Saturday, November 26, 2016


The website has an extensive portfolio of shots of Bentley's next Continental GT coupe and convertible during testing at the Nurburgring.

(Photo: Auto Express)

I remember  the owner and publisher of AUTOMOTIVE NEWS, Keith Crain, telling me, as he took delivery of his GT coupe in Detroit back in 2006, that; "this is gonna be a damn hard car to facelift, it's just beautiful the way it is."

The original design team; Design Director Dirk van Braekel, Raul Pires and Robin Page got it right back in 2002, when the final concept was unveiled in front of me and 13 of my fellow Bentley Motors executives in Wolfsburg.

As the covers came off the final clay, 14 suits all had a sharp intake of breath simultaneously. If this was what we had to sell from 2003, we were on a winner! And we were.

According to Auto Express, the next Continental GT will take many design cues from the Bentley EXP 10 Speed 6 concept car, making it more muscular, but still not a million miles from the original car. So, Keith Crain was right, a 'damn hard car to facelift'.

Friday, November 25, 2016


The world’s most successful car, Corolla, has sold more than 44 million cars globally, and in excess of 1.35 million in Australia, since it launched in 1966.

The formula has been a worldwide hit, a flexible hatchback sedan, with room for five (at a pinch); modest, but economical performance, and longevity some brands could only dream of.

Powered by one of Toyota’s oldest and most reliable petrol engines, you may wonder why in heaven’s name the company has launched a Hybrid version. I’m certainly wondering the same thing; with Hybrid sales in Australia down 10% so far this year (YTD October), and a tiny total of just over 2,500 hybrids sold so far in Australia in 2016, do Australians need this car?

Search me, but here it is, at an almost $8,000 premium over the basic petrol-engined Corolla. I can say one thing for certain – it’s economical. However, just based on fuel savings, the $8K price difference would take 20 years for a payback!

Watching the power-generation graphics on the dash becomes quite addictive, as you actively try to generate as much power as possible into the battery pack. Mind you, that activity then leads to other road users giving you the horn so you’ll speed up with the traffic flow.

Hybrid power brings one real benefit to the Corolla, and that is a pretty nifty independent rear suspension, using double wishbones. That’s so the battery pack can fit under the rear seat, rather than intrude on the trunk space.

This design change imparts better handling, but I suspect the car I drove retained the Japanese damper settings, because on anything other than ribbon smooth freeway, the ride was very lumpy.

The Corolla package is indeed exemplary. I doubt anyone could truly want for a more practical city car.

Quite frankly, that’s its forte. My advice is, don’t head for the mountains.

All that impressive fuel economy goes out the window the minute you keep your foot flat to the floor.

Driving through the ‘burbs, on the straight and level, the Corolla Hybrid is fine. Advertised combined economy is 4.4L/100km.

Speed up to keep pace with the traffic at freeway speeds and the economy takes a dive; and as for attacking the local mountain range with verve – you won’t see the southern side of 10L/100km.

As I found in the UK a couple of years ago, when I drove at the Motorway speed limit of 70mph between Heathrow and my digs in Cornwall.

The fuel economy was awful, thanks to the Lexus CT220H having the drag co-efficient of a house brick, plus my exuberant driving. For the week, it returned 12.5L/100km!

At least the Corolla Hybrid doesn’t pretend to be the totally ‘green’ answer to the whole issue of environmentally-friendly personal transport.

It’s just one of the options for using less petrol.

The Corolla Hybrid is well-built (in the usual Toyota manner); it’s comfortable and in this guise it’s well-equipped. Excellent touch screen control system for everything apart from aircon; attractive piano black finish in parts of the cabin and a great sound system, courtesy of Toyota’s main supplier Fujitsi Ten.

If choosing this car, at an $8K cost premium, imbues you with warm and fuzzy feelings toward the environment, well, you go for it. 

I’m afraid I’m back where I started. For me the Corolla Hybrid is an answer to a question nobody asked. Nice car, does everything well, but why?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


Named after perhaps Italy's most famous 'drivers road', the Stelvio Pass, Alfa Romeo revealed its new STELVIO SUV at the Los Angeles Auto Show last week.

Designed at Alfa Romeo Centro Stile and built alongside the new Giulia at the Cassino plant, the Stelvio comes in three models - Stelvio and Stelvio Ti with the turbocharged 2.0L engine from the Giulia; and the Quadrifoglio, powered by a turbocharged 3.0L V6.

The interior follows the same themes as the Giulia sedan, and the claims made for its performance and handling sounds like Alfa Romeo has created a direct challenger for Jaguar's F-PACE.

More details in a later post, but suffice to say the Stelvio fairly bristles with sports performance, and high tech aids, and is built on the same architecture as the acclaimed Giulia sedan.

Monday, November 21, 2016


Actually, more of a scorpion. It’s been the Abarth logo since Carlo Abarth bought up all the unfinished Cisitalia sports cars in 1947 and formed Abarth & Co S.p.A in Bologna. Carlo was born under the sign of Scorpio.

Carlo had been Cisitalia’s sporting director, and when he saw the company was going under, he grabbed whatever hardware he could and built up a successful racing team.

In 1952 he formed a loose association with FIAT S.p.A. to develop some of their production cars for road racing and hillclimbing.

Probably the one that scored the most attention was the tiny Abarth FIAT 595 (right), a development of the Cinquecento, with a 1.0L twin cam engine.

It was a little rocket, and I remember test driving an Australian version (just like this US racer) for a MODERN MOTOR  magazine feature at Oran Park Raceway in Sydney in 1976.

In 1971 FIAT acquired all of Carlo Abarth’s little company, which by then was specializing in tuning kits, and highly-efficient exhaust manifolds, mainly for Fiats. Since then FIAT has adorned various premium sports models with the Abarth scorpion badge.

Now, in 2016 we get the FIAT version of the Mazda MX5, with an Abarth badge, and quite a few modifications to the Japanese-sourced roadster, to rev up FIAT’s image Down Under.

The Fiat 124 Abarth Spider is wholly assembled at Mazda’s Hiroshima factory in Japan. 

FIAT ships over the 1.4L Multi-Air engine, the six speed manual, some suspension bits including Bilstein shock absorbers and an Abarth exhaust system.

The exterior panels are designed by FIAT Centro Stile to fit on the Mazda subframe and body assembly, and the interior is trimmed with leather Abarth seats and lots of red highlights, like stitching, seats, tacho and rear view mirror caps.

Okay, so it’s a joint venture aimed at soaking up extra Mazda production volume, and giving FIAT a sports car ‘on the cheap’ and something to shout about, and also to give its poor, beleaguered dealers around the world a truly 'new' car to sell that has some soul and personality. Plus it will generate showroom traffic!

I’ve said before, I think this is a good deal, for both companies. It’s a pragmatic solution for all stakeholders, to the problem of justifying sports car volume in a world turning away from passenger cars to SUVs, and the onslaught of a slew of electric cars, which offer about as much driving excitement as squeezing out a wet sponge!

When you fire up the Abarth-branded FIAT 1.4L turbocharged engine the Abarth exhaust system tells you it’s raring to go. This engine produces about 125kW (170hp), and mated to the Italian six speed manual transmission it’s a ball to drive.

Actually, there is one design aspect of both the MX5 and the Abarth 124 which is a pain, and it's the placement of the handbrake. If you're driving either of these cars in Italy or the USA, no problem. But, in RHD markets, the handbrake bobs up right in the middle of the plane of movement where your hand slides across to change gear. It takes a lot of getting used to.

This car starts at AUD$41,000 and the worthwhile extras (Abarth seats AUD$490; and Metallic Paint AUD$490), mean it tops out at AUD$42,000.

The test car came with a 'visibility pack', which was mostly lights, bells and whistles priced at AUD$2500 – which I could happily leave in the showroom.

This compares to the base Mazda MX5 roadster, with six-speed manual, which starts at AUD$36,000, plus the Connect pack at AUD$600 (a must). So there’s almost a AUD$6K premium for a European-flavoured take on Japan’s most famous and successful sports car, but the 124 does include Brembo brakes; Bilsteins; Alloys; great tyres and a rear view camera (not available on the base MX5).

Hey, if you like European flair. Go for it. The drive will be fun too, I promise you that.

The Fiat’s tacho is redlined at 6500rpm, but performance tails off before then, and the traction-control is a pain in the backside, so I turned it off. However, the little 124 Spider is truly fun to drive. It’s not the outright acceleration that stirs you, it’s the responsive handling.

The Fiat 124 Abarth Spider has an extra stiffening strut joining the front suspension towers to the body frame, and this gives the open sports car a lot of extra rigidity, and has almost the same effect as if you seam-welded the body together.

On the road the 124 is stiff, well-grounded, and truly fun to throw around. You can tease the tail out and the handling is super responsive – providing you’ve turned off the traction-control.

I would have to describe the whole driving experience in the 124 as 'raw'. Really, at times it feels very much like my cousin's MG TC.

The ride is pretty lumpy, compared to its Mazda stablemate, and on some surfaces that results in a lot of fore’n’aft pitching, but on the right road, the upside is the 124 Spider offers great control.

I’m not sure if the red Abarth seats have anything special in their construction, apart from the name embossed in the leather, but they hold you well in a tight corner.

Another, slight, downside is that apart from the trunk, and a tiny centre console bin, there’s NO storage – nothing, zippo, zero.

Hey, you’re driving an Italian-tickled Mazda MX5, and I liked the experience. This little car was a lot of fun, with a lot of creature comforts, and enough badge envy to garner a lot of thumbs ups on the highway as I sped past the slow burners.

Is it worth the premium over the Japanese version? Of course it is, if you want something different, and something to talk about over double espressos at the beachside cafĂ© on Saturday morning. Then on Sunday, you get to go out and enjoy yourself, and that provides more conversation for next Saturday. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

This is a REAL sports car; this is a ‘Fun Spider’ – enjoy!

Sunday, November 20, 2016


Let me introduce you to the single, lifetime owner of a 1928 Rolls-Royce Piccadilly P-1 roadster. He’s Allen Swift, who was born, raised and died in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Allen’s father presented him with the car as a graduation gift, in 1928, and Allen drove it continuously until he died, aged 102, in 2010.

The Rolls-Royce clocked up a mere 1,070,000 miles, still runs with the precision of a Swiss watch, and was in perfect cosmetic condition when it was donated to a Springfield museum after Allen passed away.

82 years is some record for reliability, right? Henry Royce would be proud.