Motors »

  • 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.

  • Discounting the obvious

    July 27, 2012 @ 10:45 am | by Neil Briscoe

    The European car industry is tying itself in the same knots as US car makers did back in 2009, offering deep discounts and incentives in a desperate attempt to keep expensive factories turning, despite the fact that it’s clear there are not enough buyers for the cars that are being built.

    It’s a position that we have been slowly drifting towards for many years now. Over-capacity, the fact that there is space and investment in the factories to build more cars than there are people to buy them, has been hovering, shadow-like, over volume western European car makers for well over two decades now, but until the current financial crisis hit, there was always just enough heat in the national economies to keep sales flowing and the money coming in.

    Now, though, the European car market is continuing to contract, and it’s leaving the ‘traditional’ volume makers badly exposed to chilly economic winds. So, out come the discounts because in the minds of some makers, it’s better to be selling something, anything, even at a slim profit or even a loss, as long as it keeps those expensive factories, with their high-cost labour, working and turning out metal.

    But it’s a honey trap and deep-down, the car makers know it. Offering juicy incentives and price cuts might appeal in the short term to buyers, but such actions have serious consequences. An impact on residual values is just the start of it, but there’s also the subsequent raised expectations of customer value. After all, if you can buy a car for 10% off this year, why not 15% or even 20% next year? And cars aren’t like sofas or televisions. Whatever the blaring ads from the retail park superstores may tell you, the discounts on TVs and furniture don’t amount to much when the cost of making them is so low. Cars aren’t cheap to build, and profit margins in the broader car industry are as low as 3-5%. Knock a few discounts off of that and suddenly everyone, from the dealer right the way back up to HQ, is making a loss.

    Mark Fulthorpe is an analyst at industry watchers IHS, and he told me that the succession of discounts is a worrying sign in the European car market.

    “It’s becomes slightly nuanced. In the short term, discounts can be a positive in keeping those fixed assets, the factories, moving. There’s a danger if the industry becomes reliant on it. Effectively that’s what happened in the US market. We saw the passenger car market starting to slide and when the heat went out of the light truck market, we saw massive and unsustainable incentives being introduced.

    “If it becomes ingrained, it’s a weakness. Discounting is a plausible response if it’s to ride out a short term problem, but given some of the fundamentals, we would see at as potentially, as you put it, ‘floundering around’ unless restructuring is also part of the plan.”

    Restructuring is a dirty, unuttered word in much of the western European car industry, with car makers caught between a devil of falling sales and plummeting profits and deep blue seas of national pride, political pressure and expensive labour contracts. So far, only Fiat (which has already closed down one factory, and may do so with another) and PSA Peugeot Citroen (which is currently wrangling with the French government over its restructuring plans) have begun to grasp the nettle of making their operations leaner and meaner. Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne reckons that everyone is waiting for the others to blink before committing to costly (both in the financial and political sense) restructuring plans and that it may take the bankruptcy or collapse of a major player to trigger the broader process.

    If a major car maker, went to the wall, would that be a relief valve for the rest of the industry? Not so, says Mark Fulthorpe: “If a major OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer – analyst speak for a large car company) went to the wall, it would alleviate the problem in the short term, but it wouldn’t be a panacea. I think there’s something deeper, the over-capacity is more deeply ingrained, across the board. Anecdotal evidence suggests that if a major player went bust, that would only account for about 25% of the over-capacity in Europe.

    “We see 2013 as still being very much a pinch-point. There’s the potential for a lot of volatility up to the middle of next year in the Eurozone, but we would hope to see a pick up in demand by certainly the latter quarters of 2014.”

    And even if the over-capacity issue could be tackled, there would still be the issues of increased competition for the once-mainstream players.

    “Some of these problems have their roots in ’09, and then there’s the trend of the premium brands moving into volume sectors” says Fulthorpe. “They’ve essentially taken over the D-Segment (cars of the likes of the Ford Mondeo and Toyota Avensis) and now they’re moving into sectors below that and that will continue to apply pressure to what we would traditionally have called the volume brands.

    “As will the growth of the Koreans. Their capacity investments have been primarily made in central and eastern Europe, where the labour costs are much lower, so they’ll continue to enjoy that benefit, and continue putting pressure on factories in western Europe, where thanks to legacy issues, costs are much higher.

    “As well as discounts applied by OEMs, don’t forget that both Italy and France have been effectively supporting their national car markets with incentives for around 15 years. It makes us nervous about incentives.”

    So while a car buyer today will be delighted that you can currently get up to €5,000 off the price of a new car, even one from brands that are actually doing well right now, including Volkswagen and Skoda, the price for the economy as a whole may be a steep one to bear, not least because of the highly-skilled and paid jobs that would be lost in the process, and the subsequent brain-drain that would be more or less inevitable. Europe has already lost so much of its ability to build ships and aircraft. If we let cars go too then what hope for economic growth? Service economies are all well and good, but to make real money you have to make real things.

    Yes, it’s nice to be able to buy a new Renault Laguna and get a free Twizzy electric car thrown in (a current deal being offered in the Spanish market) but it’s all just a desperate attempt to paper over major cracks in the foundation of the European car industry. And all of the big players are about to find out that ruthless, Darwinian economics doesn’t pay any heed to fripperies like discounts. The value of a product lies only in what people are prepared to pay for it, not in what they could save.

  • The death of design?

    July 20, 2012 @ 1:01 pm | by Neil Briscoe

    When Sergio Pininfarina passed away a couple of weeks ago, an era of motoring passed with him. Possibly motoring itself, in some way, at least as we currently know it. Sergio, the son of Battista ‘Pinin’ Farina (the Pinin is a nickname meaning little, and Sergio would change the family name by Italian presidential decree to include it) took over the running of the family car design firm in 1961, and then set about changing our motoring lives.

    You’ve driven a Pininfarina car. Been a passenger in one. Or at the very least lusted after one. The company and the man were most famous for working with Ferrari, starting with the 1955 410 Superamerica, and reaching wild peaks of beauty with the 1965 Dino 206 and the glorious Daytona. But more humble cars car benefited from the Pininfarina pencil. My personal favourites are the original 1966 Alfa Romeo Duetto spider (utterly beautiful, surprisingly rugged) and the 1997 Peugeot 406 Coupe, a diesel version of which I have an odd and abiding fetish for. Peugeots 205, 405 and 306 were Pininfarina styling gigs and others such as Chevrolet, Honda, Volvo, Mitsubishi, Fiat (of course) and even Rolls-Royce and Jaguar have benefited from Pininfarina’s work at some time or another. Just look at the photo of him, above, in his sixties heyday. Perfect suit, perfect hair, studying the line of the original Maserati Quattroporte. When Italians make things look good, be they cars, buildings or people, they do so better than any other nation.

    Sergio took the firm from a simple design house to a full-on car maker, building cars under licence for Ford, Volvo and Peugeot amongst others. That 406 Coupe that still tugs my heart may have had a French engine, but its oh-so-perfect body was made in Italy.

    Design guru and car nut Stephen Bayley agrees that Sergio was a truly unique designer and engineer. “There are so many great Pininfarina cars that it’s almost like trying to choose your favourite Beatles number. No-one has ever understood the artistic possibilities of a car body better than Pininfarina. If you had to pick one single thing, then it’s the early 1970s Ferrari Dino; exquisite, measured, delicate, perfect, feminine, sexy… Everything I want from a car or even people, really.

    “The extraordinarily significant thing is that if you take the long history of car design there were two really important stories. One was the American tradition, which was born in Detroit and went for razzmatazz and then died out in the sixties; there have been no great American cars since about 1967. And then there was the Italian tradition, which came out of the old coachbuilding firms, literally carozzeria, in Turin and Milan. And they turned the design of car bodies into, literally, very high art. There’s no question in my mind that in pure aesthetic terms, Pininfarina’s achievements are the equal of any art of the 20th century.”

    And it’s a curiously democratic type of art too. Art galleries these days may well be free-in for most of us, and the idea now is to throw open to doors to ‘the people’ but it was not always so, and it’s still the case that in a gallery, you are expected to be quiet, respectful and not drop your ice cream wrapper. Pininfarina’s best work can be seen on the road though, where you can whoop and holler with sheer delight at it. True, you may not often see an Alfa Spider or a Ferrari Daytona swing by, but even the humble Peugeot 205 has a light-fingered grace that is so lacking in cars these days.

    And it’s Sergio Pininfarina’s passing that really puts the concrete plug on the era of truly beautiful cars, or at least that’s how it feels at the moment. Look around you on the road. Are there any cars that you could honestly see parked naturally next to a Renoir or Matisse? I have an affection for the often challenging work of Chris Bangle at BMW but while striking, you could hardly call his work beautiful. All modern Audis merely loom and hulk, Mercedes are over-styled to the point of parody. Mainstream cars have long since given up the beauty race and instead ornament themselves with silly gaping grilles and tiresomely large wheels in a desperate search for ‘brand identity.’ Pininfarina didn’t give brands identity. He gave them longing.

    “That moment’s over” says Bayley. “For two reasons; partly because we’re five minutes to midnight for the motor car and secondly because the remaining successful car companies have learned all the lessons that Farina could teach them. They’ve all got in house designers now, so there’s something terribly elegiac about the passing of Sergio Pininfarina. It’s the death of a great artist, a great entrepreneur, but also the end of a particular historical moment.

    “We’re at a moment of historical crisis, in terms of culture, art, consciousness. To an extent, the line of beauty in car design became exhausted. We’ve run out of great shapes. Pininfarina did his best work for Ferrari, indisputably. But, you know, Ferrari hasn’t produced a really beautiful car since, we could debate this, but I think certainly in my case since the early 1970s. That version of beauty, alas, is no longer relevant.

    “What’s charming about the whole Pininfarina story is that, at one time, clueless manufacturers, like Austin and Morris in the British midlands, needed an idea for what their God-awful new car should look like, and they’d hire Farina to do it. And he would nip up to Longbridge or Cowley with an armful of sketches and say ‘this is how it’s done.’ And they’d all gasp and say ‘my God, this IS how it’s done’ and they’d go and do it. But that moment is now passed. We’ve got two or three colleges around the world producing great, or at least very competent designers. Even with the extraordinary talent of Sergio Pininfarina, he couldn’t outlive his historical moment.”

    He couldn’t but, for a few more years, his cars will. The sixties and seventies wonders are now rightly revered classics. A few rusty (and some very well kept) eighties examples are still on the road and the ones from the nineties are still providing solid service. Sergio’s last personal design, the 2003 Maserati Quattroporte will this year be replaced by an all-new model, still a Pininfarina design, but not penned by the man himself. We nearly lost the company entirely recently, as hostile banks took themselves a slice, leaving the family only a token ownership, although it is expected to return to financial health soon enough.

    Whether it does or not, the beauty of motoring is gone. Just as aviation gave way from the sci-fi designs of the sixties and seventies, and the wonder of flight to the dour aluminium tubes and Ryanair cattle markets of today, so car design seems to be heading towards a point of commonality, a point where someday, someone is going to say ‘that is what a car should look like’ and that will be that.

    It’s unlikely to be the shape of a 1966 Alfa Spider, and more’s the pity.

  • We’re tackling the wrong problem

    July 11, 2012 @ 4:21 pm | by Neil Briscoe

    There is something I have become deeply sick of in the past short while. It’s being told what the official chocolate bar, cereal, washing detergent and cat litter of the Olympics is. Yes, I’m sure that the cost of putting on this contest of running, jumping and drug taking is immense and must be recouped somewhere, somehow but please; enough. Whatever kudos and gravity the Olympic ideal once represented has been long since denuded by the fact that McDonalds is a major sponsor.

    Something else I am rather sick of is the constant exhortation of electric car evangelists that the car buying public must be educated in the ways of battery powered transportation. All well and good, you might think. Education is, after all, one of the few unmitigated goods in the world. It’s always a good thing to be learning. But learning how to use a car? Sorry, but we’ve done that. Been doing it since 1886 and it actually works pretty well, most of the time.

    The hidden meaning in that ‘education’ about electric cars is that actually, what it means, is that you have to learn about their shortcomings. About range anxiety (a real issue, whatever the denials of such) and about how to use the arcane and impenetrable recharging networks. Assuming you can find a charging point, which right now is actually pretty unlikely.

    Before I continue, let me state (as I constantly have to) that I’m not against electric cars nor do I believe that they are white elephants or useless in any way. I just believe, quite strongly, that they are not yet fit for purpose, being too short in range and too reliant on a nationwide charging network that the ESB has been promising for three years now yet which has still not materialised to any great extent. Education isn’t much good to you when you’re sitting on the hard shoulder, out of juice in your batteries. If you live in town, have a driveway and only cover about 100km in any one journey, then fine, an electric car might just be perfect for you and if that described my daily routine, then I’d be straight down to the nearest dealer and have a deposit down for a battery car.

    But for the most of us, even in a nation that is increasingly urbanised, electric cars just don’t work. And the protestations from the electric car enthusiasts that they must be considered as part of a broader transport strategy simply don’t stand up. I live 10km from the centre of Galway yet the bus service from here to town runs just once an hour. Trains don’t stop here. Trams were junked in the sixties.

    All this raised its head again this week when the Fully Charged electric car conference rolled into town. I had a chat with Heike Barlag from electric experts Siemens. She’s heading up the EU’s Green e-Motion project, which seeks to tie together all the national electric car initiatives into one coherent whole. Except it doesn’t. They can’t even agree on a standard plug yet:

    “Standardisation is an important topic and we have a whole work package dealing with that. The point is that the plugs are a very visible problem. The point is not they are not standardised but they are of different types, so that in Europe we have to agree on one type” said Heike. “There are several initiatives dealing with that and Green e-Motion is part of that process, so we are trying to find a common solution. But this is not a technical process but a political one, so it will take time.

    “How long? I cannot say that.”

    Great. So even if I buy an electric car and even if I can find somewhere to plug it in, there’s no guarantee that the plug will fit. And no amount of education will fill that gap.

    As Conor Faughnan of the AA said at an electric car event last year, “You cannot bring the market to a product. You must bring the product to the market.” That’s why Apple’s iPhone became so massively successful; people just picked it up and found that it intuitively worked. It was simple, even fun. That’s what electric cars have to aspire to; something that fits peoples’ lives, not finding people whose lives fit it.

    Actually, I think that part of the problem is looking at the wrong problem. Electric cars have become significant because we are all under the cosh to reduce our Co2 emissions, and none are more under the cosh than the motor industry. Because emissions are only recorded at the exhaust (and not in the manufacturing process or at the power station providing the electricity to charge the batteries) EVs look great to car makers. Why? Because their Co2 emissions levels, from a regulatory point of view, are measured as an average across the range, so that a 0g/km electric car effectively counterbalances a hulking 250g/km SUV. But the car makers are stuck in a loop of building heavy, steel-bodied cars in which electric powertrains make little sense.

    Even a small car now typically weighs over a tonne, and it’s that weight that’s killing the electric car’s chances. The reason mobile phone batteries were able to shrink and to last for ever longer stretches was not so much because of improvement in battery tech (although that helped) but mostly because of smarter software and hardware that was able to work with lower and slower power drains. That’s why the batteries of the latest generation smartphones are not as efficient as the old Nokias we all used to have; those bright full-size screens and constant Twittering really run down the battery.

    So it is with cars. Drop some weight and batteries could provide more performance and longer ranges, while conventional diesel and petrol powertrains would become ever more efficient. And that’s not just my opinion. Gordon Murray, the genius (and I don’t use the word lightly) behind the seventies and eighties Brabham and McLaren Formula One cars, the legendary McLaren F1 supercar and the ultra-efficient new T25 experimental city car reckons that weight reduction is the true key to reducing a vehicle’s impact on the planet around us, and it was the key design challenge for this new T25. Speaking to the BBC, Murray said that: “It was nothing to do with the environment, nothing to do with the quality of the air, greenhouse gasses didn’t come into my mind. It was purely ‘this is not sustainable and this is not fun anymore, so what can we do? What would solve that?’ The only way is to encourage people to go smaller and lighter.

    “With all the promises of hydrogen and hybrids and electric cars, if you could take 10% out of the weight of every car, the effect in the next ten years, just that 10%, would be more than the effect of all the hybrid cars and electric cars on the planet.”

    Best of all? No education of the driver is necessary. No change in habit. No lifestyle shift. Like all the best engineering ideas, lighter cars would just slot into your life as if they had always been there, as if you had just been waiting for them to happen. Electric or otherwise, we’d all benefit.

  • Venezuelan Idyll

    July 3, 2012 @ 10:24 am | by Neil Briscoe

    You’d have to move to Venezuela.

    Sorry, I gave the answer there without asking the question first. The question was, what would you have to do to justify buying an Opel Insignia OPC?

    You see, a litre of 95RON unleaded petrol in Venezuela, thanks to that country’s vast oil deposits and the egalitarian (if that’s the word) policies of its famed president, Hugo Chavez, costs just USD$0.02. That’s two cent. So filling the 70-litre fuel tank of your hot Opel saloon would set you back $1.61. Or €1.29. As compared to €111.30 if I were to hop up to my local Texaco right now and fill it up from dry.

    Sorry to mix Yorkshire and Venezuela (and I’m from neither) but when I were a lad, cars like the Opel Insignia OPC were my genuine dream machines. And there were a lot of them back then; hot, fast saloons based on humble family haulers. The Ford Sierra Cosworth was, of course, king of the pack, but there was also the Peugeot 405 Mi16, the short-lived but wonderful Rover SD1 V8 Vitesse, the rare and oddball Renault 25 Turbo and the various SRI and V6 versions of the old Opel Vectra. There were some intriguing bit-players such as the 2.0eGT Nissan Primera and the early turbo version of the Subaru Legacy, although probably the less said about the Citroen BX GTI the better…

    Their recipes were simple ones; spacious and practical saloon (or hatchback in the cases of the Rover and Renault) bodies with beefy turbo or high capacity engines shoehorned in. If you were lucky, you got vaguely tuned suspension and some uprated brakes. Sophistication was in short order, but you got cars that could cover ground at eye-watering rates and which could still carry four big lads and a boot full of luggage. I loved them all. Still do.

    The Insignia OPC is a different beast. For a start, sophistication is served as the entreé, soup, fish course, main, desert and as a petit four with the coffees. It’s powered by a V6 twin-turbo 2.8-litre engine (the last flickering ember of GM’s ownership of Saab…) developing 325bhp compared with the 200bhp if you were lucky, on a clear day with a following wind, that you would have gotten from my childhood heroes. The suspension, suitably tweaked and lowered all round and bolted to the back of mean-looking grey-powdered 20” alloys, uses Opel’s brilliant FlexRide damper, which uses electromagnets (no, really) to constantly alter the stiffness of each corner and which manage to keep you both glued to the ground and comfortably cosseted at the same time. Witchcraft, we’d have called it way back when.

    Then there’s the adaptive all-wheel-drive, the switchable throttle and steering weights, the massive Brembo brakes etc, etc and so on. In other words, it’s a world away from the cars I dribbled over as a youth.

    And yet, it retains an animalistic, genetic link to those lairy old four doors. It’s quick (bastard fast, I’d have called it back then if you can forgive such an uncouth phrase) even if it feels more languid in its performance than you expect. Until you look down at the speedo and then up at the flashing blue lights in the mirror. The performance is curiously short of drama, speed building rapidly but linearly with none of the aggressive kick in the back that you’d get from a BMW M car or Mercedes AMG. Then again, neither of those brands can provide the sort of peerless all-weather security and confidence that the Insignia’s all-paw 4×4 system grants it. It is an effortless car to drive, never bumping or jarring unnecessarily, but equally capable of covering ground at a pace unmatched expect by helicopter. And the howitzer bang from the exhausts when you shift up under hard acceleration is just brilliant, in a deeply childish way.

    But is there a point? That’s the question that’s been troubling me since the keys were crowbarred from my hands. In modern Ireland, where we’re all broke, where the 249g/km Co2 figure looks woefully out of touch and where there’s a GATSO van in every hedge, who will buy an Insignia OPC?

    According to Opel, probably no-one, realistically. It’s there purely as a halo model, a demonstration of what Opel’s engineers can do when let off the leash, and as such, putting the Insignia in a unique position in the saloon car marketplace. It’s the only family four door that can match the likes of an Audi S4 or BMW 335i if you’re prepared to stump up the €53k asking price. The likes of the Ford Mondeo, VW Passat, Toyota Avensis or Peugeot 508 do not have a weapon in their respective armouries to match the OPC’s megaton punch.

    Fair enough, and as a 325bhp marketing exercise I can see the appeal. But, as a practically minded man, I’m struggling to see any point beyond that. And that also applies to the likes of the BMW M5, Audi RS4, Mercedes E63 AMG… All fabulous cars, towering engineering achievements but strangled and constrained by the economy and the law.

    I’m just starting to think that there has to be a better way. Yes, I want to enjoy my driving, but I honestly don’t want to destroy the planet as I do so (or, more accurately, be singled out by friends as doing so, ahem). Surely, within the fevered minds of motoring engineers, there exists a way to create a car that has the pace and poise of the Insignia OPC yet which uses fuel at a more sensible rate and which keeps its purchase and tax costs within reasonable bounds?

    Not yet, perhaps, but I feel that day may be coming. Lexus’ really rather terrific new GS450h is a possible signpost on the way (soulful sound, punchy performance, titchy emissions) but it’s still on the expensive side of costly. Renault has been making some sotto voce noises in recent weeks about investigating the potential for high performance electric cars. Interesting…

    Essentially, I suppose, I want to have my cake and eat it. I want my practical, percussive performance saloon, but I don’t want to have to pay through the nose for it nor feel guilty merely for driving it. So it’s either wait for the car makers to catch up with my dream, or start pestering Senor Chavez for a visa.

    Come on Hugo, old son. Help me out. I’ll throw in a tank of fuel to sweeten the deal…

  • Fleets. Not all at sea.

    June 27, 2012 @ 3:18 pm | by Neil Briscoe

    There was almost total domination by German brands at the first annual Motorcheck Fleet Car Awards, the winners of which were announced this week. The awards, held at a ceremony in The Europa Academy in Swords, Co. Dublin, have been designed to recognise the importance of business sales to the Irish car market. A significant proportions of even the current deflated motor sales charts are to fleets, a fact that the event’s M.C Mark Richardson sought to remind attendees: “Whilst the retail market faces a serious downturn, business in the fleet sector continues to be vibrant,” he said. “It is high time this important element of the Irish motor industries was recognised in its own right and the fact that almost 29,000 company vehicles will be replaced over the next two years, marks the significance.”

    So to the winners. In the C Segment (smaller cars were deemed to be not so much of an interest to fleets. A mistake, considering the downsizing potential? Perhaps…) The Volkswagen Golf triumphed over the BMW 1 Series, Ford Focus, Skoda Octavia and Audi A3. In the D Segment, The Skoda Superb lifted the cup (the only non-German brand to win, even though of course, Skoda is owned by a German brand; Volkswagen), beating out the Ford Mondeo, Opel Insignia, Toyota Avensis and VW Passat. In the D Segment Premium catgeory, Audi’s A4 beat the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes-Benz C-Class, while in the Estate category, BMW reversed that defeat, pipping Audi’s A6 and A4 Avant, the Hyundai i40 Tourer and the Skoda Superb Combi to the prize with the 5 Series Touring. Finally, in the Executive segment, it was once again the BMW 5 Series that won, defeating the Audi A6 and Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

    Commenting on the awards, Cathal Doyle, Deputy Editor, Fleet Car magazine, the official media partners to the awards, said “we are delighted to be associated with the first running of the Motorcheck.ie Fleet Car Awards and we wish to thank the car brand distributors for their co-operation and support. Congratulations to the winners Volkswagen, Skoda, Audi and BMW and we wish them continued success.”

    Shane Teskey, Managing Director, Motorcheck.ie, expressed his delight with the day’s proceedings, “Yes, we are very pleased the positivity and enthusiasm shown by the car brands involved in the awards and for their attendance at the event. The judging panel must be complimented for their dedicated and focused approach to their role, all of which led to a very successful event.” (Motorcheck is one of Ireland’s leading car history check websites, investigating the history and financial record of a prospective second hand car purchase.)
    So what, if anything, have we learned from the first Motorcheck Fleet Car Awards? Well, we’ve learned that the fleet sector, so often derided for its rep-car mentality by us motoring hacks is actually a serious engine (‘scuse the pun) for car sales in a market hovering dangerously close to a perigee. We’ve learned that for all the rise and rise of the Korean brands, the traditional strengths of the Japanese car makers and the Herculean efforts of such others as Jaguar, Alfa Romeo and Citroen, it remains in the German’s purview to produce cars that combine effortless desirability and peerless running cost calculations.
    Finally, we’ve learned something very important. Fleet managers are ruthlessly efficient when it comes to the purchasing, running and eventual selling on of the cars on their fleets. They care not for styling, for entertaining handling or whether a particular brand lords it over another in the arenas of Formula One or Le Mans. They care about competitive pricing, tax-efficiency, day-to-day running costs, servicing intervals and repair costs and, of course, residual value. For us private buyers, it seems logical that we should take serious heed of what the fleet boys consider to be the best.

  • Italianostalgia

    June 26, 2012 @ 11:16 am | by Neil Briscoe

    Getting caught up in nostalgia is a habitual hazard in this job, but a dangerous one. It’s a very hard thing to avoid when your mind so easily wanders to hazy, sepia-toned images and memories of cars past, and it’s easily triggered by seeing one of those self-same cars cruising by or parked at the kerbside.

    Fiat has been much on my mind lately, not least because of the unpleasant news that it seems as if there will be many layoffs at Fiat’s Irish operations, not to mention Sergio Marchionne’s stern pronouncement that Fiat is cutting €500-million from its European investments until such time as the current financial crisis has passed. The motor industry equivalent of being told there’s no ice cream until you’ve eaten your broccoli. And the fact that next week, I’m off to test the new 500 L kinda-MPV-kinda-SUV; a car I am rather unnaturally excited about getting a spin in.

    But Fiat has mostly been on my mind because I’ve seen some coupes. One was on the telly, and was a gorgeous 1967 Fiat Dino Coupe; the one with the bellowing 2.4-litre Ferrari V6 engine which also saw service in the Ferrari (well, not really Ferrari but everyone calls it a Ferrari) Dino 246GT and the astonishing Lancia Stratos rally car. It just looked so good, that Fiat Coupe. Very sixties in its proportions (long bonnet, long rear overhang) but utterly beautiful in its understated, razor-edged panels and curvy, Coke-bottle hips.

    Then I saw, on the street, an all too rare example of its spiritual successor, the 1990s Fiat Coupe, the one that was all hard angles, bulging lights and slashed wheelarches. It was the car that introduced the insane genius of car designer Chris Bangle to the world, before he set about redefining BMW”s design language. It’s not a conventionally beautiful car, but striking beyond all belief, aurally wonderful thanks to a tuneful five-cylinder engine and with a surprisingly spacious and practical four-seater cabin beneath all the styling affectations.

    Or what about the razor-edged little X1/9 mid-engined two-seater? Hard to believe but that car celebrates its 40th birthday this year, and even if Fiat gave it up a long time ago, Toyota subsequently proved that the concept had legs with the successful MR2.

    And this is where the dangerous nostalgia started to kick in as I began to ask myself why Fiat doesn’t make a car like this anymore? Now, this is doubly dangerous because it ignores Fiat’s current European market problems and its need to re-engage with mass-market car buyers with vehicles like the 500 L and the (eventual) new Punto and Bravo. Fiat needs a new sports car like it needs a hole in its collective head. As do I, and the worrying thing is that an all too easy illogical extension of the why-not-anymore thought is the trip to the internet to see what nice-condition Dinos, Coupes and the delightful little LHD-only Barchetta sports car are selling for. Dangerous, dangerous territory. (Not, incidentally, because Fiats are any less well built than rivals; they’re not, they’re just averagely built in the same way that BMWs and Mercedes aren’t as solidly made as you’d think. Only the Japanese and Koreans have yet mastered the true art of making more-or-less indestructible cars.) Dangerous because this way to financial penury and spousal bellicosity lie. Classic car ownership is a head wreck at the best of times…

    But still… Fiat, by which I mean Alfa Romeo, recently announced a tie-up with Mazda to jointly design and develop successors the current MX-5 and the last-generation Spider. Now, with the Mazda having the affordable sports car market sewn up, and the Alfa version of the new car (due in 2015) being likely to be significantly more expensive than the Mazda, that leaves a potential gap in Fiat’s own lineup. And surely, the temptation must be there to take that joint Mazda-Alfa platform and spin-off a sweet little solid-roofed coupe out of it; a proper successor to the Dino, but with smaller, less expensive engines (check out the restoration costs for a Dino V6 lump. Second mortgage doesn’t even cover it) and a practical, useable cabin. The likes of the Volkswagen Scirocco, Toyota GT86, Hyundai Veloster and Peugeot RCZ have shown recently that mass-market brands can still make fun, affordable cars that sell in at least reasonable numbers, and surely such a car, well executed, would be an ideal halo model for Fiat at a time when it badly needs to raise its image a bit in the public eye.

    Of course, Alfa Romeo is about to unleash its Porsche-rivaling 4C on the world, and god knows that’s likely to generate more Italian-flavoured publicity than a tornado in a gelati factory. But that will be a quite pricey car (circa €50-55k) and, of course, an Alfa. Not much help in any direct way to Fiat. There had been rumours a couple of years ago that Fiat was planning a mid-engined roadster specifically for the Abarth brand, but the trail has gone cold on that; probably a good thing too as it would have been aggressively sporty, even stripped out. What Fiat needs (and this is me speaking remember; a true expert in the ins and outs of car company product development and investment. Ahem) is a truly affordable, practical coupe that is almost incidentally sporty. A car that can be bought and run for buttons, but through its styling and some rorty engines can inspire a little bit of motoring joy, not just for the driver, but for passers-by.

    Fiat needs to be careful that in trimming its development budgets and focusing on practical family-type cars, it doesn’t make the same mistake that Jaguar did a decade ago; canning development of the sporty, halo-effect F-Type roadster in favour of investing in the dreary diesel version of the already-failing X-Type saloon.

  • The power of Power

    June 22, 2012 @ 2:04 pm | by Neil Briscoe

    So it turns out my dad was right all along. You know how it goes. You rock up at home with some shiny new set of wheels and begin to demonstrate to your old man what all the various buttons and touchscreens do. Proud of your new purchase, you turn to dear old dad for some fatherly approval and a bit of manly hugging. Instead he just glares at some supposedly innocent button controlling some supposedly benign electronic function. “Humph” he will say. “It’s just more stuff to go wrong…”

    Grouchy he may be, but right with that sentiment my dad most certainly is, and he’s now being back up by the might of JD Power, the vast US-based consumer agency which every year takes the pulse of the car market to see how satisfied owners are with their vehicles and which of those vehicles are the best bolted together.

    This year, in the Initital Quality Survey (IQS), which monitors the happiness of owners of 2009 model year cars, up to 90 days after buying. Three brands came out as clear winners. Lexus came top of the survey, with an average score of 73 problems per 100 cars (PP100) while Porsche and Jaguar came joint second, with a score of 75PP100. Porsche’s 997-series 911 was the best single model, with a reported 44PP100.

    That Porsche and Lexus came out well would hardly come as a surprise, but Jaguar is certainly confounding some old stereotypes. Not only did it improve on its previous score, wiping out a whopping 39PP100 from its rating, but this is from a firm that, just over two decades ago, was reckoned to lag behind even Lada in terms of build quality and reliability.

    Now, before you get all excited, please remember that these results are from the US, and based on models sold there, so they don’t necessarily translate across to our market. Nonetheless, Mark Teevan from Lexus Ireland pronounced himself well and truly happy with the outcome: “We are obviously delighted with the results from the JD power survey, and while it does relate to the US market, the core values of our brand such as exceptional build quality & reliability, and delivering an outstanding customer experience apply to markets outside America, including Ireland. Therefore, I believe the overall position of Lexus in these results is reflective of the where the brand sits in our market.”

    It’s certainly added kudos for a marque already garlanded with many awards for its quality of build and construction. But what about the other end of the table? Fiat, which has only just returned to the US market, with a single model (the 500 Abarth) did badly, coming joint bottom of the survey with Smart with a ranking of 151PP100. Would such a ruling be damaging to the brand here in Ireland?

    “I honestly have no idea what proportion of Irish car buyers are aware of the work JD Power does” said Conor Twomey, communications manager for Fiat in Ireland. “Those that do would probably be more interested in its U.K. surveys than those conducted in America. Surveys conducted in other countries need to be approached cautiously, however, because so much more than just the vehicle is taken into consideration and buyers in other markets have different needs and expectations. In any case, the American market is very different to that of Ireland and the Fiat 500 sold in the U.S., while visually similar, is actually a very different machine to the version sold here  – it’s built in a different factory on a different continent!

    “Quality and reliability are hugely important factors in people’s purchase decisions. That’s why we introduced a five-year warranty on all Fiat and Alfa Romeo vehicles: Not only does that assure people of the quality of our vehicles and set their minds at ease, it allows them to focus on the aspects of the cars that matter to them, be that practicalities such as the purchase price, fuel economy, as CO2 emissions or the subjective areas of appearance, cabin ambience or driving dynamics.”

    That said, Fiat (and its partners at Chrysler) clearly take the likes of JD Power and direct customer feedback seriously, even to the point of tweaking vehicle design off the back of such reports. Doug Betts, senior vice president in charge of quality for Chrysler told us that “we value customer feedback, including IQS, and use it continuously to improve our products. For example, Fiat vehicles are getting updated instrument panel and steering wheel graphics to make the controls more intuitive for North American customers.”

    Mark Teevan reckons that it would be useful for Irish car buyers if JD Power were to extend its reach over here: “We would love to see a JD Power or similar survey taking place in the Irish market. I think it would be very beneficial for prospective customers to see how manufacturers and their products perform at a local level, and I believe Lexus’ position in international surveys would be mirrored in Ireland”

    Certainly, the Irish market would present a unique model mix and some pretty unique driving conditions, not necessarily mirrored in the UK. And given Irish buyers’ traditional reluctance to (and enragement at if they have to) spend money maintaining their cars, a marque with a high JD Power rating could well be in the pound seats. No little part of Toyota’s massive success in Ireland (compare its dominant Irish position to its lowly market share in the UK) is down to its legendary reliability and strength, recalls be damned.

    But back to my dad. You see, it turns out that a lot of the complaints JD Power has been hearing from car buyers and owners is not to do with major mechanical items like engines and transmissions, but smaller, fiddly items like in-car entertainment, sat-navs and the like. And much of the rise in complaints is down to the fact that more and more affordable cars are now being fitted with such items. “Until recently, this type of sophisticated technology was found primarily on high-end models” said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power. “However, over the past few years it has rapidly found its way into the automotive mainstream. For example, in 2012, more than 80 percent of owners indicate that their new vehicle has some form of hands-free technology.”

    So dad, you really were right. It is just something else to go wrong.

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