Archive | April, 2012

Crash for Cash

Figures released by the Department for Transport have revealed that the number of reported casualties in 2010 was 6% lower than the previous year. Fatalities were down an impressive 17% on the 2009 figure, yet we continue to pay higher premiums year on year and beleaguered drivers can‘t understand why. The AA insists that the root cause is “soaring fraud and personal injury claim costs”. In short, the majority suffer for the benefit of the crooked or stupid elements of the population. The Association of British Insurers is on record as saying that the Government must do something about the “unacceptable cost pressures that insurers are facing”. The Prime Minister meanwhile states that he is “considering radical reforms” to tackle the UK’s “compensation culture”. We would all be happy if he would do this sooner rather than later.

Basically, it is no good moaning at the agent on the other end of the ‘phone come renewal time. We blame the companies but would our ire be better deployed at those crooked individuals who are taking advantage of the car insurance system?

Readers will have probably have heard of defensive driving techniques – of which more elsewhere on Motor Blogger – and is a technique well worth considering in these litigious times. For example, you may have heard of the term ‘slam-on’. This is when a driver will deliberately slam on their brakes thus ensuring the innocent party crashes into the back of them. A claim swiftly ensues for the car, the driver and the four other people in the car with him – whether they were there or not. Unless you have tremendous presence of mind, witnesses and other forms of evidence, then try proving otherwise. This is the method of choice for opportunists and criminals alike. Criminal claims is a massive business involving fraudsters and possibly repairers and ‘claims management companies’.

Obviously the insurance companies and police work to stop this activity but those that escape are probably responsible for adding £50+ to your premium. In addition to this you have to factor in uninsured drivers. There is always an irresponsible element who simply don’t bother, pick up an old banger and leg it when they have a collision. Add this on to the cases where folk can’t afford to insure their cars – a growing problem – yet think it won’t hurt just to pop to the shops. Getting involved with these people means that it’s your policy that’s going to foot the bill and you can probably kiss your hard earned no claims discount goodbye as well. Annually, these drivers are probably adding another £50+ to your bill.

Couple this with the number of spurious whiplash claims generated by unscrupulous ‘no win no fee’ bandits and their dim-witted dupes and it would not be a surprise if some £150 – £200 of your annual bill is your donation to crooks. Let us sincerely hope that the Government act soon. Remind your MP.

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Oil And Water Don’t Mix – Check Your Engine! Part One

Just because a car is new or modern doesn’t mean that it looks after itself. In one way that’s fortunate; it would be a bit of a worry if a car never needed our intervention – and then what? Our presence?

Although cars have warning lights to advise you of impending doom, they also have more subtle ways of letting you know when something is wrong. It pays to check your fluids. Engine oil should be toffee coloured when new. Some synthetics may be lighter. As it ages it starts to turn darker. This is perfectly normal, but there are tell-tale signs when something is starting to go wrong.

Check your oil in the usual way via the dipstick. Is there a glob-like sludge? This means your oil has long since reached the end of its life and should have been changed way back. It may even have been contaminated by water, for which see below. This is a crisis which is a major contributor to engine problems and can require the motor to be replaced, if the damage is severe. Are there tiny metal flakes? This isn’t unusual of itself but if you rub the oil with your fingers – wearing rubber gloves of course – and can feel the flakes then something serious is afoot. A gritty feel means that the oil filter should have been replaced a long time previously. It always pays to check immediately after a service that these jobs have been done. The oil should be clean and, if you can see the filter, it should look brand spanking. Finally, when checking oil, if it has a milky appearance – look for yoghurt-like gunk around the inside of the oil filler cap – then it is mixed with water from the cooling system. This can mean one of two things. Either a blown head casket, which can be attended to, or a crack in the engine block which will mean reaching for the visa card and holding your breath!

If, when regularly checking your oil as you should, you find that the level always seems low then, rather obviously, you’ve sprung a leak. If you think your engine is dropping oil under the car – a big overnight piece of cardboard is useful – then it’s more than likely a gasket is leaking somewhere. Blue smoke means burning oil. If you see it from the exhaust at start-up it is probably a leaking valve seal. This is when oil drips into the engine when it’s cold and burns off when you start the engine. If the problem is a blown piston ring it means oil is burning in the combustion chamber and you’ll get blue smoke in normal running. Finally, if the oil is foamy then the bottom of the crank is churning the oil in the sump and is an indicator of too much oil in the engine. This is as bad as a lack of oil.

If you see any of these problems then your car is trying to tell you something. Ensure a regular maintenance schedule and act immediately to resolve these issues. You might just avoid a massive bill.

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The Dangers of Car Clocking

Despite all the major advances in car technology and security over the years it somehow beggars belief that it is easier than ever to alter a car’s mileage by tinkering with the digital odometer. Changing the mileage to a lower figure can add hundreds of pounds to the vehicle’s value and has become increasingly prevalent.

We have reached the stage where there are now companies, who, perfectly legitimately and by using specious language in their advertisements, can ‘adjust’ your mileage to suit for a modest fee. It seems that it is not illegal to ‘clock’ a car but it is illegal to sell a car that has been clocked. Buying a car that has been tampered with in this way and discovering after the event that the vehicle has far more wear and tear than the mileage suggests leaves the otherwise innocent motorist in an invidious position. Is the driver going to declare this information to a prospective buyer and risk losing a lot of money or even a sale? It’s a poser, isn’t it? Supposing you have a new engine fitted. Is it justifiable to turn back the mileage to zero?

Actions like this do nothing to alleviate the air of mistrust generated by the sale of used cars, stranger to stranger. Someone who, on the face of it, appears to be genuine could actually be as crooked as a grasshopper’s back leg. There’s just no telling. Surveys suggest that as many as 1 in 20 cars have been clocked, so what’s the buyer to do to minimise the risk?

Well, first off, check the service history. There are loads of good cars out there, so why buy a car with an incomplete history? Make sure the mileage record in the service book matches that on the car, more or less.

Does the car look more worn than the mileage suggests? Seats, steering wheel and the foot wells can all show tell-tale signs of use, as can the bodywork. Trust your judgement and, above all, don’t buy from a stranger in a car park late at night! Arguably, the most reliable way to check on a car’s credentials to do an online or telephone check. There are plenty of businesses willing to do this for you – even credit reference agencies these days! – at a reasonable cost. They check all available data about your prospective car and for the sake of a few pounds it brings peace of mind. One less thing to worry about.

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Sports Car Shoot-out

Do Aston Martin make the most desirable, useable, sports cars in the world? The answer, inevitably, is – yes and no. Certainly, their design is unquestionably beautiful but that ’s not really the be all and end all.

AM have just updated the smallest car in the range – the V8 Vantage. Most drivers would probably settle for an old one; it’s only hardened motoring journalists who nitpick about issues that ordinary folk wouldn’t notice but first reviews show that the car has definitely benefited from the changes, notably to its handling. The old car seemed to have a mind of its own on a winding, twisting road but now, thanks to faster steering, better tyres and improved pedal feel, the new car actually lets the driver be in control. The Sportshift transmission has been changed from 6 to 7 speed or there’s still a manual for the purist. So far so good, but there’s still issues regarding the interior layout and the overall driving experience, which is where Porsche come in.

The 911 has been with us for years with only the occasional updating and is a familiar sight on our roads. Because of its ‘yuppie’ history from the 1980s from which it has had a hard time escaping, the 911 hasn’t really had the exclusivity of the Aston, although prices are roughly the same. The Carrera has now been updated and is, as always, the same but different.

It still looks like the old car but this time the curves are more pronounced. It is at last a good looking motor. First reports say that it drives better than any of its predecessors. This may be because the engine has moved from right at the very back and crept inboard a bit to ensure the handling is top notch. Purists have decried the new electric steering as being without feel but, in truth, you’d have to be a serious grouch to really notice any difference and, in any event, if you’ve never previously owned a 911 then it won’t matter anyway. There’s even some concession to green politics with ‘stop-start’ and lower emissions.

Then there’s a third option – the Jaguar XKR. Like the Vantage, this sports car has a V8 engine, great looks and awesome performance. It is very refined on the road but has a small boot and rather poor rear visibility – but these are minor issues for what is a great car with an historic name.

These three cars all offer something special. They are all in the same ball park on price (around 80k or so!), have similar performance and beautiful design so the choice is down to individual preference and a fat wallet. The important thing is that they all make a great noise – the bark of the V8s and the howl of the flat six in the Porsche – and if this isn’t music to your ears then you can’t be a true petrol head and therefore wouldn’t be allowed one anyway.

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A Car of Many Colours

Since the dawn of time and down through the ages, colour has played an important and essential part of life. Joseph had his Technicolor Coat, Robin Hood his hose – a form of trousering, incidentally, and not something you wash the car with – of Lincoln Green and so on. OK, I know these aren’t actual proven facts but this is a blog not a history lesson and they make the point. Colour is rife in nature; red, for example, means danger: white stilettos mean something else entirely. Let’s not go there.

These days we tend to categorise people and things by colour. Pink for girls and blue for boys is an obvious example, so it is no surprise that car manufacturers now offer their products in a riot of rainbow options for us to choose from. Henry Ford wrote in his autobiography when referring to the Model T that “Any customer can have a car painted any color [sic] that he wants so long as it is black”. Thankfully, we’ve moved on from there.

That’s the good news. Now for the bad. The colour of the new car you choose says a lot about you as a person. A red car says you are a daredevil, a bit of a rascal. It makes you want to go fast and, in men, appears to enhance virility. It also stands out like a beacon to the cops. There’s even been a suggestion that insurance companies frown upon red for the aforementioned reasons. How about Orange cars? You don’t see many of those about, do you? That’s because it is the choice of creative and individualistic people, or show-offs as they are known to the rest of us.

Now, a nice yellow car is driven by party loving, fun and bubbly people, so probably not English then, who are the life and soul, like a dandelion in a sea of green. And speaking of green; this is a colour that shows you to be an outdoorsy sort of cove, one who loves the countryside and hugging trees and the like. The green car driver likes to give advice and generally calm and soothe the atmosphere. Note: they may smell a bit of patchouli oil. Call them when you are going camping or trying to assemble a yurt.

Alternatively, black is authoritative. It says that you’ve arrived as a captain of industry – the boss. You are professional and sophisticated and your choice of new car is likely to be a Beemer and your choice of new wife is likely to be twenty years younger than you. It won’t last you know. Never does. People will think you are really awesome, like Lord Sugar or Peter Mandleson. Then there are silver cars. These are generally bought by…..oh sorry, I must have nodded of there for a moment. Silver is a safe colour in the used car market.

So, the choice is yours. How do you want to be seen? What will people think about you when you turn up in your new purple automobile? I don’t really mean to make the already difficult task of choosing any harder but you have been warned.

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Taking A Toll On Drivers

The pressure of traffic on our crowded roads is increasing year on year. The present Government is talking up new road charges and drivers face tolls under audacious plans to put Britain’s roads network in the hands of private companies. David Cameron has said that he wants to kick-start the economy by allowing firms to compete to build, operate and maintain motorways and trunk roads. Motorists would not pay tolls to use existing roads – but firms could widen them and introduce pay-as-you-go lanes that drivers could use to beat congestion. Meanwhile, if there’s any room left, any brand new road will be built by private investors and charged along the lines of the French toll-road system.

Road pricing, whether we like it or not, is on its way. Effectively, it could be any system that would, at point of use, charge drivers to use any particular road or system of roads. Usually it means tolls on single routes and crossings like bridges or tunnels. More recently, it has included zone pricing of urban areas as is seen with the London congestion charge the idea of which, no doubt, will soon expand to include other cities. On 3rd May 2012 London voters will go to the polls as Boris Johnson, the present incumbent, fights Ken Livingstone (yes, he’s back) for the title of Mayor. Wouldn’t it be great if they actually fought, in the Mexican Lucha Libre style with masks? The Blonde Bombshell vs. the Newt Fancier. Now I’d pay a toll to see that! In the boring meanwhile neither of them plan any immediate increase in charges on the basis that cash-strapped London drivers won’t be voting for anyone who even thinks about it. But afterwards?

Road pricing isn’t new and the French have been at it for years, as is their way, but it is spreading and is already rife in countries as disparate as Norway and Australia. Even the Yanks, who are righteously against any form of extra taxation, are beginning to take it seriously. In 2008, the New York Mayor tried and failed to get approval for a scheme but was thwarted by the State Assembly. This year a new plan has been mooted that is, typically, a complicated mishmash that aims to try and convince drivers that tolls are good for them.

Back in the UK motoring groups have warned that drivers are getting sick and tired of struggling with high fuel prices and other car expenses and believe, despite the Prime Minister’s words to the contrary, the current plan will lead to road pricing nationally on a pay to drive basis. It is interesting that, when in opposition, the Government were defending drivers on the basis that the then administration was treating motorists as ‘cash cows’. As it turns out drivers are suffering more than ever. Funny that.

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Cardigan Cars

Are car makers guilty of ageism? Let me explain. In a popular English seaside resort there are not one but two men’s clothing stores where the style barometer has apparently got stuck at 1959. Why is there still a market for beige slacks and grey three season jackets with nice patch pockets and a useful integral fold-away hood? Peering through the window you might find yourself being appraised by a wizened sales assistant with oily hair, a side parting, a dubious moustache and a skilled eye for spotting the ‘older’ clientele, so obviously someone still buys this stuff. It makes me wonder; at what point do people become ‘old’? Not in the sense of decaying bodies but as a concept. When should women first have a cauliflower haircut and buy a little white cardy whilst encouraging their husbands to buy a suitable new car?

Manufacturers are aware of the ‘older demographic’. It is understood that a large proportion of the car buying market is over 55 so it seems clear that certain cars are marketed in certain subtle ways. Take the Toyota Yaris. This is an excellent small car; versatile, roomy and reliable, yet it is seen – wrongly in these difficult times – and especially by the young, as an old fogey’s car. Ditto the Honda Jazz, a popular buy in the used car market as a ‘safe’ option. This car has traditionally been seen as the preserve of those in their fifties and sixties( not my words – don‘t shoot the messenger), so much so that the marketing for the Jazz Hybrid has definitely been targeted at a younger audience. It is as if ‘old people’ won’t understand the technology or reasoning behind it.

Older people have more money. They are more likely to buy a prestige car, but not with leery styling or vivid colours. Silver surfers buy silver cars, not because they necessarily like it but rather because they see it as a ‘safe’ colour come re-sale time. Did you know that the average age for a Ferrari buyer is over 50? The company have been looking at how older people get into and out of a low slung sports car – and without falling about laughing as well! Other manufacturers are making dashboard information bigger and easier to read. Oldies are considered to be a different breed.

Old folk sometimes don’t help themselves when it comes to age related differences. Take the 76 year old lady (no names – I’ll spare her blushes) who drove the wrong way around a roundabout causing mayhem. There ensued a 17 mile police pursuit in which speeds were as low as ten and never higher than 20mph. She resolutely refused to stop. In the end the cops did a ‘rolling roadblock’ as an officer ran alongside the vehicle and knocked on the window. You couldn’t make it up.

So are car makers ageist? Well, yes and no. They understand that people get old and, as with most brands, adjust their products or promotions accordingly BUT, the fault really lies with folks themselves. They are persuaded that they are old because society says they’re old. That’s the attitude that has got to change.

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Vettel to the Metal – Infiniti FX50

Historically, it has always been a bad idea for celebrities to become involved in things outside of their field of activity. Perfumes that smell about as alluring as a sultan’s week old pyjamas or anything done by the Kardashians spring to mind. Or so we all thought. Recently Victoria Beckham has turned her hand – and, no doubt, other parts of her anatomy – to fixing up the interior of the Range Rover Evoque and she has done it with considerable aplomb. Now it is the turn of World Formula 1 Champion, Sebastian Vettel, who has been taking a spanner to the Infiniti FX50.

Now, just in case you have been on another planet, it’s worth mentioning that Infiniti is the name of the posh end of the Nissan factory. The FX is a powerful and fearsome looking, very expensive 4×4 crossover. Although Infiniti aren’t involved directly in F1 they are a sponsor to the Red Bull team and thus have access to the flying German and their engineering expertise.

This model is based on the current standard FX, already something of a performance cruiser with a V8 engine and nearly 400bhp on tap. The Vettel version increases that to 414bhp, has stiffer springs and uprated suspension as you’d imagine, but surprisingly, 30% less down force which should help to make the drive more a bit more lively! The car now sports an aggressive front carbon fibre spoiler that is modelled on the front wing of a Formula 1 racer. The standard vehicle is further augmented with a rear wing which looks to be more than just a cosmetic enhancement.

Infiniti have also managed to incorporate more carbon fibre – the real thing, not some chintzy appliqué – coupled with a racy interior with the usual Alcantara touches and black suede upholstery. To ensure the world knows your FX50 has had the Vettel treatment it will have appropriate badging complete with Seb’s signature on the centre consul.

First announced last September in concept form, Infiniti has confirmed at the recent Geneva Motor Show that the special FX50 will go into production and orders are already being taken for delivery next year. If you fancy owning one, well, don’t hold your breath. It will only be produced in a limited edition of 200 and all of them are destined for sale in Europe and the Middle East. Hmm. Didn’t want one anyway.

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Road Accidents. How Do They Happen?

It is probably fair to say that a good proportion of readers have had a car accident. Even when nobody is hurt there is still that cold chill as you hear the dreaded crump sound at the same time as feeling the jolt. Once you’ve regained your equilibrium, your mind starts to race across all the hassles and inconveniences that are to follow. What went wrong?

There has been a mass of evidence analysed by the Institute of Advanced Motorists and unexpected findings have resulted. Surprisingly, given the popularity of the argument, speeding is a relatively unimportant factor in the 600 or so daily accidents where someone is injured or killed. In fact, exceeding the speed limit accounted for only around 14% of the total number of accidents with fatalities. A bigger cause is going too quickly for the conditions. Entering a bend too fast, for example, may not mean that the driver was exceeding the speed limit.

No, the biggest cause of accidents on today’s roads is ‘driver error or reaction’. This is what is noted by police in 65% of fatal crashes and covers a multitude of sins, but not speeding. Complacency seems to be responsible for the highest ‘excuse’ – ‘I didn’t look properly’. Following that is ‘loss of control’ which is considered to mean that the driver had nowhere else to go when, say, entering a bend too quickly. Poor manoeuvres, general behaviour, inexperience, errors of judgement – failing to anticipate other drivers’ actions – or simply disobeying road signs are all covered by the umbrella term. Then, of course, there’s driving under the influence of drink or drugs. It seems that outside influences – slippery roads, potholes and the like – account for a very small percentage.

A critical issue that is on-going is the attitude of road users to pedestrians and vice versa. Where a pedestrian only is a casualty it is due to either party ‘failing to look properly’. Motorists can be distracted by, say, the sun or a dirty windscreen, and fail to see someone stepping innocently off a kerb but equally those on foot could be just as preoccupied. Other bits and pieces like criminal activity or vehicle defects account for a smaller percentage, around 3%.

The message is clear. It isn’t the road conditions or your car, it’s you. It sounds a bit trite but men are likely to be ‘careless, reckless or in a hurry’ whilst women are more likely to be ‘inexperienced’! Older drivers will fail to look properly and younger ones are going too fast, so nothing changes. Hey! Don’t shoot the messenger!

Small errors have big consequences. Keep it in mind.

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Seen To Be Green

There will always be those swivel-eyed single interest lunatics who think the world would be a better place without the car. Equally, there are those who care not a jot for the planet and who consider pollution to be a human right. Somewhere in the middle of all this is the rest of us. By rushing out and investing in a green car you will be making very little difference to the overall picture and in any event many people simply cannot afford to do that. Cars are generally cleaner and there are many other things that cause as much, if not more, harmful emissions than your production motor; but there are some easy steps you can take to make the planet a better place to live in, or indeed, on.

Keep your car properly tuned and serviced. There have been reports lately that drivers are putting off service because of the cost. Understandable perhaps, but wrong. A badly tuned car will pollute more and use more fuel. You could also be storing up problems for later when a simple job turns into an expensive nightmare. Whilst you’re under the bonnet consider changing the air filter. Some say that it should be changed at every annual service – they are certainly cheap enough – and make more difference than you think. A dirty filter will cause rough running and loss of power.

One of life’s biggest chores is finding a garage with, hopefully, an accurate tyre pressure gauge then waiting in line, finding some 20 pee’s or whatever and getting your hands and clothes dirty. If it’s too much of a pain then any motoring store can sell you a pressure gauge / tyre inflator combo which will work well and mean you can do the job at home, running the device of the 12v socket. Ring Automotive make a good one. Ensuring that your tyres are correctly balanced and aligned with the correct pressure could improve your fuel economy by 3%. Properly inflated tyres are safer and last longer too – another saving.

Finally, here’s a less obvious idea. How about upgrading your engine oil to a high performance synthetic? This will help improve the overall performance of your engine and maybe allow for longer periods between changes. That means less waste oil and whether or not you do your own service or leave it to your dealer make sure that all the waste products are recycled wherever possible.

Next time you are out in the car check out the amount of litter at the roadside. The government are supposed to be clamping down on littering from cars but I’ve seen little evidence of this. Even a fag-end is pollution.

You can still enjoy your driving and take pleasure from your car but by going the extra mile you can feel good about it too!

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