Motors »

  • Geneva LiveBlog: Subaru’s new hope

    March 6, 2013 @ 10:30 am | by Neil Briscoe

    Life has not been easy of late for either Subaru or its many fans. The strength of the Japanese Yen and the firm’s concentration on the more lucrative American market has meant that European and Irish Subaru lovers have seen something of a drought of new models. Yes, we had the quietly impressive new XV SUV, but it is a very expensive car (thanks to that Yen exchange rate) and the Impreza, once the touchstone for all things Subaru, has been allowed to wither on the vine. Even the Legacy has been forgotten about, and you can’t even, officially, buy a Legacy estate in Ireland any more.

    Still, there is at Geneva a bright spark of hope on the horizon and it’s this, the Viviz concept. Yes, we’ve been burned by Subaru concepts in the past. There was a concept Impreza a couple of years ago that stunned with gorgeous lines – gorgeous lines which never made it through to the final production model. Hopefully, the Viviz’s styling will get through the bean-counters rather more successfully as it’s a handsome beast and you could easily see it forming the basis for a future Legacy or Forester.

    Under the skin, the Viviz is even more interesting as it debuts Subaru’s first ever hybrid system. This being a Subaru though, it’s far from a conventional setup. Powering the front wheels, you’ll find Subaru’s existing 150bhp 2.0-litre Boxer diesel engine and an electric motor to allow for both improved overtaking punch and short bursts of zero-emissions motoring. Now, Subaur has traditionally always been famed for its all-wheel-drive systems and the Viviz is no exception, but it does away with the heavy and space-inneficient propshaft and differential and instead uses twin electric motors mounted close to each rear wheel. This not only gives all-wheel traction, it also allows the car to send power to an individual rear wheel (good for both on-road and off-road handling) and it saves both weight and space. Clever.

    The system is close to being production ready, and will be introduced first in the Japanese market shortly, most likely in the Legacy or the upcoming new Forester. It’ll head stateside soon after, but sales for Europe are still be evaluated. Keep your fingers crossed, so…

    Presumably, Subaru will be leaning heavily on Toyota (which now owns a significant chunk of Subaru) for help in developing its hybrid system, but it faces some tough choices. Continue with its iconoclastic four wheel drive and flat-four engines, and it risks continuing isolation, on the periphery of motoring, appealing only to a hard-core few. Take the other road, go for convention and simplicity, and it risks just becoming a badge-engineered Toyota; something that might garner a few more sales but which will effectively kill the Subaru brand as anything meaningful. Toyota will have to tread carefully to make sure that its new charge can walk that fine line between individuality and failure.

  • Geneva LiveBlog: Golden years

    @ 10:07 am | by Neil Briscoe

    Two icons of motoring are celebrating their 50th anniversaries at this year’s Geneva Motor Show. Lamborghini is marking a half-century since the day when tractor magnate Ferruccio Lamborghini decided he’d had enough of Ferrari’s shoddy customer service and went and made his own V12 GT car. Across the hall (and like Lamborghini, part of the all-conquering Volkswagen empire) is Porsche, blowing out 50 candles on the glorious 911′s birthday cake. Both brought something special along to the show, but one is rather more special than the other.

    You might expect that one to be Lamborghini’s outrageous Veneno (which means poison, in Spanish, apparently) V12 supercar. Based on the Aventador, it’s entirely made of space-age carbon-fibre, has a 740bhp engine, can do 354kmh and was clearly brought along to the show to try and steal the thunder of Ferrari’s LaFerrari supercar. But in spite of costing more than €3-million a pop, and with all three production versions already sold out, the Veneno fell just a bit flat. With all the fuss around Ferrari’s new baby, it got a bit lost in the crowds, and the somewhat ugly, insect-like styling didn’t do it any favours. Perhaps we put the mockers on it by predicting on this week’s Irish Times Motors Podcast that it would pull the rug out from under the LaFerrari (ahem…). In the end, it just looked a bit silly, a bit pointless.

    The Porsche? Now that’s something of a different story. Porsche has decided to celebrate the 911′s 50th by bringing the all-new 911 GT3 to the party. The GT3, since it first appeared as part of the 996-era 911 range, has been the benchmark Porsche for driving involvement. Lighter, more focused, more agile and more hardcore than a standard 911, it may lack the sledgehammer punch of the Turbo, but it’s frankly all the better for it. A 911 GT3 is all about poise, about feedback and about sheer driving enjoyment.

    And this new one needs to be. There has been much enthusiast hand-wringing over the current 991-generation 911, with its electric power steering, long wheelbase and seven-speed gearbox. Too remote, too refined and too aloof, say the critics. If any of those brickbats can be thrown at the GT3, then the 911 may have finally, truly lost its lustre.

    The omens are good. Porsche insiders who’ve driven the car say that it’s well up to the standards of previous GT3s and while, yes, they would say that, Porsche is not a company given to writing publicity cheques its engineers can’t cash. Let’s not forget, way back in the nineties, it was the Club Sport version of the old 968 that finally convinced true driving enthusiasts that hydraulic power steering could be as good to drive as an unassisted rack. Perhaps the new 911 GT3 will do something similar for electric steering.

    There’s something else though, something that makes this new Gt3 truly great, even before anyone outside of Porsche has driven it. Across the hall, Lamborghini, Ferrari and McLaren are busily showing off their €1-million (and then some) supercars; exercises in engineering, aerodynamics and electrical assistance and the headline figure for all three is a 0-100kmh time of around 3 seconds. The new 911 GT3 can do that sprint in 3.5seconds, for a tiny fraction of the cost of a P1 or a LaFerrari. It may seem perverse to call a Porsche that will cost around €180,000 in Ireland a bargain, but that number seals the deal.

  • Geneva LiveBlog: Ford’s commercial sense

    March 5, 2013 @ 1:01 pm | by Neil Briscoe

    It’s a relatively quiet Geneva for Ford this year, with just the reveal of the new EcoSport compact SUV to really make some headlines. And that is, of course, a car we have seen previously. It’s been doing the motor show rounds for a while now, and was shown off by Ford last month at a big tech conference in Spain.

    Still, it’s significant enough, doubling at a stroke Ford’s European SUV presence and also giving it something to sell in what is pretty much the only segment of the European car market still showing a pulse.

    It’s very, very American in its styling, keeping close to Ford boss Alan Mullaly’s One Ford concept of selling the same models all across the world. Because it’s an SUV, that Americana effect on the styling (even though it’s actually built in India) will probably not do it any hard – we expect our SUVs to be brash and a bit of Uncle Sam bling doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. Not sure if buyers will take to the oh-so-retro tailgate mounted spare wheel though, and it remains to be seen if the quality coming from Ford’s Indian plant will be up to scratch for European buyers. The EcoSport lands here later in the year with 1.0 EcoBoost petrol and 1.5 TDCI diesel engines and an all-new naturally aspirated 1.5-litre petrol.

    More interestingly, Ford was showing off the new Tourneo Courier, a five or seven seat MPV based on its globally popular compact van. Based on the same platform (and using the same engines) as the Fiesta and the B-Max, the Tourneo would normally be consigned to the commercial vehicles show and would be shunned by passenger car buyers. But Ford is about to turn that model on its head. Until now, Tourneo models (effectively the Transit family, from small to large, fitted with windows and seats) have been sold only through Ford’s commercial and van dealers. From now on though, Tourneo models will find showroom space alongside Ford’ regular car range, as Ford seeks to draw in the kind of value and practicality conscious motorists who would otherwise be checking out a Citroen Berlingo or Renault Kangoo.

    We’ve often said that if badge snobbery were outlawed in the morning, it’s cars like the Tourneo Courier that we’d all really be driving, so practical, useful and affordable are they. Ford may be about to prove us right or wrong…

  • Geneva LiveBlog: A nice little estate in the country

    @ 12:11 pm | by Neil Briscoe

    You know that thing where Irish car buyers don’t really like estates? We kind of shun them, certainly compared to our British and European cousins. We consign them to the pile marked ‘brewery rep’s car’ or ‘commercial traveller trasnport.” Years ago, I once suggested to my wife that we buy an estate car, and showed her a photo of a prospective purchase. “And where” she inquired “exactly will I be selling shoes, wholesale?” You get my drift.

    Well, we might, as a car-buying nation, want to start throwing off those estate car image shackles, else we’l be missing out on some of the best new models being shown at the Geneva motor show.

    Take the new Honda Civic estate (above), or Tourer Concept as it’s being called for now. Technically, this is a concept, as the final production version won’t be shown until the Frankfurt show later this year, but you can pretty much take it as read that the version that hits showrooms early in 2014 will look basically like this. Nice isn’t it? Very swoopy, and the extra metalwork and glass really gives the Honda designers some much-needed real estate to flesh out the Civic’s occasionally controversial design. It’ll come with the new 1.6 i-DTEC diesel engine, so emissions will be lower than 100g/km, and Honda is targeting best-in-class interior space, thanks to the Civic’s clever packaging that sees the fuel tank mounted under the front seats and a space-saving torsion bar rear suspension setup. Given Honda’s reputation for reliability and the fact that even as a hatch, the Civic is pretty remarkably practical, this could be a good ‘un.

    It will have to deal with an estate version of the Volkswagen Golf though. Fresh from last night’s crowning of the Mk VII Golf as European Car Of The Year, VW didn’t waste any time in showing off this, the Golf estate. It’s a much more harmonious design than previous Golf wagons, and it’s a full foot longer (307mm to be precise) than a standard Golf hatch. That means a massive 605-litre boot (seats up, 1,620-litres with them folded flat) and all the sophistication, refinement and comfort that the seventh generation Golf has been wowing us with since it was launched late last year. A Golf, still handsome, but with a much bigger boot? Sounds like a winner.

    Well, it would do if it weren’t for some in-house rivalry from the Skoda Octavia. Revealed before the show, but getting its first public outing in Geneva, the Octavia Combi could well be the sin qua non of compact estates. It’s only got a slightly larger boot than the Golf (610-litres, seats up) but the extra length in the wheelbase has instead been turned over to rear-seat passengers, meaning truly limo-like stretching room with an extra 73mm for your knees.

    Evict the passengers and fold down the seats and you get 1,740-litres of space – enough to swallow half of IKEA’s stock, and all of that will be combined with the Octavia’s usual levels of quality and comfort.

    Golf, Octavia or Civic? A tough choice, and one not made any easier by the fact that Toyota is launching the Auris Sports Tourer (better looking by far than the hatchback) at Geneva and we’ve already checked out the impressively spacious (and ridiculously cheap) Dacia Logan MCV estate.

    So, car buyers of Ireland. It really is time to throw those old pre-conceptions in the bin. Embrace the estate, and an estate will embrace you right back.

  • Geneva LiveBlog: LaFerrari LaBreaks LaCover at LaLast.

    @ 11:14 am | by Neil Briscoe

    Yes, this is it and it really is called LaFerrari. Not F150. Not F70. Not even Enzo II. La Ferrari.

    Whatever you think of the (faintly ridiculous) name, the LaFerrari will certainly punch as hard as you would expect of a range-topping, V12 hypercar. Its 6.3-litre engine produces an already heady 800bhp, but it’s tied into an F1-style KERS setup that allows an extra boost of 163bhp, taking power to 963bhp. That’s a lot, a heck of a lot in a car whose weight is being quoted at a mere 1,200kg. Or about the weight of a basic Ford Focus…

    Just 499 LaFerraris will be built, and each one will set its owner back a minimum of €1.3-million and yes, that’s before taxes. And delivery. And numberplates.

    Of course, few LaFerraris will ever actually see the light of day, but will instead be squirreled away as part of private collections. Those that do venture out onto the public road (or the race track) can expect savage performance. Ferrari is claiming a sub-7-minute lap time of the Nurbirgring (performance that puts the car on par with mid-eighties Le Mans racers, and that’s on standard road tyres). 0-100kmh should be dealt with in just over 3.0secs, but Ferrari doesn’t quote a top speed for the car, claiming that such things simply don’t matter. Interesting…

    The LaFerrari does seem a touch crude compared to its most significant new rival, the McLaren P1, though. The McLaren gets similar performance from a smaller (albeit turbocharged) engine and can run on pure electric power for brief bursts around town. Ferrari says that pure electric running will be incorporated into the LaFerrari if customers demand it, but it won’t be standard.

    You’d have to say it’s pretty stunning to look at though, much prettier by far than an Enzo and with stylistic throwbacks to classic Ferrari sports racers of the sixties and seventies.

    Now, if we could just get past that silly name…

  • Geneva LiveBlog: Mercedes AMG & Alfa both chasing expansion

    @ 10:48 am | by Neil Briscoe

    The new Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG hot hatch is not just Merc’s first foray into the world of hot five doors, and nor is it merely the possessor of the most powerful production four-cylinder engine. Well, it is both of those things, but it’s also so much more. It’s the marker post in the ground that kicks off a massive expansion of AMG, Mercedes’ in-house high performance arm. The AMG brand has already come a long, long way from its roots in the German town of Affalterbach when Hans Werner Aufrecht and Erhard Melcher started tweaking Merc saloons for racing purposes. AMG now has 22 versions of Mercedes cars now on sale, and the brand is looking to expand its portfolio to a whopping 30 models by the time of its 50th birthday in 2017.

    “We are continuing our unique model initiative with our new AMG high-performance vehicles,” states Ola Källenius, CEO of Mercedes-AMG GmbH. “The new A 45 AMG, our first vehicle featuring a four-cylinder turbo engine in the compact class, is representative of the “AMG Performance 50″ growth strategy which was adopted in 2012 with the aim of expanding the model range from 22 to 30 vehicles by the time of our 50th birthday.”

    It’s the A45 and it’s 2.0-litre turbo engine that will be the cornerstone of AMG’s plans. The car was unveiled at Geneva by R&B star Usher (seen above with the car and Ola Källenius), a clear signal that AMG wants to drive down the age of its customer base. The engine, the first four-pot that AMG has ever created, will swiftly overtake (if the plans all work out) AMG’s traditional big V8 engine as the best-selling tweaked Merc unit. It’ll have to, as AMG is not only pursuing an aggressive expansion plan, but it also wants to cut its average engine Co2 emissions down to 200g/km by 2017. Its newly developed E-Cell high performance electric drivetrain may have some heavy lifting to do in that regard, seeing as AMG has also just been given overall authority for all of Mercedes’ future V12 engines…

    Four wheel drive, another new AMG departure, will also be key to the new plan. The A45 AMG has all-wheel-drive, as does, optionally, the new E63 AMG saloon and estate, and all-wheel traction is being seen as a significant advantage for AMG as it looks to grab sales in the likes of the Russian, Middle-Eastern and American ‘snowbelt’ markets.

    And AMG isn’t the only brand at Geneva looking for a dramatic expansion in its sales. While AMG’s expansion from 20,000 sales a year to 30,000 looks ambitious enough, even given the brand’s huge recent global success, it’s as nothing compared to Sergio Marchionne’s plans for Alfa Romeo.

    Alfa is using Geneva to show off the full production version of its gorgeous little 4C sports car. With a super-light all-carbon chassis and a new version of the 230bhp 1750 TBI turbo engine doing the pushing, it’s already looking like one of the out and out stars of 2013. And it is just the beginning, if Marchionne’s plans are to be believed.

    From being the problem child of the Fiat group right now, Alfa is destined to triple its global sales by in just three years, and expand into new and lucrative markets too.

    To do that, Marchionne is going to sink €1-billion into a dramatic new investment plan to create a new Alfa range (which has shrunk down in recent years to just the Mito small car and the Giulietta hatchback) including new rivals for the BMW 3 and 5 Series and a brace of compact SUVs.

    Trebling sales by 2016 would put Alfa sales at around 300,000 cars a year – a massive increase on the desultory 92,000 cars it sold last year and a pretty hefty increase even on Alfa’s record sales year of 200,000 cars back in 2000. Even then, it’s a long way shy of the 1.5-million cars that rivals BMW and Audi shift every year and already industry watchers are putting on their sceptical expressions that Alfa can pull this off.

    But it has to. The European car market is continuing to contract and that’s putting the squeeze on Fiat’s finances, notwithstanding the global and US successes of its Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands. Marchionne needs a big sales hit, and Alfa is the only brand in his portfolio with the premium badge appeal to pull that off. Fiat will continue to be squeezed in Europe by the Koreans, Skoda and Dacia as the affordable, mainstream car market becomes ever more cut-throat, so expanding upwards and outwards is the only viable option.

    There’s no doubting the appeal and affection that the Alfa brand enjoys, but whether that’s enough to fuel such a dramatic global expansion for a brand that has consistently miss-fired since Fiat bought it in 1986 remains to be seen. Marchionne took a dramatic bet on turning around Chrysler three years ago, and that payed off big time. But turning Alfa from basket case into cash cow will be his most dangerous gamble yet.

  • Geneva LiveBlog: Dacia cuts the price of the space race

    @ 9:42 am | by Neil Briscoe

    Well, this is about as far from a Rolls-Royce Wraith as you can possibly get, but hey, it’s also a heck of a lot more relevant for most of us.

    With a successful and much-publicised Irish launch behind it, and the Sandero hatchback and Duster SUV now firmly established in buyers’ minds, Dacia is moving on to its next new model, the Logan MCV.

    Now, the Logan was the name of the first car Dacia built under Renault’s ownership just over a decade ago. It never came to Ireland, but it established Dacia in Europe as a purveyor of affordable, no-nonsense metal. This is an all-new car though, larger than the Sandero hatchback even though it shares much of its platform and mechanical package.

    At 4.4-metres long, it’s pretty much a spot-on rival for that other sensible, affordable estate, the Skoda Octavia Combi and the Dacia will punch hard not just with its price, but with its space too. At 573-litres, it will have one of the biggest and most practical boots in its class, or for that matter, the class above. And, er, the class above that. In fact, 573-litres is around 50-litres more than you’d get from a BMW 5 Series Touring and not much less than you’d find in the massive Mercedes E-Class estate.

    Needless to say, it won’t cost anything like either of those cars. UK prices are being spoken of at around £8,000, which to judge from the prices for the Duster and Sandero would peg the Logan at about the €14,000 mark when it arrives here later in the year.

    It’ll be available with the same 1.2-litre and 900cc Turbo petrol engines, and 1.5-litre diesel engine as the Sandero and Dacia is claiming Co2 emissions of just 99g/km for the diesel version. Like the Sandero, it’ll get ESP stability control as standard.

    “We are continuing our dynamic vehicle release programme with the release of New Logan MCV, which gives us the youngest line-up in Europe. In 2012 our market share rose across all the 40 countries we cover. Sales in 2012 were up by 17,000 units on 2011, and in 2013 we’ll be pushing ahead with development both on existing markets and in new territories including the UK and Ireland, where operations began in January 2013″ said Rafaël Treguer, Dacia brand development director, at the Logan’s Geneva unveiling.

  • Geneva LiveBlog: BMW keeps plugging electric cars

    @ 9:24 am | by Neil Briscoe

    Over the past few months, it seemed that the world was moving somewhat away from electric cars. Toyota came out publicly and said that hybrids and, eventually, fuel cells, were the way forward – not battery cars. Even Nissan, which had put so much investment and faith into the Leaf, quietly admitted that it was turning its attentions more to hybrids.

    BMW though still reckons that pure electric cars have a role to play and the company’s Chairman of the borad, Dr Norbert Reithofer, today unveiled the coupe concept version of the upcoming BMW i3 electric car. And he was quite firm that pure battery cars still have a future:

    “We believe that customers will decide to buy an e-car if they receive compelling offers. Still, success is not guaranteed. But I am an engineer, and as such I know that technical progress and pioneering work require a daring approach. At the BMW Group, we have tackled the issue of e-mobility from a holistic perspective, and let me add: more so than any other automaker” Dr Reithofer said as he presented the i3 Coupe to the waiting press.

    It’s not so much the batteries that BMW is putting its faith in (indeed, the i3 will also be available as a range-extender, with a compact petrol engine on board to keep the batteries topped up) but in the i3′s structure. It’s made almost entirely of carbon-fibre (actually carbon-fibre-reinforced-plastic, or CFRP), a material which hitherto has been considered too expensive for a mass-market car. BMW reckons it has cracked the cost factor of carbon though, and while the i3 sure as heck won’t be cheap, it will be the most affordable all-carbon car yet launched.

    That carbon structure, and the incredibly light weight it brings, is what BMW thinks will give the i3 and electric edge. It’s the first car to be designed as an electric car from the ground up, and it’s that low weight that will allow it to stretch the range of the batteries as far as possible. And of course to provide proper BMW-esque performance from its 170bhp drivetrain.

    Certainly, Herr Reithofer is excited about his new baby, saying that “I have already driven it quite a few times, and let me tell you: Cruising the city in this agile and noiseless sprinter is, without a doubt, sheer driving pleasure. Unfortunately, our stage is too small; otherwise, I would be happy to give you a little demonstration on the spot.”

    BMW also whipped the covers off the new 3 Series GT quasi-estate-hatchback, but it’s the i3 concept that will scoop all the headlines. Can BMW make the electric car work, and click with customers, where others have failed so far?

  • Geneva Show LiveBlog: The Wraith glides in

    @ 9:07 am | by Neil Briscoe

    Welcome to our LiveBlog of all the biggest and brightest news from the floor of the Geneva motor show. We’ll be bringing you all the big reveals, the latest metal and the most exciting rumours and news throughout the two press days – today and tomorrow.

    While today, March 5th, is actually the official kick-off for the show, things were already happening late last night and one of the cars that got its first media airing was this, the Rolls-Royce Wraith – the car which I suspect will be my favourite of the whole show. And yes, that’s with an all-new Ferrari Enzo still to be revealed.

    The Wraith, which Rolls has been gently teasing us with cropped photos and details of for the past month, is essentially a coupe version of the Ghost saloon, but it is in fact rather more than just a Ghost minus a couple of doors.

    For a kick-off, it’s the most powerful Rolls-Royce in history, with a whopping 624bhp and 800Nm of torque from its twin-turbo V12 engine. It may still major on comfort and refinement, but here is a Roller that will be able to sprint (if a Rolls-Royce can ever truly be described as sprinting) from 0-100kmh in less than 5 seconds.

    “Today we launch the ultimate gentlemen’s gran turismo, a car that embodies the spirit of Charles Stewart Rolls,” Torsten Müller-Ötvös, CEO Rolls-Royce Motor Cars said to the assembled press. “The most powerful Rolls-Royce in history, Wraith promises the sense of adventure and speed that drove our founding forefather. But of course, Wraith’s starting point is luxury, refinement and quality, traits that remain as important to Rolls-Royce customers today as they were more than a century ago.”

    Actually, it’s almost a bit disappointing that Rolls has chosen to officially reveal the car’s power output. I suppose they kind of had to, but in the run up to the official unveiling, any questions as to grunt were batted aside with a traditional “adequate, sir. Adequate.”

    This being a Rolls-Royce of course, you’d expect it to be favouring comfort over handling, and although there is talk of this being the most driver-focused Rolls ever, I suspect that it’s still going to be one of the most relaxing ways ever of deploying 600-odd horsepower. Take for instance the Wraith’s headlining clever tech toy; a satellite assisted transmission. This means that, for the first time ever, the computer that controls the 8-speed ZF automatic transmission talks to the computer that controls the sat-nav. Why? Simply so that the transmission knows what the road ahead looks like; corners, junctions, inclines, whatever. It can then predict what gear it needs, combine that information with the driver’s preferred style and slot home the right cog at just the perfect moment. If Ferrari had this system, it would be optimised for speed and noise. I suspect that, this being Rolls-Royce, the set-up will instead be optimised for refinement and discretion. Just as it should be.

    Thankfully, in spite of all that power and high-tech, the press notes for the car still speak of proper Rolls things like ‘waftability’ and ‘effortlessness’ so it seems that even with this being the hottest Rolls ever, some things are sacrosanct.

    You won’t get much, if any change from €500,000 if you want one, but while the upcoming Ferrari reveal will doubtless steal the show out from under everyone else, this is still my pick of the metal for Geneva 2013.

  • California Dreaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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