Monday, 21 September 2009

The 'Bluemotion' diet

I was talking to a fellow car nut earlier today about spin and rhetoric and how easy it is to see through it in manufacturers' press releases. Having given it some thought though, I think the joke's been firmly on all of us.

I have visions of the heads-of-industry chuckling to themselves behind boardroom doors for lapping up the "downsizing" spiel they've been glibly feeding to us for years. I'll use the VW range to illustrate my point although I'm sure if I devoted the same amount of time to it, this could have worked just as well with Ford, Renault, PSA, Nissan and other 'mainstreamers'.

Very popular bit of trivia this, but the Mk V Polo was bigger in every dimension than the Mk I Golf, the original family hatch. With the Mk VI even bigger, I suspected the Polo was now approaching Mk I Passat territory so I decided to look up the figures and sure enough, the current mid-range Polo is a 1.4 petrol that pumps out 85 horses in a car that weighs about 1100kg. Original Passat? The top of the range was a 1.5 petrol with 84bhp and it weighed about 1100kg.

So Polo Mk VI, as big as Passat Mk I with current Golf, current Passat and Phaeton bigger still. Whereas the Polo used to be the smallest car in the VW range, VW have had to come up with the Lupo to file in underneath and more recently the Fox. And if Frankfurt 2009 is anything to go by, there'll soon be an 'Aye-up' joining the ranks.

So while manufacturers want you to believe you're downsizing when you opt for a Polo over a Golf, you're only really opting for the size of car you should always have had and that's why "downsizing" is so painless nowadays. Because it fundamentally isn't.

Increases in specific outputs, thermal efficiency and specific consumption have been used until now to disguise weight gain and that's why engine manufacturers have been able to find the massive gains they have in economy and emissions performance over the past couple of years.

Prime illustration? The VW Polo Bluemotion! Just by gearing that trades in performance for economy, engine electronics that do the same, stiff, skinny tyres and minor aerodynamic revisions, you get closer to 90mpg when you really should be getting more like 60mpg. Future increases in efficiency are going to be much harder to come by because all it's taken so far is a change of focus while applying the same technology.

Legislation means gains afforded by technology like direct injection and DSG gearboxes are now being directed where they always should have been rather than just towards affording us more interior space, safety devices and other creature-comforts; more road footprint for same amount of cost-to-own.

Think about that next time you're agonising over the hardship opting for a 'smaller' car might make you endure.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe

Got taken for a spin in a Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe" the other day. Many things impressed me, a few didn't. Get the former out of the way first shall I?

It had the heavy woods (walnut & teak), leather, aluminium and chrome that you would expect in a hand-built British luxury car, and a slab of aluminium-look plastic spanning the dash... that you would not.

I liked the panel hiding away the multimedia screen and the cameras mounted either side of the nose to let you see what's driving towards it when you're creeping out of side-streets. I loved playing with the 'up-down' button for the Spirit of Ecstasy bonnet-figure and also spent a lot of time watching the 'power-reserve' gauge to see if it could be perturbed away from '100%' at city speeds. It couldn't.

All the little theatrical flourishes scattered through the interior shouted 'I'm a special car!' but £250k special? I thought not.

Some go weak at the knees for good paintwork but I am an interior fetishist. The common thread amongst objects of my fickle affection in the automotive world is without-a-doubt, a good interior. I point you to Weismann MFs for where my infatuation currently lies and for interiors that say bespoke more convincingly than any other I've ever leered at, £1.4m+ Veyron Sang Bleu excepted.

Sledging done, I have to admit to feeling the Phantom 'DC' completely possessed £250k's worth of majesty. We had the convertible roof stowed, it being sunny day it was, and I felt as self-conscious being driven through the high street as I imagine I would have done if I'd been forced to run through it instead, whited-up, wearing nothing but a mankini and golf socks.

Maybe it was how freakishly quietly it did everything or how obvious it was from the absence of either of, tweed or bling amongst its occupants, that it didn't belong to any of us. Or perhaps it was the seriously intimidating dimensions (particularly width) which meant a complete absence of drivers'-seat envy on my part.

I felt like I was dining with the Queen and didn't know my salad-fork from my dessert-spoon. I felt like riff-raff put in its place and I think it takes giving some thought to R-R's typical clientelle to understand why that's probably the right way for a person like me to feel.

You can only really relax enough to enjoy ownership of such ostentation if you're somewhere between gentry and aristocracy or if you work in an industry in which mass-idolisation makes colossal-ego standard-issue/occupational hazard.

I'm as likely to find myself in a position where I own one as I am to catch myself actually wanting one i.e. not very

Friday, 4 September 2009

Turn the new 911 Turbo up to 11 please

I was really quite disappointed when I read the tech spec of the new 911 Turbo. Chiefly because it has less power than the 997 911 GT2 for no obvious reason. It has the larger direct-injection 3.8-litre engine from the 997 II but still puts out less power than the 3.6 port injection 997 GT2.

This smacks of Porsche not turning the wick up all the way up to where they could have done so they could leave room for a GT2 version of the Turbo. I might be wrong but let's run with this conjecture. Why would they want to leave room for a GT2? Because a GT2 means higher margins and more ROI on the platform than a base Carrera 2.

It's like the Boxster-Cayman-911 C2 scenario all over again where Porsche gave the Cayman a 3.4-litre engine, coincidentally bang in the middle of the then Boxster's 3.2 and the 911's 3.6. The first Cayman S also happened to have 295hp c.f. 265hp for the Boxster and 325hp for the 911 Carrera 2.

I understand carmakers are a business and they should do all they can to direct people to the models in their range that make them the most money but I think, if Porsche did a better job of differentiating between models in their range, the underhand, artificial handicapping would be unnecessary.

When Ferrari introduced the 430 Scuderia, they were proud of the fact that it was only 1 second slower around Fiorano than the Enzo despite costing over £200k less. They jumped on rooftops to shout about it! Just like any engineer would if they'd been allowed to make the best car they could.

With the Ferrari range, you know if you want a cruiser you buy a California and if you want a road racer for similar money, you queue up for a 458. I'm not a fanboy.

I don't have the privilege, but if I had £100k plus to sink on a sports car, I'd rather that if any compromises had been made in its design, they'd been with performance in consideration rather how the choices might end up affecting Piech's, Wiedeking's or whoever's the boss nowadays' coin bank.

Update (8 Feb 2009): Because everyone loves saying, "I told you so."