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-รก-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.