Monday, 20 December 2010

Mini Paceman

Forgive me, BMW, for picking on the Mini. I know it's supposed to be a small car, or at least it was supposed to be, but this is getting ridiculous.

I have to admit: I didn't get it to begin with.

But after all the snow recently, and seeing all sorts of BMWs stranded at the side of the road, it clicked.

The problem is this - BMW absolutely insisted that all proper cars had to be rear wheel drive. And so they spent a hell of a long time making sure that they had the best rear wheel drive cars of all. But they were wrong. You see, the thing is, rear wheel drive cars are beaten by front wheel drive, which are again beaten by the latest four wheel drives. But the Germans didn't want to lose face, so they developed the X1, the X3, the X5 and all sorts of xDrive combos for their saloons, and are so keen on pushing their four wheel drive models.

But they couldn't admit that they were wrong about the rear wheel drive, particularly when cars are getting smaller. So they bought a small British car maker, and revived the Mini brand.

So now they are trying to expand the Mini range, and have just decided to launch the Mini Paceman, which is a shorter and slightly less practical version of the Countryman. It certainly looks like a Mini, but why would you want to pay a premium for a larger Mini that is slightly smaller?

A little bit pointless then.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Chevrolet Orlando

It's been a bit of a dry spell recently for new car launches. Winter normally is; perhaps it's the cold dark nights that make car designers depressed. Or the fact that new cars don't sell well in the winter, and a spring or summer launch is sure to boost sales of a brand new design.

But if you happen to be a budget car maker trying desperately to shake off the terrible image of the previous owner, then your sales will be low year round, and it doesn't matter too much. And if your parent company want to release a new model of a car at a premium price, and you get the car as a trial run, then it makes perfect sense to launch in winter, so that the premium one can be launched in spring, ready to take the large number of orders.

So Chevrolet, formerly Daewoo (remember them? Buy a car one year, get a new one the next year) have just launched the MPV, the Orlando. It looks like it might just be the next Zafira. But I think that they've actually outsmarted Opel/Vauxhall on this one and launched an MPV that looks more like an SUV. Inside, it is quite futuristic and stylish without making you feel like Captain Kirk whenever you want to nip to the shops (see Honda? It can be done)

The styling queues smack of the Kia Soul - who would have thought that 10 years ago? - and it actually looks pretty good. It's a decent looking car and heading in the right direction. Other manufaturers should take note - the reason MPVs died a death is because they were superceded by SUVs, so it makes sense to adopt all the good features of SUVs and all the good features of MPVs and roll them into one nice package.

As far as MPVs go, this is pretty much spot on with today's market. Trouble is, it's Vauxhall's budget brother, but, at prices starting from £16,395 and the Zafira starting from £14,995, it doesn't make much sense until the new Zafira is launched. Even then, will the new Zafira match the Orlando? I don't know, so buying one just now is a bit of a gamble. You'd be better hammering the price down on an old-style Zafira.

You'd be better to wait until the new Zafira is launched. If it's more expensive than the Orlando, the Orlando is a clear winner.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Nissan Leaf

Some time ago, I was faced with a dilemma. I had the choice between two expensive products, one new and revolutionary, and the other older, a bit past it's sell-by date and tired. The latter was the more expensive one, but also the one that got my sale.


Well, the thing is, early adopters will always take too big a risk. Take the classic VHS/Betamax war. Or HD-DVD/Blu-ray. The better standard lost in both cases, mainly because of poor support. But what happens if you buy too early and end up with a product that's useless?

Well, all the electric car buyers in the next few years will find out. The thing is, there is a need for some infrastructure development to support the inevitable electric future. Whether that's hydrogen fuel stations, swappable batteries or fast-fill connections, we don't know yet, but with the surge of availability of electric cars, it is inevitable that some people are going to be left with unusable expensive toys.

Anyway, I'm not here to review cars, more to fulfil my passion for car design, irrespective of drivability.

So Nissan have their new Leaf. It's apparently selling like shit off a shovel.

But it looks like it too. No further comment is necessary.

Sunday, 31 October 2010


It's a little quiet just now on the new car launch front. There are a few images being bandied around, but nothing really coming on to the market just now, except perhaps the new Passat, which looks pretty indistinguishable from the old Passat and so doesn't deserve a separate post. I was expecting the BMW to be similar, but it's not.

The problem with the old BMW X3 is that it was designed to be not as good as the X5, which was designed to be not as good as the Range Rover. Then BMW sold Land Rover, and with it went the accidental star of their SUV line-up. The X5 was, by all accounts, a fantastic car to drive, and reasonably desirable. But not as good as the Range Rover.

But the Range Rover was £70,000. The X5 started at about £35,000. There was a huge gulf of a price differential. Then the X3 was introduced, but with nowhere to fit. The problem was, if it was good, it would take sales from the X5. If it was cheap it would take sales from the 3 series. So it had to be more expensive than the 3 series. Which pushed it nicely into roughly the same price range as the X5, thus rendering it entirely pointless.

Now, though, BMW launched a new X5 a few years ago, and a recent mid model update. The prices went up as well, so that it nicely slotted between the X3 and the Range Rover.

And the X1 came along to soak up all those who wanted an SUV for 3 series prices - and I was totally wrong about the X1. I see loads of them around, so BMW know a few things that I don't.

So now the X3 has a proper target market - somewhere between X1 and X5, and it also has competitors in the form of the VW Tiguan, Audi A5, Ford Kuga, Hyundai ix35, Mazda CX-7. Need I go on?

BMW did a half arsed job of the BMW X3 before knowing that there wasn't really a market for it. But now they've done a proper job, and come up with something decent. Now they're playing catch up. I'm afraid it's going to take a few years before anyone will be able to admit to owning an X3 without their friends thinking about cheap plastic on an overpriced car.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Top 5 Luxury SUV interiors

I was looking at some luxury SUVs this morning ( I know, not to everyone's liking) and it struck me that for the amount of money being demanded for such hideous lumps of steel, some of the interiors are pretty dismal. Conversely, some of the cheaper SUVs have nicer interiors, and let's face it, you're going to spend more time looking at the interior than the outside. Hopefully. Unless you buy the Cayenne, which is apparently a little unreliable, so you'll get plenty of chance to look at the exterior while you're waiting for the tow truck.

So I've ranked what I consider to be the nicest interiors, and included a few horror shows as well for comparison.

The Good

1. Lexus RX450h

The new Lexus RX is a little bland from the outside and certainly nowhere near as striking as the old model. The interior jumped up substantially in quality though, and now resembles a German car of the 90s, in that everything is neatly hidden and uncluttered. Nice, simple styling that works.

2. VW Touareg

Again, a new model and a nice and elegant interior. Nothing fancy going on here, just plain, straightforward design that's pleasing on the eye while providing all the functionality you need.

3. BMW X5/X6

Considering the dashboard is essentially the same for the two cars, I've lumped the two together. The X5/6 has a clean dash, what you would expect of BMW, but maintains the luxury feel, which is exactly what you want when you start to talk about £50k+ for a car. Nice, simple, uncluttered.

4. Hyundai Santa Fe

Pardon? Did I just say Hyundai in an article about luxury SUVs?

Yes I did.

OK, some of it is a little bit plasticky, but it's definitely not basic. And it's well laid out, without too much clutter around the console. If this had slightly better plastics, and a little bit more leather, it would be further up. Welcome to the 21st century, Hyundai is becoming a luxury car maker.

(Incidentally, if you don't believe me, you should check out the new Sonata that's on sale in America. Or the Genesis sedan. Or the Veracruz or ix55)

5. Infiniti FX

Infiniti so far hasn't established much of a presence in the UK, mainly due to lack of dealers and the financial crisis that started as soon as Infiniti announced their launch in Europe.

But they came in with a bang. Nissan already had a pretty nice interior going on in their Murano, but the Infiniti just adds a little je ne sais quoi to it. Love the little analogue clock. Shame there are so many buttons.

The Bad

1. Mercedes ML/GL

Sometimes less is more, and this is illustrated perfectly in the Mercedes' dash. Far too much wood. Somehow Mercedes' interior designers have managed to make wood panelling look cheap.

And to top it all off, they've done the rest in thewhat looks like the cheapest plastic they could find. The vents don't do much for it either, and they look like stock parts that have been crowbarred into the dash.

2. Range Rover

Unlike most of the journalists whose reviews get published in actual magazines, I don't receive any perks from any of the car companies, so I can be quite honest.

Put it like this, there is a reason you never see bad Range Rover reviews, despite the widely known reliability issues.

But I also know that the people who own Range Rovers love them.

And they've not done a terrible job of the interior. Far from it, it's actually quite nice. It could actually have been number one on the good list, except Land Rover have made two mistakes.

The first is the steering wheel is a little too chunky, and is more reminiscint of those toy dashboards kids used to get than an actual car.

The second is those little knobs on the central column. The six of them, one is actualy a clock. They are a little, um, Tonka Toy, for my liking.

But otherwise, the wood panelling is beautiful. Mercedes designers take note.

The Ugly

1. Porsche Cayenne

All I can say is that if someone is blind enough to choose a car that looks like this on the outside, they'll probably not notice how hideous the interior is. Buttons. Everywhere.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Lexus CT200h

I should probably declare that I own a Lexus.

I should also probably also declare that I exactly fit the stereotype of a Lexus driver, except that I don't play golf. I am careful, deliberate, don't like to drive fast. I like to put the cruise control on and sit at 70 exactly on the motorway. I wait until I've got enough of a gap for 6 busses to pull out before I even attempt to gently push my way out.

To put it another way, I am a safe yet incredibly dull driver.

And Lexus make safe yet incredibly dull luxury cars. In all honesty, you can't drive them any other way, because you put your foot down and nothing happens for a few seconds. So you need a bit of a bigger gap. Yes, the acceleration is there when you need it, but it takes a while to appear. And the lights are automatic and self-levelling, so you can't blind people like Range Rover drivers like to do. The hybrid drive also has a peculiar little trick, whereby under light braking the battery starts recharging. Fine, except that if the battery is full, the system turns itself off and you suddenly lose all the braking force you were applying, and have to push a little bit harder. Often as you are rapidly approaching another car. So you stay well back in case of having to brake and potentially losing a fair proportion of your braking force, without warning.

And I've been looking for ways to reduce my fuel consumption, when along come Lexus with a new hatchback, claiming to give 69mpg. So it should be right up my street.

Except, it's not.

It's a Japanese version of the BMW 1 series, which has always been a little bit of a pointless car. But the fancy electronics add so much on to the price that it's no longer able to compete with the 1 series. So you end up with an overpriced car that is effectively a copy of an overpriced and pointless car.

No, sorry, I'm being dismissive. There is a point to the 1 series. It's for people who want a BMW but don't want to pay 3 series prices. And Lexus have introduced their competitor to the 1 series, and made it more expensive than the 3 series. So where exactly are they going to steal sales from? Answers on a postcard please...

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Peugeot iOn

In the early part of the last century, electric cars were all the rage. Seriously, look into the history books and you'll see that electric cars were once as popular as the petrol powered models, but unfortunately the problem of range got in the way, and once it became feasible to travel hundreds of mile in a day on petrol compared to tens of miles on electric, the concept was put on the back burner for a while.

But everyone knew they would be back. The thing is, electric cars make more sense. There is no need for a gearbox, the motors can be mounted close to the wheels and leave much more space for what the car carries - the passengers. Milkmen everywhere know as well about the quietude of the electric motor. And, thanks to Toyota, many people (including myself) enjoy the near silence of the electric motor, only to have it interrupted fairly quickly by the noisy spluttering of a petrol engine coming to life.

So recently, with the bearded eco nutters being shown to be more and more likely to be right, there has been a push to shift away from nasty fossil fuels and towards clean electric produced by nasty fossil fuels, which incidentally have lower tax rates than filling up your tank directly with the fossil fuels and burning it from there.

So we have had a couple of generations of eco cars, and they're no longer the preserve of beardies. Normal people have them, and normal people everywhere are waking up to the fact that we can't continue to burn fossil fuels. So fortunately, electric cars are starting to make more sense in terms of range and power.

The formula for a successful car is to make a car that is conservative enough that the driver doesn't look like Mr. Spock when he is driving (like the first Insight did), but with enough of an edge that people know this person is concerned about the environment. Think Prius.

So this Peugeot is based on the iMiev, which is a car and not a Russian MP3 player. It looks a bit like the 107, but there is definitely enough of an edge that people would think it's not petrol. The big question, would you buy it with a petrol engine? No, of course you wouldn't. So why would you buy it when the range is 90 miles? GM got it right with the Ampera - conventional, but edgy. They got it hideously wrong with the same car but for the American market, the Chevy Volt - not enough of an edge. They got it right with the EV1 though, but the tech wasn't there.

If car makers want to sell electric cars, they should dress them up as conventional cars. Some get it and will do well, others don't. The ultimate question is whether the electric cars offer enough of an incentive to switch. At present, I doubt it, but we're getting there.

This car won't change the world. Don't expect miracles.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Ford Grand C-Max

Sometimes I wonder if there's any point in having children. I don't have any, and don't plan on it either. Children ruin everything. You suddenly lose your carefree existence and have to start planning not based on what you want to do, or what the child wants to do, but what is practical to do wth a child. So you start chosing restaurants where they market themselves as child friendly. By child-friendly, they mean screaming and running is acceptable, somewhere that if you didn't have a child you would run a mile from.

Some parents have remarkably good discipline and can take their children to a restaurant and they will eat like a normal human being. But for some parents, their children are just too unruly and they have no choice but to live a life dictated not by what they want to do but by what is an acceptable compromise.

And that makes sense. If the parents did what they really wanted to do, the kids would be off to grandma's and the parents would be out for dinner to a proper restaurant, where placemats don't come with crayons. And if children were to choose, it would be going to Ben & Jerry's for three courses of Cookie Dough ice cream.

So compromises are a good thing if you have children. And Ford have realised this.

Not content with bringing the most stylish large MPV there is, the Galaxy, and the best mid-sized MPV you can find, the S-max, Ford also have a decent small MPV, for, er, parodoxically the person who is buying an MPV but doesn't need or want any additional space over a hatchback.

So you have the Galaxy for large families with many children, you have the S-Max for large families with some children, and the C-max for small families with a couple of children. However, what do you do if you have many small children?

Well, now you have a slightly larger, small MPV to chose from with 7 seats for storing up to 6 screaming little brats. Except you wouldn't put YOUR children in the back row, maybe someone elses. Because their heads are dangerously close to the rear windscreen and risk serious injury in the event of a rear end shunt. If I did have children, I wouldn't be happy to even let them in the rear even for a few hundred metres.

The car itself lacks the imagination of Ford's other MPVs, instead being a little plain. It certainly does seem to have borrowed a bit of the appearance from the rather lovely Kuga, but not enough to make this one nice looking. Ford should have risked a bit more and developed an imaginative MPV like the Galaxy or S-Max.

But one thing is for certain - the dash layout is definitely aimed at children. They can go and tell their friends that their mum drives a spaceship, and their friends would believe them if they saw the dash.

Friday, 24 September 2010

Ferrari SA Aperta

I've been trying to stay away from Ferrari and the ilk, in the hope that I wouldn't spend too long perusing cars that I would never be able to allowed within 100 metre of, let alone have sitting in the driveway. Unfortunately, sometimes such marques produce cars that one can't just ignore, but have to pass judgement over.

Not only that, but to make the car even more elusive for mere mortals such as myself, they have limited the production run to 80. Eighty. That's it. Only eighty lucky multi-millionaires will be able to buy one, and they're all gone. So I'm afraid that I stand no chance of owning one.

It is possibly the most beautiful car I have ever seen. Fortunately for the rest of us, Ferraris of today seem to have a tremendous capacity to catch fire or break down, in fact not more than a week ago I passed a broken down, brand new Ferrari California broken down, being overtaken by an open top bus full of tourists who were more interested in the minor celebrity stuck in the rain with the roof down than what the tour guide was telling them.

So while we may not be able to see this car on the road, those of us who enjoy a nice little bit of Schadenfreude every now and then can rest assured that if we do ever see one of these cars, however beautiful it may be, there is a reasonable chance that we will also get to see what an angry, super-rich celebrity lloks like when his damn expensive car catches fire.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Bentley Azure, Arnage, Brooklands

Now, I don't normally provide comments on mechanical aspects of cars. I'm not an engineer, I'm not a professional driver, I'm purely here to discuss appearances. I'm a pretty superficial kind of guy.

So when I woke this morning to hear on the news that Bentley has problems with it's Flying B, I was shocked that such a prestigious company a) gives a damn about pedestrian safety and b) couldn't come up with a better system.

Now I'm not saying that Bentley are irresponsible towards pedestrians - in fact, they have considered the problem very carefully and ensured that the Flying B retracts in case of an accident in order to improve a pedestrians chances against a couple of tonnes of metal. So it's a little bit of a disappointment that such a problem has occurred.

When there's a little bit of rust on the Flying B, the mechanism stops working, and the Flying B doesn't retract if the careless owner of the Bentley drives into someone, meaning that Johnny Pedestrian can become impaled on a Flying B, which would possibly be the most Rock n Roll death certificate in existance.

However, there has not been any single reported cases of this happening, so the recall is precautionary, which is most definitely good. So we know that the owners of Bentleys costing more than £200,000 drive very carefully.

We also know that this affects models from 2007-2009. Seriously, you spend that much money on a car and it's rusty in 3 years? What the hell are you doing? Sprinkling it with salt every night? Why is there a problem with rust?

My car is 5 years old. It didn't cost as much as a Bentley. It doesn't have a spot of rust, and it is protected against it by a process called GALVANISATION. Yes, VW, That's GALVANISATION. You might want to Google it at some point.

So here are a few suggestions for VW to improve the safety of Bentleys.

1. Don't make your car out of 2 1/2 tonnes of steel. Seriously, if you want to improve pedestrian safety, stop lumping a whopping great engine under steel and make your car lighter. It will improve handling, speed, braking, everything. Don't want to give up your prestige? Fine, I've got another 4 suggestions coming your way.

2. Make the Flying B mechanism out of something that doesn't rust. That's right, your customers are paying, so you can use something a little bit more expensive. Such as stainless steel. Or as I mentioned before, galvanise your parts. Even if one part gets a bit exposed, the zinc will give sacrificial protection.

3. Don't have the Flying B up when the car is moving. Yep, retract it as soon as the car starts moving. That way, when the car is stationary, pedestrians are free to impale themselves on it at will, but as soon as the tyres start moving, it pops down and you don't have a problem. Wedding drivers would have to use something else to secure the ribbon.

4. Instruct your drivers not to crash. Seems to be a good strategy, working so far since this hasn't caused any problems whatsoever. Make your car expensive, and not only will your drivers not crash, other drivers won't crash into it either as they are scared of the insurance bill.

5. Make the Flying B out of rubber. If you're that concerned about pedestrian safety, make it out of coated rubber. Problem solved. Kind of. Then consider reducing your prices to 10% of what they were previously.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

5 Best looking everyman's cars available in the UK today

I'm not talking Ferraris here, I'm talking about the 5 best looking cars for under £30,000 available today.

5. The BMW Z4.

Sporty, aggressive looks, classic sportscar proportions, no space for any uncool kids. Nice. Misses out on being better placed on account of it's price - you'll only get the base model for under £30k.

4. The Alfa Romeo Mito

Again, Alfa's designers know how to produce a stylish car. Very nice, quite stylish, and definitely the best of the lot of the superminis.

3. Alfa Romeo Giulietta

Another Alfa. Quite possibly the most stylish of the cars in their class, proving once again that Alfa have a winning formula for car design. Hopefully their engineering department will catch up soon.

2. VW Passat CC

A good design, a good price. Whack a Merc badge on the front and you would think it was a new model of the CLS. Fantastic design let down by the badge.

1. Audi TT

Fantastic styling, smooth, quality build. The second incarnation of the TT can't be beaten on looks alone for a car under £30,000.

Range Rover Evoque

When I was about 13, I was tasked with chosing my subjects to study at school. To help us, our teachers at the time produced a report, and at the bottom of this was a little check box, a tick if you were recommended to study this subject, empty if you weren't recommended but could if you really wanted to or a cross if you were persona-non-grata.

As something of a geek, I got my report and every single report had a nice little tick. Except one. Art.

You see, the problem is, no mattter how hard I try, there is a total disconnect between what my brain thinks I'm drawing and what I actually produce. It's two entirely different things. So I'm absolutely abysmal at drawing, and I can't do a damn thing about it. Fortunately for me, there are people who ARE good at drawing, because life would be very boring indeed if everything was square and boxy, like Soviet cars.

And it's nice to see the progression of cars as they are designed. A concept sketch is normally first, with many different variations, each slightly different, to see what does and what doesn't work. Then, it gets more and more refined until eventually you get left with the final car which has some passing resemblance to the concept sketch, but that's about it. The reason is simple: only a total moron would drive a car that looks like the concept sketch.

Except, Land Rover seem to have done away with the refining steps and just used the concept sketch to produce the final Range Rover Evoque. And Range Rover drivers normally have deep pockets and a lack of humility. So if any car maker can get away with going straight from concept to car, it's Range Rover.

So this is a small SUV. A niche market that has recently appeared, but I have to say, it seems to be selling reasonably well. There are quite a few BMW X1s around where I live, even though there is no conceivable need for them.

The Evoque isn't exactly ugly, but it just looks a little brash and showy. But that's the direction Land Rover seem to be taking with Range Rover. Vulgar, for those who have money and want you to know. Except this isn't 2007, it's 2010. Nice car, timing's a little bit off though. But this will sell well to all those whose property portfolios lost value, so they can still maintain that they drive a Range Rover even though they don't. Expect to see a fair few on the road. 

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Aston Martin Rapide

Throughout history, Britain and America have had a mixed relationship, with America starting as kind of a junior offshoot of the UK, but soon blossoming into a much bigger player than the UK could ever manage.

Then America decided that they'd had enough of the interfering of the UK and declared independence, and Britain didn't take it too well. In truth, it probably started with a sarcastic comment made by a British politician which went straight over the head of an American, who, being of mainly German descent, only understood things at face value.

Then things were a bit icy for a few hundred years, kind of coexisting but not really engaging, like a divorcing couple before the husband has found a squalid two bedroom flat to rent.

Then, unwillingly, America were dragged into a couple of skirmishes that they didn't really want to be involved in, and relations were forced to improve between the two countries.

But because of this icy relationship for a couple of hundred years, two separate cultures developed, with the UK being a bit more European than American, and America being, well, different. If the two nations had been best of friends, it would probably not have developed, instead sharing much more culture between the two.

So we ended up, forced together, with two different cultures, two different attitudes towards cars. America was built on business, Britain on tradition. And this is reflected in the cars. 

American cars were built to minimise costs and maximise sales. And British cars were built to provide a bit of pomp to the aristocracy. The two don't mix.

But then in 1994, Ford purchased Aston Martin, and a brilliant symbiotic relationship was born. The British provided the style and luxury, and the Americans provided the business.

A failing, unprofitable British car maker became cool. And you started to see Aston Martins appearing on the roads, looking absolutely beautiful. And the range has grown to accomodate any overpaid executive's wallet.

The most recent addition is the Rapide (ignoring the stupid little Toyota iQ thingy). And it is, again, like any Aston Martin, absolutely beautiful. This is a four door car, to compete with, erm, the Porsche Panamera or the Maserati Quattoporte. And this is better looking than either, but to me, it looks like the designers have been trying a little bit too hard to make it look like an Aston.

And if you want a sensible four door saloon that looks like an Aston Martin, there is the Jaguar XF, which seems to have been designed around the premise of making a car as close to an Aston as possible without infringing copyright.

But this is a very nice car for those who very occasionally need the rear seats, but would like an Aston - otherwise there's no option in the range.

So it's an Aston, slightly more practical than a Vantage or a DB9, but aimed at the person who sometimes gives a lift to their midget friend, but if you have children and need something stylish to drop them at the school gates in, then the Quattroporte is a far more sensible option.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Audi A7

Some years ago, Audi was renowned as a sportscar manufacturer, with the Quattro doing extremely well in rallying throughout the 80s. Before that, it was a bit of a mish-mash of history, first as a general car maker based in what would become East Germany, then as a new company based in Ingolstadt before being bought by VW in 1964.

Until the 80s Audi was viewed as a conservative car, kind of like a woolly jumper, or a pair of carpet slippers. Something for your granddad. 

Then the 80s happened, and the Quattro started hammering the competition at rallying, thanks to Audi's fast implementation of their four wheel drive system in rallying. It was more a bit of luck than anything else - a smart Audi engineer had the thought of developing a high performance four wheel drive car after seeing how fast the VW Iltis was on snow. 

Fortunately for Audi, this coincided with new rules for rallying which allowed four wheel drive, and Audi's reputation as a serious sports car maker started to flourish.

But then VW lost it a bit in the 90s and went back to the warm, comfortable safety of being a large, overpriced pair of carpet slippers. Audis became progressively more and more conservative, and the A6 became the choice of accountants everywhere, who wanted a nice car, but it had to be dull. The kind of accountants that you know will do an honest job, but won't help you with any "tax minimisation" - they all drive Porsches. Sales lagged while arch-rivals BMW and Mercedes grew and grew.

Then something happened in the new millenium. It's like the engineers suddenly woke after a 10 year slumber, most likely after Audi bought Lamborghini. 

The initial reaction was to fit big, powerful engines to the already available chassis. And it worked. The RS4 became the car of choice for every boy racer, overtaking the M3, but it took a little bit of time. Then came the vulgar LED day-time running lights, which are extremely tacky bits plastered on to the front of an otherwise conservative car. Kind of like turning up to work in a three piece suit with the buttocks cut out.

But modern Audis are brilliant. I love the R8. I love the Q5. I love the TT. But sometimes they go over the top, and you get cars like the Q7, which are a little too brash. But the rest hark back to their conservative roots in the 90s.

So what does this have to do with the A7? Well,the A7 looks like a cross between an A6 and a BMW 5 GT. Or an A6 and a Porsche Panamera. But it's clear that it's been copied a little bit.

I think the problem is that Audi are struggling abit to accomodate the new sporty image and the old conservative image. And that is why the A7 sportsback exists. Nice conservative car, with a little bit of sports at the back.

Wait, I've heard that before.

Business at the front, party at the back? This car is a mullet. 

Expect it to sell well in Germany and America.

Nice car though.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Nissan Micra

Have you ever wondered what it is that makes a car last for a long time?

I mean, you have classic designs, like the Lamborghini Countach, which was in production for 26 years. It was a stroke of genius from the small Italian manufacturer that propelled them into the big league. In truth, it wasn't superceded until 1990 because it didn't need to be.

In fact, the design was still as contemporary in 1990 as it was in the 1970s. Can you imagine someone producing a design for a car that would look as modern and as sexy in 2036? Nor can I. But that's what Mercello Gandini did. You can see it's influence in pretty much all the Italian supercars right the way through to when the Countach was retired, and Lamborghini, athough now owned by Audi, still have some influence from it.

So what does this have to do with the Nissan Micra?

Well, it may surprise you to learn that the first Micra was produced in 1982. 28 years ago. OK, the design changed radically in 1992, but since then, things have pretty much been the same. The 1992 model still bears a hell of a resemblance to the 2010 model. OK, between 2003 and 2007 it went a bit off track, but the Micra is now back to what it was.

And it's cheap. 

Seriously, how many cars can you buy ust now for under £9,000? Particularly the last few years have seen car inflation go through the roof, so now it's nigh on impossible to buy a car for under £10,000.

The longevity of the Micra is testament to it's design. It has lasted this long because it is a nice, straightforward design. Nothing fancy, nothing garish, nothing showy. Just clean, sendible and above all else, easy on the wallet. 

Because, although you only spent £9,000 on your car, which is peanuts by today's standards for new cars, sometimes it's nice not to let the world know how much of a bargain you got.

Classic design. Horrendously underrated car.

Seat Alhambra

Somewhere in my youth, in middle-class suburbia, there was a time when people carriers were status symbols. As hard as it seems to believe, nobody with any kind of money would be without a family "bus". So my parents bought a VW Sharan at the earliest possible opportunity - actually, they took delivery on the day of the UK release after being given a press demonstrator for a day.

They had it for five years. And it was extremely comfortable. The seats were all individual and could be taken in and out depending on how many sprogs you needed to transport that day. My parents had three, so there was rarely any use for the third row, so that was removed to make way for the dog.

So in effect it became an oversized estate car. An oversized, nausea-inducing estate car. You see, the problem with people carriers is the high centre of gravity. Functionally, they don't really solve the problem of space as the extra capacity is actually height, and they problem with stacking anything high in a car is that it tends to fall over when you go round a corner.

For those of you who remember the original Sharan/Alhambra/Galaxy, it was reasonably modern at the time. Many years passed without an update. Ford seem to have abandoned the tie-in and done their own thing with the Galaxy, which is now much better.

But VW and Seat persisted for another few years, hoping that the trend would come back. In the intervening years we saw the rise and rise of the SUV, which addressed the space problem in an altogether more stylish manner.

And VW and Seat seem keen to kill off the platform. They've taken everything that was good about the Sharan/Alhambra and thrown it in the bin. The rear doors no longer open like car doors, instead they slide, in case you ever thought for a second that you weren't driving what is essentially a taxi for your children. Perhaps they could also install some glass behind the driver with a little hatch for your kids to speak through?

That's probably unfair. The car is not terrible for what it is. It is reasonably well designed, and IF YOU MUST BUY AN MPV, it's not a bad choice.

But times have moved on since the mid 90s. The MPV doesn't really fulfil what it was supposed to do any more, and rightly deserves to die. VW are doing their best to make sure that happens.

Mini Countryman

When the new Mini One first came out, all those years ago, I doubt whether BMW knew how successful it would become. All the ingredients were there. You had an iconic car, a sharp chassis, and striking styling. It was something special, and you could see that if BL had bothered to redesign the Mini to keep up with trends, they would have ended up with something similar to what BMW produced.

VW had the same with the Beetle.

But BMW had something smart up their sleeve that VW missed out on.

Estate agents.

You see, estate agents like to have a desirable car to plonk in front of the house they are selling, in case the present owner drives a Nissan Sunny. So they bought Minis. Thousands of them. And suddenly the streets were plastered with Minis, making it an established brand retty much from the outset, whereas the Beetle struggled to get past the few aging hippies who hadn't spent all of their money on hemp bags and other hemp-related products.

And the Mini One is a very nice car. It does exactly what BMW needed - maintain the style of the Mini on an updated and more modern platform, while keeping the BMW badge away from the "small car" market. The interior is a bit plasticky but manages to maintain some 60s styling, which is a nice reminder that the car is essentially a retro toy.

But the main point was to keep BMW out of competing with already-established brands in the small car market, because, let's face it, if someone has the money, BMW would rather you bought a 1 series with the BMW badge than the Mini, because they make more money. And if BMW started selling the Mini as a BMW, then they would probably lose a large proportion of the sales that depend on the badge. It's a sensible move, and one that Mercedes should have noticed when releasing the SLK into the market that already had the ridiculously expensive SL.

The Mini has been going for 9 years with barely anything done, so it must be nearly at the end of production? It certainly doesn't appear to be, with a recent expansion of the range to include the bizarre Clubman, and now the Countryman.

So is the Countryman any good? Well, it's like a small Mini, but big. That's it.

And it's the size that made the original Mini what it is, the small stature endeared it to the hearts of thousands. But making it bigger just makes it look ridiculous.

And now the range is expanding, will it compete against the BMW X1? Possibly. This is exactly what killed British Leyland, and BMW are making the same mistake. I just can't figure out who this is aimed at, and I can only assume it is the people who might otherwise buy a BMW X1 or possibly... No, that's it. There isn't really another car in the "Small, premium SUV" category. Unless I've missed something... No.

This is an interesting experiment, but I'm afraid it just doesn't work for me. Sorry guys.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Alfa Romeo Giulietta

I don't know if you've ever seen Italian TV, but a large number of programs involve women in bikinis, jiggling. To see what I mean, you can always search on Youtube for Hole in the Wall. In the UK, we got silver men in silver jumpsuits. In Italy, they get scantily clad women.

The Italisn men we see in the media in the UK are generally older, fatter and greyer than British men. It's probably not fair to base a national steretype on two men named Flavio and Silvio, but that's who this car is designed for. 

You see, both of them are known for having a taste for young, pretty women. In bikinis. They like smooth sleek curves. They look like men who would drive Ferraris. And when they break down, as they invariably will, it's fine, because their helicopters will arrive shortly to pick them up.

But the problem is, with so many young, beautiful women on the go, it would be bankrupting to buiy each and every one of them a Ferrari. So Ferrari's parent company have developed a solution. The Alfa Giulietta.

This car is extremely nice. It is an Alfa, and you can see much of the Alfa design philosophy at the front. It is clearly aimed at women, hence the name - there is no man on earth who could pull off driving a car called a Giulietta.

But women generally won't buy this car. Any women I know who are into cars would spend the money on getting a more powerful car, or a convertible, because a hatchback is just a bit naff. It's expensive, at £19,000 for a car slightly bigger than a Golf. Women generally buy cars using their head, not their heart, but with men it's the other way round. 

So mature, sensible women probably aren't going to buy this. What about young, reckless women? No, probably not. The difference in cost could quite easily be spent on, say, Buckfast, or thousands of bikinis from Primark. 

And parents buying for their children? No way. It is simply too big a price difference to make it feasible as a car to buy for a daughter. Or a son. Unless you hate him.

So it won't appeal to men, older women, younger women or parents. But there is one market that this could be sold to.

And that brings me to my earlier point. If you weren't paying for it, and you were a young and attractive woman who needed to attend champagne and canape receptions in style to be seen with your aging sugar daddy, this is perfect. The Giulietta is a diamond pendant, an adornment that an older woman would find tacky but a younger woman would be quite happy to receive as a gift, but out of the price range of someone in their own age range. This is a car for wealthy men to buy for their younger, more attractive women who won't be there in 6 months time. This is a car for Silvio.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Infiniti FX

Now this is a car I like. It's aggressive, it's macho. The styling is quirky and it's unique.

My wife DOESN'T like it. Because it's too aggressive, too macho, too quirky. And I see her point. The slanted headlights, the big, giant gaping mouth. Sometimes it's better to be gentle. And when you're buying a car that is clearly intended for those with large pockets, you don't want to get into vulgarity. Otherwise you'll be known as "the twat with the flashy car."

And this is the problem with the FX. It's got so much potential. The interior is absolutely brilliant. But the designers at Nissan were trying too hard to get noticed. They went over the top with the masculinity and as a result have produced a car that looks like you're trying too hard to be a man.

Which is fine. If you're talking about a 2 seat saloon. You're not. You're talking about an SUV. And overt masculinity does not fit with SUVs. Sure, you've got a decent engine in it, but take a leaf from BMW's book. If you want the people with money, you should focus on being conservative with little bits of glitz.

Sorry Nissan, you've got a product that I absolutely love, but I could never own. Next time, a little less flashy, and a bit duller, please?

Volvo V60

As long as I can remember, there's been a certain group of people who buy Volvo estates. I couldn't figure it out until recently.

The problem is, Volvo estates are, like many Swedish cars, an odd choice. Expensive for what you get, beaten by German equivalents and difficult to justify.

But then, last week I was driving, and it hit me why someone would chose a Volvo estate. 

It is a statement. It is, how should I put it, an acceptable car. But that's not why you chose a Volvo estate. The statement you make when you buy a Volvo estate is:

"I have children, and that is why I bought this car."

That's right. You buy it not because you have children, but because you want to make it obvious that you have children. You want the world to know that you have children, so you buy a Volvo estate. 

The problem is, with people like that, the world already knows that they have children. Think about it, has a person who drives a Volvo estate ever been late and not used some child-related excuse? Thought not.

This all comes from Volvo's reputation for safety, which frankly is something that is in the past. So your decision to buy a Volvo estate is irrelevant.

As for the V60, it's not terrible looking, it's above average inside. It's a Volvo. It will be good, but not quite as good as a German car. Second best in all categories, but master of none.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Saab 9-5

You know that feeling you get when someone you know disappears for a long time, and then you hear that they're coming back?

That's Saab. I am a Saab fan, I will declare that outright.

I like Saabs. I like the fact that they are quirky yet still oddly sensible. Very much like the inhabitants of the nation from which Saab arose. Kind of like Germans but with more personality, but not odd, like the Norwegians or Finns. Quirky but sensible.

So when I heard about all the upheaval at Saab last year, I was glad that Spyker could step in to save the day and continue the production of Saab, knowing that a new 9-5 was just round the corner.

The old 9-5 was just that, old. It had been on the go for damn near 13 years. Prices were excessive particularly compared to equivalent models of competitors and how much their newer models cost. Why would you pay for a 13 year old model when you could get an extra decade of development for the same money? Times are moving VERY quickly just now, and technology filters into cars rapidly.

So how does the new 9-5 look? Well, it's a Saab. And it's not. You can see elements of Saab here, but overall the design has moved on a bit. It's still a Saab inside, but it appears to be Saab facade plastered over a different car - more specifically, an Opel/Vauxhall Insignia.

Looking at the cockpit, it is still Saab. The grille is Saab. The rear is Saab. But that's it.

So the question now is: would you pay £26,000 for a car that is essentially the same as the Insignia? Why not just spec up the Insignia, you'll get equal luxury for your money, it looks better (dare I say it) and you'll be safe in the knowledge that the manufacturer will still be there in 5 years time (hopefully).

As for the Saab, would you risk the extra money for a few bits of Saab shaped chrome in the hope that Spyker is still there in 5 years time? I wouldn't.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Nissan Cube

OCD comes in many shapes and forms, and I'm sure that just about everyone has some form of OCD about different things. For me, it's pictures, if they're squint I juts can't leave them alone. On a recent tour of one of the royal palaces, I was so distracted by a squint picture that I didn't listen to a word that the tour guide said in that room. In other rooms, it was the mindless drivel that led me to not listen, but in this one, it was the picture.

Now for most people, the can control the compulsions to correct these inaccuracies. For others, they can't. And Nissan have employed one of these people to design the Cube. This designer evidently had a bit of a problem with symmetry, so they have designed the Cube to be asymmetric.

But take that out of consideration and you are left with, erm a cube with a bit at the front. Only someone with OCD would design a car to be such a shape. It's hideous, it doesn't matter which way you look at it. This is as aerodynamic as a housebrick and slightly less desireable.

What I want to know is: why?