Thursday, May 29, 2008


Is the sports car a pointless excercise these days or can driving still be fun in 21st century suburbia?

Okay, there's no prize for guessing what an obsessive petrolhead such as I will conclude, but for some people this is still a matter of debate. I set out to prove them wrong and all within easy commuting reach of the largest city in the UK.
The full story is featured on Inside Track, the official MSN Cars blog and you can find it here:!9147D27F85A04C56!2866.entry

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

City cars... Why?

City cars are everywhere at the moment. Increasingly, local governments – most notably in California – have been pushing for the idea of low emissions zones, and it seems the car makers have finally realised that smaller, lighter vehicles are the easiest way to cater for this.

BMW's planned zero emissions vehicle (or ZEV), rumoured to be marketed under the name Isetta, is causing quite a stir. Initially an electric version is planned to meet new Californian legislation, but company chairman Norbert Reithofer has hinted that petrol, diesel and hybrid powertrains are also being considered.

Volkswagen has a similar offering in the form of their curiously named Space Up! concept. First displayed at last year's Los Angeles Auto Show, it features a 65kWh electric motor, powered by both a conventional battery and two hydrogen fuel cells.

In contrast, one company that doesn't need to produce a new ZEV is Toyota. Their Prius, along with Lexus' RX hybrids, already satisfy the forthcoming regulations. However, they do still have a new city car on the horizon in the form of the IQ. At less than three metres in length it is due to be the world's smallest four seater. With the engine at the front, the rear passengers will sit just inches away from the back window – as a result there is no room for a fuel cell or battery pack and the IQ will only be offered with conventional engines.

According to the laws of physics this current trend for downsizing can only be a good thing. Less weight means less energy (and hence less fuel) is required to propel a 'white goods' commuter car. It also means that an enthusiast's sports car will be faster and more nimble for a given power plant. All good stuff.

However, when it comes to city cars I can't help feeling something has been overlooked. You see, a major city is the only place in the world where the environmentally-self-conscious already have a genuine alternative to the car. They can trawl round in a Prius for hours, getting stuck in traffic and desperately searching for somewhere to park while the smugness slowly evaporates …or they could get the tube, the bus, or simply walk.

The key advantage that the car has traditionally held over public transport is space – imagine, if you will, carrying two suitcases and a pair of skis to the airport on the tube. It wouldn't be easy. However, in something like an IQ it would be totally impossible.

And it's not the only drawback that city cars share with public transport - a bus might not be the most thrilling form of transport, but can you seriously visualise the Space Up! in a four-wheel drift? How about the environmental impact? Well, the CO2 output per-passenger of an underground train surely has the potential to be less than a private car driving (quite literally) round the houses? As for convenience, you must stand a very good chance of being closer to a bus stop or underground station than a vacant parking space in most parts of London

If this is true, why are the manufacturers so interested in city cars? The answer once again goes back to legislation. In California, major manufacturers will have to sell a certain number of ZEVs in order to market any other cars and effectively the same thing is already occurring with CO2 targets in Europe. These apply to a group's entire portfolio, enabling them to offset emissions across the range. So the Fiat group for, for example, can produce a small number of Ferrari 612 Scagliettis producing 475g/km of CO2, as long as it sells enough diesel Pandas at 114g/km.

The other factor is, of course, image. If you really want to reduce greenhouse gases around town the best solution would be to walk (just be careful not to run, because you may then end up emitting as much CO2 as the car). However it simply doesn't scream 'I care about the planet' in quite the same way as driving a hybrid. The socially-aware would suddenly be reduced to anonymous faces in the crowd and they'd lose some of the feeling of moral superiority over the rest of us in our planet-raping gas guzzlers. That would never do, now would it?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

My cars: MG ZS 180

Arguably Longbridge's finest hour - the mid-sized MG just need a tiny bit more time.

It would be an exaggeration to describe the ZS 180 as 'meeting one of my heroes'. However, while it was never exactly bedroom wall material, I distinctly remember taking note when this car first appeared . Roadtesters raved about it - Tiff Needell described it as "the best front wheel drive car I've ever driven". It was also affordable, British and just a little bit different. I’d just learnt to drive when it was released in 2001 and although I never lusted after one like a GT40 or Cobra, I quite fancied the idea of getting a ZS.

Five years later I did exactly that. I was actually on the lookout for a Peugeot 306 GTi-6, but I went to see a locally advertised ZS180 and the owner made me an offer I couldn't refuse. A few days later I found myself driving it home.

Coming down a quiet stretch of the A12 on the way back, the car was in its element. The silky smooth V6 emitted a pleasing thrum and pulled strongly, well into license-losing territory. If you were to be cruel you might suggest the slightly over-the-top factory body kit also looked rather at home on the so-called Essex Autobahn, but the ZS possessed impressive high-speed stability, suggesting that the big wing’s presence was indeed justified. It also provided a strong, stable braking platform that meant speed could be shed as effectively as it was gained.

Out on the back roads the MG put out slightly mixed messages. Its structure felt extremely stiff and this was mirrored by very precise, direct steering. It gripped well, particularly in the dry where the chunky 17in alloys shod with Michelin Pilot Sports provided excellent traction. Their low profile, combined with reasonably stiff springs led to a firm ride, but no more so than other sports saloons. There was very little body roll during cornering and yet the car also remained pleasingly composed over mid-corner bumps, aided no doubt, by MG's bold choice of solid polyurethane suspension bushes.

However, despite its impressively low kerb weight of 1285kg, the V6-engined ZS felt a little nose heavy at times. It had a marked tendency to understeer and the turn in, whilst respectable, was never quite as positive as some of the smaller hot hatches. Worse was to come with the steering, which, for all its precision, felt oddly lacking in feedback. That's not to say it was terrible – it just represented a frustrating flaw in what was, on the whole, a very competent car.

The end result was something that felt a little uninvolving at everyday speeds. In order to make it play, you had to pitch the car more violently into bends than really seemed wise on the road. When you'd done so, the lightly-loaded rear end could prove surprisingly skittish. It was a trait which once again left you feeling the ZS was just on the wrong side of greatness.

Despite this, the MG was far from being a lost cause. As well as offering similar performance to its hot hatch contemporaries, the ZS had the advantage of being a full size 5-door saloon. The interior may have felt somewhat dated, but all the major controls were suitably tactile and it was by no means a bad place to be. Air conditioning, part-leather seats and a good quality stereo all came as standard. To cap it off, the saloon featured a large boot and reasonable rear seating. The only major downside to this was a factory fitted strut brace that went across the back of the rear seats and effectively partitioned the boot even when they were folded down. This once prompted a last minute rethink when embarking on a mountain biking trip to Wales. We eventually had to abandon the ZS in favour of a friend's diminutive Citroen Saxo - hardly the last word in load-luggers.

In truth it was probably a few hundred hours of development time behind cars like the Renault Clio 182 and the Honda Civic Type R, but not (as some of its detractors would like to claim) a polished turd. MG Rover's collapse in 2005 and various unfounded fears over reliability and parts had pushed the 180's price down to half that of its continental and Japanese rivals by the time I bought one in 2006. It might not have represented quite as much car outright, but it was an awful lot more car for the money.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

A week at MSN Cars

For the last five days I’ve been working with MSN Cars in London. The majority of the week has been spent ploughing through their (considerable) collection of road tests and re-publishing them with increased detail in the descriptions. So, if you want to know the difference between, say, a 2000-2007 Mondeo or indeed the Ghia spec versus the Zetec, then I’m your man.

It was a mammoth task, but - to an obsessive car-geek like myself - a strangely enjoyable one. It also gave me a chance to familiarise myself with their XML software, which meant I was able to write, construct and publish my own articles by the end of the week.

Here are three examples, hot off the virtual press:

Cadillac CTS-V breaks the eight minute barrier:

New tax rules may increase CO2:

Mobile use could cost drivers £5.4m a year:

At the time of writing you can also find them at the first three news slots on MSN Cars home page.

I wrote the introduction for their ‘60s cars gallery:

And, whilst I’m on a roll with no-holes-barred self-promotion, I also provided the photos for their Mercedes C220 CDI blog post, as reported recently:!9147D27F85A04C56!2677.entry

It’s been an enjoyable week and one where I learnt a lot about the profession I’m now even more determined to get into. All that remains is for me to thank the nice people at MSN for this opportunity.

However, this might not be the end of the story. A couple of other chances to get involved may be cropping up over the next few weeks, so watch this space.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Life Through A Lens

Ok, firstly, I have to concede the title is a tiny bit of an overstatement. This isn’t so much a lifetime as a lunch hour - possibly more like forty five minutes in fact. It is, however, the first published testament to my time at MSN Cars this week.

Behind the scenes I’ve been busily re-classifying road tests, but yesterday lunchtime I also got a chance to take a trip out with content editor Ian Dickson and his Mercedes C220 CDI test car.

My job was to get a few snaps for the blog report, and that’s exactly what we set about doing on the streets around St James’ Park and Buckingham palace.

After a brief chat with a policeman we found out that you’re not actually supposed to stop in front of her majesty’s front yard. While he seemed friendly, he was also rather heavily armed, so we thought it wise to move on.

You can see some of the results here:!9147D27F85A04C56!2677.entry

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Tretcherous Thoughts

Something occurred to me today. I was sat on the train browsing a copy of Autocar, periodically fiddling with my MP3 player and generally paying little attention to my surroundings. At that point I realised that vegetating there was simply more civilised than attempting to commute by car. Does that make me a traitor to all things automotive?

In my defence, it should be mentioned that I almost never get to commute via Route Napoléon or stop off at the Nürburgring enroute. I drive a base-spec hatchback around the M25; trudging through traffic and dodging suicidal reps in BMW three series. On the off-chance that a clear stretch of road should present itself, a brace of average speed cameras keeps tight watch on the proceedings. In short, it’s not a lot of fun.

The train isn’t great either to be fair, but over the past week it’s been reliable and a week-long travelcard costs about the same as a tank of petrol. The key advantage is that it requires very little effort, unlike driving safely. Skimming this week’s roadtests was an indulgence that demanded very little exertion.

However, this still doesn’t answer the question; am I failing as a petrolhead? To be honest, I think not. You see, after a total of two hours on public transport (fractionally more than I usually spend comuting in the car) I’ve still not equalled the time I spent exploring the lanes of Hertfordshire in the TVR last Sunday. The car is still one of the most versatile means of transport, but to a true petrolhead it’s more than that; it’s also a fantastic toy.

I would quite happily see the car’s primary function switch to trackdays, b-road blasts and the occasional jaunt across Europe. It’s got to be better than qeueing for the Dartford toll.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Stoneleigh Show Report

Last week I visited The National Kit Car Motor Show, better known simply by its location - Stoneleigh.

You can read the full report at:

In the meantime, here are some pics...

The stunning Factory Five Racing AC Daytona Coupe Replica

Outside with the Westfield Slalom Experience

The purposeful looking Spire GT-R

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Moving The Goal Posts

Automotive development is a slow process. The concept of a wheel at each corner and an engine somewhere in the middle has held fast for over a hundred years of gradual evolution. During this time some things have moved the goal posts a little further than others, but recently there have been a couple of cars that have simply obliterated them.

First up, you have the Nissan GT-R. The successor to the mighty Skyline takes its characteristically Japanese formula of banzai high-technology to new extents. At the front sits a 3.8 litre direct-injection V6, producing a healthy 473hp. Meanwhile, a rear mounted 6-speed twin-clutch sequential gearbox, allied to a development of Nissan's ATTESA four-wheel drive system transmits the power. An active centre differential varies the torque from a 50:50 split to full rear wheel drive, based on signals from three chassis mounted accelerometers. Impressive stuff.

The GT-R's grunt and technical prowess combine to achieve supercar humbling speeds. Performance figures include a 193mph top speed and a nought-to-sixty time of – wait for this – 3.5 seconds. It’s no secret that Nissan's engineers spent hundreds of hours at the Nürburgring whilst developing the car and it recently returned to set a lap time of 7 minutes 29 seconds in the hands of chief test driver, Tochio Suzuki. To put it into perspective – that's 2 seconds a lap faster than the Porsche 997 GT2 and only a second off the pace set by Walter Röhrl in the Carrera GT.

That still isn't what amazes me about the GT-R though. No, it's the fact that the car which accomplished all of this retails in Japan for £31,000 – less than a top of the range BMW 1-Series. Even after mysteriously gaining an extra £21,900 to reach the UK price it would be competitive at twice as much. It's humbling to think that a car that shares its DNA with the Micra can now show an F40 the way home around the 'ring. You don't have to 'know people who know people' either – simply add your name to the (no doubt considerable) waiting list and you could have something faster than any road car seen on the bedroom walls of those now old enough to drive.

No other car currently on sale is challenging people's perceptions quite as much as the GT-R, but that might not be the case for long. Over in Ingolstadt, something that threatens to be equally important, albeit in a different way, is stirring: The Audi R8 V12 Tdi concept.

At first glance, the idea of a high performance, mid-engined, European supercar (or 'super sports' as Audi prefers to call it) with a projected cost of over £100,000 isn't unusual. It is, of course, those three little letters at the end that really mark this car out. To precise it’s the middle one – D for Diesel…

Diesel cars are starting to enjoy a much-deserved change in image, but this is the first time a true sports car has come so tantalisingly close to production. The engine – shared with the new Q7 V12 Tdi – borrows heavily from Audi’s Le Mans winning Diesel racers. It produces a frankly staggering 1000Nm of torque from only 1,750rpm. To put that in perspective it’s roughly three times the maximum output of a 2 litre Mondeo TDCi. Performance is predictably rapid, with the dash to sixty covered in only 4.2 seconds and a projected top speed of over 200mph.

However, the real benefits of this car lie elsewhere; starting with what I can only assume would be monumental levels of in-gear acceleration. The huge reserves of torque would render down-changes optional. It’s said to return 27mpg on the combined cycle – roughly twice economy of, say, a Lamborghini Gallardo. And for the environmentally conscious, its CO2 output of 250 g/km is comparable to a well-specced repmobile or roughly two-thirds that of the aforementioned Lambo.

These points may seem irrelevant to a supercar, but with ever more stringent emissions requirements and the rapidly rising cost of extracting oil, the breed may eventually be forced to evolve or die. It’s just possible that in years to come we’ll look back on the R8 oil-burner as the model that saved the sports car. Whether that happens or not, it’s undoubtedly an impressive technical achievement.

Officially, the Diesel engined R8 remains ‘only a concept a car’, but with the both the engine and basic chassis already in production elsewhere, it wouldn’t take a huge leap to become reality. If (or rather when) it does, the R8 V12 Tdi could signal a whole new class of vehicle. Maybe the Diesel supercar, like the £30,000 Porsche-eater, is just around the corner.

Images courtesy of