Archive | April, 2013

Aston Martin To Race With Hydrogen

Using the highly desirable Rapide as a donor car Aston Martin have developed the Hybrid-Hydrogen Rapide S, the first hydrogen powered race car to compete in a major sporting event. It is also the first zero emissions car to complete an entire race-pace lap of the Nürburgring emitting only water from the exhaust. The company will be racing the car in the twenty four hour event at the legendary circuit at the end of May.

The power comes from a prototype bi-turbo 6.0L V12 that can run on gasoline, gaseous hydrogen or a combination of both. Apparently the system installed is comprised of a hydrogen fuel rail, storage tanks and an engine management system. Although this might all be Greek to the average layman, this hybrid/hydrogen kit allows some flexibility of control over combustion depending on the driving circumstances: for example, pure hydrogen, pure petrol or a combination of both can be selected to provide maximum performance. The result is a racing car with the carbon footprint of a Fiesta.

Only minimal changes to the car are needed. Fitting to a conventional engine is straightforward – for the experts. The system means that the need for a complex infrastructure for providing hydrogen fuel isn’t needed, which is a major stumbling block to the production of purely hydrogen powered vehicles for public consumption.

The worry – if that’s the right word – is the hydrogen itself. This is not a word we like to hear in the same sentence as combustion. With the Rapide S the company have taken the matter of safety very seriously. The hydrogen is stored in four high strength carbon fibre tanks. The gas totals 3.5kg and is stored at a pressure of 350bar. Two tanks are in the boot but the other two are right next to the intrepid driver. To the untutored motorist, the fear, if it appeared on street versions, is that of explosion. Racing accidents tend to happen at very high speeds and can be devastating. Let us hope that this system has been tested and re-tested for full race conditions. The car is capable of 190mph and does the traffic light sprint in just under five seconds.

Both Aston Martin and the company responsible for developing the system hope to demonstrate clearly the safety and reliability of hydrogen power. The system is designed to be an important step on the road to providing a viable hydrogen automotive economy. It’s clean and it’s green and it is not inconceivable that we may well see hydrogen systems of this type appearing in premium sectors of the industry in the medium term future.

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European Car Sales Fall In March

“The North wind doth blow and we shall have snow, and what will poor motorist do then, poor thing?” – with apologies to the nursery rhyme. That’s how things are these days; the ravages of winter and the parlous state of the economies of Europe are taking their toll on the car industry. Sort of like the Robin in the children’s story, new car buyers are sitting in their homes and hiding their heads under a duvet. Despite the fact that cars have never been better or better value, the market has gone flat and, not for the first time this winter, sales are falling.

Car sales have dropped consistently over the last eighteen months as recession continues to bite. Since March 2012 overall sales in Europe have dropped by 10.3%. Essentially, this is the cream at the top of the milk as far as manufacturers are concerned and they are starting to hurt. The worst casualty is the Peugeot Citroen conglomerate with Toyota coming a close second.

Bizarrely and despite the best efforts of the Chancellor, sales in the UK have actually risen by nearly six percent! This may not be quite as exciting as it appears because dealers are cutting prices to the bone to try and battle the economic stagnation. One excellent dealer known to Motor Blogger has just started offering the entire ranges of two manufacturers at cost price as they try to fulfil their annual quota. This has got to be good for sales but at what price in the long run? These are tough times.

Germany is consistently the best economic performer in the EU yet it saw the biggest drop of all with new car sales down by a mighty seventeen percent despite heavy incentives of anywhere between 2000 – 3000 from the industry. This picture is repeated across the Nations, particularly in the countries especially badly hit, like Spain.

The French car makers were not the only ones to suffer. General Motors saw sales falling by 12.8% and even mighty Volkswagen dropped 16 points compared to this time last year. On the good news front, one company bucking the trend is Jaguar with sales buoyantly rising by a stupendous twenty one percent. They obviously know something that the others don’t – or is it just the case that some buyers are pretty recession proof? Whatever, it’s good to see a British company (yes, we know it’s owned by an Indian outfit but let’s not be pedantic) doing so well against the trend.

So if you are in the market for a new car and feel like cutting an especially good deal, it is almost certain that your local dealer can help you out. He may also let you marry his daughter.

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Ford And GM Collaborate On Gearboxes.

Across the pond in the USA – Michigan to be precise – the Ford Motor Company and General Motors have been putting their corporate heads together to come up with a deal to develop a new generation of automatic gearboxes for cars, SUV’s and commercial vehicles. The interesting thing is that these transmissions will have nine or ten ratios and there will be variants for both front and rear-wheel drive. The thinking is that these gearboxes will enhance the search for continuing improvement in both performance and economy in the vehicles of the not too distant future.

The design and engineering work is already underway and builds on the previous collaborations by these automotive giants. This will be the third time in the last ten years that the two companies have worked together on transmissions, most recently on a shared six-speed FWD (pictured) which is found in many of the popular products from both manufacturers. Each company will assemble their own but will use shared components.

This cooperation will help Ford and GM to maximise efficiencies and develop economies of scale – a concept that is increasingly occurring in the motor industry as the new ideas go global. This benefits customers, not only in terms of economy but also in value as sharing technology and parts in this way helps to keep prices competitive and shareholders happy.

The question is – do we need ten speed gearboxes? How many ratios are effective within the limited rev range of the average engine before they all start getting in each others way? Drivers with experience of seven speeds – the VW DSG ’box for example – are finding that, around town at least, they can be a bit irritating as they shift about in auto mode.

Certainly in the wide open spaces and long, straight, empty highways of America a ten-speed might make sense but in the UK and much of Europe we don’t have that luxury. Road and traffic conditions can change dramatically in the space of a few miles on this crowded island and a gearbox that is perpetually hunting around for just the right ratio might begin to grate.

However, few technical details and applications have been revealed to date. Both Ford and General Motors have said that more information will be forthcoming nearer launch time, so we’ll all have to wait and see just how good these transmissions are. Certainly there is no doubt that many of the technological advances made to new cars in recent years have benefited motorists greatly, but is there a limit to how far these advances can go?

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Fuel For The Future

Ethanol is colourless, volatile, flammable and alcoholic and has various industrial uses except in the Deep South of America where it is a recreational home-made beverage – although you shouldn’t try it at home. It is also considered to be a ‘green’ fuel and is probably in your car now. Regular unleaded petrol has, since 2008, a five percent ethanol content. Premium fuels contain no ethanol.

Later this year a new brew with a higher ethanol content will begin to appear on garage forecourts described as E10. In other words this is unleaded fuel but with a 10% ethanol content. This is because ethanol is, in effect, carbon neutral and is as a result beloved of EU decision-makers.

Some European countries have had this fuel for a while so we’re playing catch-up. It has been legal to sell it here since March but in reality we are unlikely to see any before this Summer. Motorists and motorcyclists aren’t obliged to use it and it will be sold alongside our present selection for the foreseeable future. Garages are not obliged to sell it. So that’s all fine then, but for some drivers who might choose to be greener there could be a snag. Or two.

Ethanol in this concentration is known to degrade and damage components in older cars. This is especially true of classic vehicles. It can affect rubber seals and, because it more readily absorbs water, can attack older fuel pipes and carburettor parts. Even used cars registered before 2000 could be vulnerable and, just to be on the safe side, buyers of new cars could check with their dealer. The Department for Transport reckon that 8.6 million vehicles of all types could be affected. Manufacturers are organising a dedicated E10 website where car owners can get all the facts, so watch out for that.

Obviously this is not unexpected. The messianic zeal with which the EU approaches all things green has already had a profound effect on the motor industry; much of it good, it has to be said. It’s all part of their plan to cut the use of fossil fuels to combat global warming etc.

The downside is that a recent study has shown that E10 is not so economical. The report has shown that cars might do less miles to the gallon and that drivers will find that over a year could spend as much as £80 more at the pumps. This is a bit of an issue. If the EU is so keen on their sustainability targets where is the value in a fuel that we’ll all have to buy more of?

The Germans have had E10 for a couple of years now and are said to be deeply suspicious. Many are choosing not to use it because they are unclear on the wider environmental and social aspects of this concoction. Ethanol is a biofuel made from grain so there’s also concern that taking farmland out of the food production cycle could be detrimental to food prices. We’ll have to see how the car makers approach this launch and whether, given their interest in sustainability and our well-being, the government sell it with a tax break! You wish.

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MOT – No Nasty Surprises

Once a car passes the age of three years it moves into the realm of the dreaded MOT. With the complexity of modern cars this can be a worry but now, thanks to a new campaign, motorists can at least be forewarned by completing a simple series of checks on their own vehicles. Obviously, inspecting a car won’t effect a miracle cure but it does mean that used car owners won’t waste time and additional money on unexpected MOT failures.

The scheme called ‘Minute-or-Two’ is supported by over five thousand main dealers around the country. Their technicians will be happy to advise any customers who are unsure of how to make the checks themselves. The list of checks is straightforward and means that owners can talk to their dealers about individual problems that can be rectified in advance and help prevent that heart-sinking feeling when the fail certificate is handed over. These are the points to watch:

Roping in a friend or family member, make sure all headlights, sidelights, reversing and brake lights and the indicators are all functioning as they should. Don’t forget the number plate light. That’s a very simple home-fix which, if missed, could mean a failure. Plates, incidentally should be clean, legible and conform to the standard.

The importance of sound wheels and tyres shouldn’t be underestimated. Tyres should have at least 1.6mm of tread across their width (ideally, the sensible driver changes them at 3mm) and they should be undamaged in other ways – from kerbs for example. Your dealer will be happy to check these for you.

Seats should have all the forward and backward movement they came with and be firmly in position. Seat belts must be tip-top and functioning correctly. The way to check this is by giving them a hearty tug to ensure they will lock up in the event of a collision.

These days windscreens come under close scrutiny. Any damage (a stone chip for example) anywhere that is greater than 40mm will be a fail and in the ‘swept’ area that figure drops to 10mm. This is a tricky one to assess by eye. Again your dealer should be prepared to advise FOC. Ditto the wipers: they should be in good nick and clean the area fully. Remember, top up the washer bottle before the test.

Always ensure the car has enough fuel for road-testing and, of course, fluid and oil levels should be maintained at the correct level. A low brake fluid level for instance could signify a bigger problem. Finally, check the horn for correct function. To make the task a bit less onerous, try testing it when your ‘check-assistant’ is least expecting it. How they’ll laugh!

Follow theses checks and avoid nasty surprises come MOT time. It’s good that dealers are participating too. Clearly, it’s in their interests but at least they are helping with your safety and may well save you money in the long run.

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Holiday Home From Home

This is the time of year when the caravans of Britain make their annual appearance on our roads and as usual they are sure to polarise opinion. Some drivers will become instantly enraged or frustrated as soon as they see that swaying fibreglass rear end far in the distance. This will happen even if the driver is himself off on a family holiday to a static ‘van based at the coast.

Most drivers, however, will understand that a caravan makes a lot of sense for UK vacations, especially during these hard financial times. As a consequence their popularity is increasing despite the murderous movie ‘Sightseers’! Modern caravans range from functional to luxurious and make an ideal base to explore Britain and Europe.

The choice of tow-car can be critical. Most cars are capable of towing a ‘van but in truth some are probably unsuitable. It is usual for manufacturers to quote maximum towing weights which should be the starting point of any buying decision. It is both illegal and dangerous to breach that figure. The vehicle doesn’t have to be large but it should have a strong engine which ideally would be a diesel for the extra pulling torque they can deliver.

The choice is large. Some people prefer to choose to use panel vans or pick-ups but most ‘vans will be seen behind family sized cars.  Possibly the ideal vehicle would be the Land Rover Discovery. The latest version has a feature called the ‘Trailer Stability Assist’. This automatically detects the presence of a hooked-up trailer. Once a speed of thirty seven miles per hour is reached this device monitors the behaviour of the caravan and uses selective braking to counter any swaying or other unsuitable movements. It’s the perfect safe towing feature.

The snag with the Discovery is the price. Lesser mortals may have to settle for something like a Volkswagen Passat or even a Golf – which was an award winner in the entry level class up to 1424kg. The VW 2.0L diesel is a fine engine that packs real towing punch. Broadly speaking, the heavier the caravan the bigger the vehicle should be to tow it, but it all depends on the manufacturers figure and, of course, the law.

Finding a tow-car is the first step towards a caravanning holiday but there is still much to learn. In essence, the driver is in control of not one but two vehicles. Any novice who has tried reversing with any sort of trailer will attest to how tricky this can be and how quickly things can go seriously pear-shaped!

Since 1998 all subsequently registered vehicles, their tow-bars and tow-balls must be type-approved and all electrics and lights should be fully connected. Any hint of transgression will find the unwary driver at the side of the road with blue lights reflected in the sleek flanks of the prized  caravan. Caravanning is a great way to take the family on holiday but it is not something to try on a whim.

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Be Friend-ME in Shanghai

Something happens to executives of motor companies when they give names to their concept cars, falling prey as they do to wild flights of fantasy. When new cars actually come onto the market they regain a modicum of decorum. Nissan for example – the company that brought you the excitingly named Note – have gone especially off their corporate rockers by naming their latest concept the Friend-ME (only teaser images available, sadly) which apparently features a consul described as unique and that allows “Four Seats, One Mind Connectivity – equal information sharing among all on board”. Boggling.

Another company struck by the curse of over-ripe language is Citroen who will be show-casing their concept SUV, the Wild Rubis. The plan is for this to be a new addition to the DS range and very good it looks too (pictured). It has been seen before in a previous concept incarnation, the DSX.

The Wild Rubis is designed to rival the Audi Q5 and the BMW X3. Citroen say that the SUV is primarily aimed at the Chinese market but could well make it to the UK where the DS range is proving very popular. It’s a bigger car than the Q5 and Citroen seem confident that a version will appear as this concept is described as the “ forerunner of the future DS SUV”.

The styling of this concept is dramatic. Roof rails that flow into the C-pillars augment the bold crease along the shoulder line. The ruby paint work apparently changes depending on the intensity of the prevailing light. Other details – engines, interior – are scarce but the company state that the Wild Rubis is a full plug-in hybrid.

This car is based, surprisingly, on the older C5 platform and will be built in China. It will be followed by a big saloon (seen in concept form as the Numero 9 shown last year at Beijing) and a smaller saloon; all of which are designed to cash in on the burgeoning Chinese auto market.

Also at Shanghai we can expect to see the new BMW X4, the coupé /SUV design of which is splitting opinion. The X4 will probably go on sale in 2014. Mercedes are expected to launch a new SUV based on the A-Class and Ford will announce a new global concept, about which they are being very secretive. Couple that with the arrival of the exquisite Maserati Ghibli and the revamped Porsche Panamera and we are in for another automotive treat.

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The Ghibli – In A Class Of Its Own

According to some academics and the government (so it must be true!) all of us apparently fit into one of seven new social classes in this, our  classless society. We all have dreams and aspirations and hope to move and improve our lives as we go forward and one thing we can all aspire to without wearing a social label is the buying of a nice new car.

Today, that car is the Maserati Ghibli. That’s it in the picture and isn’t it just about the most desirable thing on four wheels? Let us hope that the negative aspects attached to that name don’t appear on this version. The Ghibli first came to light in 1967 and was a shark-nosed two door coupé with a V8 motor. That run ended in 1973 until the name resurfaced in 1992 on the second Ghibli, a bi-turbo. That lasted for another five years.

Both cars were obviously fantastic, being of Italian manufacture but, being of Italian manufacture, suffered from quality and reliability problems and – it goes without saying – the dreaded rust. Nevertheless, they are very sought after by collectors today.

Clearly Maserati and their masters at FIAT have different plans for the future. This new car, which joins the expensive Quattroporte and Granturismo on the roll-call, is expected to be competitively priced around the £50,000 mark to enable it to compete with the likes of the Jaguar XF and the BMW 5 Series in the prestige sector. The company want to be selling fifty thousand units overall within a couple of years and the Ghibli – coupled with the arrival of the Kubang SUV – is likely to spearhead their campaign.

The Ghibli will be the first Maserati to offer a diesel engine. Both it and the petrol version will be 3.0L V6 power plants. Both will have an eight-speed ZF auto-transmission and in addition to the rear-wheel drive will also be available with the new Q4 four-wheel drive system, although this is unlikely to be available in the UK. At some point in the future a V8 will make an appearance.

From the first glance this car could only be a Maserati. The Italians seem to be able to turn drawing board beauty into reality with every car, unlike some manufacturers; although here in the UK we seem to be turning out some lookers as well. The Ghibli has a luxurious interior and even has – shock, horror – a proper actual switch to operate the lights.

This car is distinctive and elegant in the way that only, for the most part, Italian cars can be. Let’s hope that the reliability issues are a thing of the past. Maserati are launching the Ghibli officially at the Shanghai Motor Show at the end of the month. The question is – will it be able to lure away the fans of the German cars that dominate this sector or will it be in a class of its own?

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Rally Portugal This Weekend

After their foray over the ocean the World Rally teams are back in Europe for the Portuguese round of the Championship this coming weekend. Following their spectacular return to the sport Volkswagen have got off to a blistering start running second only in the manufacturers stakes to the mighty works team from Citroen. VW’s Sebastien Ogier heads the leader board for drivers after a string of successes in the early rounds, backed up by Jari-Matti Latvala and Andreas Mikkelsen, all driving Polo‘s.

Following the snow of Sweden and the rocks of Mexico the teams are back on more familiar territory with Portugal offering the traditional loose gravel stages. With a mixture of open roads and tight technical sections this event tests drivers to the max – especially when it rains, turning the surface into a slippery nightmare. The abrasive gravel takes a toll of tyres and the teams have to seriously factor this in when planning their campaigns.

The usual format applies except for this year there will be a marathon leg when teams will have to compete over four consecutive special stages without any service interval. This will push the cars to extremes and show up those whose preparations have been less than thorough.

Citroen are fielding three of their smart DS3 cars this time with Mikko Hirvonen and Danny Sordo being joined by new boy Khalid Al-Qassimi. Overall the event is fully subscribed with seventy two entries over the various categories. A star entrant is the Formula 1 star Robert Kubica making his debut in this event driving a DS3 RRC. There are 6 M-Sport Ford drivers, all piloting Fiestas. Ostberg, Novikov and Neuville are the rising stars and the ones to watch for a surprise result.

Last year’s Portugal Rally had it all. Thunder and lightning and fog, missed opportunities and unfortunate exits; most notably that of the great Seb Loeb who misunderstood a pace-note and turned left instead of right. This is not something you really want to do at high speed on a gravel surface!

Fans always hear about the drivers and it is a shame that the co-drivers remain the unsung heroes. They have a complex job to do interpreting pace-notes, reading the road and keeping everything on track and all whilst trying not to be riveted to the seat with fear. In-car TV coverage means that armchair rally stars can get a driver’s eye view of all the action. In the UK this means tuning into ITV4 on Thursday (18th) evening for the highlights show. This channel will be showing all the rallies but it looks as though they are being flexible about which night it will be on! Make the most of it anyway because in the UK that’s all we get!

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Your Used Car Campaign

You know how it is when you really need a pen – you can never find one; or, if you do, it is out of ink: and when you don’t need a pen there are at least six in plain sight no matter where you are in the house? That’s what buying a used car is like. When you are perfectly happy with your wheels you will see plenty of motors around that really fit the bill should you need one soon; but when you do need one all of those great motors disappear like fairy dust and you are left dragging around the dealers for days on end almost ready to settle for second best. That’s life.

What’s needed is a bit of organisation. Due diligence. Plan your car buying campaign with military precision and life will be easier. Did you know for example that the price of identical cars can vary depending upon where you live? Are you prepared to put yourself out to bag a bargain?

Here’s an example from a recent report using a three year old Ford Focus with average mileage as an benchmark. In Scotland, the comparable car could be up to eight hundred pounds cheaper than the equivalent vehicle in London. Wales is cheaper than the West Midlands, Cambridge is the most expensive town in Britain and so on. Would you be prepared to travel away from home to save that sort of money? The more prestigious the car the greater the potential saving could be. It’s a thought. All the information you need is at your fingertips as they hover over the keyboard.

If that’s too much of a stretch then at least be resolutely prepared to work hard in your selected search area. The key points are knowing exactly how much money there is to spend and precisely what it is you want from the car. On the mental options list of the average driver there are items that are essential and items that are either acceptable or superfluous. These things can affect the final price. Why pay a premium for a built in sat-nav if you’ve got a perfectly good plug-in unit at home?

Write your ideas down. The brand, the performance, the economy, the number of seats, the load capacity and even the colour are all relevant to your choice. By targeting your ideal it makes life easier by instantly cancelling out all the also-rans on the forecourts. It might take longer but at least you’ll have what you wanted.

The sensible buyer also consults other interested parties. What happens when your partner sends you out on a search for the perfect family hatchback and you come back with a passion wagon? It doesn’t bear thinking about. This is the nature of planning. All bases are covered. Satisfaction is guaranteed. Until the next time.

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