Motors »

  • An electric hinge

    October 5, 2012 @ 2:14 pm | by Neil Briscoe


    The trouble with history’s hinge points is that it’s damned hard to tell when you’re in the middle of one. Hindsight, preferably from some decade’s distance, is usually needed to tell exactly when things changed, when history took its different course or, as Terry Pratchett would have it, we all moved down a different leg of the trousers of time…

    Even Abraham Lincoln had trouble spotting an historically significant moment when he was in one. Delivering the Gettysburg Address, still reckoned to be one of the most eloquent and succinctly brilliant pieces of speech ever given, he said that “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Couldn’t have been more wrong, Abe.

    I think though, and I know I’m sticking my neck out into dangerous territory here, that we may have reached just such a significant hinge point in the history of the electric car. Now, some of you would have it that I’m anti-electric, or that I’m someone who scoffs and derides the battery car. But I’m not. Am I a touch skeptical? Yes, but that’s only the right and proper stance for any journalist to take when presented with what people claim to be a world-changing technology. Much the same claims were made for Betamax, or Laser Disc for that matter.

    I like electric cars, like the way they drive, like their refinement, their mechanical simplicity and their €2 charge-ups, but I remain to be convinced that they are the be-all and end-all solution to the future of personal mobility. The limiting factors of short range and long charge up times are still there, no matter how much we would wish them away.

    And it seems I’m not alone in my skepticism. Toyota agrees with me (or perhaps it would be somewhat less egotistical to say that I agree with Toyota). Senior staff in both Japan and Europe are saying that Toyota is turning its back on pure-electric cars and instead will invest heavily in plugin-hybrids and fuel cell cars.

    Now, a pinch of salt needs to be taken here. Toyota has a significant industry lead in both hybrid and plugin hybrid technology, yet it has let the likes of Nissan, Renault, Ford and Volkswagen beat it to the punch when it comes to getting pure electric cars to market. So, there is possibly a touch of “well, we’ll go and play over there instead and so there” about this.

    But still. Toyota, as a company, is conservative and slow to reach a final decision when it comes to things like this. Corporately, it sits down with a long list of pros and cons and takes its time to consider them all before delivering its final verdict. And it doesn’t tend to back the wrong horse…

    “We have seen that customers are not yet willing to compromise on range and they don’t like the time needed to re-charge the batteries,” said Toyota Motor Europe CEO Didier Leroy. “So even if we are ready with our production version of the iQ EV we think a plug-in hybrid solution offers a better way than pure electric for most customers needs. And our fuel cell car will emit no harmful emissions at all and will have a driving range of around 700km.”

    This is a significant moment, beyond doubt. Toyota, for all the battering it received in the triple storms of the global financial crisis, its own recall crisis and the physical and emotional strife of the Japanese tsunami, is still the world’s biggest, richest and most successful car maker. While that does not make its statements holy writ, it does mean that we should sit up and take notice.

    I’ve tried out the Prius Plugin hybrid and it’s a terrific compromise between battery and petrol power. I was able to get a reliable 17km of pure electric running from a single 90-minute charge from a domestic socket, and including two long motorway runs, lots of driving around town and some sundry other mileage, my average for the week was better than 65mpg. Not quite the wonder figure that Toyota claims for the car, but pretty impressive all the same (albeit potentially matched by a good compact diesel).

    By contrast, my driving of electric cars has been necessarily limited thus far, because I live in Galway, all the press cars are based in Dublin and there’s no fast charger on the M6. Hmmm.

    The mention of fuel cells is also an interesting one. Toyota is far from the only car maker investing in such technology, but again, a public declaration that it’s a better way forward than electric cars is interesting. If you thought the costs of complications of installing an electric car charging network were bad, wait till you start running the calculations on installing a hydrogen refueling infrastructure. But again, if Toyota is saying, publicly, that fuel cells really and truly are the way forward, then it’s something worth paying attention to.

    That said, there is, I believe, a future for electric cars but it lies not in dinky commuter vehicles or family hatchbacks but in supercars. I’ve recently driven Citroen’s all-electric Survolt race car and it was a thrilling ride, while this week Mercedes has been showing off its electric SLS AMG E-Cell supercar, with 750bhp and 1,000Nm of torque from its four in-wheel electric motors. With their short ranges and long charge times, these cars are not practical commuting vehicles, but for a Sunday morning blast over a favourite back-road, guilt-and-emissions-free, they would be ideal.

    Of course, I, and Toyota, could be wrong. Perhaps we are doing a reverse Abe Lincoln, assuming that the world will take note and long remember when in fact, the trousers of time are leading us all down quite a different leg.

  • Paris motor show: New model highlights

    September 27, 2012 @ 5:25 pm | by Michael McAleer

    As we come to the end of the first day of the Paris motor show, time to reflect on some of the new cars heading our way in the next few months.


    The Jaguar F-Type was one of the surprises of the show, much better looking in the metal than the press shots let on. It’s a really tidy stylish little package with a design that offers a mix of artistic lines to the rear and real menace at the front. Some suggest it has Maserati looks in its DNA, but Scottish designer Ian Callum was clearly playing on the heritage of the E-Type when he was sketching this car. And he needed to keep it modern and sleek for the F-Type has its sights firmly set on taking sales from the likes of the Porsche Cayman.
    On offer with three powertain options – 3-litre V6 in 340bhp or 380bhp format, or 5-litre supercharged 495bhp – it will hit Irish showrooms in March. Prices are likely to start at €80,000 for the 340bhp version. Launched in a soft-top, we can already start to imagine how good a coupe version would look. Jaguar might be a niche brand, but it’s really on the rise.
    Sister firm Land Rover is also bucking the industry trend with phenomenal demand for its Range Rover Evoque. Sales are up 40% year-to-date and while European sales might not be challenging the big volume players, the Asian markets can’t seem to get enough of the British brand. With that in mind the arrival of new Range Rover – the fourth since the model was launched in 1974 – should spell sales success for the firm, particularly in China. It’s got a noticeably smaller front grille that takes a little away from the usual Range Rover stance, but the car is as plush inside as any luxury car. Using aluminium the firm has also drastically reduced its weight, down a whopping 420kgs on the outgoing model. It’s still going to be silly money to tax one, but at least the emissions are going in the right direction, with promises it will come in below 200g/km. Good, but still several hundred euros a year more than most Irish motorists could afford.

    Sticking on the theme of weight loss and the new VW Golf has dropped an impressive 15 per cent on average compared to the previous version. The new car comes with a host of engine options, including a BlueMotion version that will deliver 85g/km. It’s still clearly a Golf, but has been updated and tweaked enough to please the millions of customers who keep coming back for more.


    The flagship GTi is the hot news from the VW stand. When it arrives next year the 2-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine will be available with an optional power boost package that will bring it from the standard 218bhp to 227bhp. New to the GTi range will be VW’s progressive steering system, which reduces the number of degrees of turn the driver needs to apply to the steering wheel. That means lighter parking and tighter handling on twisty roads.


    Over at Toyota, the big news is the arrival of the new Auris, even if it’s not quite that big news since details and images of the car have been on the go since mid-August. New to the range is the Auris Tourer, an estate version that was sadly missing from the range since the end of the Corolla estate in the early 2000s. Toyota has also confirmed new versions of the people carrier Auris variants.
    The Auris estate will arrive in Ireland in November with an engine range that includes a 1.4-litre diesel, 1.3- and 1.6-litre petrol and a hybrid variant running on the same powertrain as the current Prius. While the estate is unlikely to exceed 10 per cent of Auris sales in Ireland, on the Continent it makes up over a quarter of sales.


    At the premium end of the market BMW and Audi both revealed concepts that showcase future production models. First up was Audi with its Crossland Coupe concept car, a sneak peek at what the upcoming Q2 will look like.


    Meanwhile arch-rivals BMW showed off its upcoming rival to the Mercedes B-Class. The Concept Active Tourer is not only a high-roofed family hatch, but will also breaks with the BMW rear-wheel-drive tradition.
    The firm is also boasting another first in Paris in that it has opened one of the first BMW boutique shops in the city, on the famous Avenue George V. Sitting alongside the highest of high fashion brands in the plushest shopping street in Paris, the store will be a front for selling the brand not only in terms of merchandise but, BMW executives hope, selling some cars as well through association with the other names it sits alongside on Paris most prestigious avenue.

  • Paris motor show: the fun metal

    @ 4:41 pm | by Neil Briscoe


    In spite of the economic and industrial gloom that surrounds the Porte de Versailles exhibition centre, the overriding message of the Paris motor show seems to be that fun cars are very much on the agenda.

    If there can be said to be a single star of the show, then it’s undoubtedly the new Jaguar F-Type. Jaguar is the current golden boy of the car industry, having pulled itself up by the bootstraps from the depths of financial crisis in 2008, to its now blooming position under Indian Tata ownership, with healthy sales and a cutting-edge model range. The very fact that Jag is willing to risk comparison with the iconic sixties E-Type with the name of its new sports car is a sign of serious swagger. And fun? Well, with a 335bhp supercharged V6 petrol, an all-aluminium chassis and a kerb weight of just 1,500kg, how exactly is it not going to be fun?

    OK, true enough a likely €80k price tag is going to make it rather unreachable fun for most of us. So how about something a touch more affordable.

    The 2012 Paris show is going to either go down as the show when the hot hatch finally took over or possibly, just possibly, the show when car makers fiddled with hot hatches while Rome metaphorically burned around them.

    Still, whether its a true revival or the last step on the road to Armageddon, at least we’re going to have some fun either way. Affordable fun to, thanks to the debuts of the new Mk VII VW Golf GTI, the Peugeot 208 GTI and the RenaultSport Clio 200.

    Of the three, it’s the Clio that makes the biggest departure from its predecessors, Where the outgoing hot Clio wore its 2.0-litre, naturally aspirated simplicity (not to mention its plain cabin and styling) on its sleeve, the new one represents a radical change. Gone is the big 2.0-litre engine, in comes a more contemporary 1.6-litre turbo. Gone too is the cheap and shiny cabin, in comes something much more chic, in keeping with the rather attractive exterior styling.

    A major mechanical shift, literally, is that it will only be offered with a new paddle-shift twin-clutch gearbox, called the Efficient Dual Clutch (EDC) unit. Renault claims that the driving experience, always an intense one in previous models, will be maintained, but there will doubtless be enthusiasts of the old car gnashing their teeth in anguish at this news.

    Will it be out-done by the new Peugeot 208 GTI? A bit like Jaguar, Peugeot is taking a big risk by comparing the new car to its beloved progenitor, the eighties 205 GTI. If the 208 fails to live up to the exciting, razor-sharp dynamic legacy of the 205 then it will be perceived as a failure. The omens are good, and the basic 208 seems to lend itself as a good starting point for sporting-up. With the memories of epic battles between the 205, 106 and 306 GTIs and the original Renault Clio 16v and Clio Williams, it’s going to be a eighties revival that will put Duran Duran in the shade when they hit the road.

    And the Golf GTI? Well, what more needs to be said, except that the move to VW’s clever new MQB chassis means a weight saving, that there will now be two GTIs; a 217bhp ‘cooking’ version and a harder-edged 227bhp version with a higher top speed and a tweaked chassis. Yum, and indeed, yum. The classy styling looks good, it’s as understated as ever and should be as practical day-to-day as ever, with improved economy and emissions figures too.

    Beyond those headline acts, Kia dropped some big hints that a 200bhp hot version of its gorgeous Procee’d hatch is on the way, Renault also announced that the rebirth of its sporting Alpine brand really is going ahead, Citroen’s DS3 cabriolet may not have garnered many headlines, but certainly looks like a fun steer and the handsome new Seat Leon looks like it will make an enticingly sporty hot hatch in forthcoming FR and Cupra forms, and that’s without even yet seeing the low-slung three-door version.

    So yes, fun can be had even in the midst of economic depression and angst.

  • Paris protest is a victory for VW and new Golf

    @ 3:33 pm | by Michael McAleer


    It’s perhaps a reflection of the introspection of the motor industry these days that with the European market in the doldrums, the most talked about event of the first day of the Paris Motor show will be the banner that Greenpeace managed to unfurl during the Volkswagen press conference.
    It was a bit of a PR coup, but in some ways its a win-win for both.
    Greenpeace prove once more that they can get their message across despite security. But it hardly compares with their recent endeavours in France where they managed to sneak into a nuclear power station. The message they were trying to get across is that VW needs to come onside with moves to set low emissions targets for car firms.
    However their point was rather weakened by the fact that their protest took place during the launch of the VW Golf, which boasts in its fleet variants that achieve sub-99g/km in CO2. The eponymous brand from the car giant is in fact making great strides to reduce emissions. The Greenpeace ire is with the group and the overall averages are being pushed up by the fact that VW is a sister brand to supercar – and big emitters – like Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini. Their stands were untroubled with protests.
    For Volkswagen it’s not as bad in terms of PR as it might appear. The fact is the brand is making major strides to lower emissions. What’s more, the new Golf and its emissions will get far wider coverage because of the protest than its marketing team could have hoped.
    Take the caption on the Getty image that is appearing on many websites: “Greenpeace flag is suspended from the ceiling during the presentation of the new Golf VII at the Paris Auto Show on September 27, 2012 in Paris, France. Volkswagen is hoping the new Golf will help the company to overtake GM and Toyota as the world’s largest automaker. (Photo by Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images)”.
    People expect Greenpeace to protest and will be drawn to the story by the cheekiness of it. But what they take away from this is that their’s a new Golf out and if they read further into most stories, they’ll learn from the response from VW that the car has only 99g/km in emissions. Green supporter or not, one of the first things that will come into consumer minds is likely to be “that will mean low motor tax”.
    So it’s another win for Greenpeace but in its way it’s another win for VW and its new Golf, which for those eco-warriors who are wondering, will be in showrooms in Ireland from December. And with that sort of emissions it will be one of the cleanest family hatchbacks on the market.

  • Peugeot comes out fighting.

    @ 11:19 am | by Neil Briscoe

    We all knew that Paris 2012 was going to be analogous to Detroit 2009. At the Detroit motor show three years ago, the gloom was palpable, the sense of impending doom hanging in the air over both the American economy and, more specifically, its motor industry. Within months of the show, both General Motors and Chrysler would seek bankruptcy protection and the motoring world would never quite be the same again.

    Plus ca change. Here we are at the Paris Motor Show and while GM, Ford and Chrysler are once again riding high on the crest of recovering car sales in America, here in Europe, the gloom has settled in, taken off its shoes and is flicking through the TV guide. The European car industry is in crisis and with even the big German premium players starting to notice the icy draughts coming in under the door, the situation looks worse every day.

    So to have a glitzy, upbeat motor show in the middle of all this seems to be more than a little grotesque. Banks of shining new cars, ever-smiling stand staff, the hoopla of press conferences and announcements, all at a time when you’d half expect to see a closing down sale hanging on the door of Porte de Versailles.

    Still, everyone’s here, so we may as well get on with the party…

    Of the big European makes having widely reported problems, Peugeot (along with its sister company Citroen) is probably second only to Opel on the critical list. Recently bumped from the CAC40 stock exchange listing, facing down the barrel of a massive re-organisation with attendant job losses, Peugeot is struggling hard with slipping sales and encroaching competition.

    Yet, it has come out in seriously fighting mood at the motor show with three major debuts and more news in the offing. Its stand seems positively populated with exciting stuff at a time when some rivals are struggling to wheel out a couple of special edition seats-and-stickers models.

    As if the first official sighting of the much-anticipated new 208 GTI wasn’t enough, then there’s the almost-ready-for-production 2008 crossover, which will give Peugeot a much-needed rival to the likes of the Skoda Yeti and Nissan Juke. It may not be as purely emotive as the GTI but it will likely be an even bigger seller and it has that rare quality of looking exactly right, first time. Please Peugeot, don’t change a single thing on it.

    And then there’s the Onyx. Now, flights of fancy on a motor show stand are nothing unusual, but this one takes the biscuit, cream filling and all. Its exterior is a mix of carbon-fibre and copper panels. The cabin has no seats, just a floor with clever cushions. The drivetrain is a massively powerful 3.7-litre V8 diesel hybrid, lifted straight from Peugeot’s stillborn hybrid Le Mans racer and pumping out 680bhp, all in a car that weighs 1,100kg. Brilliant, but at a time of austerity and market contraction, you’d have to ask why? So we did. And Emma Toner, Marketing Manager for Gowan Distributors, the Irish Peugeot importer, told us:

    “Peugeot is now over 200 years old and it’s not going to collapse overnight. Yes there are difficult decision to be faced over the next while, but the brand must go on and it will continue to be one of the biggest in Europe. Equally, the Onyx wasn’t dreamed up overnight, it was planned for some time and why not bring it to Paris and show it off? It’s a demonstration that Peugeot has a very strong future ahead if it.”

    That future looks to contain a return to the rallying stage that Peugeot once dominated. The 208 R5 rally prototype at the show looks suitably mean and lean and should help push up the profile of the road-going 208 GTI, which should in turn help raise the profile of the regular 208. Which it seems doesn’t need much raising; the word from PSA Peugeot Citroen HQ is that the 208 has already been a smash hit, exceeding its sales targets in several markets, which must be helping to ease the financial pressure somewhat.

    So while others draw in behind the battlements at this time of financial turmoil, you’d have to admire Peuegot’s swinging-for-the-boundary approach. It’s certainly a more exciting way of dealing with a crisis, even if its effectiveness is a long way from being proven.

    Perhaps in some way, that mad, never-for-sale Onyx supercar is a bit of a totem for Peugeot as it seeks to find a new niche for itself in an uncertain world. Sandeep Bhambra, the car’s designer, says that the copper panels are there because they will change over time, gaining a patina of age. Set off against the matte-finish black carbon panels of the rest of the car, would it be too poetic to see the copper finish as a bright, ever-changing beacon against a dark background?

  • Early shows at Paris motor show

    @ 10:26 am | by Michael McAleer

    The mood may be downbeat given the perilous stat of European economies but there is still some new metal on display at this year’s Paris show.
    So far, after a dozen press conferences and unveilings it’s the new Jaguar F-Type that still holds the lead in terms of a talking point. One of those cars that is never done justice by the press photographs, in the metal the car looks amazing. Whatever about ambitions of reflecting the heritage of the E-Type, the new car has the looks of a small Maserati roadster. The two-seater convertible has lines that would normally be lost in the process of converting concept models to production cars. It’s a really tidy, striking package.

    Three engine options will be offered when it goes on sale in Ireland in Spring: a 3-litre V6 340bhp; a 380bhp version; and a V8 495bhp version.
    Prices not confirmed ask yet but expect them to be in the region of €80,000 when it reaches Ireland in March.


  • Sir Not Appearing At The Motor Show

    @ 8:55 am | by Neil Briscoe

    Those of you who’ve read my recent review of the Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake will not have failed to notice that I’m a bit of an estate car fan. So much so that I consider them to be the superior species, the apogee of the car world. They make all those tall, bulky SUVs and MPVs just look silly, much of the time.

    So how delighted I was to see at the Paris show that the CLS Shooting Brake is about to get a play-mate and even more delighted to see that it’s coming from Porsche. The Panamera Sport Turismo is still officially a concept car, but its appearance in such realistic form on Porsche’s show stand surely means that it is only a hair’s breadth from production. The specification is mouth-watering using as it does the existing 3.0-litre V6 petrol engine tied in to a new stack of lithium-ion batteries which can be recharged from a domestic socket. This plugin hybird arrangement yields, claims Porsche, a dramatic 410bhp combined with a diminutive 82g/km of Co2. Homo Supernus indeed.

    Ticking all my personal boxes as it does (powerful, frugal, practical, Porsche badge on the front) the Panamera Sport Turismo did get me thinking about absences, specifically absences from the Paris show. You see, a while back, we were promised that Porsche was working hard on a new car, a four-door sports saloon, that would sit beneath the Panamera in the current range and act as a rival to the likes of high-end BMW 5 Series and Mercedes E-Class models. (Half)-Jokingly referred to as the Pajun (Panamera Junior) here was another car that seriously got my fancies tickled. While Porsche’s high-end models, bedecked with turbos, four wheel drive and whale-tails as they tend to be, garner all the headlines, it is almost always the lesser, more basic models that prove the most satisfying. It’s the case with the Boxster (2.7 is much more enjoyable to drive than the 3.4 S), 911 (base Carrera is the sweetest one) and I suspect that if it ever happens, the Panamera Minor will be awesomely good, quite apart from the fact that it brings four-door Porsche ownership fractionally closer to my car buying budget (€2 and a half-eaten packet of Tayto in part-ex, since you ask).

    So why is it not in Paris? Well, obviously because it’s not ready yet, but the mystery is murkier than merely that. Porsche is now, of course, a fully integrated member of the sprawling Volkswagen family and as such, its present and future model ranges have to be carefully thought out so as not to tread to deeply or heavily on the territory of a cousin. Given that competing with the likes of high end BMW and Mercedes models would also put the Pajun on a collision course with Audi’s S6 and S7, you might start to think that someone might have driven the Pajun plans out into the woods at night and told them it was time for “walkies.”

    And the Pajun isn’t the only one sadly missing from the rostrum. Where’s the Alfa Romeo Giulia?

    Alfa’s stand at Paris is, according to its own bumf, “a spectacular stand that brings the brand’s more dynamic and vital spirit to the fore.” Fair enough, and I do like the look of the special edition Mito that pays homage to that model’s use as the safety car for the Superbike World Championship, but the whole operation is looking a bit thin and threadbare. The Giulia is Alfa’s replacement for the now-departed 159, but it’s also more. It is meant to be the fulcrum around which a true re-invention of the Alfa Romeo brand will pivot; a proper rival to the BMW 3 Series and a shining statement of what a future Alfa will be like. But it’s not here. Why?

    A couple of reasons really. First and foremost, Fiat (and Alfa, Abarth, Lancia, Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge) boss Sergio Marchionne has screwed the lid down tight on any new model programmes for the moment, especially those which would need strong European sales. The razzmatazz of the Paris show is enticing, but right now it’s a thin facade behind which lies stagnant or falling sales and serious economic woes for all European-based car makers – even the premium ones now following announcements of cost-cutting an production reductions by Mercedes and Porsche this week. Marchionne’s response to the crisis has been sensible but dramatic; nothing new until we ride this out. That’s why the new Fiat Punto has been effectively cancelled and why there’s a Giulia-shaped hole on the Alfa stand.

    Of course, we should have seen the Giulia at the Geneva motor show earlier this year, but that was put back because Marchionne has twice sent the car and its styling back to the drawing board, dramatically lengthening its development cycle. That’s good, becuase it proves that Alfa is working harder than ever to make this crucial model right first time, but bad because it leaves Alfa with little to sell right now and less to talk about.

    A similar fate has befallen the small Jeep model, putatively called Jeepster, that will spin off from the Fiat 500 L. It will still happen and will likely take a bow at January’s Detroit motor show, but it’s a shame not to even see a hint of it at Paris.

    It may seem churlish to complain about what’s not at the show when there is such a plethora of new cars to see and talk about, but it must be noticed that an awful lot of the new metal on show (Jaguar F-Type, new Range Rover, Kia Carens, Opel Adam etc etc.) had been heavily plugged and shown off beforehand.

    Thanks goodness then for Porsche, for bringing along something surprising, if not necessarily the surprise we were expecting.

  • Petrol’s renaissance may already be losing its spark

    September 17, 2012 @ 1:52 pm | by Neil Briscoe

    Europe’s car market is currently afloat (well, as afloat as any market so comprehensively holed beneath the waterline can be) on a sea of diesel. Driven by the need to keep emissions down and efficiency up, and with a beady eye always on the price per litre at the pumps, Europe’s car makers and their Japanese, Korean and Anglo-American competitors have kept us supplied with a recent glut of high-quality, refined, efficient and even sporty diesels. And given the Irish market’s aggressive volte-face from petrol to diesel when the switchover to Co2-based motor tax came, along with a cost of a litre of fuel that’s roughly twice the price of a litre of milk, that’s no bad thing.

    In fact, it merely completes the prophecy of a colleague of mine some years ago. Having sampled Fiat’s then-new range of 1.9 Multijet diesels at a hush-hush event in Turin, he reported back that we petrolheads were all soon about to switch our allegiance to the black pump.

    Of course, like so many, I scoffed. Pure, refined petrol could never be beaten by oily, scummy diesel. Why, the smell left behind on your hands after refuelling was enough to have you fleeing back into the welcoming arms of high distillates. And when, precisely, had a diesel engine ever been able to provide the thrills or soundtrack of a petrol?

    The final argument seemed to be, a couple of years ago, the announcement of the EuroVI emissions and pollutants regulations, regs that would require diesel engines to become so filtered and clean-burning that their price would skyrocket to a point where no amount of efficiency gains would claw back the extra purchase cost. Added to which, the new model army of hyper-efficient downsized turbo petrols on the horizon would soon put paid to diesel’s dominion. Arise, petrol brothers and strike down those with high-pressure pizeo-electric direct injection!

    Didn’t happen did it. In fact, I’ve just climbed out of a VW Golf Match, which despite being blessed (if that’s the word) with just 105bhp and being based on a model that’s being replaced in December still managed to be one of the most enjoyable cars I’ve driven all year. Allied to which, its 1.6 TDI diesel engine managed to convey me for almost 300km on barely one quarter of its 45-litre tank of fuel, all while costing a mere €160 in annual motor tax. Cough and indeed ahem. What petrol revolution?

    Ah but, there seems to be new saviours in the shape of the Ford Focus 1.0 EcoBoost and Opel Insignia 1.4 Turbo. Surely these efficient, clever, light petrol engines will claw back the ground lost to DERV?

    Nope. Well, not quite at any rate. The Focus 1.0 EcoBoost is one of the most pleasant cars I’ve driven for a long time. The Focus’ natural agility and dynamic nature only enhanced by the fact that the little 998cc three-cylinder engine in the nose weighs about as much as carry-on luggage (as compared to a diesel’s outsize baggage charges) and the little, fast-spinning turbo gives it a useful kick of 170Nm of torque from low revs. As a replacement for the old 1.6-litre naturally aspirated petrol, it’s just lovely and as it also manages to be in Band A for tax, remarkably efficient. But it’s just not economical enough. Ford claims that it can more or less match the 1.6 TDCI diesel blow-for-blow when it comes to economy, but in a week of mixed conditions and driving, I managed 35mpg. To place that in context, in the diesel, I’d easily have exceeded 45mpg, and probably gotten close to or better than 50mpg. Not to be sneezed at, especially when the 1.0 Ecoboost’s purchase price won’t leave you with much extra fuel buying budget.

    The Opel Insignia 1.4 Turbo at first gave me a glimmer of hope for petrol. It averaged about the same as the smaller, lighter Focus in fuel consumption terms, which I reckoned was a bit of a victory for the larger car, and its combination of silent exhaust and wonderfully absorbent ride quality made it one of the most relaxing driving companions I’ve experienced for quite some time. Unfortunately, that relaxation extended to the straight-line performance, and compared to the 2.0 CDTI diesel Insignia, thew 1.4 Turbo felt positively slow. It certainly makes you wonder how well Ford’s 1.0-litre engine will cope when it’s inserted into the new Mondeo next year…

    Actually, the only petrol-engined car I’ve driven recently that offered some hope for petrolheads wishing not to cross the aisle was the Toyota GT86 coupe. Well, of course a revvy, growly, 200bhp flat-four would manage to make petrol seem like the more glamorous option, wouldn’t it? Especially when executing perfectly timed sideways exits from a certain quiet junction. Again, ahem. But actually, it was the GT’s efficiency that impressed me at least as much as its chassis balance. Because after a week of sideways-to-victory commuting in Japan’s finest sports export since Taki Inoue, I averaged… the same 35mpg that I got from the Focus 1.0. Go and, indeed, figure.

  • Seat’s search for its soul

    September 7, 2012 @ 12:35 pm | by Neil Briscoe

    Seat has been Volkswagen’s problem child for some time now. Across the rest of the VW Group, its brands from Volkswagen itself to Skoda, Audi, Bentley, Lamborghini and now Porsche are striding forth, expanding, growing and generally out-selling the competition. It shows what years of careful investment and the sharing of some pretty impressive mechanical packages can do. VW is on a quest for global near-domination and few would bet against it achieving just that.

    But Seat has underperformed and continues to do so. Its market shares are either flat or falling in Europe, and only recent entries into growing markets like China and South America have given VW”s Spanish brand a glimpse of success. The model range is mostly ageing and few of its cars ever live up to VW boss Ferdinand Piech’s bold claim that Seat would become a Spanish Alfa Romeo. In fact it has done just that, but only in the sense that Alfa is also suffering a massive sales miss-fire at the moment.

    The problem is that Seat doesn’t, at the moment, do anything that isn’t done better or at least equally as well by either VW or Skoda. There is no compelling reason to fall for a Seat, even though I know from personal experience that there’s nothing at all wrong, and actually quite a lot right with the cars it sells.

    But take the Alhambra people carrier. It looks pretty much identical to the VW Sharan with which it shares its mechanical package, and drives more or less identically too. It’s not a bad car, but it’s not exciting, not dynamic. Surely, you would think, the correct thing to do would have been for VW to make the staid, sensible version while Seat went off and did a lower-roof, overtly sporting Ford S-Max rival. But it didn’t, and that decision is redolent of the problems facing Seat.

    Now, the brand is embarking on a massive round of investment and new products which it hopes will re-ignite (or even just ignite for the first time) people’s passion for this Latin car maker. Seat’s brand director in Ireland, Adam Chamberlain, spoke to me about the plans recently, and was quite candid about the problems that need to be turned around:

    “I think actually that if you look at the brand it’s not that people have fallen out of love with Seat, it’s just that it hasn’t grown like the rest of the Volkswagen group. If you look back at the last seven-to-ten years, the brand has averaged around 2% market share. Unfortunately, at the current market level, that 2% makes us really struggle for sustainability, hence the drive for investment and the drive for increased performance from Spain and from the Volkswagen Group.

    “The heart of every car business has to be great product, and while I think we’ve had some successes in the past, notably the Ibiza which is performing fairly well for us, the rest of the range has been, as you say, either cloned from other VW Group products, such as the Exeo which is effectively an Audi A4, or it’s been left to age. Look at the current Leon, the car is nearly eight years old. So at the start of the offensive comes product and by the end of next year 90% of our sales here in Ireland will be from brand new products.

    “We have the Mii city car, which shares its parts with other VW Group cars but it’s still a brand new product, not an older car that was facelifted into a Seat. We will have a new Toldeo in November. Again, that car is shared with other VW Group products, but from the very start of the design it was deemed to be a Seat again. So not a cast-off, but it’s more about platform and research sharing. Next year we’ll get a new Leon, and that car will come as a five-door, a three-door and a new estate variant, so that’s a huge variation from today. That car is stand-alone, based on a new VW Group platform. “

    Hmmm. Yup, new product is significant, but once again I fear that Seat is falling into the same trap that it has done before; making cars that just aren’t different or exciting enough. The new Leon looks pretty appealing but if it drives and feels the same as a Golf, or the next generation Skoda Octavia, then what’s the point? Likewise the new Toldeo. It’s effectively the same car as the new Skoda Rapid, and while that means it will be practical, useful and affordable, the Rapid is one of the most resolutely un-sporty cars we’ve driven in years, so unless Seat’s engineers have been busy working some serious magic on the suspension and steering, then it’s just going to be another sensible but unexciting family car.

    Of course, the great unremembered problem is that that’s exactly what Seat was originally good at doing. Back in its dim and distant past, it build cheap versions of old Fiats to flog to nationalistically-minded Spanish buyers. It wasn’t a Spanish Alfa, it was a Spanish Skoda. Now, occupying the same universe as Skoda in the VW Group, Seat just hasn’t gone far enough down the road of making itself unique. And it’s a vicious cycle. The reason Skoda has been allowed by the VW accountants to invest heavily in making unique and appealing cars like the Superb and Yeti is that it’s been steadily making money. Seat has been losing cash, so it gets punished by being starved of investment. Its mid-size Mondeo rival should have been a low and sleek four-door coupe. Instead it got an old Audi A4 to re-heat and made the Exeo. Still, there may be a chink of light around the side of the door, as Adam Chamberlain explains.

    “If we look globally, the Seat brand is expanding, into China, into Mexico and into other central Asian markets. So that’s helping buffer some of the downsides of the real drastic market declines we’ve seen in southern Europe where Seat has traditionally been strong.
    We had and we have one or two great sporting icons, such as the Cupra R. But the truth is to make that sporting claim all your cars have to be overtly sporting right across the range. But to do that would have meant distancing ourselves from heartland Spain which is typically smaller cars or three box saloons which inherently aren’t that sporty.”

    Surely now though, with Seat’s traditional Spanish markets depressed anyway, there is an opportunity to break away from that cycle, a chance to draw a line in the sand beyond which Seat never builds an ordinary, dull family car again.

    Actually, there is here a point where Seat really car draw some inspiration from Alfa Romeo. Take the current Giulietta – it’s priced and performs much the same as a Golf or Ford Focus but when you sit in and look at the main dials, you see that instead of rpm, water temperature and fuel, they are labelled giri, aqua and benzina. A silly, car-nut touch, but the kind of thing that gives you a shiver of feel-good factor just for sitting behind the wheel. That’s what Seat needs to find for itself.

    Beyond that, surely there are enough car nuts around that if Seat can find a way of using VW’s expertise in efficient diesels and petrols to create a range of sharp-handling, enthusiast-oriented cars that are still affordable to buy and run, then the world could yet be beating a path to the door of its Barcelona HQ. And it can do it. The already-mentioned Leon Cupra R is a cracking hot-hatch, while the more under-the-radar Leon FR TDI diesel is almost equally so, but far more reasonable on the pocket. Cars like the Suzuki Swift Sport and Ford Mondeo prove that you don’t need big power outputs to be fun to drive, so if Seat can mix those qualities with some sexy styling and inviting interiors, then it could at last be making paella while the sun shines.

  • Feature creepy

    August 31, 2012 @ 11:08 am | by Neil Briscoe

    Volkswagen has been titillating us with details of the upcoming seventh generation of Golf, which will be shown off to the public for the first time on the 4th of September. Longer, wider, more roomy and more sophisticated than before, VW claims that its new best-seller (and don’t forget, preceding Golfs have sold almost 30-million models since 1974) will also be 25% more economical (just as well given the forecourt price of petrol and diesel) and will be lighter. A frankly staggering amount lighter. In fact, the base 1.2 TSI petrol should weigh in at around 1,050kg, a car weight more commonly seen with a Fiesta badge attached. Or even a Lotus one.

    But in amongst all this laudable engineering work, I have a bit of a worry about the new Golf and it’s to do with the steering system. If you sit in to any current Golf and take it for a spin, you’re guiding it between the hedges with a relatively simple electric power assisted system. In a standard Golf, it feels light, but accurate and very direct and almost incredibly smooth and sophisticated. Like many electric power assist systems, it’s not possessed of sports-car-like reflexes or feel, but for a mainstream hatch, it’s just fine. Step into a GT, GTD or GTI and you basically get the same system, but tweaked for a bit more sportiness. Once again, it’s pretty close to ideal and part of what makes the Golf feel like such a premium driving experience.

    So what’s worrying me? Well, there is a long-recognised problem with long-gestating design programmes and that’s feature creep. It can best be described by the hypothetical design of an on-off switch. A switch for switching things on and off. As simple a device as can be imagined, and once designed, you would think it should be simplicity itself to get it into a box and onto shelves.

    Ah, but the marketing department would love it if the switch was red. And maybe lit up somehow. And senior management wants to make sure that the click sound that is makes is a more high quality click sound than anyone else’s. And engineering wants to include a dimmer switch and a pre-loading system that nudges the contacts closer together when it detects your finger is near the switch, to make the switching reaction .003secs faster. And then marketing gets on again and wonders if you could make the switch more like something Batman would use. Batman is very big right now.

    You get the idea. Something that starts out as simple becomes unrecognisably complicated once it has passed through a few more hands. And this is what is happening to the Golf right now. Bigger and more spacious but lighter and more economical are ideal engineering goals to aim for and even better to attain, so well done to Volkswagen on that score. But who exactly needs a Golf with an Overhead Parking System that uses micro-cameras to give a faked bird’s eye view of the car to help you park? Then there’s adaptive cruise control, lane assist, fatigue detection, traffic sign detection, automatic parking, automatic lighting and dipped beam. All functions that can just as capably and easily be done by someone’s hands, feet or eyes. Indeed, a competent, clued-in driver has no need of any of these.

    And then there’s the steering. The new Golf’s electric power steering system will come, optionally, with five setting that can be chosen by the driver. Eco, Sport, Normal, Individual and Comfort. Sweet Jesus, who in their right mind needs to choose between five steering settings? Who, for that matter, will be able to detect all but the most infinitesimal differences between any two of those settings? Who amongst us reckons that they would ever use anything other than Normal for 90% of the time and Eco when the fuel needle dips into the red? Any hands? Anyone? Bueller?

    Such systems do not have a happy back catalogue. Fiat’s ‘City’ system which makes the steering go all ultra-light for parking manoeuvres is pretty pointless when it’s already attached to steering that all but the most underfed can twirl with one hand. One finger even. Kia’s Cee’d and Hyundai’s i30 have a three-mode Sport, Normal and Comfort steering setup that just really makes you long for them to have spent that part of the development budget on one setting that feels any way nice or natural. Even the mighty BMW M5, with its three-position steering weights, feels no better to wrangle than a 520d and, actually, quite significantly worse than the old E60 version.

    The fact is that feature creep like this is the flipside to good engineering. Yes, it’s very clever that you can choose between what steering setting you want but is that actually a good or even necessary thing? F1 drivers constantly bang on about ‘setup’ and tweaking things the way they like them, but that is done by mechanics and engineers wielding spanners and corner weights, not by a computer setting. Offer Fernando Alonso a button on his wheel to choose between five different steering weights and he’ll simply pick the one that makes him go faster and ignore the other four. Offering choice for choice’s sake is not a good thing and just try ordering a simple black coffee any more and tell me I’m wrong. I can choose to buy the new series of Mrs. Brown’s Boys on DVD if I like but that then only really gives me the option of how hard I fling it out of a 20-storey window. Choice is not an automatic good.

    So please, VW; forget this electronic silliness. Bin four of those steering modes and just give us one that feels good, OK?

« Previous PageNext Page »

Search Motors