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.