Motors »

  • Year out, year in

    December 28, 2011 @ 7:53 am | by Neil Briscoe

    We’re about 72hrs shy of the end of 2011, so it seems right to have a quick glance back over the most memorable cars of the past twelve months, an to have an equally quick look forward to what’s looking interesting for 2012.

    My first choice of a memorable car might be a bit surprising because it’s the Volkswagen Jetta. The Jetta just isn’t supposed to be memorable, it’s supposed to be a cold, clinical businessman’s tool, a rung on the company car ladder. Even though it’s more mechanically distant than it used to be, it is still fundamentally a Golf with a boot, and I usually deride four door saloon version of five door hatchbacks.

    Yet the Jetta just got under my skin. Time was a factor. Road tests are usually carried out over the course of a week, and had I driven the Jetta for just seven days, my verdict would most likely have been something along the lines of ‘effective but bland.’ But the Jetta stayed in my care for a month, and in that time it wormed its way very firmly into my affections.

    How? Just by being very good at pretty much everything. It was spacious, comfortable, reassuringly well constructed. Its boot wass simply massive, its 2.0-litre TDI 140bhp diesel was impressively silent as well as economical and its DSG gearbox proved that self-shifting is now better than manual, no matter how much of an enthusiastic driver you are.

    There are criticisms of course. Even with a recent price cut, the sticker of my Highline-spec test car was way too high, at a hair over €30k, yet there was still a disappointing row of blank switches showing you were nice extra equipment could have been. And oddly, in spite of being longer and heavier than its cousin, the Golf, it rode less serenely, allowing ripples and bumps through to the cabin that the hatchback would have shrugged off.

    Still, for its sheer competence if for nothing else, it remains one of the best cars I drove all year and, significantly, it shared driveway space with both a similarly priced BMW 1 Series and a Ford Mondeo at different points of its time with me, and both times I was happier climbing back into the Jetta.

    It may not have been exactly the most relevant car of 2011, but the Renault Megane Trophy left an indelible black and red smear across my memory. 265bhp put through the front wheels will do that to you, of course, but oddly enough it wasn’t the power that was memorable. Or at least, it wasn’t just the power. It was the way that an amped-up hot hatch, which should have been unruly and loutish with all that grunt, remained calm and fluid under pressure, dispatching heaving, broken Irish tarmac with aplomb, remaining unflustered in the face of potholes and sudden impacts.

    It was fun, of course. Exciting, without doubt. But it was also practical (decent boot, spacious rear seats) and comfortable (that ability to deal with terrible tarmac backed up by excellent bucket seats). A standard Megane is a pretty unremarkable car, but the Trophy rose way, way above its station. At around €39k (Renault Ireland doesn’t officially import it, so the price is more POA than precise) it’s a rival to the likes of the Golf GTI and forthcoming ford Focus ST. Yet its chassis balance is so brilliant, and its ability to cover ground so bewitching that you start thinking of rivals not as being fellow hatchbacks but more along the lines of, say, a Porsche 911 GTR RS. Yes, it’s that good.

    The glamourpuss Range Rover Evoque was also a deeply memorable car, if an occasionally contradictory one. Certainly, it has off-road and foul weather capabilities far beyond what will ever be tested by its likely purchasers. Two days spent messing about in the Welsh valleys and (most memorable of all) in a disused railway tunnel under Liverpool proved that the Evoque, in four wheel drive specification at least, has the off-roading agility and ability of a true Land Rover.

    Whether you will appreciate that or not, for a €40k starting price (which will dip further when the front-wheel-drive version arrives in the spring) you get truly concept-car styling, which hides a surprisingly spacious (and gorgeous) cabin and the chance to ask the question; “Shall we take the Range Rover tonight, dear?”

    Yes, it’s too thirsty (the claimed fuel consumption figures are the damndest of lies) and I still think that the suspension and steering seem to have come from different cars (the steering’s too light, the suspension too stiff) but the Evoque was without doubt one of the most nakedly desirable cars of 2011, and rightly so.

    As for 2012, I’m really rather looking forward to the related launches of the new Hyundai i30 and Kia Cee’d. Both will be replacing capable but hardly pulse-racing existing models, and if both are good, solid family cars, then no surprise will be evident. I just have the feeling, though, that after a year in which Hyundai launched the i40 and Veloster, and Kia gave us the Optima and the brilliant little Rio, that both brands are now on the cusp of producing truly great cars and I just have an inkling that their five-door hatches could be the sweetest spots of both ranges.

    And then there’s the Jaguar CX-16. All journalistic objectivity aside, I just love Jags, always have done, and the fact that, after a few years spent getting its mainstream saloon range of XF and XJ right, Jaguar is now reminding us that it is above all else a maker of sports cars is just music to my eyes and ears. The CX-16 (the production name of which will be announced at the Detroit motor show next week) looks devastatingly beautiful and should be a touch more affordable than the bigger, older XK coupe. Ian Callum, Jag’s chief designer, seems to have an unerring eye for automotive beauty, and his colleagues in the chassis and engine departments this year showed their prowess in the perfectly balanced XF 2.2 diesel, so my hopes are high.

    So it merely remains for me to wish you all a happy new year, and ask you what car you’re looking forward to most of all. Comments below…

    Best moment of 2011: 1,440 of them actually, as I watched, almost unblinking, the titanic racing battle between Audi and Peugeot unfold at the Le Mans 24hrs.

    Worst moment of 2011. Seeing the sad business of Saab being financially strangled and shutting up shop. Hardly unexpected (and possibly not over yet) but a once-great brand deserved better.

  • Saab’s sad demise

    December 21, 2011 @ 5:54 pm | by Michael McAleer


    An 'Ursaab', the first Saab AB automobile to be built, stands on display at the Saab museum in Trolhattan, Sweden


    On the steps of the courthouse in Sweden, Victor Muller, chief executive officer of Saab Automobile’s parent company Swedish Automobile said the decision to file for bankruptcy was due to General Motors’ decision to reject yet another takeover bid from a potential Chinese investor. He described the move as “the last nail in the coffin of this beautiful company”.

    In reality Saab has been in a tailspin for nearly a decade. Several years ago we had dinner with the then boss of General Motors Europe, Carl Peter Forster. While his main focus was on Opel’s plans to get back in profit – still an aspiration for the firm – the conversation turned to Saab.

    Given that much of the 9-3 and 9-5 models at the time were Opel engineering cloaked in the Saab façade, I asked whether it would make sense to move the Swedish firm’s model production to Opel’s Russelheim plant. He responded with his own query about what actually makes Saab Swedish. Is it the fact the cars are built by Swedes, or that the design is influenced and driven by Swedes? He then wondered aloud whether, if Saab were to close its production in Sweden and merely retained marketing and design functions there, they would be any less Swedish?

    Such a move never came to pass, no doubt influenced by the impact such a move would have on sales in the home market and the undoubted political pressure that would come to bear from a Swedish government eager not to lose so many manufacturing jobs. Similarly Volvo would have baulked at the move, given that its suppliers were equally dependent on both brands to justify their own production facilities in Sweden.

    This week Saab filed for bankruptcy, thereby ending over 60 years of car production. If as expected the Trollhatten plant remains closed, it will put pressure on Volvo suppliers as feared.

    Some blame must fall on General Motors for this situation. Car firms depend on new product to survive. It’s clear that a coherent product plan was never put in place. That meant its new owners were straddled with just two models and little in the pipeline to replace them. Given that a new model can cost anything up to €800 million to get on the road, and at least two years of development, they needed time and working capital to see them through. In the event, they had neither.

    GM’s recurrent rejection of potential new buyers says a lot about its interest in seeing a successful Saab resurrected. It contrasts with Ford’s approach to Volvo. There the US car giant would have had the right to similar reservations about selling to a Chinese investor who might one day become a serious international rival. It carried on with the deal and Volvo has benefitted as a result. Not so with GM and Saab.

    While the endgame played out in a Stockholm court room, in reality the future of Saab was determined in Detroit when GM announced the brand was up for “sale or closure”. The only sale that would garner support would be to a firm who would never be in a position to one day compete with the US firm. That ultimately has consigned Saab to a slow and gradual death.

    Whatever about the dismay this week in Trollhatten, there must be a degree of worry in Russelheim as well, home to Opel. Having been up for sale itself in 2008/2009, a potential deal reportedly fell through for similar reasons: GM was not prepared to let Opel fall into the hands of a potential future rival.

    So in the end GM decided to keep Opel. Yet there is still a regular drip-feed of industry reports from Detroit that GM executives are eager to off-load the loss-making European. If they do, will it only to be someone who will never quite have the ability to turn it around, thereby repeating the sad tale of Saab? It must be a worry at Opel, but also in political circles in Berlin, where the threat to 40,000 jobs and ancillary industries would be horrendous.

    The passing of Saab is a real shame, for the brand had a good pedigree, well respected as an alternative to the rest of the premium players.

    A favourite amongst dentists and architects, it was considered as premium choice, but less brash and arrogant that the German models. It was an image that could have been cultivated into profit, even if the underpinnings were shared with others. Alas, unless a white knight arrives to save the day – and one that’s unlikely to offer any threat to GM in the future – then we’ve seen the last of the Saab griffin on the bonnets.

  • Supercars are super fun

    December 13, 2011 @ 6:53 am | by Neil Briscoe

    By Neil Briscoe.

    It’s a good week for fans of really, really expensive cars that go very fast. Bentley and BMW, just to name two, will be hoping that more than a few of those fans will actually have the money to convert that fan-dom into ownership.

    For Bentley, it’s not a new car that’s news, but a new engine. Ever since its launch in 2003, the big-selling Bentley Continental GT Coupe has had but one engine; a 6.0-litre W12, with turbos, pumping out 550bhp (and more, at times). Well now, it is about to be joined by a new Audi-based 4.0-litre twin turbo V8 engine. And for those of you thinking ‘entry level model, probably gets a GL badge’ let me give you some figures. 500bhp. 660Nm of torque. Top speed of around 300kmh with as sub-5.0-sec 0-100kmh time. Entry level this is not.

    It will still sit ‘below’ the W12 model in the range though. Quite why anyone would want to buy the more expensive, thirstier twelve cylinder one when the V8 should prove more than adequate is a bit beyond me though. Am I just too practically minded?

    Bentley seems very keen on its new powerplant though, even going so far as to putting its engine note up on the internet to demonstrate that, downsized or no, it makes a proper Bentley grumble.

    (You can hear it, and sort of see it, here:

    Meanwhile, for those who want to buy a BMW 6 Series (lucky old them) but are caught by that car’s lack of rear doors and tiny rear seats, we have good news. Here is the BMW 6 Series Gran Coupe, which will rival the likes of the Audi A7 and Mercedes-Benz C-Class.

    It’s identical to the svelte 6 Series coupe from the front doors forward, but it’s 112mm longer (113mm longer in the wheelbase) and looks to have proper lounging space in the back seats. But just because it’s closer to a 5 Series in terms of being practical, don’t expect it to be cheaper. In fact, it’ll be even more expensive than the 6 Series coupe, pushing it way, way above the entry price points for either the Audi or the Merc.

    Pick of the engines will be the 640d’s 3.0-litre twin-turbo diesel, which will whisk all four passengers from 0-100kmh in 5.4secs yet emits just 148g/km.

    But the newly announced supercar that we’re (alright, I’m) most excited about is the new Honda NSX, and yes, Honda has just confirmed that it will be called just that. We are now but weeks away from its official unveiling at the Detroit Motor Show, and the details that are slipping out are tantalising to say the least.

    Honda is, admirably, not chasing headline bhp figures for the NSX, bus is instead seeking to make it as light and efficient as possible, with high performance being the natural by-product of doing just that.

    It will use Honda’s Electric Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive system that pairs a 3.5-litre V6 engine with around 310bhp paired with three electric motors. One 40bhp motor drives the rear axle with the engine, while a pair of 27bhp motors each drive one of the front wheels. A fearsomely complicated computer will shuffle and apportion all of the available grunt to whichever wheel needs it most.

    As with the original NSX, lots of lightweight aluminium will be used in the chassis and Honda is known to be working hard on carbon-fibre-reinforced-plastic solutions for the body.

    Style wise, we’ll obviously find out more when we see the concept car at Detroit (with production pencilled in for the middle of 2013) but we may have already seen a big hint, with an Acura-badged (Acura is Honda’s US-only luxury arm and a rival to Lexus) prototype on the set of The Avengers movie, featuring Robert Downey Jnr.

    Can it possibly be as brilliant and as ground breaking as the original NSX? Probably not, no, but I’ll be making sure I’m first in the queue to find out.

    Image source:

  • Consultation Convulsions

    December 9, 2011 @ 6:55 am | by Neil Briscoe

    So, when is a consultation not a consultation? When it’s a fait accompli.

    Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, in concluding his 2012 budget speech, announced that he would be requesting submissions and suggestions from “interested parties” (for which read, the motor industry, the environmental lobby and sundry other lobbying groups) on adjustments to the motor tax and Vehicle Registration Tax (VRT) bands and rates, with proposals to be in by the end of March.

    This is something rather new. Previously, when it came to dreaming up new wheezes to squeeze more money out of motorists and the car trade, the figures were drawn up by the Department of Finance, presented to the Department of The Environment and were handed down as diktat to the industry as whole.

    Oh sure, there were meetings between the Society Of The Irish Motor Industry and representatives from the larger importer/distributors and officials from both departments. Rumour has it that a minister or two might even have wandered in during these meetings. But by and large, the industry was given a finished, finalised set of plans and told to go away and work with it.

    That’s how the current numberplate system was foisted upon the industry and that’s also how the current VRT and motor tax rates were decided upon. Coming up to the 2008 tax system change, the industry as a whole said to the government “do what you want, within reason, but just give us warning and do it so that it coincides with the main selling period in the first quarter of the year.”

    The changes were introduced in July 2008, sent second hand values into a death spiral and generally banjaxed any chance the Irish car industry had of making the most of the last decent year of car sales before the recession hit.

    Now though, things are different. Clearly, no civil servant or politician who established the existing tax bands had even the faintest idea of the low carbon models coming down the pipe from almost every manufacturer. Who would have thought that everything from a Ford Fiesta to a Volkswagen Golf to a BMW 520d would all slot neatly into the cheapest two bands for VRT and motor tax? Clearly, no-one in government buildings.

    It seems that Mr Noonan is not going to make the same mistake, a mistake that has cost the exchequer billions in VRT and motor tax receipts, again. The feeling on the ground is that, while decisions have already been made and the Government’s side is essentially going to be telling the industry “We need this cash, now tell us how best we can get it out of your customers,” there is a greater chance of the powers that be actually listening this time.

    We spoke to James Brooks, MD of Kia Motors Ireland and he reckons that things are going to be somewhat different this time around. “I know the Taoiseach is talking about open government, and we’ve already met with Pat Rabbitte a couple of times, and the fact that we actually got to meet him and he told us they he is open to suggestions on lowering carbon emissions, I’m very encouraged by that. So long as the adjustment is done at the right time, and isn’t too extreme, the industry recognises that cars are getting cleaner and that the Government is losing revenue. So long as we feel we have some input into it, we’ll feel better than we did in 2008, because ultimately those moves cost jobs and this has to be about promoting jobs.”

    Fiat Ireland, and its MD Adrian C. Walsh, are somewhat less sanguine though. “There has clearly been no thought given to all of those people living in remote areas, those driving back and forth every day from commuter towns, or those families with young children where there is no other suitable transport alternative. The Government has also shown little regard for the thousands of jobs that the motor industry supports all over Ireland both directly and indirectly.
    “Quite simply, Fiat Group Automobiles Ireland sees the motor vehicle as a vital and hugely under-rated cog in the Irish economic machine and not a soft-target luxury to be taxed on whim.”

    Mr Noonan may be about to find out that consultations aren’t all chummy and friendly, it seems.

    There are a couple of other salient points too. First off, the changes to the motor tax system laid down in the 2012 budget are a serious volte face to the encouragement to purchase carbon-efficient vehicles. Any changes that come out of the new consultation will doubtless be more of the same. Clearly, the ability for the relatively well off to buy low-emissions BMWs and Mercedes and pay the same tax rate as someone buying a Fiesta has stung the Government, and created more than a little jealousy in some quarters. Nevertheless, this is going to look and feel like a rowing back on a system that has gone a long way to reducing Ireland’s transport Co2 footprint.

    Secondly, any rises in the rates paid on pre-2008 cars are going to seriously affect the economic prospects of those on lower wages. Clearly, paying nigh on €600 a year for a car that could have been, potentially, taxed for €156 a year later is going to continue to sting, and with investment in public transport likely to be cut (making a terrible situation worse again) people who are struggling to keep their cars on the road now are either going to have to take a hit on their mobility (and therefore their employment prospects) or attempt to cheat the system.

    Finally, the figures being quoted in terms of lost VRT and motor tax receipts (and the consequent loss of VAT on vehicles sold) are not the full picture. The Government has other ways of extracting tax revenue directly from motorists…

    Hopefully, the consultation will involve more listening that dictating on the Government’s part, and hopefully this time the Irish car industry can get its points across forcefully enough that any future changes won’t have the same effect on sales, tax revenue and jobs as previous ones have had.

    Unlikely though isn’t it. And that’s without even taking the VAT and fuel duty rises into account. Similar public-industrial consultations in Canada and Australia have actually worked quite well, helping the motor industry to adapt more easily to changing regulatory regimes. Of course, in both of those countries, there is actual vehicle manufacture taking place, enhancing the industry’s ‘protect the jobs’ mantra, and crucially, both countries have weathered the global economic situation vastly, galactically better than have we.

    Perhaps we should have a consultation about that…

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