Friday, June 20, 2008

Old is the new-new

Are modern car aesthetics a step backwards? Has the industry simply run out of ideas?

Something slightly odd happened to the motor industry in the '50s and '60s. Its marketing divisions suddenly suffered a chronic loss of originality and started re-using names from several decades earlier. Monikers like Austin Seven, Morris Minor and Wolsey Hornet were all back in the showrooms and nobody knew why.

For some reason we've been seeing a similar thing recently. It seems that an ever increasing number of new cars have been, well, old ones. It all started with Volkswagen’s New Beetle in 1998, which brought retro motoring to hairdressers and estate agents the world over. Despite the name, the Golf-based fashion statement bears no mechanical resemblance to its illustrious predecessor. In most subjective respects that's a good thing – gone are the original car's lairy swing-axle handling traits and underwhelming performance, but is it really a Beetle, or just a bloated Mk4 Golf in a dress?

Next was the most successful retro car to date – the MINI. BMW launched its new-old small car, to almost universal praise in April 2001. Alec Issigonis' revolutionary design may only have been out of production for 12 months or so at that time, but the resemblance to its namesake was strictly cosmetic. The first thing that struck many people was its size. It dwarfed the original car. In fact, forget the Mini… in Clubman guise, the new MINI's wheelbase is fractionally longer an early Range Rover.

Like the Volkswagen, the 21st century MINI is, in many respects, much better than original, but however good BMW’s nod to the classic design may be, it’s never going to have the same impact. Austin's Mini revolutionised affordable transport in the UK and this made it more than a car, it was an icon. Of course purists will argue that the Mini was beaten to it – on the continent at least – by Fiat, in the shape of the 500. This time round it was a different story, but the Italian auto-giant wasn’t far behind and last year they launched a modern take on the Topolino.

It does make you wonder where it will end. Surely it's only a matter of time before Nanjing realise the huge, untapped retro-potential of a new Austin Allegro? After all, China has yet to discover the joys of the quartic steering wheel and the Roewe 75's front grill would make an excellent basis for the Vanden Plas version. For the full effect, sister-firm Shangai Automotive could release a direct competitor under the guise of the Morris Marina. There would be endless opportunities to mix modern technology with period features here too, such a contemporary DAB audio system that bizarrely only manages to pick up Radio 2 and a carbon-saving initiative, by which the car fails to start one day every week.

Should you get bored of driving your Allegro or Marina you could go for a ride on a Raleigh Chopper (re-launched in 2004); go to the cinema to catch King Kong (re-made in 2005), or maybe just watch some repeats on TV. So why the lack of the originality; have we run out of ideas? Has everything 'new' already been done? Personally it strikes me as a kind of sentimental nostalgia. People crave anything that offers comfort and familiarity when they're feeling down – a favourite song or a comfy old pair of slippers – and buying a car is no different. Perhaps we're all just hankering for an era before Gatsos, global-terror and climate change?

It's not all bad though. It seems that the retro concept works beautifully when it's used sparingly. Take Alfa's gorgeous 8C Competitzione. It's surely one of the most beautiful cars ever made and while there are hints of the company's previous offerings, such as the TZ and the T33 Stradale, it is fundamentally a fresh shape. Likewise, German sports car manufacturer Weismann's Roadster and GT models have a clear '50s and '60s influence with hints of the Austin Healey 3000 and Jaguar XK140, but they are nonetheless new designs which add something to the world of cars, rather than re-hashing a proven formula.

So, car makers… I implore you to follow their lead. Be a little original. It’s not the aesthetics as such - we want cars that have the character and feel of a masterpiece, rather than simply looking like a low budget fibreglass replica of one. By all means draw some inspiration from the past, but don’t forget to look forwards. That way, maybe the cars we’re building now will be remembered in thirty years too.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Transits, tribulations and traffic wardens

Some stereotypes are cruel and unfortunate. Others, it seems, are spot on...

I borrowed an interesting toy over the weekend. It came with a 3.2-litre turbocharged five-cylinder engine. It was rear wheel. It had a six-speed gearbox… It was a van. To be precise it was a Ford Transit 350 SWB and it was helping me move house. What's more it came with a substantial quantity of free diesel – handy on a weekend when the nation's entire quota of numpties decided to block petrol forecourts following a single oil company's pay dispute.

Having collected my workhorse on Friday evening, I headed back round the M25 to North London. I've been told before how well modern vans handled and this one is supposed to be the cream of the crop. It certainly has excellent steering which would put many cars to shame. It also has a flexible, torquey engine; a very gentle progressive clutch and suspension so stiff (when unladen) that it feels positively sporty. It's an impressive achievement for a vehicle designed purely as a utility, yet you still become acutely aware of being sat several yards off the ground by the time you reach the first corner and adverse cambers can be a buttock-clenching experience. But that's fine for the Transit – it's a van – and in that respect it performs beautifully.

The following day my girlfriend and I began loading our possessions into the Tranny. It swallowed an impressive quantity of household detritus, which was fortunate as there was about three times as much to move as we'd originally anticipated. All in all, we were impressed. One person who wasn't so impressed was the local traffic warden. Now, I'd always believed traffic wardens must get rather a bad press… It can't be an easy job at times and it's not one that anyone will ever thank you for. Maybe they were just misunderstood?

I saw the aforementioned parking officer eyeing up our van from across the road and went to ask if anything was wrong. We were busy loading on a single yellow line and not getting in anyone's way; I couldn't see a problem. I began with a cheery hello. "I'm giving you a ticket" she replied with all the warmth of an SS drill-sergeant. I calmly and politely protested my innocence and she eventually explained that pulling onto the pavement had been our undoing. Apparently obstructing the traffic on the road would have been perfectly legal, despite the gridlock that would have ensued. I didn't know this – or atleast I didn't expect them to put legality over common sense – and I explained we were very sorry and we'd be on our way.

This didn't please the traffic warden, who seemed to be morphing closer and closer to her comedic representation in Little Miss Jocelyn by the second. In a last minute effort to reason with her, I tried to adopt a karma-based approach. "You could let us move on and not ruin our day – it was a genuine mistake we're not going to do it again or…" I was going to continue to the effect that ruining our day wouldn't make her feel any better (meant purely as that) when she interrupted. "Is you threatening me? IS YOU THREATENING ME?!" Fat chance I thought – not only was she somewhat bigger than me, she seemed to have rather more facial hair too – I wouldn't stand a chance.

Miraculously, after considerably more pleading (and strategically positioning myself in front of the van), I managed to persuade her to let me move on without a ticket. Even more miraculously, having dropped the contents off at the new house (about a mile down the road) and collected my other half we were able to find a legitimate van-sized space in the adjacent pavement parking zone for the next two runs.

With the new garage acting as a temporary holding station, work commenced ferrying bits up to the house to create a TVR-sized gap for my S3 to fit into. I took a break from shifting boxes to return the van this morning and, teetering along with no weight in the back again, I had a new found respect for the driving skills of White-Van-Man. My opinion of traffic wardens on the other hand has taken a severe battering.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Lotus Elise SC Vs Honda S2000 twin test

Last week I joined the MSN Cars roadtesters for their Lotus Elise SC versus Honda S2000 twin test. I haven't stopped grinning since…

It's 9am at an anonymous looking service station on the M4. I'm munching a slightly optimistically titled all-day breakfast roll and waiting for Ian Dickson and Henry Biggs of MSN cars to arrive at our rendezvous. First to appear is Ian in the sparkling blue Elise SC. We've barely finished with the pleasantries by the time Henry appears. "This thing's fantastic" he remarks, emerging from the (equally blue) Honda. "It's so much fun."

After the arrival of photographer Jonathan Bushell, we head out onto the M4. Not surprisingly my 63bhp Saxo struggles to maintain pace in the middle of the convoy. I glance at the mirrors to see Ian waiting patiently behind, until a gap in the traffic allows him to unleash the Elise. It surges forward with visible ferocity – even from the outside it's clear to see that's one quick car. Henry, meanwhile, darts through the traffic in a flurry of VTEC revs. Today is going to be interesting.

I dump the Saxo in a lay-by just off the motorway and head for the photo shoot location next to Ian in the Elise. From the passenger seat, the car feels every bit as fast as it looks. The first thing that hits you is the soundtrack – it emits a sort of fizz – not an unpleasant sound, but rather different to the growl you get on the outside. Progress is brisk, yet it feels quicker still as the hedges blur past low-set cabin of the Elise.

Shortly we reach our first photo location and it's time to clean the cars before a few static shots. Up close the Elise SC looks purposeful, if largely like the standard car. Only a discrete boot spoiler separates the two. In contrast to the Lotus' vents and bulges, the Honda has a very clean shape. It possesses classic front-engined roadster lines and there's something very taut about its appearance – it looks purposeful; poised to attack.

Heading out to the tracking shots I get my first chance to drive the Elise. It may be a cliché, but this is undoubtedly a car your granny could drive. The clutch is progressive, there's plenty of torque and even at manoeuvring speeds the steering is reasonably light. The gearbox is beautifully precise in the forward gears, although there's a brief moment of comedy as I attempt to locate reverse for the first time. On the move it exceeds all my expectations. Within a few hundred yards it's clear that the Elise is blessed with phenomenally good steering. Every dip and camber in the road is felt and there's a palpable sense of the front end hanging on through each bend. It has the sort of clarity that would be impressive on a level race track, let alone a bumpy, potholed B-road. Unlike some cars, which take time to load up the steering on the entry to a corner, it instantly lets you know how much grip remains… and in this car, the answer is invariably a lot. It's not just the steering either. The whole package gels beautifully with a smooth engine pulling to over 8,000rpm and firm, powerful brakes.

Car comparisons are put on hold for a while as we get back to the serious business of the photo shoot. I find myself at the wheel of Jonathan's 325i Touring while he sits on the tailgate taking shots of the test cars behind. As an encore he adopts an even more precarious looking position, part way out of the passenger side window, clinging to the roof, as we follow the other two cars. Fortunately, despite the hedges closing in, he remains attached and firmly intact, enabling us to complete the tracking shots.

Having done so, we now move on to the drive-by shots and my first chance to get behind the wheel of the S2000. It’s a rather different experience to the Lotus. It feels far more conventional – somewhat like a grown up MX5. Fire up the engine and at first it emits a quiet, unexceptional four-cylinder hum; the seats are higher-mounted and noticeably softer, while the cabin feels a tiny bit, well, Japanese. As we stooge around for the low speed shots it feels admirably civilised. However, when the gesture comes to speed things up, all hell breaks lose. Suddenly Dr Jekyll becomes Mr Hyde as the 80s-tastic digital tacho sweeps past 7,000rpm and the S2000 goes mad for the last part of its rev range. It just so happens there is a bridge just down the road from our photography spot, and going through the tunnel underneath, the Honda’s mechanical scream echoes off its walls like an angry wasp.

Oddly, it doesn’t feel that fast, but accelerating away after another drive-by and chasing Henry in the Lotus something becomes obvious… The two cars are actually surprisingly well matched in a straight line. At these speeds, the Lotus doesn’t quite seem to have the advantage the figures would suggest (0-60mph in 4.4 seconds as opposed to 6.2 for the Honda). It is, nonetheless, a markedly different experience - the S2000 is very much the logical progression of a classic roadster formula, while the Elise feels more like a baby supercar.

As the morning draws to a close, Ian and I go off in search of sandwiches in the Elise. With Mr Dickson at the wheel, it rapidly becomes obvious that I was far from extracting the best out of the little Lotus. Part way to the nearby village he enquires if I’m a nervous passenger… The truth is I’m not, but I do still prefer being in the other seat. Fortunately, on the way back that's exactly where I am. I still can't get over this car's handling - it feels progressive and compliant, yet utterly precise and blessed with pin-sharp responses. I'm busy waxing lyrical to Ian on the subject when I look down and notice the speedo. It was firmly into the sort of range I'm not going to publically admit to doing on a B-road and yet the car felt completely undaunted; my TVR at the same pace would have been a very different matter.

After lunch, Jonathan and Ian head off to do some more shots with the Lotus, leaving me to exercise the S2000. On a longer, twistier route than our earlier drive it reveals considerable talent. The steering is perfectly weighted and very direct. It may not offer as much feedback as the Elise, but it's rewarding nonetheless. Body roll is very well resisted and the whole structure feels impressively rigid. The downside is a rather choppy ride, which combined with the sensitive steering and hyperactive powerplant, make the S2000 feel a little fidgety. It's still a quick car across country, but it doesn't inspire confidence in quite the same way as the home-grown contender.

The beauty of the S2000 is that it does everything well. The engine may not really come alive until your ears are starting to bleed, but it's still perfectly tractable, and indeed quite civilised, at every day speeds. The gear change is fantastically slick and precise; the hood seems well thought out and it even has a half decent boot. One criticism of the earlier cars was a tendency to snap into sudden oversteer, but with the revised chassis you'd have to be trying very hard to do so in the dry. Even with the 'vehicle stability assist' turned off it took deliberate provocation in first gear to make the tail break lose and minimal correction to bring it back into line.

Returning to our photo shoot location for the group shots, it's time to reach a verdict. Henry really rates the live-wire nature of the S2000, but Ian prefers the Elise. It doesn't take me long to reach my own decision. In many respects the banzai Honda is every bit as exciting to drive as the Elise and it's definitely a more practical ownership prospect, but there's just a certain quality to the Lotus. It feels so intimately connected with the road and so cohesive as an overall package. It almost feels a little unfair to compare the two, as they feel very different, yet almost equally competent. However, for me, the lasting impression was that the S2000 felt like a car – a very good one, but still 'a' car; the Elise felt unique. It felt like a Lotus.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Caterham CDX unveiled

A few weeks ago I paid a trip to the Caterham Drift Experience at Silverstone. The day left a lasting impression on me, and it seems I wasn't the only one.

Caterham have just announced the CDX limited edition of the evergreen Seven, inspired by the cars used for their driving experience days. It features a tweaked version of the 1.6 litre Rover K-Series, with power up from 120 to 135bhp. Other goodies include a limited-slip differential, sticky 13" Avon tyres and a beefed-up roll-over bar. A special gloss black paint scheme and a decal kit designed to reflect the driving experience cars' livery complete the changes.

The kit price starts at £17,495, while complete cars retail at £20,495 – undercutting a comparably specced Sigma model by nearly £2,000.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Autocar Drift School

A few weeks back I went to the Autocar Drift School event at Silverstone. You can find the full story here:!9147D27F85A04C56!2925.entry

However, just for this blog, you can also watch my talent running out in glorious technicolour in the following clips...

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Sexy Green Car Show

Last month saw the return of The Sexy Green Car Show. More than a dozen major motor manufacturers descended on The Eden Project in Cornwall to demonstrate how they have selflessly and tirelessly devoted their time to saving the planet.

However, if you peel back the silly name and ignore the eco do-gooding, then it’s worth taking note of what remains. Even though nobody really knows what effect (if any) human beings have on the environment, the increased cost of motoring is depressingly real. A large part of this is due to the government jumping on the green bandwagon as a means of taxation. However, there are also genuine fears about the future availability of oil and the growing cost of extracting it.

Scarce or very expensive oil would pose an obvious problem to the enthusiast, but that’s where the ‘sexy green cars’ come in. Whilst I’m not sure anything will ever compete with the burble of a TVR V8 or the scream of a Ferrari V12, the basic concept will remain as long as there are four wheels and some form of motive power.

So - to the show… and frankly a lot of the cars on offer aren’t really that sexy. There’s the likes of the Citroen Grand Picasso and Peugeot 107. Hmm. However, there are some genuinely exciting cars here too. Take Lotus’ tri-fuel Exige, for instance. As well as conventional petrol it can run on bioethanol, methanol or any combination of the three. Despite a ‘carbon cycle corrected CO2 output’ (from the point the fuel is grown to when it’s burnt) of just 100 g/km, it actually produces slightly more power than the standard car. It does so, thanks to ethanol’s higher octane number reducing the tendency to knock, and its increased heat capacity cooling combustion.

For those who like their track machinery even more focused, Lola were on hand with the D1 biodiesel powered Le Mans car. It uses a 5 litre V10, based on the Volkswagen Touareg’s powerplant – no mean feat in itself. However, the interesting part is its fuel. It comes not from the usual sources of canola or soya beans – both of which compete for space with food production – but from the jatropha, a tree capable of growing in areas unsuitable for normal crops. Performance is predictably brisk with a top speed in excess of 200mph and it's hoped the car will compete with Audi’s diesel racer, the R10 Tdi.

At the other end of the scale, Axon Automotive were displaying their new (and as yet unnamed) hatchback. It uses a recycled carbon fibre skin around a foam core to produce a very light, tough car. With so little weight to carry around, the Axon is expected to return sub-80g/km CO2 emissions and over 100mpg even with a conventional petrol engine. Straight line performance, meanwhile, is said to be comparable to the MINI One.

What’s ‘sexy’ about Axon then? Well, the hatchback will be competing with mainstream city cars, which is a courageously bold move for an unknown company. It also proves that lightweight composite construction can be made to work economically. But currently the most exciting thing about Axon for the keen driver is their other project, the Eco-M.

It’s a special edition of the Caterham Roadsport that uses weight saving materials, aerodynamic drag reduction and low rolling resistance tyres to improve economy. It follows on from their Caterham-based 2007 eco-marathon winner, which achieved an incredible 131mpg under controlled conditions. Figures for the road car won’t be that high, but it’s said to reduce fuel consumption by around 20% in real world driving. Whatsmore, the idea of a perfectly balanced, rear wheel drive Caterham running on rock-hard, skinny tyres is sure to appeal to the hooligan within any car enthusiast.

Amongst the traditional (even ‘old fashioned’) internal combustion engined designs sat a futuristic expression of high technology from the Morgan Motor Company. Yes, that's right – that Morgan. It seems the Barbour jackets and flat caps are a thing of the past in Malvern. The company's trademark retro style remains however and the Life Car with its gorgeous art-deco lines is, if anything, a more coherent design than their other recent attempts. Under the skin sits an aluminium monocoque and double whishbone suspension, similar to the setup on the firm's Aero 8 sports car. Except, the Life Car only weighs 650kg and there's the small matter of hydrogen fuel cell power.

Electricity produced by the fuel cell (at around 45% efficiency) is fed to the wheels via four chassis-mounted electric motors. When they're not in use, the polarity is reversed for regenerative braking, which charges a bank of lightweight 'ultra capacitors', capable of supplying up to 1000 amps in short bursts. This enables the Life Car to cover the 0 to 60mph dash in less than 7 seconds. Top speed is somewhat more restricted at 85mph, but it does have a very credible 250 mile range, all the while emitting nothing more harmful than water and heat.

So, proof that there is a future for the car enthusiast, whatever the verdict on issues like climate change. As for whether or not the claims of human influence on climate change are justified or reversible, that remains to be seen. If, in a decade’s time, the whole debate is remembered as the 'great global warming swindling' and there’s a resurgence in big petrol V8s, then the green concepts of the noughties may be seen as technological curiosities. If not, they may just be seen as the saviours of the performance car. Only time will tell.