Friday, 6 August 2010

Platform sharing

We’ve all heard it before - “the Jaguar X-Type is actually a Ford Mondeo”, “the Audi TT and Skoda Octavia are the same car”, “the Fiat 500 is a Ford Ka in drag”.

The recent ascendancy of VW AG to the plinth of most profitable and highest volume car maker in the world suggests that rather than be something to giggle about, ‘platform-sharing’ is the technological innovation of the century - at least in vehicle mass-production.

VW AG own seven mainstream car brands - VW, Audi, SEAT, Skoda, Bugatti, Lamborghini and Bentley (Porsche and Suzuki are soon to enter the fold); And all drivetrains and chassis they’ve developed for their current line-up are used, not just across models, but increasingly frequently, across brands.

It’s no wonder Volkswagen currently has no less than 15 different models on sale in the UK. Jaguar by comparison, have only just started re-engineering their models to share platforms and they only have four.

The new Audi A1 is a great illustration of how VW AG go about the business of making cars. It is mechanically identical to each of: a Skoda Fabia, VW Polo and SEAT Ibiza. They share everything from engines, to gearboxes and crash structures; they even use thesame buttons for their controls. Despite this, the most basic A1 lists at c. £13,000 while the equivalent Fabia is some £4,000 cheaper.

The quadruplet obviously have different exterior body panels, lights, grilles and badges but the price-differential relies on where in the market VW AG has positioned each car. Marketers love to talk about “perceived quality” and “badge prestige” but for our purposes, we’ll call it “Tesco Value versus Tesco Finest”.

It’s about the way a car makes its owner feel and what it says about them when it’s on their driveway. The oily bits in modern cars have had a very long gestation - the petrol engine for example, has been with us going on for a century. Mechanials are pretty much as good as they are ever going to be so manufacturers have had to come up with all manner of clever ways to differentiate their wares from the rest.

Toyota came up with the biggest hoax the world has ever seen a.k.a “Prius”, while the Germans dreamt up “premiumisation”. (Yes, that word came from Germany; just count the syllables).

So beyond sheet metal, the A1 is afforded nicer quality materials in its interior and more electronic gizmos than the ‘no-frills’ Skoda Fabia. It’s also marketed as a bit of a fashion accessory so buyers of the A1 are offered far more options to customise* their cars.

It’s a very clever strategy and like the best ideas, once someone comes up with it, you wonder why, “things haven’t always been done that way”. Why spend money on R&D, developing bespoke components for each model when most people are not geeks like me and don’t care all that much what’s under the bonnet?

VW AG forecast that between them, the A1, Fabia, Ibiza and Polo will sell around 1.4million units over the next 4 years. Why [again] depend on 400,000 units of the Audi A1 to pay for development costs when they can be shared across 1.4million?

It’s such a no-brainer, it won’t surprise me (or many others) if we’re down to just four car companies worldwide by the time the next World Cup rolls around. Four companies with brand-upon-brand and sub-brand-and-sundry. A “make-your-own” pizza approach to selling cars if you will.

It would be far simpler to make just the one car and through options, allow buyers to spec what they want from the £9,000 of the lowliest Skoda, to the £20,000 of the poshest Audi. Any dealer who’s tried to sell a Citroen C6, or a Renault Vel Satis or Vauxhall Signum will tell you this approach doesn’t work with the modern consumer.

There’s an artificial ceiling on how much the market will pay for cars wearing certain badges. Toyota went as far as forming a whole new brand in Lexus to get around this; likewise Nissan with Infiniti and Honda with Accura. Image is everything and if you’re looking for more proof, just look at the Evoque on the opposite page.

The manufacturers have bent over backwards to accommodate our snobbery and it’s all very noble, and you can call me cynical but I spy an opportunity.  If you catch yourself thinking about buying a Skoda infused with “Audi-ness”, save yourself a few pennies and just buy the Skoda.

Monday, 24 May 2010

GTO puts Ferrari 599 back off track

Based on the £1.3m 599XX, the new Ferrari 599 GTO is meant to be the ultimate Ferrari road car - more special even, than the Ferrari Enzo. Lest we forget, the latter was named after the company's founder to celebrate Ferrari's 60th anniversary.

The Ferrari PR and marketing department would probably prefer most people to disagree with me but I'm really not convinced, that it moves the game on or does anything that's not been done before.

Sure it has all the Ferrari hallmarks - striking looks, almost excessive speed and a ridiculous price tag; it's a paragon of extravagance, all best served in red - "Rosso Corsa o Rosso Scuderia signor?" - Yes, it has a 6.0 litre V12 that produces 661bhp connected to a sequential manual gearbox that changes ratios in just over half a second. And yes it has F1 derived carbon ceramic brakes as well as some new carbon-fibre panels and clever 'active' aerodynamic gubbins but it is, at the core, the 599 GTB (Gran Turismo Berlinetta) that's been on sale since last decade! a.k.a 2006.

It's like when Vauxhall took the Astra that had been on sale for 5 years and gave it a lick of white, pearlescent paint then threw on some shiny black wheels before flogging it off as the "Vauxhall Astra VXR Nurburgring Edition". I'll admit, I'm playing a bit fast and loose with my analogies here and the Ferrari is more of an upgrade over the regular car than Vauxhall's effort but it's equally worth pointing out, Vauxhall didn't have the cheek to ask that you pay £93k extra for the privilege of owning one of the "last-of-the-line".

I might change my mind if I actually got to drive one but that's another criticism I can level at the 599 GTO. Only Ferrari race and test drivers, a few lucky journalists and 599 people with £300,000 burning holes in the pockets of their chinos will ever get to drive it. And because it is only being sold to these 599 carefully chosen punters, very few of us will ever even get to see one outside of a static display in a hall at a car show somewhere - Birmingham NEC anyone? Just how relevant and genuinely exciting can such a car ever be if only about 0.00001% of the world ever get to see it doing what it's designed to do?

It's easy to see why the question on whether the 'GTO' moniker has been appropriately applied with the 599 keeps getting asked. It's only the third Ferrari to be called a GTO and to illustrate the weight behind that badge, Chris Evans recently spent around £15m for a 1963 Series II 250 GTO.

The other GTO, the 288 GTO of 1984 is the 'cheap' one and the rare times that one goes on sale, it changes hands for around £200,000. And yet it's still [in my eyes] more deserving to be called GTO than the 599 ever could be because the O stands for Omologato (or Omologazione depending who you ask). This is meant to give away the fact that the 288 and 250 were only built to allow homologation of their racing car equivalents into Group B sports car racing in the 1980s and Le Mans and sports car racing in the 1960s respectively.

The 599GTO wasn't built for homologation even though it's a street-legal version of the full-to-the-brim-with-race-technology, 599XX.

Ultimately, I think what grates me most is the impression I get from Ferrari that they think we're all 'fanboys' who will always worship them however much they play the same trump card. That they can sell virtually any car for any price as long as they garnish it with a smattering of 'heritage'. If it was up to me, I would be at Maranello right now scratching the Os on the badges to make 599 GTCs instead of GTOs.

Cinico in Italian - 'cynical' in English.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Porsche guide to green motoring

The Geneva Show is the biggest and the best of the international motor shows all the big manufacturers attend every year. The same orgy of one-upmanship occurred in March as it always seems to when Geneva comes round but this year, one manufacturer stole every headline going! When the wraps came off the Porsche 918 Spyder concept car and fell to the floor, jaws of all those in attendance went the same way.

The 918 Spyder is the ultimate expression of Porsche core brand values. It can be described as a 'halo' car which means it sits, deity-like, above every other Porsche. The idea being to generate desire in punters but offering more affordable [but hardly thrifty] Boxsters, 911s and Caymans to those who can't stretch to the £350,000+ it's likely to cost from showrooms.

As such, it follows on from 2001's Carrera GT rather than the 1970s Porsche 917 racer its name references. The 917 was the first ever Porsche to achieve an outright win at Le Mans and Porsche head of R&D, Wolfgang Durheimer freely admitted, the '918' name was hatched by marketing brains a mere week before the show.

It is worth pointing out though, that this new concept car has traces of Le Mans in its genome. Its 3.4-litre V8 is a derivative of the engine that powered an RS Spyder to an LMP2 class victory at Le Mans in 2008. Next to the Carrera GT's 5.0-litre V10 (also based on a race engine incidentally) it looks something like a retrograde step in performance. Parity between the two is brought back however, by a pair of electric motors, one powering the front wheels and the other powering the rear but each producing 109bhp.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, what you are looking at here is a Porsche hybrid! A petrol-electric, parallel hybrid and if that nomenclature conjures up images of Leornardo DiCaprio's fleet of Toyota Priuses in your head, you are not far off the mark.

The 918 Spyder employs a clever powertrain management system and a high-tech 7-speed 'Doppelkupplungsgetriebe ' (double-clutch gearbox) to achieve nearly 100mpg and CO2 emissions of just 70g/km. Contextualise this with 70mpg and 104g/km for the most fuel-efficient Ford Focus money can buy.

This parsimoniousness at the pumps appears at odds with its 'road racer' styling but the dial on the steering marked 'E-H-S-R' goes a long way towards justifying why these seemingly antagonistic qualities can sit next to each other in the 918 Spyder, as harmoniously as gin and tonic sit together in a highball glass.

When in 'H' (hybrid mode), the 918 Spyder can record these figures in the EU emissions and fuel economy tests but it performs better still, if the dial is twisted to 'E' (electric-only) mode. In this mode, the 918 is powered only by its lithium ion battery-pack and can travel 16 miles without recourse to so much as a drop of petrol.

In 'S' (sport) mode, system parameters are set with a bias more towards fun driving than economy. More power is sent to the rear wheels and presumably, this would allow you to carry out the sort of 'skids' you might be asked for by the director were you to unwittingly wander onto the Top Gear test track during filming.

The last position is 'R' and if the 918 Spyder had been around during 'This is Spinal Tap', it would have probably been marked '11' instead. It stands for 'Renn' or 'Race' and essentially means every adjustable setting in the Posrche is fixed in the position that facilitates the fastest possible lap times around a track.

Around the legendary Nurburgring circuit, the 918 Spyder will be capable of a lap time of "less than 7m30s" in this mode. Compare this with when the Australian car magazine 'Wheels' took a Bugatti Veyron around the Nurburgring, and only managed 7m40s.

This is all very tantalising but it has to be said, the 918 Spyder is just a concept car to gauge public interest. It is not a certainty for production though I'll leave you with this quote from a Porsche engineer who was at the show: “Porsche has never shown a [concept] car it didn’t go on to make”.

The case for a return to £200million engine development budgets in F1

The way the FIA constantly tweak Formula 1 regulations confuses many, chiefly because it isn't always easy to tell what they are trying to achieve with the raft of changes they bring round every successive year.

The official line is usually any combination of, "to cut cornering speeds", "to cut costs", "to create a better spectacle", "to be more environmentally friendly", "to make the sport more relevant to road cars".

All very noble but if the FIA are to be believed, why does it seem they always ban something one year and bring it back in the next then ban it again the year after? Surely, something that's good for the sport one year, doesn't suddenly become bad for it in the next. Examples? Traction control, slicks, KERS, one-lap qualifying, I could go on.

I think taking away mid-race refuelling was a good idea but it would've been a particularly good development if they hadn't frozen engine specifications in 2008. Having to start with all the fuel you need for the race places a premium on engine fuel economy.

The less fuel your engine uses per lap, the less you need to carry at the beginning, and less overall weight to brake and accelerate during a race, in itself means lower fuel consumption. It also means being kinder to your tyres over the course of a stint, so essentially, there would be a lot of lap time to be gained by having a more fuel-efficient engine.

If the FOTA teams had also not agreed to abandon KERS from 2010, kept the increase in minimum weight to 620kg so as not to disadvantage taller drivers using KERS, and also, not placed a limit on how much energy you could store in the system, the scenario would be set for a fuel-economy arms race. An arms race of the nature currently going on in the road-car space - happy coincidence.

If you need proof fuel-economy can win races, look no further than the success of diesel engines in motorsport vis-á-vis the Audi R10 TDi and the Peugeot 908 HDi FAP at Le Mans, as well as the BMW 320d and SEAT Leon TDi in touring cars.

It may seem unfair to compare endurance racing to F1 since F1's meant to be a sprint formula, but all that means is that the margins to be gained in F1 are slightly smaller. You have to remember though, races are won in F1 by "tenths of a second here" and "hundredths of a second there".

Engine development was expensive when it was allowed but with the way engine manufacturers currently supply around three teams each, the costs would be distributed; plus the "commercial rights holder" would do well to open up their fists to relinquish some money for a pursuit that makes the sport look more socially responsible.

Even better than this, "the performance advantage the Mercedes-powered teams currently have over the rest of the field, frozen-in by the ban on development, might be curtailed somewhat - although McLaren really would be nowhere if that happened.

Thursday, 11 March 2010


When trying to sum up the new MINI Countryman, "divisive" is a good place to start. I fall in with those who favour it but I’ve never shirked playing devil's advocate.

It will be the first MINI ever, to feature four-wheel drive and four side doors but you only need to observe the lack of wooden sides to work out it won't have much in common with its namesake of 1961 either.

This makes it easy to dismiss it out of hand for being a warped interpretation of Alec Issigonis' iconic original - "13-foot 4x4" appears to sit about as comfortably with the "MINI" moniker as Gordon Brown at a press conference.

But to understand the Countryman as a car, one needs to put it in the context of its brethren. At 13 feet in length, it's three feet longer than Austin Mini but more pertinently, it's a full five feet shorter than a Mercedes GL Class. More examples? Three feet shorter than each of, a Land Rover Discovery, VW Touareg, Porsche Cayenne and Volvo XC90. A mini-SUV if you will.

Then when one pores over the engine range, warm and fuzzy feelings abound! No pun intended, in re it's potential effects on global temperatures. The choices will be 1.4 and 1.6 litre diesels and three versions of a 1.6 litre petrol including a 180bhp turbo-charged 'Cooper S' version.

Combined with modifications employed in the rest of the BMW range under the 'EfficientDynamics' banner, the Countryman's no more likely to melt polar ice caps than leaving your telly on standby.

The modifications are "MINIMALISM fuel efficiency concept" in PR-speak while in geek speak, they are direct injection, variable valve control, automatic engine stop-start, brake energy regeneration and a gearshift indicator . To the rest of us, the Countryman will achieve hatchback-like fuel-economy and emit hardly any nasty gases into the atmosphere.

The Nissan Qashqai belongs to the same class and it has been a runaway sales success for the Japanese automaker having shifted over half a million units since going on sale just over two years ago. This bodes well for the MINI, which, like the Qashqai, is aimed at families for whom dull Vauxhall Astras, VW Golf's and Ford Focuses don't quite hit the mark. That you'll be able to specify the Union Jack roof Austin Powers had on his MINI makes the Countryman all the more enticing.

Which brings us onto the most contentious subject; the way it looks. I for one, think it's a well-proportioned, design success! Certainly moreso than the clumsy MINI Clubman or the downright ugly MINI Roadster and MINI Coupe set for production in 2012. We can discuss aesthetics ad nauseum but they are subjective so we'll all have to make our own, individual minds up.

What I won't straddle the fence on though, is that despite the multitude reasons you can think of why it is predisposed not to, the MINI Countryman works - And BMW have without a doubt, scored another winner.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The £815,000 insurance bill

Had the good fortune to spend some quality time with a pre-production Noble M600, showroom demo Lexus LF-A and a Lamborghini Murciélago SV press car last week. I like to think not many people get the same good fortune so I felt it only right that I should share my experiences.

A lot of people came by to chat to me about these three cars over the few days I was around them. Overwhelmingly, the Lamborghini attracted the most favourable opinions. I think this was chiefly because it was the one in the trio most easily recognisable as a "supercar". The huge carbon fibre rear wing and hexagonal glass engine-bay cover [that wouldn't look out of place on a Revénton] both played their part.

So too the pearlescent orange paintwork the Italians prefer to describe as "Arancio Atlas" where I would use "look-at-me!". Infamous Italian flamboyance was also evident in the name which amounted to, "Lamborghini Murciélago longitudinale posteriore seicentosettanta-quattro superveloce berlinetta". Descriptive? Quite.

In its company, the other two took the role of 'gatecrashers' at the hypercar party as they were criticised for having price tags their badges might not quite manage to carry.

If one were to be as polite as some were - "How much?! Who's gonna pay that for one of them?!"

Another made the astute observation that if they had seen the LF-A on the street and someone told them it was a £50,000 car, they wouldn't have flinched in the slightest.

Oddly enough, at idle, the Lexus was louder than the 'raging bull' and having talked to someone who has driven both in anger, I can reveal, it shouts louder too! The Lamborghini was also much more tame at parking speeds and didn't shoot forward every time you brushed the accelerator pedal in the same way the LF-A did. While attempting a 9-point turn in the LF-A, I also discovered a bewildering control layout that left me wondering whether it was set out that way to remind those who got in the driving seat that while it was a car, it was nothing like other cars they had experienced before.

"Lamborghini - the friendly supercar". You know where you heard it first.

This thread extended to the keys with the key fob for the SV looking like it could have been one from any other car made by VWAG - albeit with a Lamborghini badge skillfully blue-tacked onto it. Not so the naked carbon-fibre Lexus key - presumably to show your mates in the pub what a special car you own without first having to take them and their pints to the car park. The Noble key on the other hand (no pun intended), had been borrowed from a Ford [that I'm certain wasn't the GT] and the immobiliser/central-locking fob was after-market. "Pre-production M600, y'understand?" Left me considering whether they were waiting to show the full production version when they had applied the same chutzpah to it that they had to the switch for the traction control.

Doors? The SV had the trademark scissor-style doors Lamborghinis have had since the Countach and though they "look really cool", they do mean worrying about banging your head at every ingress/egress. On the conventionally opening doors of the LF-A, only the placement of the door-handle was worthy of note; (inside a deep channel that directs air to the C-pillar intake). The Noble's door was special for its interior panel being deliberately left untrimmed to show the exotic material it was fashioned from.

There was carbon-fibre everywhere inside the Noble! The whole centre console stack was made from it and so was the golf-ball gear knob. The rest of the dash probably was too but I can't confirm this as, at the time of viewing, it was hidden under leather. The CFRP was aesthetic garnish in its use on the fascia though not so, in its use in the bodywork - the M600's modest kerb weight in comparison to the LF-A and the SV forming all the justification needed. The Lamborghini's interior was dominated by alcantara held together by yellow stitching whereas the LF-A's interior impressed upon me; "loads of plastic!" "Very high-quality, tactile plastic". "But plastic nonetheless".

The view behind in all three cars was purely conceptual, whereas the view out front in the Noble was the best and served well to emphasise its superior compactness. The Noble had a higher quoted top-speed and so was potentially the fastest of the three in a straight line (slower official 0-60 probably due to requiring a gear-change). This, as well as its lower weight and more advanced under-body aero is probably why it placed so much higher than both the SV and the LF-A on the TopGear power laps board despite costing at least a Range Rover's worth less than the next most expensive, the SV.

At the end of my little episode with this trio though, I would have had the Lexus LF-A.

Only because it was not derivative in the same way the other two were. The Lamborghini was like a modernised, angularised Diablo whereas the M600 was like a Ferrari F40 reboot. I also prefer function-driven aesthetics in a car and while this approach was readily evident in the LF-A and the M600, it was probably the only thing subtle about the styling of the Lamborghini. While I also admired the desire behind it's makers' to deliver to willing punters, an unadulterated driving experience, the M600 would have probably been too much of a handful for someone of my limited ability. Connoiseur's choice if you will.

The Lexus, in contrast, was filled with sort of technology that flatters a driver and their lap times while [and as a result of] keeping them on the black stuff.

I liked the fact that the Lexus redlined at 9,000rpm and that when it did, it sounded not very much unlike the Aston Martin Le Mans prototype car. Quite a good analogue because more than the other two, it represented race high-tech applied to a road car. Easy choice then for a motorsport fanatic.

Click the image below for a table of some interesting stats:

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Motorsport can be is exhilarating

I stumbled across a gem whose sparkle I've spent all day today admiring. A 6½-hour documentary which I watched in one sitting; only taking breaks to eat and to visit the loo; it was that compelling!

It was about Tim Schrick and his exploits when he went endurance racing and it was rather wittily called "Team Schrick" because as you might imagine, he didn't do it all on his own. I say "stumbled" because when I came across it, I was actually looking for clips from a German TV show called D Motor, screened on DMAX and presented by Tim Schrick.

It's a show I fell in love with for the technical detail Tim goes into when analysing the behaviour of cars he tests. Unlike some, he has remarkable car control skills and he doesn't get confused if you start talking to him about torque.

In any case, I've watched many motorsport documentaries before, most recently, Truth in 24 about the diesel Audi R1 TDi rennwaggen and its success at Le Mans in 2008. It was a very 'slick' documentary but it was utterly soul-less. I didn't feel anything like the connection I found with the characters in Team Schrick. And I say characters because like any other good 'drama'/"real-life-with-all-the-mundane-bits-taken-out", the individuals involved in the story were all developed to fill 3D[imensions].

In contrast, the biggest persona spanning the 92 minutes of Truth in 24 is Audi AG. Because it was a promo film, there was a desire to bolster Audi's reputation for reliability, and unlike in Team Schrick, the concession to reality that in motorsport, things can and do go wrong could not be [and wasn't] made.

Team Schrick was a true emotional rollercoaster and I fully recommend it to car, motorsport and drama fans alike. The sheer ambition Team Schrick display throughout the programme and enormous desire to succeed really hooks you in.

I think motorsport has a bad habit of presenting itself as various combinations of dour, sterile and aloof (F1 moreso than all the rest). That's what's fresh about Team Schrick; all the turmoil, emotion and passion for the sport is on show. Much unlike you get with Ron Dennis batting on about passion in press releases and press conferences but only rarely displaying any.

It's a must-watch, athough if circuit-racing isn't your thing, put Engineering the World Rally on your list. It's about Petter Sohlberg and the Subaru WRC team's 2007 season and is equally as good!