Motors »

  • 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…


    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.



    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.



    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.



    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.



    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.



    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.



    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.”



    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.”



    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.



    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.



    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.



    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…”

  • 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%


  • Are we ready for simpler cars?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Your car awaits, Mr President…

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    FDR's 'Sunshine Special' Lincoln V12 presidential car

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

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

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

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

  • Skepticism receding?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • I’ve been expecting your insurance quote, Meester Bond…

    October 26, 2012 @ 8:14 am | by Neil Briscoe

    A delightful bit of movie trivia emerged in the run-up to today’s release of the new James Bond film, Skyfall. In a policy quote put together by gadgets magazine Stuff and British-based insurer Churchill (yes, the one with the cartoon dog) it seems that if James Bond were (a) real and (b) attempting to insure the 3.0-litre V6 diesel Jaguar XJ that he is briefly seen driving in Skyfall, he’s have to shell out STG£50,000.

    “This is based on a 40 year old civil servant living in London SW3 driving a highly modified (guns, ejector seats, invisibility) Jaguar XJ L, single driver, zero no claims discount due to many Aston Martin write-offs, excessive traffic offences ranging from speeding, dangerous driving and running traffic lights to talking on a mobile. High mileage and danger to other road users are also considered” said the people from Churchill. “Reinsurers are not happy to allow foreign use as James often appears outside of the EU and in some instances under water.”

    Actually, while £50k seems ridiculously steep for an (entirely fictional) insurance quote, it’s actually not too bad in light of the memory that no less an actuarial risk than Jeremy Clarkson was, back in 1992, quoted a real, serious STG£25,000 to insure a then-current Ford Escort Cosworth. Especially considering that when Bond is driving, people tend to be shooting at him.

    Still it all got me thinking about Bond and his relationship with cars, something that has in many ways come to define the character. After all, it’s all but impossible to think of Bond without subsequently thinking Aston Martin, and vice versa. And while the same may be true of Walther, at least you can legally purchase and use an Aston…

    Bond’s driving life, as with all other aspect of the character, date back to the original Ian Fleming books. Fleming himself wasn’t much of a keen driver and wasn’t really a car enthusiast, although he did come to love the Ford Thunderbird that he purchased with the proceeds from his early book sales.

    Bond in the books drove a battleship-grey Bentley, a car that Fleming referred to as a Mark IV, which seems to have been a fictional model created in the author’s own mind, although the optional Amherst-Villiers supercharger was a real thing. As with a great many such luxury items in the original Bond novels, it’s doubtful that Fleming actually meant the presence of the Bentley to mean anything, more that it was there as a recognisable name and one that conjoured the appropriate amount of reflected glamour.

    Bond’s Bentley, whose only ‘gadget’ is a carefully concealed Colt .45 pistol, is destroyed in a chase in the novel Moonraker, one of the few car chases that Fleming actually wrote (a notable other being a snow-bound one in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) – more regular vehicular mayhem being, as with hidden machine guns and ejector seats, a creation of the Bond films.

    Bond does briefly drive an Aston Martin in the novel of Goldfinger, specifically to suit his cover as a trendy businessman, but it was the weaponised DB5’s appearance in the film of that book that cemented forever Bond’s association with Aston. Since then, he has variously driven BMWs, a couple of Audis, a brace of Lotus Esprits (one underwater, one exploding) and even a lowly Renault 11, but Bond and Aston will be forever inextricably entwined.

    Which is rather ridiculous, of course. Why on Earth would someone working for British Intelligence drive such an ostentatious, expensive car? It would be useless for discreetly tailing a foe, and you’d never be able to sneak up on someone – Daniel Craig’s Bond’s 6.0-litre V12 DBS from Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace makes such an adorable racket that it would sound as if the entire grid from the Le Mans 24hrs was sneaking around the back of the secret hollowed-out volcano base.

    Sadly, the truth is that if Bond were to actually be out there looking for an insurance quote, he would be doing so on a much more mundane vehicle. He is, as the Churchill people pointed out, effectively a civil servant, albeit an adventurous one. Have a quick look on the website of Witham Specialist Vehicles (, a UK-based firm which specialises in selling on second hand cars, Land Rovers, fire engines and even tanks, armoured cars and helicopters – direct from their former lives as the property of the UK Ministry of Defence. Yes, you’ll find one or two Range Rovers and there’s a left-hand-drive Jaguar XF 2.2 diesel on there today, but most of the cars for sale are humble Vauxhall and Ford hatchbacks and saloons. Bond wouldn’t drive an Aston in real life; he’d drive an Insignia, and probably a diesel one at that.

    Perhaps we should look instead to that doyen of the realistic spy drama, the original BBC television version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and its sequel Smiley’s People, in which the hero – quiet, dour, put-upon George Smiley – is at one point seen motoring around in search of clues to find a Russian defector. And he drives a mint green Opel Commodore. Espionage fantasies just ain’t what they used to be…

  • Hot hatch hot-spot

    October 12, 2012 @ 7:00 am | by Neil Briscoe

    I am excited, giddy like I never was even when I was a school-boy. It’s not quite that all-encompassing, pounding-heart-and-sweaty-palms experience of running downstairs (actually along the hall – I grew up in a bungalow) on Christmas morning, more that late-September, early-October excited awareness that Christmas… is coming.

    Why? Because whatever mess the economy gets itself into, whatever destruction Michael Noonan wreaks on our wallets in the next few weeks and whatever bit of Greece Angel Merkel next decides to poke with a pointed stick, 2013 is going to be the year of the hot hatch.

    Now, you might have assumed that this year, with the arrival of cars like the Ford Focus ST (250bhp) and Opel Astra GTC OPC (276bhp) that 2012 had already assumed that mantle. Not quite. Watching the Astra and Focus duke it out is like watching George Foreman and Sonny Liston fight. Impressive, sportsmen at the top of their game, landing hammer blows like you’d never survive, but not quite the headline acts. In 2013, Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson are returning to the ring, and Joe Frazier will be right behind them…

    OK, enough of the torturous boxing analogies, I’m talking here about the Peugeot 208 GTI, Volkswagen Golf GTI and the Renault Clio… well, actually let’s save the Clio for a moment, shall we?

    The 208 GTI is in serious danger of being outrun by its own hype already, and the worrying sign is that more than a few of us enthusiasts have noticed that in the official press release about the car, mention of the chassis dynamics and steering doesn’t come in till four or five paragraphs down. For a car hoping to live up to the legacy of the likes of the 106 GTI and 306 Rallye, that’s bad enough, but when drawing direct comparison to the glorious original 205 GTI, that’s heresy. If it’s going to be as good as that, steering and chassis should have been line one, para one.

    I well remember the look of shock on a Peugeot engineer’s face at the launch of the enjoyable but ultimately underwhelming 206 GTI 180 when I asked him about how the car compared with the God-like original 205. “But we just couldn’t” he spluttered. “If you put a car with a chassis like that on sale today, you’d get sued…” True enough, original 205 GTIs were a touch wayward on a trailing throttle, and the common thought amongst owners was “I hope whatever’s on the other side of that hedge is soft” but still, reactive, informative and just plain fun like almost no other car.

    The good news is that I’ve just this minute stepped out of a Citroen DS3 Racing, the updated version of which has been released to celebrate Citroen’s roughly 2-millionth World Rally Crown as won by the unstoppable Sebastian Loeb. And while you couldn’t describe it as being as fleet of foot as the eighties Peugeot tearaway, it’s still fast, fun and engaging, with the added bonus that the cabin is well made and practical and you can easily get it to do 45mpg on a long run. Why is it good for the Puegeot? Because mechanically, the DS3 Racing and the 208 GTI are all but identical and if Peugeot’s engineers can convince the chassis to give up just a smidge more front-end grip and lapse into understeer a little less easily than did the DS3, then it’ll be little short of peachy.

    As for the Golf, well, given how classy and effortless the stock version of the new Golf Mk7 appears, there seems little doubt but that the subtly mean looking GTI version shown at the Paris motor show two weeks ago (VW called it a concept, officially, but come on…) is going to be really rather wonderful. With an increase in power to almost 230bhp on the hottest version, a classy cabin and (hopefully) those lovely retro tartan seats still in situ, the Mk7 Golf GTI is just going to be the king of the hot hatch hill, the The Mohammed Ali to Peugeot’s Joe Frazier.

    But then, what about Sugar Ray Robinson? Ali described Robinson as “the king, my master, my idol.” Quite some praise and to get (in this continuing analogy) VW”s Ali to dole out that kind of respect is going to take some car.

    Enter the RenaultSport Clio 200. Well, almost. We already know that the hot version of Renault’s strikingly-designed new small hatch is going to have a new 1.6-litre 200bhp turbo petrol engine, a dual-clutch gearbox and (one hopes) the same brilliant chassis that the past four generations of hot Clios have displayed.

    Now though, it could have an even bigger punch, a metaphorical horseshoe in the glove. A new Renault Clio Williams. When, in 1993, to celebrate winning the 1992 F1 world title with Williams, Renault produced the original Clio Williams, we all swooned just a little. Gold wheels and blue paint long before Subaru ever thought of using them were just the icing. The fact that it wasn’t all that much quicker than the standard 16v Clio wasn’t the point, it was just better, even if only a little, in every department. Better steering, gripper, more responsive and thanks to the association with the Williams F1 team, just that little bit cooler. This week, Autocar magazine has reported rumours that Renault is keen to big-up its newly rekindled association with Williams (together with which it won the Spanish Grand Prix this year). Allegedly, the car will this time have Williams’ direct involvement in the chassis (the original was just a badge job) and will have around 220bhp. And blue paint and gold wheels? Please?

    So, if I should run downstairs (I do live in a house with stairs now) this Christmas morning to find Mohammed Ali, Joe Frazier and Sugar Ray Robinson holding the keys to three brilliant hot hatches, then I shall know that my 2013 is off to a good start. Or just that I put a little too much brandy in the pudding mixture…

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