Tuesday, February 28, 2017


Let’s face it, every carmaker producing compact hatchbacks has one car in its sights as a benchmark, the Volkswagen Golf.

You might even call it the ‘Golf Standard’, and although many of its so-called competitors are cheaper and similar in appearance, it’s the Golf which is the formidable champion of the class.

Okay, so the Toyota Corolla is the world’s biggest-selling hatchback (more than 45 million sold), but that’s a function of Toyota’s huge global market coverage, a much cheaper selling price and also the fact that Corolla had an almost 10 year head start on sales.

At the same point that Corolla’s sales were quoted around 45 million, the Golf had sold around 32 million – so not too dusty under the comparative circumstances.

The first VW Golf debuted in 1974, designed externally by Ital Design founder Giorgetto Giugiaro. The specification was simple, and the quality excellent, and it wasn’t long before a new standard was established.

Just like the ubiquitous ‘Beetle’ before it, the Golf became Volkswagen’s biggest seller in all its global markets.

At the time Volkswagen had begun naming its small and compact cars after various winds which swept across Africa and Europe. There was the Polo, the Golf, the Bora, the Jetta, the Scirocco and the Passat. Golf, in German, actually referred to the Gulf Stream. That was too much for the insular Americans to grasp, so when the car went on sale in the USA it was renamed, the Rabbit.

It didn’t matter, American buyers recognized Rabbit wasn’t as basic and mundane as the Beetle. It was smart, value-priced, reliable and it was ‘European’. Snob value among Rabbit owners was a valuable social tool.

There have now been eight versions of the Golf, and despite concessions to aerodynamics, weight loss, better fuel economy and slightly expanded dimensions for better people packaging it’s still the Gold Standard.

The Golf range has also grown to include three-door and five-door hatchbacks, a wagon and a convertible.

Plus, Golf’s image has also been boosted immensely by the famous GTi model (another Gold Standard car).

Then in the past decade another, more powerful variant, the fast and racy Golf R.

Driving Golf Mk8 I am again reminded why it’s such an important car, and the yardstick against which all small hatchbacks are measured. It’s solid and rugged, with not a rattle nor a squeak. It’s fast, rides and handles better than any short-wheelbase car should, and at the same time it’s economical and practical.

Even I am guilty of judging the compact hatchbacks I drive against the Golf. I have recently driven a range of cars which offer good performance, impressive interiors, sleek styling and competent road manners, and in just about every case they have been cheaper than a Golf; some with very long and generous warranties.

So why do so many people consider the Golf the Gold Standard? My view is that it has simply been lavished with such attention to detail in every single area of the car, on every component, and the way each of those attributes combine to produce the overall experience.

Volkswagen’s continuous line of management, from its Chairmen on down absolutely understand the importance of the Golf to VW, and that its integrity must be preserved without compromise.

That’s what makes Golf such a formidable benchmark.

So I am pleasantly surprised that in recent months and many test drives, in my personal opinion, just one car approaches Golf standards in design,  performance, ride and handling, quality of the finish, materials quality and a feeling of integrity and robustness.

Plus that almost indefinable element, European 'style'.

It's the new Peugeot 308 - Europe's Car of The Year 2014 - it's a class act.

Monday, February 27, 2017


Very few people know that Subaru Australia came within a day of shutting the doors and turning the lights off in the 1980s. An economic downturn in Australia meant sluggish sales and a disastrous exchange rate, until the two men at the top of the company – MD Trevor Amery and marketing boss Nick Senior – came up with a radical plan.

They decided Subaru must become a Japanese premium brand that sold – only – cars with symmetrical all-wheel drive and boxer engines. The TV ad tagline was brilliant - 'All 4 the Driver'.

The plan worked and one of the keys to its success was the Impreza.

The Impreza first appeared in 1992, as the work of Tetsuya Hayashi and Hidefumi Kato. It was originally offered as a four-door sedan and a hatchback-style mini wagon.

Impreza's compact size, ground-hugging handling, all-wheel-drive, and its special tuning potential seemed to be just the car to spark life into the tiny company.

The Impreza has been a winner ever since, despite a considerable drop in quality when Subaru wound back its development spending during and after the Global Financial Crisis, however the latest model is one of the best.

But the car that really kicked the Subaru brand into gear was the WRX – affectionately known as ‘The Rex’.

The Rex could not have been better for competition use – and hotrod tuning for the road.

It had a turbocharged 2-litre engine set low in the nose for a good weight distribution, the symmetrical all-wheel drive from standard, and the compact body that was well balanced, and easy to upgrade.

It was a winner from the start in the Group N showroom class, mostly competing against the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, and was really boosted when the Prodrive organisation in Britain – owned by motoring mogul David Richards – won the factory rally contract and created a series of WRC models with more power, more technology and much more speed.

But, where a road-going Rex was priced in the $40,000 range, a WRX WRC was more like $400,000.

Subaru cashed in quickly with the WRX, mirroring the WRC colours – originally from 555 cigarette sponsorship – into the blue-and-gold signature editions and eventually the quick and bolder STI models with parts from its in-house tuning company STI, for Subaru Technica International.

In Australia, rallying was so good for sales that star recruit, New Zealand's Possum Bourne, got a cash bonus for every delivery sparked by his Australian championship campaigns.

So, what was it like, this fire-breathing giant-killer?

My good friend, Paul Gover, senior motoring writer at News Limited for more than 20 years, has long led a double life as an automotive writer and competitor.

He’s driven everything from Monster Trucks, V8 Supercars and F1 cars, to, you guessed it – the rally-bred WRX.

So I’ll let him describe the experience:

“The first time I went to a rally was in 1972, when Colin Bond was winning in a Torana XU-1, and my first world rally was in 1979 when Walter Rohrl was winning in a Fiat Abarth.

"I also covered the sport through the wicked days of Group A, watching spellbound in New Zealand as Finn Ari Vatanen danced his Peugeot 205 T16 prototype through the forests with Germany's Walter Rohrl in thunderous pursuit in a 400-horsepower Audi Quattro.

"I was lucky to ride alongside some of the aces in these cars, including a landmark lap around the Hockenheim race circuit alongside Stig – the real Stig – Blomqvist in another Audi Quattro.

"But when I jumped in alongside Possum Bourne – his real name was Peter, but he became Possum when he crashed his mother’s car after ‘avoiding a possum’ on the drive home from work – in his WRC WRX, my rally focus changed forever.

"We were in Canberra for a Subaru press event, and a ride in the passenger seat was the highlight. There was a prize for the quickest time in the suicide seat. I went last and Possum looked at me, winked, and said:
"I’ll give it the business." And he did!

"I’ve never been as fast, or as committed in a rally car, as he set out to show me what he and the car could do. We flew over giant jumps, we skidded sideways under brakes and threw walls of rocks under power, and I will never forget one left-right combination through a giant dip.

"Possum flung the car at the corners like he was trying to kill the WRX, refusing to acknowledge the laws of physics. He had thick glasses, and was not the smoothest driver in the world, but he made that car sing and dance.

"A couple of years later he called me to talk about another drive, but this time with me behind the wheel. He was not prepared to risk his WRC weapon but, with Subaru Australia MD Nick Senior’s smiling support, he was offering one of the Group N showroom cars for a rally in Canberra.

"That was good for me, as I’d grown up rallying in Canberra, knew the roads and the slippery gravel conditions, and had scored a few wins. So I was a factory driver for the day, with ace co-driver Glenn MacNeal to call the corners.

"My introduction began with a shakedown run that showed me why the WRX was so good for rallying. It felt almost like the road car, nicely balanced and easy to handle, with plenty of torque and a slick gearbox, but with everything raised a few levels for competition. And, of course, with a giant rollcage and comfy Recaro race seats.

"The highlight of the first day was taking one of my former sports editors for a passenger ride.
“Hey, you can actually do this,” he said afterwards.

"The rally itself began brilliantly. I was fastest on the first stage.
It was a road I knew well, in Blewett's Plantation, and the WRX was doing everything I wanted. It was nimble in the twisties, had punch on the straights, and was fun to hurl through the corners.

"It couldn’t last, of course, because this was a ‘blind’ rally without pacenotes and I had not tackled one of those in 10 years. And I was up against state championship crews who were match fit, and focussed on title results.

"But the car flattered me and my driving, made it easy to go fast without fear, and we stayed with the pace of the lead bunch.

"I have to admit, I wondered more than once what it would have been like to tackle the same event in Possum’s WRC supercar. The straights would have shrunk, the corners would have been tighter, and the challenge would have been tougher, but the buzz would have been off the scale.

"As it was, the car survived without a scratch, we got a top-five finish, and had a brilliant time.

"And now, as we roll into 2017, there is talk of another WRX guest drive at the end of the year, in the car that Molly Taylor – the latest in a long line of Subaru rally success stories, currently campaigns - back in those very same Canberra forests. I cannot wait."


Driving through California for 14 days could be just the thing to rev up old bones and young minds.

An Aussie called Dave Thomas has begun putting together Driving Adventures which operates on a very simple recipe.

The cost is AUD$15,000 for two people and a car. 

That includes all accommodation, and a cooked breakfast every morning; a pre-programmed SatNav; route book; and Dave Thomas as the Tour Leader.

All you have to do is rent a car, and turn up. There are ten places available on the next tour, between May 13-27, and it includes most of the high points you’d want to experience in California and surrounding states.

Renting is easy, for example a Mustang from Budget for two weeks would be about AUD$1,500.

You have to factor in air fares, fuel, lunch and dinner and any other extras; but it sounds like a great way to enjoy a fantastic driving route, with like-minded compadres, and all the loose ends nicely tied up.

You can check it out at www.drivingadventures.com.au

Sunday, February 26, 2017


Something old, something new, something borrowed, nothing blue – all that, and yet the Infiniti Q60 marries all those items into a pretty cool package.

Something old; built on an old concept of Front Engine and Rear Wheel Drive; 

Something new; a spirited 2.0L turbo engine from Mercedes-Benz; 

Something borrowed; the updated FM platform used on the Nissan GT-R and the Nissan 370Z; and

Nothing blue – the Q60 is as red-blooded as a good sports coupe should be.

On paper, this car looked like an overweight price leader with just enough power to get it moving – especially when it measures up as at least 150kg heavier than its main German competitors.
But, don’t just accept the numbers on the spec sheet. Behind the wheel the Infiniti Q60 could join the trio of sports coupes which make up my personal Gold Standard.

Over the past year or so I’ve compressed my sporty coupe test drives down to a short list of three cars, which are now my Gold Standard reference trio.

First is the excellent Mercedes-Benz 300SLC, which marries the same engine fitted to the Q60, with some very Teutonic build quality and great handling.

Then there’s the Jaguar F-type coupe, which ensured my driving experience on Cape Cod was truly enjoyable, matching exhilarating handling with impressive power from the supercharged V6.

And, last but certainly not least the Porsche 911 Carrera S.

In my mind that’s about as perfect as it gets, albeit with a pricetag which would need a lottery win for me to park it in my garage.

But, back to the Infiniti Q60. Based on the specs I feared a ho-hum few days behind the wheel, and a ‘well-it-wasn’t-so-bad’ review. No, no, no!

I truly enjoyed the experience. The turbo 2.0L four cylinder engine used in both the Infiniti Q30; and the Mercedes-Benz SLC 300, was very responsive, with more than enough urge. 

When matched to the outstanding M-B 7-speed (torque converter) automatic transmission, it provided a very spirited driving experience on my favourite Hinterland roads out back of the Gold Coast.

The Q60 perfectly marries the impressive powertrain performance to a very well-sorted chassis and suspension, resulting in a very comfortable touring coupe, delivering both comfortable motoring at sedate suburban speeds, but also agility and precision when you’re going quicker.

I’m not big on writing road tests in Driving & Life, but rather I like to look at the brand values, model positioning and market share. However, the Q60 was a real surprise and delight expeience.

On the marketing front, I still can’t decide whether Nissan should continue losing money on prosecuting the Infiniti strategy. In my opinion Nissan isn’t as committed to its ‘luxury’ brand, as Toyota is to Lexus, and yet despite the borrowed powertrains, and loads of Nissan switchgear and trim features, both the Q60, and my recent experience in the Q30 suggests that given some pumped-up marketing budgets, Infiniti might just bring in some revenue – eventually.

The interior of the Q60 is beautifully designed and trimmed, acknowledging the premium price the Infiniti brand commands.

However, once again the combination of the central driver information screen; and the infotainment screen; and the data panel between the tacho/speedo are marvelously independent and complex, badly designed, poorly executed and just plain confusing.

Some car companies need to spend more time (and lots more money) making sure they can properly integrate their info/media/phone systems into one easy-to-use, intuitive system and single screen.

In this regard, I give a big tick to Jaguar and Audi.

Recently I drove a test car which had the ‘clock’ appearing on three separate screens! None were centrally-controlled, so they all had to be adjusted individually. It’s like the systems were designed by three different teams – who never communicated with each other!

However, although I get upset by badly-executed multiple screens, the Bose sound system was impressive; the seats were outstandingly comfortable and supportive; and the noise levels and NVH were impressively damped.

Speaking of damping, I think that the Q60’s overweight specs may deliver a benefit, because combined with the well-sorted suspension, the damping effect of the (relatively) heavier body smoothed out the ride, and gave a high level of confidence on turn-in.

Yes, I liked the Infiniti Q60, and at AUD$62,000 I think it’s good value for money. If you were in the market for this class of car, then you should have a test drive, along with its competitors. I’d be surprised if you weren’t impressed.