Monday, April 28, 2008

The Undertaking Rant

Why some people in a hurry are going nowhere fast...

Sometimes you just can't help but notice what other people are doing. This 'people watching' seems to extend to driving - on a long trip you start to pick up on other driver's bad habits. I'm far from exempt from these myself, but I'd like to think there's one particular misdemeanour that I'm not guilty of. It concerns an act of complete failure to plan ahead; utter wishful thinking and maybe a tiny bit of arrogance.

Picture the scene: You're in the outside lane of the motorway, about to overtake a lorry up ahead. There's a stream of slower traffic in front of you, but all you can do is wait for them to get past and pull back in. At that precise moment a BMW 316 comes flying past you on the left hand side, seemingly oblivious to the obstruction in front. He pulls up to within a few feet of the HGV's bumper and then sits there with his right hand indicator on, wondering why no one is letting him out.

Do these people really think we're all queuing behind an elderly Honda driver struggling to overtake the truck for our own good? Possibly some sort of vision problem leads to them being blissfully unaware of the fact there were already half a dozen people waiting to do so?

Whatever the problem, it never fails to amuse me. It's not so much the matter of bad manners (although this undoubtedly applies to subsequently trying to force their way into the outside lane) or that it's technically illegal. No, it's more the fact that doing this is so obviously counter productive. The inevitable outcome is that they stay moored behind the truck until the (now enlarged) stream of traffic in the outside lane clears. Had they looked more than two cars in front, this result would have been clear, but a total inability to plan ahead masks that from them.

Undertaking in general is a whole other can of worms – I appreciate you do sometimes get people doing 50mph along the outside lane of an empty dual carriageway and this is a different matter. However, they both have a common cause – poor lane discipline. If everyone pulled back in after overtaking slower vehicles, without holding up those behind them, neither would occur.

Linked to this is the failure on the part of some motorists to grasp a very simple concept - namely, that you must be travelling faster than someone else to overtake them. This may sound like the preserve of 'lorry races', but the number of timid drivers who attempt to overtake people doing 65mph at precisely 65.5mph is another cause of motorway congestion.

What really gets me is that none of this is brain surgery. It's simple logic that anyone with half an ounce of common sense should be able to take in, yet something causes otherwise intelligent people to blank this from their mind whilst in the car. Maybe it shows the grasp that driving holds on our minds or, maybe, this mental shutdown is a product of motorway monotony. Thinking about the latter, perhaps the government should subsidise us all to liven up our commute? Get to work in a TVR? That'll be ten points. Covered fifty miles of B-roads in an Elise on the way in? That'll be fifteen. We can but dream.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Top Five Performance Estates

Ever had a wardrobe you needed to transport really, really quickly?

I have a confession to make. It concerns an unhealthy preoccupation with a slightly unlikely type of vehicle – the performance estate. I just think there's something deeply, deeply cool about them. Ignoring images of smoky old Volvos en-route to the car boot sales, they actually make a lot of sense. Anyone who's ever tried squeezing a mountain bike frame into a sportscar or balancing a kayak on the roof of a diminutive hatchback will confirm these things are not easy. Given an estate car, all these problems are solved. Fit it with a LamborghiniV10 and bingo - you can scare yourself on the way to the mountains as much as you can riding down them.

It's a concept that goes back a long way, with bespoke 'shooting brakes' first appearing in the twenties. Since then, Reliant, Aston Martin, Rolls Royce, Bentley… even Ferrari, have got in on the act. The uber-estate is going from strength to strength, as mainstream manufacturers start producing wagons that will give most supercars a run for their money. Here we look at five of the best.

MG ZT-T 260, 2003-2005
"Aww. How nice… Granddad's here." Atleast, you'd be forgiven for thinking that as the MG ZT-T 260 is, at first glance, very similar to the Rover 75 on which it's based. Except what Peter Steven's subtly beefed-up design lacks in drama, it makes up for with discrete good looks and the small matter of a 4.6 litre V8.

With a modest 260hp to play with, it's never going to beat the fastest super-estates at Top Trumps, but that's missing the point. Road testers raved about the ZT-T 260's flattering, rear wheel drive dynamics and the collapse of MG Rover has led to them becoming more affordable than ever before. With good examples commanding around £12,000, no other nearly-new car offers their impressive combination of V8 grunt and immense practicality for so little.

Verdict: Great handling, awesome value for money. Dare to be different.

Alpina C2 2.7 Touring, 1988-1989
Alpina used to manufacture typewriters, before a stock market windfall allowed the owner's son to branch out into motorsport. After enjoying considerable success tuning BMWs for competition use they struck a deal with the Bavarian manufacturer to produce modified road cars under the company name. A decade later, the C2 was released based on the E30 BMW 325i. The engine was bored out to 2.7 litres and fitted with Alpina's own cylinder head along with new camshafts, ECU, pistons and exhaust. Meanwhile, revised suspension and a gloriously eighties body kit completed the transformation. Ultimately, this is about as close as you can get to an E30 M3 estate, plus it has the added bonus of a gloriously smooth straight six engine in place of the four cylinder screamer.

Only 159 C2's were ever built and only around 30 of those were the Touring spec. The good new is that a reasonable number of them made their way to the UK and the prices remain reasonably sensible. (One example came up for sale last year and I desperately wanted to buy it, but a lack of funds or indeed space intervened.)

Verdict: Compact, retro and so damn cool.

Ferrari 456 Estate Car Venice, 1997
For some, a brand new Ferrari isn't quite enough – Prince Jefri of Brunei was just such a man. When considering what car to add to his staggering 1,700-strong collection (yes, you did read that correctly) he approached Italian coachbuilders Pininfarina to build a 456 estate. Having already produced several bespoke Ferrari conversions for him, the car was simply business as usual for the Turin-based firm and they happily obliged.

Whilst not technically a production car, Pinifarina did make full manufacturing tooling that allowed them to stamp out as many 456 estates as were required and seven examples were eventually produced. They shared the original car's 5.4 litre, 442hp V12, but the body was all new from the A-pillar back. Twenty centimetres were added to the wheelbase in order to accommodate an extra pair of doors and this also improved rear legroom. The conversion resulted in a glorious nod to the coachbuilt GTs of old and a car that simply oozes desirability. So, what about the price? Well, if you have to ask…

Verdict: Possibly the most practical way to express a huge excess of wealth.

Audi RS6 Avant – 2002-present
The AudiRS6 Avant is something of an icon. The previous generation car (first produced in 2002) set the benchmark for bonkers-power in a production estate and the new car ups the ante a little - well, actually rather a lot - with a 572hp, twin turbocharged, Lamborghini V10. In most respects it is in fact a very useable car, with four wheel drive and Audi's 'dynamic ride control' as standard, plus the options of carbon-ceramic composite disc brakes and three stage adaptive damping to keep you on the road.

Nought-to-sixty comes up in 4.5 seconds and obligatory German speed limiter cuts in at 155mph. Audi's claims that the car will do 175mph de-restricted, sound somewhat conservative (although more than adequate) and driven with a little more self-restraint the RS6 posts a comparatively respectable 20mpg. At a not-inconsiderable £77,625 it is, however, nearly ten thousand pounds more expensive than our next contender and some would argue that is a problem.

Verdict: Sure-footed four wheel drive, combined with Lamborghini power makes this one of the most sensible ways to go insanely fast.

BMW M5 Touring, 2007-present
The E61 Touring is the first M5 estate to be available in right hand drive and also the first produced in any numbers. Whilst a small batch of E34 M5 Tourings were produced these only for the domestic market. Like the Audi it features a big V10, but once off the line, the BMW is even quicker. One hundred miles an hour comes up in under ten seconds and with the 155mph limiter removed, the car is said to top two hundred miles an hour.

The M5 is slightly sharper than the RS6 in all respects. A high revving naturally aspirated engine takes the place of the RS6's twin turbo unit, the transmission features a faintly baffling seven forward gears and only the rear wheels are driven; there's no Quattro safety net here. With the rear seats folded its 1,650 litre loading area only just falls short of the RS6 and the whole package is somewhat more driver-focused. For those who prefer their super-estates hardcore, this has to be the ultimate offering from a mainstream manufacturer.

Verdict: Huge performance, mainstream dealer support and pure rear wheel drive.

Images courtesy of

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Flashes of Inspiration

Beauty, so they say, is in the eye of the beholder. But you can find some impressive pieces of automotive art in places you wouldn't really expect. Whilst we're used to elegant sports cars and the occasional finely-chiselled luxury saloon, form has traditionally trailed function by some way at the lower end of the market. Thankfully this isn't always the case.

This morning I was driving along the M25, when a blood red Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagon went past me. At that moment something inexplicable came over me and instantly I wanted one. In strict terms, they're an obsolete, front wheel drive estate car, made from bits of leftover Fiat, yet right then I wanted one more than just about any other car I could think of. It just looked gorgeous. And it was an Alfa. And it was red.

Alfa's more recent saloon offering, the 159 (pictured above), is in a very similar position. It was designed to hurry reps and the occasional family man to the next appointment, but (as ever) a substantial dose of Italian flair was injected somewhere along the way. In fact, the same can be said of the entire Alfa Romeo range, with the 147 hatch, Brera coupe and Spider convertible all dripping with the sort of desirability normally only found in cars costing three times the price.

They're not alone either. Peugeot may lack the mystique of Alfa Romeo, but that makes it all the more remarkable that my next candidate should be based on the humble 406 saloon. When coachbuilders Pinifarina were commissioned to produce a coupe version, the long suffering repmobile was transformed into something altogether more exciting. Look carefully and 406 Coupe has more than a hint of Ferrari about it – perhaps not surprisingly as they were created by the same design house as many of Modena's finest.

It seems the critics agreed as the 406 Coupe clinched both the Milano Triennale award for the 'The Most Beautiful Coupe of the World' and the 'Car Design Award' in 1997, followed by the title 'Most Beautiful Car of the Year' at the Festival of Chamonix in 1998. Not bad for an affordable, mass produced run-around.

The Europeans don't have it all there own way either. The latest iteration of the Hyundai Coupe uses the same basic platform as the Kia Cee'd supermini (itself not a bad looking car) to produce a genuinely appealing 4 seat tourer. Likewise, Toyota's excellent Celica was based on the rather functional Corolla hatchback.

Perhaps the reason for this is that all cars are designed by enthusiasts. You simply don't spend your life fiddling with computer renderings and clay models unless you have a real passion for the subject. And sometimes, however functional the product is intended to be, you just can't suppress those urges. Just occasionally the designers and engineers responsible for a project manage to overcome the bean counters and a great car is born. I can only hope this begins to happen more often.

Images courtesy of

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

My Cars: Porsche 924S

The classic front engined, rear wheel drive GT has to be one of the most evocative profiles in motoring. It conjures up images of playboys in continent-crushing Aston Martins and Ferraris howling around alpine passes to the sound of Matt Monroe. It's all so exotic and unobtainable. Or is it?

Whilst I had my 205 GTi up for sale, I began considering a replacement. I wanted an affordable sports car that would not only introduce me to rear wheel drive, but also serve as a genuinely realistic mode of every day transport. I considered various options, but in the end I homed in on either the Porsche 924 or 944. I eventually choose the 924S, which technically speaking is an amalgamation of the two - arguably containing the best bits of both.

Porsche designed the original 924 for Audi using various bits from the VAG parts bin including the two-litre, four-cylinder engine used in the Audi 100 and the Volkswagen LT van. When Audi backed out of the deal, Porsche bought the rights to the project for £40million – a cool £6million less than they'd charged in development costs. Upon its release, the car met with a lukewarm reaction. Porsche enthusiasts took a dislike to the use of a water-cooled engine – in particular its location at the front of the car and modest 125hp output. However there was no denying that the company was onto something with the beautifully balanced transaxle layout and pretty, yet practical, body. Its eventual successor, the 944, was released six years later with a 2.5 litre, 165hp engine developed in-house from the 928's V8. It featured an all-new body shell along with a whole raft of improvements to the suspension, transmission and brakes. Curiosity rapidly got the better of the Porsche engineers, who began experimenting with the improved mechanics of the 944 in the lighter, slipperier shell of the 924.
The result was the 924S and initially it seems to have worked a little too well – the cars were noticeably quicker than the base model 944 and production models were fitted with low compression pistons to reduce their power output. Even so, 0-60 took around 8 seconds and the top speed was in excess of 130mph. It wasn't until the final year of production – with the eight valve 944 safely out of the way – that the full specification engine was put in. There was little doubt that the performance of the 924S eclipsed that of the 944, however to this day the stigma of the original 'van-engined' car remains and the prices have never really recovered. This is, however, great news for the budget-conscious buyer, which is exactly where I fit in… In April 2006 I part exchanged my troublesome Pug for a 1988 924S, costing a grand total of £1,900.

The first thing that struck me coming from a hot hatch is how differently the performance was delivered. The 924S' long gearing and low coefficient of drag ensured it could hold its own on the autobahn, but it lacked the initial punch of something like the Pug. Once on the fly, the smooth, torquey engine delivered impressive real world pace, even if its reluctance to rev sometimes felt like someone had set the red line too low.

The car's real trump card was its balance. Thanks to the rear mounted transaxle it had a near-perfect 50:50 weight distribution, the benefits of which rapidly became clear. When provoked, the tail end would break away slowly and progressively. Correcting the slide was an equally relaxed affair; the beautifully direct steering allowed you to respond with precision, while the forgiving chassis meant you didn’t strictly need to. Sadly the feel was never quite there to back up the steering poise and a floaty ride further reduced the confidence that the excellent chassis would otherwise have generated. The brakes were also a little inert, with neither the stopping power nor the modulation that you might expect. These three points may well have related to the mechanical condition and tyre choice of my particular example; whatever the reason it seemed unfortunate that they were allowed to spoil such a competent chassis.

The story was much the same with other areas of the car. With the rear seats folded it had a truly huge loading area, which the hatchback allowed you to make maximum use of. Two mountain bike frames in the back? No problem, try that in an MX5… However actually accommodating adults in the back was almost impossible without some form of amputation. Likewise, its high gearing, torquey engine and respectable fuel consumption theoretically made it an ideal long distance tourer, but in reality its pint-sized fuel tank required repeated stops. Everywhere you looked, the 924S was full of contradictions.

All of these things led to a car that was frustrating, not for its shortcomings, but because it so obviously had the potential to be truly great. Its fundamental spec was a relatively compact, two plus two, rear wheel drive sports car with sublime balance, hugely practical boot space, cheap running costs and impressive reliability. What more could you need? It even had a removable targa panel in the roof, which made a surprisingly close approximation to open air motoring. The only things the fundamental concept lacked were a bit more power and some beefier brakes. I was sorely tempted to take the car on as a project and address those, but there was one problem, or rather there was already a solution…

For the cost of modifying a 924S to my requirements, there was already a car that fulfilled them all; the 944 S2. This used a version of the 944 engine that had been fitted with a sixteen valve head and bored out to three litres; it revved far more freely than the original unit and gained no less than 50hp. It also featured up-rated ventilated discs all round combined with an ABS system, the larger 944 fuel tank and the options of stiffer suspension and a limited slip diff.

So, why didn’t I buy a 944 S2? Well, simply the cost. It may have been more economical than modifying the existing car, but a decent example would still have been two or three times the price. And that's not really what the 924S was about – while they do have their foibles, they also offer a huge amount of car for the money and a very affordable entry into the sports car market. My example may be long gone, but I do sometimes find myself considering a return to Porsche ownership. If I did it would undoubtedly be a 944 S2, but this isn't due to hindsight – it's simply a result of having the means this time round. For the money, nothing beats the 924S.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The 4X4 Rant

It seems there is no reason to own an SUV in town. Ironically that may be a good thing...

Much has been said on the issue of people using 4x4s in town, but most of it, I feel, misses the point. The main criticism from the media is an environmental one, but is this entirely justified? It’s not often you'll find me using a Hyundai as an example, but on this occasion I am – the Sante Fe 2.2 CRD to be precise. This is a full size SUV powered by a conventional Diesel engine (rather than a miniature soft roader or hybrid) and it produces a mere 192g/km of carbon dioxide. To put that into perspective, the Vauxhall Vectra 2.8i repmobile produces 262g/km and one of Mr Livingstone’s Mercedes Citaro 'bendy buses' a whopping 1,586g/km. So, hippies everywhere can stop letting people’s tyres down.

With that off my chest, it's time to get on to the real issue. Whilst I disagree with the class warriors and eco-mentalists attacking urban 4X4 ownership, I don't see any point in it either. Contrary to popular belief, there is no logical reason to drive Rupert and Jemima to their prep school in a 3 ton armoured vehicle.

There is a widely held opinion that crashing an off roader is a safe activity. Put simply, it's not. The Nissan Navara picked up a dismal one star Euro NCAP rating when it was first tested last month. True, most SUVs do fair better in occupant safety than this, but it does disprove the myth that they are all inherently safe. Conversely, there are plenty of conventional cars ranging from the diminutive Fiat 500 to the mammoth Mercedes E Class that have secured the maximum five star rating.

This leads on to an interesting point: The only way to truly make a crash safe is not to have one and here too the SUVs suffer. Imagine someone has just pulled out in front of you – what would you rather use to swerve around them - a Range Rover or an Audi RS6? Whilst cars like the Range Rover Sport and Porsche Cayenne do now handle remarkably well, they're still nowhere near the standards of sports saloon costing the same amount. You simply can’t swerve as sharply or stop as rapidly in something designed for hill farmers. For keen drivers, it also goes without saying that an equivalent saloon or sports car will be more fun to drive.

The example of the RS6 comes down to another point - space. In terms of interior capacity the SUV shape may have the advantage over a conventional saloon, but compared to a large estate car there’s very little in it. An RS6 Avant or BMW M5 Touring for example, has got to be a better way of frightening your Labrador than a Freelander.

So why buy a 4X4? On the face of it there are only really two valid reasons – going off road or towing. Whilst they're great for dragging a horsebox up a muddy incline, they're still heavily compromised in every single aspect of town driving. An MPV will hold more, a super-saloon will be quicker and a whole host of things will be safer. As a petrolhead I do have to concede a third possible reason – because you want to own one. They may not know it, but the school run mums are championing the cause of everyone who buys a car for no more reason than personal preference. Subjectively 4X4 ownership makes about as much sense as using a dragster to drive to the shops. Actually, that sounds like fun.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

My Cars: 205 GTi

My second car purchase was hailed as a star of the hot hatch world, but was it worth it?

Cars that reach iconic status tend to fall roughly into one of two categories. You get lavish offerings from people like Lamborghini with giant spoilers, huge engines and staggering performance; then you get the working class heroes of the automotive world – affordable cars with a hint of genius attached to them. The Peugeot 205 GTi is frequently banded around as an example of the latter, but is it really that good?

My 205 GTi ownership began more or less out of necessity. The Quantum was proving somewhat impractical for everyday transport and we were entering a horrendous winter, which thoroughly highlighted the shortcomings in its ageing soft top. To make life easier I decided to put the car into storage and get something more spacious … and watertight. At the time a colleague was selling his 1.9 Peugeot 205 GTi and it seemed like the ideal solution. It was a genuine four seater, a hatchback, a fixed head and reputedly good fun to drive.

The test drive was a little underwhelming. Sure, the Integrale owning car-nut who was selling it took me out to some b-roads and drove like an Italian (he was), but my own experience behind the wheel was less hair-raising. It went reasonably well and performance was probably on a par with the Quantum I'd stepped out of, but that somehow didn't live up to its legendary status. Still, it cornered smartly, everything looked tidy and it ticked all the right boxes for practicality. After a brief and not entirely successful spot of haggling I came away with the car.

I took my time getting accustomed to the 205, given its widow-maker reputation, but in honesty I think this is a little overstated. The famously mobile rear end was in most cases entertaining rather than shocking and despite letting go somewhat quicker than most hot hatches it would usually come back into line promptly given a little opposite lock. Driven with delicacy and respect it seemed to reward with the same qualities - turn in smoothly with a slight lift and the nose would tuck in without drama. The steering felt precise and beautifully linear, giving a good indication of the remaining grip. Sudden mid-corner braking may well have sent you into the undergrowth, but fortunately this was something I managed to avoid. The closest I ever came to hedge hunting was ironically whilst going in a straight line – driving down a dual carriage way one night I was about to overtake the car in front when they decided to change lanes. With traffic on one side and a substantial looking barrier on the other, my only choice was to hit the brakes. Even without locking the wheels, some minor imbalance in the car's chassis or road surface sent me into an almighty tank slapper. Luckily I had just about enough space to regain control and slow down before any lasting harm was done. My headlights made a frenzied trail in the dusk as the tail wagged from side to side and I got some very apologetic gestures from the car in front; personally I was just glad to be in one piece. There was little that could have been done to avoid the experience, but it served as a reminder that the 205 could still bare its claws.

Over the next few months the pug proved to be a very versatile car. Its taut chassis and smooth torquey engine proved entertaining over b-roads, whilst the back would seat up to three adults, or alternatively two full size mountain bike frames. The drawbacks were a hefty fuel economy penalty (struggling to make 25mpg) and a rather unpleasant resonance in the cabin that caused it to hum loudly at motorway speeds. The biggest issues however, were yet to materialise.

French cars of the 1980s do have something of a reputation for unreliability. Initially I dismissed this as the same sort of motoring stereotype that demands all Alfa Romeos must break down and all kit cars must fall apart, but bit by bit my pug started conforming to type. First the gear selector mechanism developed a habit of popping off - most notably whilst I was in the middle of a 4-lane roundabout coming off the A127. Next the alternator needed to be replaced. Shortly after that the mass airflow sensor packed in and then to compound matters it developed an intermittent immobiliser fault. By this time I was getting itchy feet and the prospect of something rear wheel drive appealed. After one grazed knuckle too many I part exchanged the car for my next purchase – a Porsche 924S.

So is the 205 GTi as good as it's made out to be? In most respects, yes. The handling and performance were a cut above its competitors, but perhaps not by as big a margin as the legends would have you believe. Its trump card was combining these attributes with a spacious, practical layout. There were no shortage of sportscars that could outperform a 205 GTi, but very few that you could truly use everyday. However, I can't help feeling that the Golf GTi of the same period may be a better solution – purists will argue that it isn't quite up to the standards of the pug dynamically, but it is undoubtedly close. Whatsmore it offers greater space, teutonic build quality and a more forgiving driving experience. The pug may be a great car, but looking at it with my head (if not my heart) I think the mk2 Golf Gti might just have been a better choice.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

TVR World Excusive

April 1st 2008, Moscow

The announcement this morning that TVR were to release a new model sent shockwaves through the automotive industry. It transpires that the apparently-dead car makers were in fact closing down production to focus on the development of their new model, The Cyclops. The car, due to be unveiled at the prestigious Murmansk Motor Show in July, features a six litre twin turbo V10 hybrid power plant, capable of running on bio-ethanol. Whilst in town it uses a lithium-ion battery pack charged by a combination of regenerative braking and roof-mounted solar panels. Performance calculations suggest a top speed in excess of 260mph and a nought to sixty time of around two seconds.

A company insider using a not-entirely-plausible Russian accent was heard to remark: "This is the greatest car ever built. Well, when I say built – we mean designed. It was sketched on the back of Nikolai's history homework to the very highest standard. My only regret is that we had to delete the twin laser cannons and the anti-gravity device due to a cost save."

Amidst rumours that the new range would be built in Italy or Croatia, TVR have surprised the world by announcing plans to shift production to Monaco, citing cheaper labour costs than their native Blackpool as the main factor. However all models will now feature the union jack badges originally ordered by the Poowong Automotive Corporation for use on their range of Shanghai-built Austin Allegro derivatives. This is intended to emphasise the company's British heritage, along with dodgy electrical earths and tweed upholstery.

There's no word on price yet, but we expect it to cost around £399,999.99 when it finally goes on sale on April 1st next year.