Archive | May, 2012

The Power of the Message

In the 1950’s and 60’s, so I’m told – plus what I’ve gleaned from Mad Men – smoking was not only harmless, it was good for you. Smoking made men smooth and urbane and women alluring and kinda sexy. This is, we all now know, a crock of poo and the truth is somewhat different. Such is the power of advertising and the public opinion generated from it.

Advertising is everywhere and most walks of life now come replete with commercial messages. We don’t even have to think for ourselves. All we have to do is sit on our comfy backsides – stuffing our faces with something we saw on the telly – and be told how to live our lives. From how to dress and what to put on our hair to what our homes should look like and what should be on our drives, practically every facet of our lives is taken care of. Such is the power of advertising as Aleksandr Orlov will be pleased to tell you.

Is it the product we like or would aspire to owning or is it the way in which it is advertised? The snarling TV advertisement for the Skoda Fabia VRS is a case in point. This writer has driven the car extensively and whilst it is a good car and a hoot to drive it will not, as the ad suggests, frighten off opposition from a Porsche, for example. It simply isn’t, as an American might say and if you’ll excuse me, bad-ass enough, despite its promoted image.

Fortunately, advertising is now monitored for taste, decency and accuracy – unlike the old days – and, to a certain extent children are protected from the worst of it but it is a major force in our lives. Car manufacturers know this and succeed with their campaigns because they are, in the broadest sense, truthful. They understand that no advertisement may encourage or condone dangerous, inconsiderate or irresponsible driving. This does not prevent flamboyant driving in scenes which are clearly fantasy or ‘theatrical’ so that the action is distanced from reality, though. They will appeal to our vanity, our common sense and our lifestyles. They will treat men and women differently, which is probably just as well.

So, is it the case that your choices are not your own, despite what you think? Is your mind made up before you even think about it? Are our lives governed by actions that have preceded us? Phew, after a while all this metaphysical stuff pecks at your head doesn’t it; but the fact remains we are sold cars for their perceived qualities and it is up to you, the customer, to make the right decision based on the facts. One thing’s for sure, the power of the message notwithstanding, we do get some great cars these days – and they don’t make your clothes smell.

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New Roadster from Jaguar

We’ve had the C-Type, the D-Type and we’ve had the E-Type so, for a change, Jaguar are really pushing the envelope with their new sports car – introducing the F-Type! I bet you didn’t see that coming. Fortunately, the car appears to be more inspiring than the name. That’s it, on the right, in camouflaged form. If you remember the C-X16, last year’s concept hybrid coupé , the new model, according to Jaguar’s design director Ian Callum “…is 95 per cent of the C-X16: you won’t be disappointed”. So that’s all good, then.

The car will appear next year, unusually, as a roadster first with the coupé to follow. Callum goes on: “There’s a nod to the E-Type’s heritage in the way the car looks. The reference to the E-Type is strong and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a pathway to understanding the car. But the F-Type will be as significant as the E-Type in the future because of it’s capability and performance”. The car is considered to be Jag’s first true sports car since it’s venerable predecessor with the XK presumably being considered a GT.

This rear wheel drive flyer will be all aluminium, utilising a cut down version of the XK’s chassis. This will make it lightweight and to further keep off the kilos it will have a fabric roof. The company haven’t yet revealed the engine range but it seems likely to get the new 3.0-litre V6, essentially Jaguar’s V8 motor with a couple of cylinders loped off. The standard vehicle is rumoured to offer 250bhp with the later, harder, ‘R’ version producing around 375 brake horses. In both cases the drive will come through a six-speed auto ‘box. A starting price of around £55,000 makes it very competitive in this market.

Jaguar anticipate that the F-Type will be bought in the main by drivers who otherwise would have considered a Porsche 911, a Mercedes SL or a Lotus Evora. Quite a lot for the new car to live up to. The company do not expect the car will be a volume seller but will be enormously important in the way it is perceived. In short, Jag without a proper sports car would be like Porsche without the 911.

The company aren’t resting on their laurels either. Over the next four years or so several new models will enter production, all being well. An XFR-S to compete with BMW’s M5 is on the cards for later this year and an even madder version of the XKR-S – the Extreme – is slated for next year. There’ll be a couple of new versions from the saloon range including a new X-Type to challenge the 3 Series from BMW, an SUV in 2016 allegedly and to cap it all off, hopefully in 2014 the C-X75 hybrid will appear, possibly with the turbines that were first shown at the Paris Show in 2010!

In difficult economic times the Jaguar / Land Rover brand is a true success story.

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Used Car Red Alerts

When buying a used car it pays to have an understanding partner or spouse. Those who live with car junkies will, with a sigh and a resigned expression, usually go along with whatever the poor sap wants. Yet, is there a case for said partner or spouse to pay more attention to the transaction? One of the benefits of being attached to an ‘expert’ is that the chances are they’ll come home with a good ‘un; but what of the inexperienced buyer, I hear you ask.

This is the reason to get your other half involved in the process. Two heads are better than one and will help to establish whether or not the prospective purchase is a good deal or a lemon in disguise. There are certain things that can put even a rookie buyer on red alert.

There’s an old story, based on fact, that a car dealer will assess a car simply by kicking the tyres and there’s some truth in that. Pay close attention to those black circles of shame. A tyre should be worn evenly across the tread. Any diversion from that could mean that the previous owner was neglectful. If they are worn on the inside or outside edge predominantly then there could be tracking or steering issues lurking underneath, or, at best, inflation problems. Do all four wheels match both in brand and wear. A mishmash of rubber is a bad sign.

The underside of a car and its engine can reveal a lot to you. You’d expect it to be dirty, that’s a given, but can you see any telltale damp spots anywhere? You won’t see them if the conditions are wet but then you wouldn’t buy a used car in the wet anyway, would you? Damp patches mean engine leaks of oil or other precious fluids. It’s worth noting here that a small patch of what appears to be clean water is probably a normal effect of running air-conditioning on the car and is nothing to worry about although you could satisfy yourself that the air-con has been recently been on.

Stating the obvious, is the car clean? A clean car says a lot of good things about an owner and a polished one even more. A dirty car offered for sale should set alarm bells ringing as it means an uncaring owner, so walk away. And speaking of owners, have a close look at the advertisement for the car and ensure that what you read exactly corresponds to what you are looking at. Misrepresentation is all to common these days, unfortunately, and the seller may be trying to shift a car before the trouble starts. It is a sad truth that people lie.

Finally, and it doesn’t hurt to repeat it, check the records. These days you’ll ideally be wanting to see a full service history. Beware the car where the paperwork has been ‘misplaced’. There are plenty of great used cars out there so take your time and be happy with your purchase.

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Use Mobile – Lose Cover

Sometimes it seems to most of us that insurance companies will try anything – and I mean anything – to either hike our premiums, refuse to pay out for a claim or even to refuse insurance at all for what seems to be the most trivial of reasons. Even if you’ve got a straightforward SP30 – that’s 3 points and a fine for speeding – they’ll hold it against you for five years and your premium will go up by an average of 9.3%. However, just once in a while you can occasionally see their point of view. Welcome to the world of the CU80 – using a mobile at the wheel.

It has been reported that some insurers have been refusing cover to drivers convicted of using a mobile ‘phone whilst on the move. In a poll of eight companies, half of them refused to quote. Of the others, the premiums were increased by as much as 32%.

Speaking on a mobile whilst driving is one of those strange phenomena we experience in that we all see it happening on a daily basis yet nobody owns up to doing it. Curious that. We all feel hard done by what we often perceive as injustice from time to time but this is one of those crimes – and it is a crime – that needs to be stamped out. The law is, it has to be said, rarely on the spot when these offences occur but when they do catch someone the result is a meagre three points and sixty quid. Not the greatest of deterrents.

Someone needs to take a tougher stance and it appears to be the insurance companies. In the survey, one insurer even refused cover for an SP30 and all of them raised their quote. This is a new trend. Historically, companies would not raise premiums for a minor speeding offence. In 2009, half of the insurers polled stated that they would not alter their premiums and would be prepared to overlook the offence.

Now, as speed cameras and the law are familiar to us all, there can no longer be excuses. One company explained that statistically, “drivers with motoring convictions are 40% more likely to claim than those with no convictions”. The reason that premiums are much harsher for a CU80 is simply because anecdotal evidence appears to show that drivers caught on the ‘phone are twice as likely to make a claim.

Simon Douglas, director of AA Insurance says it all: “Using a mobile ‘phone while driving is a deliberate act. Many drivers may accidentally drift over a 30mph limit without realising, but no one accidentally makes or answers a call or text”.

Fair comment.

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Are We Done With Diesel?

Until recently I owned an Alfa Romeo 159ti with a five cylinder 2.4L diesel engine – the most beautiful car I have ever possessed. Sadly, it wasn’t very economical and the sheer weight of the engine over the driving wheels meant costly tyre bills. The bulk of the engine also compromised the handling of the car, something I didn’t consider when buying.

I blame myself of course but I also blame the sales person. Neither of us properly assessed my driving needs or matched those needs with the correct model. The customer is not always right. At the time, diesel was king and economy the thing. I thought I would save money in the long run. Unfortunately, I didn’t do many long runs. Selling a long distance cruiser to someone who’s motoring mostly takes place within a fifty mile radius of his home on the basis of fuel efficiency was a mistake and it’s a common error. I should have selected a petrol version.

Lately there seems to have been a bit of a backlash against the oil-burners and the problem seems to be with the diesel particulate filters (DPF). While this system acts as a ‘soot filter’, to prevent unburnt diesel particulates from entering the atmosphere, infinite quantities cannot be held indefinitely and so a cleaning cycle is initiated by the engine management system, which heats the exhaust system to such a high temperature, the trapped particles simply vaporise.

What most unwary buyers fail to note is that for this cleaning process to work, the engine needs to be under a continuous load requiring the car to be driven at over 40mph for at least ten minutes. This is unlikely to occur with many urban motorists who will, in due time, find a little lamp glowing on their dashboard which is telling them their DPF is choked with soot. At this stage a visit to the dealer may well be needed, incurring extra expense and kissing goodbye to any putative fuel savings.

It isn’t fair simply to blame the dealers though. European legislation must also carry at least some of the can because those over-paid log stackers do not take into consideration the environmental cost of maintaining (or replacing) a diesel engine’s emission-controlling components or, indeed the excessive cost of diesel fuel.

Drivers must also acknowledge that, although diesel cars are way faster and smoother than oil-burners of old, the high cost of emission control components – and other ‘wear and tear’ items such as fuel pumps – can be a lot higher than those fitted to a petrol engine vehicle. Not only is petrol cheaper than diesel but the cars are too.

It is becoming increasingly clear that we have fallen out of love with diesel, especially with the electric revolution just around the corner. Unless you’re a high-miler, diesel no longer makes sense.

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New Golf & Audi TT – New VW Technology

The new Audi TT should be on sale in 2014 and it’s an exciting prospect. It’ll appear in the usual coupé and roadster iterations and incorporate Audi’s multi-media interface along with new, sleeker styling. Enthusiasts will be less delighted with the price. It seems that Audi are taking the TT upmarket with the hot RS version moving into 911 Carrera territory.

In the interests of economy the car will share platforms with the A3 and VW’s Golf and will incorporate Volkswagen’s recently announced MQB (In English – Modular Transverse Matrix, if you must know) component set. This new or old idea (depending on your point of view) returns to the basic principles of mass production as a response to the increasing complexity of the industry. By creating a standardised, interchangeable set of parts from which to build a variety of cars, VW plans to cut the time taken to build a car by 30%.

The first car to feel the benefit of this cost saving measure will be the new VW Golf MK7 (pictured right) which will be in the showrooms later this year. Body and chassis are a hybrid of steel and aluminium panels, joined by a new riveting process with a special coating to prevent electrolytic corrosion. On average, cars will weigh 40kg lighter than today’s equivalents, the next Golf tipping the scales at much the same weight as a 1997 Golf Mk4. All engines are designed the same way with the exhaust mounted to the rear and both diesel and petrol are inclined backwards at an angle of 12 degrees, so body shells are completely unaffected by the choice of engine fitted. Even the direct injection, boosted engines themselves are modular in the way they fit together.

VW’s new family of TSI engines will all be more or less of a size yet will be easily configured into different power outputs. The weight cutting doesn’t stop with the body either. The aluminium blocks are 16kg lighter and other parts have been shaved of unnecessary pork as well. To make the units more compact the exhaust manifolds are cast as one into the cylinder head. They get a dedicated cooling circuit as does the main engine body with top and bottom cooling loops for complete efficiency. The 138bhp, 1.4L engine will incorporate active cylinder management allowing the motor to shut down two cylinders, when appropriate, to maximise economy.

As you might expect, this new generation of cars will offer the latest high-tech options including camera-based traffic sign recognition to control your speeding urges and lane detection to counter your wandering, particularly when tired. In short, the car will know when you’re nodding off. This new MQB architecture is designed to ensure that VW and it’s allied brands don’t go the way of some other companies recently. Whether or not the customer will see all this cost saving reflected in the prices remains to be seen.

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Boxster's Baby Brother?

The soon to be released Toyota GT-86 / Subaru BRZ sports cars might just be the start of a new trend in affordable roadsters for the masses. And why not? These two new cars are not about massive power and speed or luxury trimmings but rather about the lost art of proper driving. Where in the UK can you really unleash the might of an Aventador? In these small two-seaters you can concern yourself with the pleasures of the road at more normal speeds.

Anyone who has ever driven a Cayman or a Boxster knows just how good these cars are but they remain a little on the pricey side. Sure, you can pick up good examples in the used car market but they still have the expensive costs associated with the brand. The Toyota/Subaru alliance has shown that engaging cars can be offered with mass-market servicing and tyre costs to suit the average pocket. Now, it appears, Porsche have been keeping a beady eye on this trend.

Concept images are beginning to appear of the Porsche 9X1, a baby brother to the mighty Boxster which, if it comes to pass, could bring the company’s legendary thrills to a new generation of customers – and all for less than £30k. The Boxster is getting bigger, more powerful and more expensive so Porsche may well decide, with the might of the Volkswagen/Audi brand behind them, to push ahead with a back to basics car.

In recent years the clues have been there. In 2009 VW introduced it’s BlueSport concept and it has been reported that a production BlueSport model is under development, based on a platform – codenamed Mimo (for Mittelmotor, or mid-engine) or 9X1 – to be shared between the Audi, Volkswagen, and Porsche. The Audi version, related to the Audi e-Tron Detroit concept, may be named Audi R4 or R5. The Porsche variant is speculated to be the “spiritual successor” to the now legendary 356 roadster and will be positioned well below the current Boxster as the company”s entry-level model.

The rumour machine speculates that the 9X1 will be powered by a new 2.4L flat four engine offering up around 200bhp, not enough to challenge its big brother. Like the Japanese competition the handling is expected to be sharp and entertaining thanks to the lightweight chassis yet the car won’t have most the electronic wizardry offered elsewhere in the Porsche range, which should add to its back-to-basics appeal. If the car is built – and don’t we all already want one – it will be as a convertible, although a coupé is mooted. Go on Porsche – make our day!

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Official – Women Are The Best Parkers

That’s car parking, by the way, not nosey parking. Now it’s no good you male readers getting all hot under the collar about this, a new study from NCP – and they should know – allegedly proves that the fairer sex (can I still use that phrase? Perhaps it should now be ‘alternative gender‘?) have the upper hand when it comes to parking a car.

NCP have apparently carried out exhaustive tests to show that women are more skilled when it comes to driving into a space. They analysed 450 examples using their CCTV records. In addition, 2000 drivers were quizzed about their technique, accuracy and time taken to complete the manoeuvre. From this they extrapolated something called a ‘parking coefficient’ and it turns out that women received 13.4 out of 20 whilst men struggled with a puny 12.3.

It gets worse, or better, depending on your point of view. The ladies, it seems, had a better ‘pre-parking pose’ the outcome of which is a more successful manoeuvre. Just to rub it in 53% also finished centrally in their bay compared to the chaps of whom only a pathetic 25% could manage it.

These figures fly in the face of some statistics from three years ago which appeared to show that men, obviously, still had the edge. The older stats clearly demonstrated that the girls took an extra 20 seconds to park up yet failed dismally to end up in the middle. In this test 65 volunteers were asked to park an Audi A6 into a standard space in three different ways – head-on, reverse and parallel parking. They were timed and rated for accuracy.

While the researchers expected the women volunteers to be slower, they were surprised to find that the cautious approach did not lead to a tidier final result. Dr Claudia Wolf from Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, who led the study, said that the research confirmed previous findings that men have better co-ordination and spatial awareness than women, and take more risks behind the wheel. How she must have hated revealing this!

There’s an old saying that you only learn to drive after you’ve taken your test and it is probably true. Parking is a skill that comes with time. It’s best to reverse into a space as it makes your exit easier and safer. Try to park centrally otherwise your ears will be burning when the next driver tries to squeeze into a reduced area. Less opportunity for door bangers as well!

So, you will say, the tests are not conclusive then. Three years and two entirely different sets of results. Who will ever know the real truth? Let’s just call it a draw.

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BMW X1 Updated

BMW’s baby is the smallest of the X Series, yet retains much of the practicality and spaciousness of its bigger siblings. It’s shorter than a 3-Series which makes it easy to manoeuvre and park, and yet still has impressive space for passengers in the back as well as a large and useful boot. It’s available with either two-wheel or four-wheel drive whilst all the engines are impressively efficient and economical diesels, giving the X1 low running costs. There have been criticisms in the past, including some unusually below-par plastics in the cabin and a rather notchy gearshift on manual models, apparently. Nevertheless there are decent levels of standard equipment, the usual BMW build quality and superb refinement to make the X1 a sound choice. It’s been around since 2009 and has now had a bit of a makeover.

The new incarnation offers a more sporty and refined take on the premium compact crossover with revised dynamic exterior styling and detail improvements to the cabin. Additionally, the X1 is benefiting from a new range of diesel power engines all based on the latest 1,995cc, all-aluminium BMW four-cylinder unit featuring common-rail direct fuel injection and BMW’s TwinPower Turbo technology to produce superb power and torque outputs with outstanding efficiency.

The crisp, distinctive lines of the BMW X1 have been strengthened with a comprehensive range of stylistic enhancements. From the front, the X1 receives extended painted surfaces, emphasising the X-shape running along the bonnet’s precision lines, through the kidney grille, and into the lower bumper. The new headlamps add to this dynamic ‘face’, and when specified with the optional Xenon light technology, white LED corona rings and a white LED active eyebrow element provide an even more distinctive frontal appearance to the X1, further enhanced by the new fog lamp surrounds. The side view, with its rising swage line and chunky wheel arch extensions, marks it out instantly as a BMW X model.

The driver-focused cabin of the BMW X1 has received minor adjustments for this revised generation. The driver’s side of the angled centre console is now shallower, and covered with a higher quality surface material, while the panel for the sound system and climate control is now finished in high gloss black to match the air vent surrounds. There have been interior improvements across the board to counter earlier criticisms about a ‘low-rent’ finish.

The xDrive system is fully integrated with the X1’s Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system, so that the electronics can analyse the conditions at the road surface and counteract any understeer or oversteer before the driver is even aware that the vehicle has entered that situation. In addition, clever integration of the systems means that Hill Descent Control (HDC) is available for a controlled decent down a sharp incline.

All in all, a wholly successful upgrade to an already successful model.

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Old Dogs – New Tricks

The next time you are driving along and come up behind an elderly driver don’t curse and become enraged because, dear reader, in a few scant years from now that old fogey will be you. The simple fact is that we all get older and as we age our motor skills decline. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is. Get over it. However, if you are aware of your limitations you can take certain steps and precautions to ensure that you are able to drive well into later years.

The first step is to know the signs. Health problems don’t always mean that driving needs to be stopped, but they do require extra vigilance, awareness, and a willingness to correct them. Some eye conditions or medications can interfere with your ability to focus your peripheral vision, or cause you to experience extra sensitivity to light, trouble seeing in the dark, or blurred vision. Can you easily see traffic lights and street signs? Or do you find yourself driving closer and closer, slowing by a sign to see it? Can you react appropriately to drivers coming from behind or to the side?

So you need to be able to see but, in emergencies, how will you react, say, if you need to brake suddenly or quickly look back over your shoulder? The worry is that an elderly motorist may become flustered when put under pressure because of the various actions we have to more or less simultaneously take in an emergency situation. Lack of mobility and problems with reflexes all conspire to make life harder than it used to be. Then there’s eyesight and hearing problems. Whether you like it or not time and your body conspire against you and it is important that you know the signs. Red flags include having more ‘near misses’ than is usual, bumping into fence posts or kerbs and difficulty parking.

This all paints a gloomy picture but it doesn’t have to be so. Ageing does not automatically equal total loss of driving ability. There are many things you can do to continue driving safely, including modifying your car, the way you drive, and understanding and rectifying physical issues that may interfere with driving. You can start by taking charge of your health. Regular check-ups are critical to keep you in the best possible driving shape; like annual eye and hearing tests. Talk with your doctor about the effects that ailments or medications may have on your driving ability. For example, if you have glaucoma, you may find tinted spectacle lenses useful in reducing glare.

Finally, it is probably best to find the right car for you. If you have chronic back problems you don’t want to be lowering yourself into low-slung sports cars. Try to select a ride that suits your need rather than your fancy. Maybe an auto transmission would be a good choice, for example, or a ‘sit up and beg‘ driving position. There are a lot of distractions on the roads today so older drivers must know their limitations and drive defensively by taking extra care with all aspects of handling a car. If it comes to the worst then somehow you’re going to have to make the adjustment to life without driving. It comes to us all and the only thing we can do is battle, as above, to stay on the road for as long as safely as possible.

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