Archive | December, 2012

Merry Christmas – Be Nice To Each Another

There are a lot of pressure groups around these days in all walks of life usually voicing a loud, if minority, opinion. Cars and motoring in general have more than their fair share. Sometimes they make sense and sometimes they are the ravings of some blinkered single minded individuals who will accept no opinion but their own.

The trouble is that in this country governments are frightened by people who shout very loudly about this or that issue and get bulldozed into taking action that affects the majority, usually adversely. Thankfully, on this occasion we can report that someone is spreading some peace and love.

Just in time for Christmas, a new courtesy campaign has been launched to get us to be nice to one another on the roads of Britain – and why not indeed? With the stress of winter and the festive period we could all do with calming down and chilling out behind the wheel so it won’t hurt if Motor Blogger passes on some of these helpful hints to put you in a happier place.

Obviously, we more saintly souls can do little to prevent others from becoming steamed up behind the wheel but we can certainly protect ourselves from becoming the victims of road rage. Stay calm and bite your tongue – don‘t rise to it, dude. Before you get all medieval on your nemesis count to ten and take some deep breaths. Try it now – there, that’s better isn’t it?

We all have to share the world. Share the road as well; you don’t own it. Remember – others are not deliberately put on this earth to annoy you, it just feels like that. Try not to compete and certainly do not retaliate. If some lunatic cuts you up at a junction just lean back, smile and think happy thoughts. Revenge is a dish that is not worth eating. You know it makes sense.

Be patient in traffic jams, at junctions and when someone who has clearly got all the driving skills of an arthritic amoeba is manoeuvring in front of you. Put yourself in their position and try to see the world from their perspective. They can’t help being brainless dolts.

Please and thank you go a long way in these mean times. Be nice to people and they will be nice to you. Bring a little love to the roads. Turn on some charm, tune into some relaxing sounds and drop out of the rat race. Peace and love, brothers and sisters.

Merry Christmas to all our readers.

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What Next For The Motor Industry?

To the casual observer at least, it seems to have gone a bit quiet on the electric car front – no pun intended. Most car makers have at least one on their books or in development, but all the hoo-ha that surrounded their introduction has died down to an almost inaudible hum.

The problem is well known and seemingly insurmountable – at least for now. Range anxiety. Elsewhere on these pages Motor Blogger has discussed the pro’s and con’s of battery vehicles; it’s old news now. However, a recent proposal from the EU (a group of people who call the shots whilst only having a tenuous grasp of the real world) that by the year 2020, new vehicle emissions must be reduced by a further thirty per cent. It remains to be seen if this is actually enforced – no doubt manufacturers will have something to say about it.

Nevertheless, the pressure is on to effectively eliminate the use of fossil fuels in cars as soon as is technically possible before the Earth starts to look like a child’s deflated football that’s been left in the garden during the winter. The snag is that battery technology is still only in its formative years.

Certainly electric cars are fine in the city but out there in the boondocks where the wild things live, petrol is still the king. Despite sterling efforts from car designers around the world the Euro-whingeing continues and meantime boffins are beavering away to solve the battery power issue. It’s not really safe to say that there is light at the end of the tunnel just yet but there may just be a faint glimmer, like a struck match in a thunderstorm.

The American Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and other interested parties are working on – oh, how they love their acronyms – CAEBAT, which apparently stands for Computer Aided Engineering For Electric Drive Vehicle Batteries.

This is software that ‘simulates spirally wound lithium-ion batteries battery cells’. It’s an aid to speed up the testing of new technologies. Through this the scientists hope to develop improved battery performance and life whilst making them more cost effective. If you’re thirsty for more of this stuff then it’s locatable on the web.

So where does this leave the manufacturers? Basically, they’re caught between a rock and a hard place. To comply with regulation they’ve made some spectacular improvements to internal combustion engine technology for which society should be thankful and yet they are obliged to listen to and obey people who bludgeon them with new demands but have no idea how difficult and costly this cutting edge alternative energy stuff is. Or don’t care. Here’s a thought. We once saw a Brougham carriage being pulled by a couple of llamas. Maybe we’re onto something here…it’s certainly alternative and drivers could put the exhaust on the garden!

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Deck The Cars With Boughs Of Holly

At the time of publishing this we will be at that pre-Christmas point when you will remember all the people you have forgotten to buy gifts for. These will include your husband/wife/partner (“I knew there was something…”), children you may have temporarily forgotten about and people who it transpires are not, as you previously thought, dead. It is at this point that you will rush out into the mean streets in a last minute panic.

When you do this, you will probably go by car. Once the object of your desire it has now become a workhorse, a faithful servant that, like the four legged friend of old, will never let you down. So how about spreading the love? Certainly it is only a collection of metals and fabrics but surely cars have feelings too? So why not show your appreciation with a nice gift.

For a start, you could clean and polish the thing. It is an onerous task at the best of times and much worse in the winter, but even so it needs to be done. This is where valets come in. Around the country there are loads of car valet services looking for your business. You need to check them out and perhaps talk to previous customers but you should be able to find a reliable firm that uses premium products somewhere near you – and they come to the house. Under one hundred pounds should get you the full Monty, inside and out.

If that’s a bit too expensive, how about a cover for the windscreen for those frosty and snowy mornings? There’s some good ones about these days made from technical materials for no money. Your car will appreciate not being attacked by noxious de-icing sprays or plastic spatulas and you will appreciate not having to stand around doing this freezing job.

Even the most careful of drivers can be caught out by snow and ice. Many of us will have experienced that sickening feeling of helplessly sliding across ice, heading for a solid object with only one inevitable outcome. The answer is to treat your car to some new winter boots. It’ll set you back a bit because winter tyres cost money but you’ll find that they are the gift that keeps on giving.

If you’re in a particularly gay and festive mood you could brighten up that drab interior with some succulently pink seat and steering wheel covers with matching seat belt pads (available now). Your friends will be delighted by your good taste and discernment and possibly see you in an entirely new light.

There are many things available to makes your car’s life better. Wind deflectors to stop old kebab wrappers blowing about the cabin when you open a window and don’t forget that perennial Christmas favourite – the furry dice! Finally, to make it a holiday to remember, embellish the exterior with fairy lights and a holly wreath. Just to show you care.

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New Freelander – The Best Yet

At the time of writing it is early in the morning and very cold. It is so cold that there’s a brass monkey at the door trying to borrow some welding equipment. The problem with the UK is that the weather is so variable it is hard to know what sort of car to buy. For example, many drivers would love a sports car for that wind in your hair / open skies thrill; but is it worth it for three days a year? Probably not, in which case – on the basis that the weather is more likely to be against us – why not buy a Freelander instead?

As luck would have it there’s a new version. That’s it in the image. Clearly in keeping with the family look, it is a marked improvement on the previous model which, although good, is beginning to look a bit dated and hasn‘t been as well regarded or as capable as its bigger siblings off road. Land Rover are very confident about the abilities of this new car however. Recently tested in conditions much worse than we can expect in this country it came up trumps in all departments.

For starters, it looks good with styling cues found on the Range Rover and Evoque. The Freelander also gains the Evoque software for the terrain response and hill descent functions. Throttle response is governed by a choice of four surface settings – grass, gravel and snow are lumped together and there is also a choice of asphalt, mud and sand. This just about covers all eventualities. There is no diff-lock or low range ‘box but this is the baby of the family after all and with prices starting at around a very reasonable £26000 (2WD will be a bit cheaper), it’s to be expected that some technology found on the other cars will be missing. Most users won’t miss them.

Power now comes from a 2.2L diesel engine configured at 148bhp in the TD4 version and a more beefy 188bhp in the SD4 model. There are no petrol engines on offer but in this type of vehicle most buyers would undoubtedly choose the oil-burner in any case. As we’ve come to expect in these frugal days there will also be an economy version – the eD4 – which offers a thrifty 47mpg. This is more likely to be suited to customers who rarely venture into the rough. Real mud-pluggers need the sort of torque that only a diesel can really deliver.

As you’d expect the interior has also been refurbished to a high standard, pinching the Evoque’s colour touch screen in the process. This features all the usual infotainment gadgetry plus the very useful rear view reversing camera – a bonus in a big car. For users of caravans or trailers there‘s even a ‘hitch-assist’ gizmo which superimposes a graphic to show the exact position of the tow-ball.

In a market segment that includes the Volvo XC60 and similar offerings from Audi and BMW, the Freelander will have to show that it is the model to buy. It certainly competes on price and early road tests are saying that Land Rover are onto another winner.

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The Good News And The Bad

You know those nasty and invidious speed cameras dotted around the countryside? Well, fear them no longer – help is at hand. You may use radar detectors with impunity, for now. Remember, don’t take our word for it, we’re not lawyers – check the facts for yourself; but it seems that following a change of law in 2006 ministers were allowed to ban radar detectors without recourse to Parliament. Nobody has actually done it and, according to the present government, they don’t intend to.

This means that the devices may be sold openly in shops. Gatso’s and mobile cameras apparently emit radar or laser signals which can be scanned for and picked up by these gadgets, unlike sat-nav’s that work from a database of recorded sites, making them accurate at all times. The latest incumbent minister – they change so often – at the Department for Transport has formally declared that these legal powers will not be used as they want to be seen to be open and fair about speed enforcement.

This is likely to see the devices back in the retailers ASAP, although some commentators believe that it might make drivers more confident when speeding through accident black spots. A fair point. The fact remains though that most drivers feel persecuted by the present rules and will appreciate the heads-up when approaching a speed trap and will still, in any case, slow down. That’s the good news.

Were you aware of the fact that if you break down and request the police to arrange recovery, they’ll charge you a fee? You’d think, wouldn’t you, that they would want to see to it as a priority to make the road safe and not to use it as a cash enterprise.

Well, it appears that a fee is being charged to cover – don‘t laugh -‘administration costs’. This is not a set figure, curiously, but will depend on the force in question, presumably based on how much they think they can get away with. This fee is payable to the recovery firm who pass it on to the police, possibly in a plain, brown envelope. The cost may or may not be picked up by your insurer, depending upon how lucky you are.

The Association of Chief Police Officers have stated that the recovery fee has been agreed by the insurance industry. Why is it then that the insurance companies are wondering why the fee is so high? Something’s not right. Anyway, the outcome is that, last year, the boys in blue trousered a not insignificant £3.7 million! How naïve we must all be to think that we have already paid through taxation for a police service. It seems that, in Britain today, just about everybody is at it.

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Notes About Buying A Used Car

New cars are great but for many people such a purchase is out of the question. Not that this matters because there are plenty of high quality used cars available to choose from around the two or three year age bracket. Mileage shouldn’t be too high which means there is still plenty of life left for trouble free motoring.

The problem is that it is easy to buy in haste and end up with a car that, for one reason or another, is not quite as appealing as you thought it was. The early thrill of a shiny new motor is replaced with an aggravating sense that it is not really all the car you hoped for.

It might only be small things. Maybe – in your initial burst of enthusiasm – you didn’t notice that there isn’t quite enough seat adjustment to suit your frame. With the current surge in small economical car offerings a new buyer might suddenly find that, on the sort of trip routinely taken, the car isn’t quite up to the job or that the engine at motorway speeds is a tad noisy and strained.

All this points to the need to really ensure you are making the right choice by checking back on old press and internet reviews of the model and taking it for a truly meaningful road test. Past reviews will help the prospective buyer to get a handle on the quirks and foibles of any particular car. On some websites the opinion of owners is often sought and these can be an invaluable source of information.

The test drive is crucial. Don’t allow yourself to be rushed. A car needs time to warm up and be given a decent drive over a variety of roads. This is when issues will start to show themselves. Strange knocking noises from the corners or curious rattling sounds from under the bonnet should make the canny buyer take notice.

Does the power and performance seem commensurate with the type of car? Do all the electrical components work, like the windows or heater / air-con system? Also, it pays to watch the dashboard for any tell-tale warning lights.

In some ways, what’s worse than this sort of mechanical defect – things that can and should be rectified before purchase – are mystery squeaks and noises. Anyone who has ever suffered from small but puzzling noises from behind the dashboard or a dead-leg from awkwardly spaced pedals will know how debilitating it can be. Hatred of these small things can grate until the whole car ceases to be the pride and joy you once saw gleaming on a forecourt. If you want happy-ever-afters then make your choice with care.

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WRC 2013 Gets A Polo

It still remains to be seen if the UK is going to see any television coverage of the World Rally Championship in 2013. The series kicks off with the usual season opener in legendary Monte Carlo mid-January, although without the factory sponsored Ford’s. Fiesta fans shouldn’t despair as the fantastic M-Sport team will continue with backing from Qatar.

With the semi-retirement of Sebastien Loeb (got to be the greatest ever, surely?) the field is open for other drivers to attack the Championship including up-and-comers like Mads Ostberg and Ott Tanak. Sadly we won’t see Petter Solberg. The withdrawal of Ford has meant that the great veteran Norwegian is without a drive so far. Let’s hope that someone gives him a late pass.

It’s a welcome return though of Hyundai who’ll be running an i20 test team with a view to full entry in 2014, but the biggest news of all is the return to the top flight of rallying by Volkswagen. They will be competing the full season with two works Polo’s driven by Jari-Matti Latvala and Sebastien Ogier, taking on the might of Citroen.

This is a chance for VW to demonstrate their sporting credentials to ordinary users; this means that their cars are not some weird and wonderful prototypes that just happen to look like the Polo, but rather the real thing that you and I buy, except, obviously, in race trim. This is no snap decision as the car has been in development for seventeen months and clearly shows that VW see a future in this most commercial branch of motor sport.

The WRC has been neglected a bit by the sports governing body the FIA, but with strong new sponsors we can only hope that 2013 will see it back to its exciting best. Potential sponsors Red Bull and Sportsman Media have already confirmed their intention to achieve maximum value from this rather over-looked competition.

To confirm their intentions VW are not content just to race cars, they want to sell us the relatives. The Polo R WRC Street (pictured) is a civilian version of the rally car. It will sport the racing livery, have WRC style bumpers and 18”rims. Power comes from a performance 2.0L TSI engine and the car should cover the 0-60 sprint in 6.4 seconds, so it’s no slouch. Sadly there won’t be a version with the rally motor in it (0-60 in 3.9 seconds!).

From freezing cold to searing heat the WRC combines extremes of climate with extremes of terrain. Fans of the sport worldwide rate it as highly as Formula 1 but for some curious reason the British media pretty much ignore it. Let’s hope, with new sponsors and a renewed interest, some enlightened channel will pick it up. If not, we’ll have to rely on the (admittedly excellent) half-hour bulletins from Motors TV, as usual.

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Small, Clean, Green And Capable

In a time, long ago, 4×4’s were a breed apart. They were usually massive with thirsty growling engines that breathed out noxious fumes like enormous dragons with halitosis and an attitude problem. They were loathed by people of the green persuasion and were only acceptable if the driver was a farmer, a vet or a Chelsea mummy. Well, not any more.

With the technical improvements in diesel (especially the common rail direct fuel injection systems) and petrol engines, the motors in these all-purpose vehicles are much cleaner than before and considerably more economical too. What’s more, some models are much more compact and targeted very much at the family market rather than for, say, agricultural use. The manufacturers haven’t been slow in bringing to market some compact 4×4’s which, they claim, significantly reduce emissions and achieve in excess of 40mpg. Not bad for cars that should be able to handle general off-road conditions well. They’re not really full blown mud-pluggers but how many of us really needs that?

Take the Fiat Panda 4×4. The previous model was capable but a bit of an ugly duckling; the new one introduced in 2012 is not only very capable on and off road but is also good looking and a decent drive. It’s the only 4×4 city car, effectively, so if you’re an urban dweller who feels the call of the wild from time to time then this is the car for you, especially with emissions of just 125g/km.

No consideration of any type of car, large or small, can be complete without a BMW in the list and it should therefore come as no surprise that this German company has something that fit’s the small off-roader bill in the guise of the X3. The latest model is a great improvement on the old one (even BMW can get it wrong sometimes); it drives well on the tarmac and is quite capable of tackling more difficult terrain. It only comes with diesel options but a claimed 50mpg is a pleasant surprise and, coupled with CO² emissions of just 149g/km, makes this all-rounder a quality and stylish choice.

For something a little different how about a Hyundai? They used to make a leviathan called the Tucson but that has now be superseded by the much more acceptable ix35 (pictured). This car is a massive stride forward for Hyundai – its build quality and design make it a truly premium product. Buy it in the gutsy 2.0L diesel 4×4 version and you’ll be delighted with the low CO² and decent fuel economy.

There’s plenty of choice in this small 4×4 sector with cars like the popular Ford Kuga and Nissan’s excellent Qashqai competing with models from VW, Toyota and Honda. Although the gas-guzzling behemoths of old are frowned upon these days you can still have useful off-road ability that won’t shame you on the streets.

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Time For Winter Socks?

Over the last couple of years much has been made about the use of winter tyres during the cold season. In general, reviews have been good and the overall opinion seems to be that they are a good thing. Put simply, they are made of a softer compound which provides more grip in bad weather, including snow.

One of the problems with modern society is choice; there’s too much of it. These days we can buy summer tyres, winter tyres and all-season tyres – they all have their good and bad points. Some tyres perform better in the wet, for example, but most tyres perform poorly on snow and ice which is why we skid and get stuck at the roadside and so on.

There is, however, an over-riding snag for many people interested in winter tyres and that’s cost. If you change your regular tyres for winter rubber then you’ll probably have to pay someone to do it for you. You may need to pay for storage if you don’t have a garage or suitable storage space. Then, of course, you have to pay to put your regular tyres back on. Alternatively, you’ll need to buy a second set of wheels which means it’s easier to change them over yourself. A decent set of steel wheels will probably serve if you can’t run to alloys. Whatever, it’s going to cost a lot, but at least it should be a long term investment.

In the UK, whilst we do occasionally get white-out conditions, we mostly suffer from occasional bouts of snowy or icy weather. People in Scandinavian countries must laugh out loud when they see how badly our infrastructure copes in a couple of inches of the white stuff and how little we learn from the event. Usually the advice is straightforward – don’t go out in your car.

Still, there are alternatives for ordinary motorists for whom winter tyres are simply too expensive – snow chains and snow socks. Snow chains have been a round almost since the birth of the automobile and they work. In fact, in some European countries they are mandatory on winter snow. They don’t take up much room in the boot and are preferable to being stranded. They can be a bit tricky to fit (practice before the bad weather comes) and they don’t make for a comfy drive, but they do provide vital grip. Chains are available at all prices but you probably get what you pay for. Motor Blogger has seen them for as little as £35 to over £200 a pair.

Possibly the best option for the odd occasion that most will experience are snow socks. They work, are cheap at around £40-50 a pair and fit very simply in minutes on the driving wheels. Stretch the technical fabric over the wheel as much as possible, roll the car back a bit to allow fitment to the rest of tyre and the job’s done. They are self-seating, easy to remove and washable. They must always be removed as soon as the wheels hit tarmac otherwise they will wear out very quickly.

Safety is crucial and especially so when the snow falls. There is no excuse for not making preparations. Winter tyres, chains or a set of excellent winter socks tucked in the boot will all help to keep you safe on snow and ice.

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Automotive Pioneers

It has recently been announced that the famous explorer and all-round Great Brit, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, is off to cross the inhospitable terrain of Antarctica – during that continent’s winter! The question that is always asked is “Why?” and of course the only answer that makes sense is “because somebody has to”. That is the purpose of discovery and there will always be people willing to take that chance.

This is why over the last century or so certain special individuals have toiled in cramped corners to produce and refine the motor car. Whilst the only things that most of humanity has made in their lives are excuses, these singular people have had the brainwaves, knowledge and foresight to do something new and daring and some of them have been significant in developing the automotive industry and culture around the world.

Arguably, there are around 200 influential people who have made a major impact on the car industry, most of whom you haven’t heard of but whose names live on engraved on plaques or on car badges around the world.

We’ve had our fair share in the UK. A name that springs to mind is Sir Alex Issigonis. He designed the original Mini and we have a lot to thank him for. It isn’t just because the Mini is possibly the most iconic motor ever but because it was the first mass-produced car to feature a transverse engine, resulting in the front wheel drive that helped to give the tiny car room to seat four. These days most motors have front wheel drive, thus enabling designers to build capacious small cars.

Meanwhile a young man called Colin Chapman, a design engineer, inventor and builder in the motor industry was working part-time with a group of enthusiasts to establish Lotus Cars. After some earlier attempts the company produced a small roadster called the Lotus 7 and the rest, as they say, is history. You can see the descendents of this great sports car in what is now known as the Caterham 7.

Baron Austin of Longbridge, Herbert to his friends, was the obvious founder of the eponymous car company which he originally started with Frederick Wolseley and that produced cars for decades, including the Mini. We’ll never know what the Baron would think of what became of his life’s work.

But the popularity of cars isn’t all down to oily engineering types; there were also pioneers in other ways. So let’s hear it for Dorothy Elizabeth Levitt (pictured) – an advocate of female independence and motoring, and a motor racer who once held the women’s land speed record. She wrote a book called charmingly, ‘The Woman and the Car: A chatty little handbook for all women who motor or who want to motor’. In this she suggested that ladies keep a small, portable mirror in a handy space and use it occasionally to look behind them when driving. In short, she was advocating the rear-view mirror two years before it was first seen on a production car! What a girl.

So give thanks to the automotive pioneers. Without them we wouldn’t have the technologically advanced vehicles we have today. It’s just unfortunate that another breed of person entirely thought up all the rules.

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