Wednesday, June 21, 2017

RENAULT'S CURVACEOUS CLIO

With hips like Brigitte Bardot, and a minimalist interior design, the new Clio Zen not only comes with a big dash of French chic, but also very sharp pricing.

After 300km, and a lot of envious looks, and enquiries, the Clio Zen says au revoir, leaving me pining for more than temporary ownership.

I have just one gripe – more on that later

Powered by Renault’s 1.2L turbocharged 88kW four cylinder, the Clio delivers impressive performance, and the Getrag 6-speed DCT gearbox is a perfect match.

There’s no shunting, hunting and jerky low-speed confusion – it’s perfectly smooth, across the range, and up and down changes are almost imperceptible.






Yes, it’s small, but is it just a shopping trolley?

No, out on the highway the Clio can mix it with the big boys and still deliver around 5.2 L/100km.

There’s a lot to like in the mid-level Zen, especially at AUD$19,990 (plus on road costs). I think it's a good value proposition coming with 16” alloy wheels, LED headlights, GPS Navigation, Bluetooth and iPod connectivity, Voice recognition and keyless start.

The audio system features Bose premium speakers, and delivers excellent tonal response.

However, here’s my single complaint about this car – there’s no ignition-accessory position, so you can switch the engine off and still listen to music.









Back in the early 70s I was a Renault owner, with a mustard Renault 10 carrying me and my family, delivering impressive performance, excellent fuel economy and an exceptionally-comfortable ride. 

The handling? Well, let’s say that for a 1000kg RWD car the front wandered in a crosswind, and whilst the Michelin X tyres gave phenomenal wear, their grip in the wet was a bit iffy.

A carton of red wine in the front luggage space solved the handling issues, and swapping to Dunlop SP sport tyres on one inch wider rims improved the grip in the rain.

I mention this because I see the Clio replicating all the features which appealed to me about the Renault 10.

The Clio is light, performs well, returns good fuel economy, has a capacious trunk and it’s competitively priced.

The standard Continental tyres give superb adhesion, but as it didn’t rain whilst I had the car, I can’t refer to their wet weather behavior.

In my mind the Clio is a ‘Classic’ Renault, capitalizing on all the qualities which became obvious in the immediate post-Second World War period when it provided cheap, economical and practical transport for millions of French families with cars like the Renault 4CV, which morphed into the popular Renault Dauphine.

This year Clio sales have wobbled due to all the stock of the superseded model selling out, and the delay in the new models coming to showrooms, but still Renault’s overall share is holding strong, and in the Clio segment it has been holding a steady 3%+ over the last year.

This is a Renault true to the company's roots. With the pricing sharpened, I forecast steady improvement for this car, which delivers on all its promises.

The Clio handles well, the new electrically-assisted steering is sharp and the ride is incredibly comfortable for a short wheelbase car.


So you say, what do you choose. Brigitte Bardot, or the Clio? It’s a no brainer, the Clio will cost me a one-time payout of around $23 Grand – keeping Brigitte and her makeup, plus her pet food costs would certainly fully drain my bank account in the long run. And, she lives in France.





PORSCHE GRINDS VICTORY FROM DEFEAT

At 18:30 on Saturday evening the Le Mans 24-Hours looked over for the Porsche 919 Hybrid of Earl Bamber (NZ), Timo Bernhard (DE) and Brendon Hartley (NZ). Their car had no front axle drive anymore. It took 1.05 hours to repair, and then it rejoined the race 18 laps behind.

But the 85th running of the endurance classic in Le Mans produced such dramatic changes that the impossible ultimately came true: After an enormous effort, the trio sliced through the field from 56th position to overall victory.


When the number 1 sister car stopped on track soon after 11am Sunday, after having led the race for more than ten hours, the time for the hunters had arrived. Hartley's lap times continuously improved during a multiple stint.

After 312 laps, he comes in for his final refuelling stop then after 325 laps he hands over the car in fourth position to Bernhard. At 12:50pm, the 919 Hybrid is back on the same lap as the leading car – it is race lap 330. After all LMP1 hybrid works cars have either retired or been delayed, an LMP2 leads outright.


After 338 laps Bernhard comes in for fuel and on lap 347 he takes the lead. His penultimate refuelling stop happens after 351 laps before a final splash & dash after 360 laps.

After 367 laps in total Bernhard takes the chequered flag to fulfil a dream.

For Le Mans record holder Porsche, it is the 19th overall win in the world’s toughest race and the third in a row meaning the German manufacturer can now keep the famous trophy.

2017 LE MANS 24 HOUR - ASTON MARTIN BRINGS HOME THE BACON

In the GTE Pro class Aston Martin Racing took victory when Jonny Adam (GB) snatched the lead on the final lap of the race. Partnered by Darren Turner (GB) and Daniel Serra (BR), the trio had driven a faultless race.
In the final laps their main competitor was the #63 Corvette and at the final fuel stop for both cars with less than 45 minutes to go, the Corvette exited the pits just in front of the Aston Martin.
After trading places in that final stint the Corvette ran wide at the second Mulsanne corner on the final lap, allowing Adam to close right up.
Then the Chevrolet snagged a slow puncture, allowing Adam to cross the line and take the chequered flag.


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

ASTON MARTIN DB11 - THE CANYONS AND BIG WILLOW

Here's a link to one of the most enjoyable automotive videos I've seen recently.

It's a guy called Johnny Lieberman, hosting MOTOR TREND magazine's video platform, IGNITION, driving a DB11 through the canyons north of Los Angeles - stopping only to pick up race driver, Justin Bell (yes, son of my dear friend, Derek Bell).

Just like his famous dad, Justin has won Le Mans, and in addition he's a thoroughly nice bloke.

Lieberman's narrative is honest, but fair, and he doesn't attempt to make out that the DB11 is the best GT coupe in the world.
He acknowledges its competitors and their strengths, but his enthusiasm for the Aston Martin is palpable and dissarming, and their in-car conversation is very entertaining.

After cruising through the canyons, the DB11 is off to the long circuit at Willow Springs Raceway, known as 'BIG WILLOW'.




Where it's over to the winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona, Randy Pobst, to set a fast lap of Big Willow.

It's great video, in high definition, very enlightening, and fun to watch.

If this production doesn't prompt you to put the DB 11 on your bucket list, after you win LOTTO, I don't know what would.

It's an achingly beautiful car and the performance, fit, finish and appeal is exceptional.







Here's the link to Episode 170, cut and paste this into your browser:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7FVjb__p0K4&cid=0032400000KdpCBAAZ&email_type=newsletter&email_id=newsletterjune2017&utm_source=email&utm_campaign=newsletterjune2017


Sunday, June 18, 2017

HONDA, AND DRIVING & LIFE - A PERSONAL HISTORY

Lest I sound harsh about Honda, I really have a genuine soft spot for the company, and my own personal links date back to 1983, when I was PR Director for Jaguar Rover Australia.

In the early 80s, the Australian Federal Government decided to impose a limit on vehicle imports, to help the local manufacturers. The numerical quotas were calculated by a complicated formula (dreamed up by the public servants) based on historical imports from a small selection of the biggest companies, and Jaguar Rover Australia’s links went all the way back to BMC Australia, later Leyland Australia, which had been a 'local' manufacturer.

JRA found itself a bit embarrassed by the large quota the government endowed on the company, given that most of the cars we were then selling were upmarket, limited volume luxury cars.

Cars like the Rover 3500, the Range Rover and the Jaguar Series 3.

However, there was money to be made by ‘renting’ unused quota to companies which had fared badly in the quota carve-up.

One of which was Suzuki, which had ended up with very low quotas, and a market crying out for its cars.

Suzuki Australia's COO at the time, Graham West, told me decades later how much he and Suzuki in Japan appreciated JRA's co-operation. He said: "It really helped the company turn a corner. It was one of the most important building blocks for Suzuki's future in Australia."

However, our Marketing team said we could augment our Rover range, by importing British-built small Hondas, such as the Triumph Acclaim, thereby utilizing our quota.

However, when the finance guys looked at the numbers, the exchange rate between Sterling and the Oz dollar dashed that idea.



Then JRA's Deputy Managing Director, Jack Heaven asked, why couldn’t we bring in Japanese-built ‘Rovers’, because the exchange rates with the Yen were much more favourable.

This of course required Honda to be amenable to the idea, which as far as Honda’s Japanese management was concerned came from way out of left field.

After Jack Heaven went to Tokyo they quickly agreed on re-badging the Honda Quint as the ‘Rover’ Quintet as Honda Australia had no plans to import the Quint as a Honda.


Also, as far as Honda Japan was concerned it was a terrific idea, because it increased the number of Honda-built cars on the market, which may ultimately help Honda Australia gain more import licenses.

The project was driven by Jack Heaven, to whom I reported.

I suggested it might be a good idea for the PR Director to visit Honda in Japan, to establish a communication line between the companies.

On February 21, 1983 I took off for Tokyo, and on arrival was delighted to discover the company management had really rolled out the red carpet.

The first day was spent at the Sayama plant watching Hondas being assembled, and that night I was entertained in grand style by the Board Director of PR at one of Tokyo’s leading Geisha tea houses.

The next day I was honoured to be one of the very few non-Honda executives to ever visit the extensive R&D centre at Wako.

Although the tour and the meetings were largely ceremonial, I was taken through technical workshops and the proving ground, seeing a number of still-secret protoypes. Later I enjoyed lunch with the Head of R&D, who told me: "Our PR people tell us you are a real car enthusiast, and that you owned a Mini Cooper and a Sprite."


The day of our final series of meetings were held in Honda’s Tokyo offices, and during a break for coffee the building shook and the cups rattled. “No problem”, said my host. “It is just an earthquake!”

That evening as I waited to board my Sydney-bound flight, the Mainichi Daily News reported the ‘quake was ‘only’ 3.0 on the Richter Scale – no worries!



















The Rover Quintet was launched on May 4, 1983 and was a great success.














Despite its humble specifications, the Rover Quintet found willing buyers, which then led to the next generation in 1986, the Rover 416i, which was the five-door version of the Honda Integra.


Honda Australia imported the three door Integra version, so both cars co-existed comfortably in the marketplace.

The JRA-Honda connection survived until 1989, when quotas were abolished, but overall it was a very successful commercial arrangement with many benefits to both JRA and Honda.
It was via this connection I became a lifelong advocate for Honda’s integrity as a carmaker and innovator.

HONDA'S DESIGN DISASTER


As a ‘styling junkie’ I have enjoyed many visits to top-secret automotive design centres around the world, and spent time with some of the world’s most famous car designers, many of whom I’m fortunate to count as good friends.

That does not make me an expert in car design, but it does hone your senses, and sensitivity, to many, varied aspects of designs.

Last year my friend Peter Robinson (Editor of WHEELS magazine for 16 years, and the doyen of Australia car writers) reprimanded me for not being more critical of the styling of the Honda Civic sedan I reviewed here in DRIVING & LIFE.

Another close friend, Australia’s most senior automotive writer, Paul Gover, has a phrase which he applies to cars which are ‘over-designed’ or unnecessarily fussy. He says the designer had ‘difficulty removing the pencil from his sketch pad’.

Such is the case with the latest Honda Civic hatch.

This is without a doubt a massive design disaster, and so affectated with lumps, bumps, channels, grooves, scallops, feature lines and bits of glued-on plastic, I will be very surprised if it resonates with buyers as good design.

It is never more obvious than the rear section of the roof, where it flows (?) down to mate with the hatchback, which has a huge and garish spoiler adorning the lower section of the rear window.


I’m certain none of the design touches have anything to do with aerodynamics, and much more to do with trying to be different and stand out from the crowd. Well, it stands out okay, but for all the wrong reasons.

Then there are the fake vents in the extremities of the rear bumper, and the glued-on lower lip spoiler at the base of the bumper. It might be bright, shiny black plastic, but it just looks tacky.

The front of the Civic of course retains the same fussy design elements, which offended Peter Robinson.

In an engineering sense the Civic RS drives well, handles precisely and is well finished, but even at the moment you press the Start button, the centre instrument in the display lights up like a disco screen, with flashing lights and pulsing colors.

How the designers explained the importance of all this affectation to the Board of Honda Motor, and got design sign-off is beyond me. I remember thinking the same thing about Chris Bangle’s work at BMW AG, but then a good friend who sat in on the design presentations in Munich said to me: “You really had to see Chris doing a presentation. He could sell you anything, and at the end you’d truly believe that was what you always wanted.”

Obviously, the current design team has more goodies in store for us, when they restyle the next Accord, and others in the current Honda lineup.

There's one saving grace at Honda, the new NSX. But, it was designed in Ohio by Lead Exterior Designer Michelle Christensen, another standout graduate from Pasadena's Art Centre College of Design.


Hey Michelle, there’s a job waiting for you in Japan.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

SEARCHING FOR SERGIO'S SUCCESSOR

As Sergio Marchionne plans his sayonara as the CEO of FCA at the end of 2019, the search is on not only for his successor, but in a further hint to Sergio’s accelerated plans to sell off bits and pieces of the Group, FCA also has tentacles out for a new corporate PR chief whose duties will include “significant strategic corporate experience in managing mergers, acquisitions and selldowns.”

The resumes of several highly-regarded PR specialists have been floated before Marchionne, which is the strongest evidence yet that FCA’s future as a global automotive group is pretty wobbly. The people who have been approached have been told that the position will answer solely to the CEO.

In regard to a successor, FCA Chairman John Elkann is on record as saying that the role will be filled internally. 

However, one of the traits accompanying a strong central figure as CEO is that the names of possible successors are often virtually invisible because the boss grabs all the headlines.

One name which keeps cropping up is Sergio’s BFF, Reid Bigland, whom Marchionne promoted from being Head of FCA Canada, to running Alfa Romeo. 

However, Bigland first has to dodge a probe by US criminal and regulations investigators who are investigating alleged fraudulent manipulation of vehicle sales and registrations.

According to a report in Canada’s FINANCIAL POST: 

Bigland’s signature is displayed on documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission containing some of the disputed sales figures. The monthly sales reports often contain statements from Bigland touting monthly results and a streak of continually rising sales that he said went back to 2010.

The sales streak was also highlighted in other filings, including FCA’s 2015 annual report.
Federal investigators are eager to determine whether documents were falsified and, if so, whether company officials may have known what they were signing. The investigations follow lawsuits filed recently that allege company officials offered money to dealers to falsify sales.
According to both U.S. and Canadian media, investigators are looking into allegations that FCA ordered dealers to create false vehicle purchases, some of which were made in the names of friends and relatives of salespeople, including underage family members.

The government criminal probe follows two lawsuits filed against Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in 2016. In one of the suits, Ed Napleton, who owns more than 50 dealerships in five states, alleges an FCA district manager in June 2015 offered him $20,000 if one of his dealerships falsely reported 40 vehicles as sold. The money would be credited to the dealership’s account as “cooperative advertising support,” the suit alleged.
FCA would then mark those same vehicles as unsold at the beginning of the next month, according to the lawsuit. The practice is known as “unwinding” a sale. Unwinding is a normal practice for returned cars either when customers change their minds about their purchases or fail to get financing.
Business media in Italy suggest John Elkann already has an Italian executive in mind to follow Marchionne, suggesting that the FCA Chairman intends to play a more prominent role in the conduct of the company.


Elkann may be relatively young, but not without extensive experience, being brought up and trained by the ‘Agnelli Royal Family’.