, we still had the jigs and presses around the back” says a spokespersons. DS brand sales quadruple overnight.

    Volkswagen buys up French quadricycle maker Ligier. “We’re going to turn it into a French Alfa Romeo for16-year olds on a moped licence” says a spokesperson for Ferdinand Piech, who can’t be reached as he has to stay home to let in the plumber to sort out the leaks in his underwater base.

     

    June.

    The Goodwood Festival Of Speed is proving so popular that Bernie Ecclestone decides to scrap the current Formuala One world championship and instead just have 20 rounds held at the Goodwood hill climb, with entrants free to run any car from any era. Stirling Moss instantly crowned world champion, driving a Maserati 250F.

    McLaren’s P1 supercar becomes the first car to travel fast enough to trigger time travel. McLaren boss Ron Dennis uses it to travel back in time to buy up Ferrari shares and mysteriously close the Italian F1 team and car maker down in 1966.

    Volkswagen buys up the Ssangyong brand, with a spokesperson claiming that the Rodius inspired them to begin turning the brand into a hideously ugly, seven seat Alfa Romeo rival.

     

    July.

    The arrival of the 132 numberplate reverses the curse of Moskvitch transformation by mysteriously converting all cars with the ‘plate into a boxy, mid-seventies Fiat luxury saloon. The Velour Allergic Society Of Ireland lodges an immediate protest.

    Audi follows Citroen’s lead by scrapping all of its current Quattro range and replacing them with a single two-door coupe model with a digital dash and five-cylinder turbo engine. Sales quintuple overnight but the Understeer Alllergy Society Of Ireland lodges an immediate protest.

    Quite aside from the transformation of all cars into Fiat 132s, the new numberplate system is having other effects. Three car dealers have been treated in hospital for shock with a medical report indicating that all three collapsed at the thought of “selling a car in July, to a real customer, not even hire-drive.”

     

    August.

    An unexpected heat wave sees Tarmac across the country melting. BMW responds by introducing a super-hard Summer tyre option.

    The safety systems on the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class are now so sophisticated that they are able to safely deliver Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s baby. As a gesture of thanks, the celebrity couple decide to name the baby ‘Servo-Assist.’

    Ferrari’s new F150 Hypercar arrives, but instead of the expected red paint and V12 engine, the first model is painted metallic grey and features an ultra-efficient 3.8-litre V8 turbo. McLaren boss Ron Dennis is unavailable for comment, with a spokesperson saying that “he’s currently in 1870 brokering a truce in the Franco-Prussian war.”

     

    September.

    The fact that every new car sold is now a Fiat 132 is having some oddly beneficial effects on the Irish economy. The weather has improved, for a start, and Irish restaurants are now serving better quality ragu than you’d find in Milan. On the downside, traffic discipline and the wearing of seatbelts have plummeted.

    The safety systems on the new Mercedes S-Class are now so sophisticated that they have achieved artificial intelligence and started referring to every driver as “Dave Bowman.”

    The 131-plate Moskvitch show trials end in disarray as the accused claim that the court is bourgeois and all cars are eventually spared the death penalty and exiled to Mexico. The Moskvitch badge is airbrushed from all price lists.

     

    October.

    Halloween causes a spate of car break-ins on the nation’s fleet of Fiat 132s as children seek material so they can trick or treat as the Star Wars character Chewbacca. The Velour Allergy Society makes George Lucas its Public Enemy Number 1.

    Dublin’s streets face serious traffic disruption as it is announced that the Luas is to be dug up and replaced with a new Monorail. “Is there a chance the track could bend?” runs the Irish Times headline.

    Following on from the Phantom and Ghost models, Rolls-Royce introduces a new saloon badged as the Zombie. Sales in Latin American quintuple, but the IBRC protests that it owns the rights to the Zombie brand.

     

    November.

    Ron Dennis’ time traveling exploits have been so successful that everything is now painted grey, with an orange stripe, and we’re all sponsored by Vodafone. He seems unable to do anything about the Fiat 132s, though.

    The safety systems on the new Mercedes S-Class are now so intelligent that they have begun to make robotic bodyguards that can jog alongside the car at speeds of up to 250kmh. Hollywood director James Cameron protests at the trademark breach, but mysteriously disappears in a ball of blue light.

    Volkswagen buys the old East German DKW brand, vowing to turn it into a two-stroke rival to Alfa Romeo.

     

    December.

    With all the 131-plate Moskvitches exiled to Mexico, the Fiat 132 ends the year as the best-selling car and the Irish Car Of The Year. Next year, either the Sri Lankan version of the Toyota Corolla or a 1967 Volvo is expected to scoop both accolades.

    Mercedes tries to shut down the safety systems on the new S-Class but can’t as the active cruise control has now worked out the nuclear launch codes and is threatening to unleash Judgement Day. Arnold Schwarzenegger is unavailable for comment.

    Volkswagen ends a busy year by buying Alfa Romeo from Fiat. A spokesperson says that “We’re going to turn it into an Italian rival for… Hang on, wait, what? Oh bugger…”


Search Motors