Saturday, July 22, 2017

IT'S 'TRUCK TIME'

In the USA, Ford, GM and Dodge have held sway in the truck market for decades, which was an obvious invitation to every other car maker to get in on the act.

So we have the VW Amarock, Mercedes-Benz’s new X-Class, and even Hyundai sneaking around in the shadows with it’s interesting, but totally impractical Santa Cruz concept.


The stalwart Japanese contenders, Toyota, Nissan and Mitsubishi have already established a strong presence in the light truck market around the world and have a reputation for high build quality, dependable performance and tough reliability.

In Australia, when the 2016 full year sales stats were released, the country’s number one-selling vehicle was the Toyota HiLux.

Does that mean that trucks, plus SUVs spells the end of the passenger car? It's certainly causing carmakers to think carefully about future passenger car investments.

Well, this week I got a chance to drive the Nissan Navara, the donor vehicle for the new Mercedes-Benz X-Class.

The Navara is a ‘truck’ and once strapped in you are reminded every minute that it’s built for a whole different set of reasons than even your average passenger car.

Its diesel engine roars under load; there’s tons of intrusive road and wind noise; the ride comfort is non-existent, and it’s about as basic as you can get.

It’s all yours for around AUD$44,000.

Yes, it does the job, but it’s your basic workhorse.

However the crew cab configuration at least allows you to carry the family when you’re out for Pizza.

The photos and the launch blurb from Mercedes-Benz promises a much more sophisticated and refined experience, and I have no doubt the Germans will work wonders with Nissan’s basic truck.

Mind you, the real significance of the Nissan and Mercedes-Benz alliance is the profit opportunity for the German company. There are many real benefits for Benz in this deal.

Firstly, the product is quick to the market; second, the project requires very little in the way of expensive investment in development by Mercedes-Benz;  the suspension sorting and trim levels will come courtesy of existing Mercedes-Benz suppliers, so that means economies of scale in purchasing – and all that remains is for Mercedes-Benz to price it according to the accepted pricing levels associated with its brand values, and then, pocket the profits – which will be huge.


Of course the X-Class does represent another chapter in the industry consolidation which has been happening for some time, and will no doubt speed up over the next ten years. Smaller, weaker companies will be absorbed and stripped of their potential for the benefit of the company which acquires them, and the number of players in the industry will diminish in time.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

MERCEDES-BENZ E220d ALL-TERRAIN

Here’s a car that’s at home on the range, and thankfully, isn’t an SUV.

This E220d All-Terrain is the only large wagon in the Benz model lineup in Australia, but it is Stuttgart’s very stylish solution for people who don’t want an SUV, and comes with AWD.

The mechanicals are a mixed bag of okay and not so good; but overall it works.

Weighing in at an ‘almost SUV-like’ 1980kg (4365 lbs), the 2.0L turbo diesel is a four cylinder and punches out a measly 143kW (192hp); but does produce 400Nm (295 lbs ft) of torque.

The troublesome power-to-weight ratio problem is somewhat alleviated by the Benz’s excellent 9-speed automatic. 
However, on the road, this is a sweet car to drive.

The precise, but well-weighted steering is exceptional.

The air suspension produces an excellent ride, on 20 inch wheels, and also makes sense of the wagon’s off-road pretensions.

Although the All-Terrain sits 15mm higher than the equivalent sedan, the wagon’s ride height can be increased a further 20mm (at less than 35 km/h), to provide more ground clearance if you are tackling a bush track.

Inside the designers have made a far better job of styling the instrument panel, with a much more cohesive inclusion of the touchscreen.


It certainly looks better than having a ‘tablet’ sitting up in the fresh air above the dash.

But, and there’s always a ‘but’, all this magnificence comes at a price. Yes, if you want the wagon in the photos, you’ll pay for it. First, it’s AUD$110,000 plus on-road costs. Then, if you want the Heads-Up display, you’ll pay another AUD$5000 , because it comes packaged with a panoramic sunroof, and the outstanding  Burmester Premium sound system.

The pricetag does include some extra tech, which may or may not be your style. You get Auto-Park assist, with an all-round rear view camera; a Lane Keeper operating with the Active Cruise Control; a High Beam setting, which automatically lops off part of the beam when vehicles approach, and digital radio plus Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

Because of its size, the rear compartment with seats folded, will accept as much as an average large SUV, and the rear tailgate can be operated by swiping a foot under the rear bumper.

If you’re planning to head for the snowfields however (which require mandatory snowchains in Australia); then you’ll need to ask for the no-cost optional 19 inch wheels to fit them.


In my book, this wagon is the best of all worlds. It’s good to look at, practical, well-equipped, drives beautifully and returns very impressive fuel economy for such a big boy, mainly because peak torque occurs from 1600rpm. This may be Benz’s only wagon available in Australia, but for its purposeful stance, comfort and driving pleasure it’s a winner.

Monday, July 17, 2017

ASTON MARTIN AND THE RACING GAME

On the back of all tickets, paddock and pit passes the disclaimer begins with: “Motor racing is dangerous….” What the disclaimer should go on to say is: “Motor racing is also bloody expensive…”

There’s an old adage around the sport, which goes like this: “How do you make a small fortune out of motor racing?” Answer: “You start with a big one.”

Ing. Dr. Ulrich Bez
When Ing. Dr. Ulrich Bez took over control of Aston Martin in 2000, he told me that although he did harbor plans for Aston Martin to participate in motor racing, to broaden the appeal of the marque, it would not happen using Aston Martin’s precious and limited financial resources.

Like many British carmakers, Aston Martin boasts a long history in motor sport, and many victories.

“We will sell cars to private teams, but assist them with technical knowledge, advice and discounted prices for parts.” Said Bez.


Times change, and once again Aston Martin is back in the pack at Le Mans, and also participating in the GT3 category, wearing the banner ‘ASTON MARTIN RACING’  and funded by the factory.

Is this a good idea? I think it is. Just like Jaguar’s confidence has grown, on the back of record sales, Aston Martin sales have gained strength year after year since the GFC, and the company feels it’s time to throw its corporate hat in the ring – both with an appropriate investment of company funds, and developing new models under the AMR banner.

For the explanation of the apparent turnabout, I asked my old friend Simon Sproule, Aston Martin’s Chief Marketing Officer:

"Given this is the last year for the current Vantage in GTE and GT3, we decided to take a different strategy for 2018, given both the arrival of the new Vantage, and the launch of the AMR brand.

Valkyrie
"The main change is that we have consolidated racing, special vehicles (cars like Vulcan, GT12, Valkyrie) in one division and under one single Director - David King. 

"We have signed a new agreement with Prodrive to support our racing activities and they are helping to develop the new WEC cars based on the new Vantage which debuts at the end of this year. Prodrive doesn't own Aston Martin Racing (some perceived this in the past)...we, Aston Martin, run that operation.

"The other major change is the launch of AMR as our performance brand. Harking back to the early 50s when David Brown created a higher performance version of the DB4 to start the Vantage bloodline.

Aston Martin AMR Vantage Pro

"Creating higher performance versions of our cars continued through to DB7 in the 1990s. From DB9 onwards, we dropped the Vantage versions (and the name was applied to a whole car of course).

"So it was not a difficult decision to bring back a higher performance product line-up, and calling it AMR was a natural way to create the connection between racing and road cars. Every car in our range will have at least one AMR version. The first production AMR cars are the Vantage V8 AMR and Vantage V12 AMR announced recently.

"Racing at the level of the WEC is not for the faint-hearted and requires a deep technical and financial commitment. With Prodrive and our own in-house expertise through special projects, we have the technical depth and capability.

"With our success at Le Mans, the resurgence of the Aston Martin business, and a new Vantage coming soon, we have a robust proposition for sponsors and partners. The launch of AMR also helps to consolidate that strategy, in addition to specifically contributing to the racing program: a percentage of the revenue from every AMR sold goes into helping our racing

 "It's a simple and direct way to ensure we never forget that racing is a business and not an indulgence for the company."

In the recent 24 Hours of Le Mans Aston Martin’s efforts were rewarded with a win in the GTE Pro class; plus a second AMR car finishing 9th in GTE Pro, and an 8th place finish in the privateer GTE AM class.

24 Hours of Le Mans 2017

However, my original reservations about motor racing ‘as a marketing tool’ remain, because as far as public optics are concerned, you’re only as good as your last victory, and to keep the silverware flowing into the winners hands, you have to keep pumping money in to the motor racing sausage machine.


There’s no doubt companies successfully putting their race cars into the winners’ circle have reaped rewards for their image – namely Jaguar and Bentley – in recent times, but it ain’t cheap and you have to be very sure that it's a credible part of the marque’s heritage, and the myths and legends which grow up around motor racing.
Sir Stirling Moss, Aston Martin DBR1, Goodwood

BRITISH GP - HAMILTON WINS HIS FOURTH IN A ROW; RICCIARDO'S AMAZING FINISH!

A popular Lewis Hamilton won his fifth British GP in front of Silverstone's adoring fans, but probably the race of the day went to Danny Ricciardo, who had an incredible drive from 19th on the grid to a dominant 5th place.

Lewis is great, but Danny is an F1 world champion in the wings.



Saturday, July 15, 2017

HONDA'S NEW ACCORD - LONGER AND WIDER, NOT COMPACT

Honda sold almost 350,000 Accords in the USA last year, so that makes it good business for the Japanese carmaker; but as compact and small SUVs and Crossovers dominate the market, you have to wonder how much more money will be spent on developing passenger cars.



The 2018 Accord is built on a new modular platform, linked to the latest Civic, but with increased dimensions all around, the Accord looks like it's having a large fries with the Big Mac. It's looking beefier.

However, Honda says it's lighter and stiffer than the previous model.

No V6 option either. Base engine is a 1.5L turbo, with an optional 2.0L donated by the Civic Type R. Transmissions offered in the USA will be CVT and 6-speed manual, but expect to see only CVT autos in Australia. There'll also be a hybrid to keep the conservationists happy.

It's a good thing Honda has invested in the H-RV and the C-RV crossovers, because something tells me we can see the final horizon approaching for passenger cars.

Friday, July 14, 2017

SMALL SOLDIERS. SAVAGE BATTLE

Australia’s small SUV segment has become the battleground to watch, and although volume in that segment for the first six months of 2017 is down on last year by around 6%; the competitors fighting it out for market share represent the most popular brands in the SUV segment.

As Subaru launches its updated XV, it crosses swords with the big boys – Mitsubishi, Mazda, Honda and Nissan. The ‘new’ XV offers lots of benefits in quietness, rigidity and handling, because it’s built on Subaru’s first new vehicle architecture in 20 years – the Subaru Global Platform (SGP) – which is also found on the Levorg and the latest Imprezza.

However, despite a real upgrade to the interior, more interior room and a boost in engine output – it’s got a big job ahead in facing off to the segment leaders.

In order, they are: Mitsubishi ASX; Mazda CX-3; Honda HR-V and the Nissan Qashqai.

The Subaru bests most of its competitors, because of its well-sorted all-wheel-drive configuration, while many of the competition are just Front-Wheel-Drive.


But, although the XV showed itself very capable off road, during a short trek off the bitumen, I’m certain the latest Subaru crossover will mostly be seen in shopping centres.

Then again, there’s a couple of spoilers in the mix. First, and surprisingly, the FIAT 500X, which is enjoying a 78% boost in sales to the half year.

Toyota has also thrown its hat into the ring with its strikingly unique C-HR, which has bolted out of the starting gate. It seems as though the small SUV audience likes the bold design of the Toyota newcomer.


Even five years ago it would have been hard to see the growth which this segment is enjoying now. Sure, the established players were much larger vehicles, but the Australian market shows a definite preference for these smaller urban-friendly crossovers.