Wednesday, May 31, 2017


No doubt about it. The car industry’s dominant hot hatch, the VW Golf GTi has a formidable pursuer, Hyundai’s new i30 SR. True? Yes, emphatically!

Six years of hard grind both in Korea, and Hyundai’s European design and engineering centre, has produced a car which matches its German target in every respect.

Design, performance, comfort, equipment, ride, handling, fuel efficiency, interior fit’n’finish – it doesn’t matter what the competitive target is, Hyundai has sent its arrows to the bulls-eye.

On paper, and in photos the new i30 looked up to the task, and I was very keen to drive it.

Hyundai has produced a benchmark competitor to VW’s highly-respected star.

Not only does it roll into Australian showrooms looking like the goods, but the new i30 also boasts extensive Australian tuning to ride and handling, plus an outback testing program.

Like its Kia sibling, Hyundai maintains a local engineering team, which fettles the cars bound for Australia, so that the production cars arrive ready to tackle our uniquely varied surfaces and road conditions.

Even a relatively short 200km test drive reveals the inherent quality of both design and the finish of the new i30.

I remember clearly, when I worked with Daewoo in the mid to late 90s, I was astounded at the progress the company made, in chasing down European standards of design, engineering and production techniques.

Of course, it would never be a world-beater, given Daewoo’s shaky financial foundations; but the Koreans at Hyundai and Kia benefit from greater financial strength, and a dedicated commitment from the top floor, to ensuring its cars are world class.

There’s only one thing which can stop the Koreans inexorable march to the top of the sales table, and that’s the optics about quality, value and status. Both Hyundai and Kia are very keen to move to the premium end of the status chart, in terms of public perceptions. If they achieve that, then they can successfully justify higher prices for their products.

The problem is that public perceptions take a while to close the gap between “Cheap Korean” and “Worldclass Premium”. It hasn't happened yet.

So, the Koreans have to patiently wait and ‘grow’ those perceptions by ensuring that potential customers recognize a value equation when they’re in the showroom.

I know that sounds like some double-meaning marketing jargon, but what I mean is that the Koreans need to absolutely justify their retail prices, with considerable ‘added value’; but still price below their competition.

The temptation is to move too quickly for the market. I suggest it could take another five years Down Under, before the customers speak for themselves, saying: “Yes, this is as good as a premium European car.”

In the meantime the Korean companies must continue to bolster their dealer support in terms of competitive servicing, warranties and customer relations, because it doesn’t matter how good the cars are, if customers feel they are being treated like people who bought ‘a cheap Korean car’ then the pursuit of premium competitors will founder.

After driving the Hyundai i30, the design and manufacturing side has come up with the goods. Look out VW, they’re comin’ to get you.


Micro cars, at least in the Australian market, are what I call ‘Polarizers’. They either appeal to the youngest buyers; or the oldest.

Young buyers are chasing a low price, new technology like Bluetooth and music streaming, and the latest safety features. Older buyers downsizing from larger cars with all the bells and whistles, are looking for a small, fuel-efficient car, with lots of equipment to make up for the gear they lose when downsizing, and they’re not afraid to pay for it.

So the price leaders go to the young, and the upmarket models, to the older.

Good examples are the Holden Spark LS and LT; the Suzuki Baleno GL and GLX and so on.

I’m mixing market segments here, because the Spark sits in the micro sector, and the Baleno in the small car segment. 

However in reality they are all small, but dynamic performers with impressive safety standards and equipment levels.

The latest Kia Picanto comes to Australia, mid cycle, but the upgrades and refining of Kia’s micro car mark it down as one impressive machine.

It comes in just one spec level, and whilst it may miss a few features, it is basically well-equipped, drives beautifully and is very well-priced.

Next we have another new arrival, and whilst it’s in the small car sector, the new Suzuki Swift is not a million miles away from the micro cars in size. 

What it does is move the goal posts.

In Australia the Suzuki will be offered in a mind-boggling four-model structure, which quite frankly, I think is overkill.

Two models would have been fine, but here again Suzuki is using its residual affection in the market to split buyers away from competitors, by mixing the powertrains and equipment levels across its range.

However, I think the most impressive feature of them all, is their on-road performance, ride and handling, fuel efficiency and safety levels.

All of these manufacturers have turned to the use of high-strength steel for increased rigidity; well-tuned suspensions for precision handling; and an outstanding selection of light and powerful turbo-charged engines.

With one exception, a truly horrible little car - both in design and driveability - The Mitsubishi Mirage. Yes, it's cheap - but it's cheap and nasty. It's main selling strength seems to be a range of gaudy colors, aimed at what car dealers describe as the 'chick market'.

The effort invested by manufacturers in raising the credentials of these micro and small cars is very welcome, and important, whether as a parent you’re looking for a value-packed, safe small car, or older buyers who get all of the aforementioned, and all the bells and whistles.

So, once again, they may be small, but beautifully formed.

Sunday, May 28, 2017


YPSILON as a word doesn’t have a ‘meaning’, in the traditional sense. It ‘means’ nothing. Which is pretty much Lancia’s status in the automotive firmament today.

The little Ypsilon is the last remaining Lancia you can buy, and, as it is based on an ageing platform used by the FIAT Panda and the Ford Ka – it is destined to disappear taking with it one of Italy’s most respected car brands.

It would be easy to ascribe Lancia’s pending demise to ineptitude by FIAT management, after the Italian auto giant swallowed Lancia in 1969. However, the seeds were sown somewhere between the company’s beginnings in 1906 and FIAT’s decision to ‘save’ the company from itself.

Founded by Vincenzo Lancia, the company built its reputation on hand-built cars, which were expensive to produce, and whilst they boasted a range of innovative features, and excellent performance, the poor economics of the business plan was what eventually led to Lancia falling into the grip of the FIAT empire.

Cars such as the Beta, Lambda, Gamma, Aprilla, Fulvia, Flavia, Delta, Stratos and Theta were not only outstanding technical achievements, but also boasted daring and unusual styling themes, plus low-drag aerodynamics.

Motor racing also featured a very notable Lancia - the 1954 D50 monoposto, designed by the famous Alfa Romeo engineer, Vittorio Jano.

In my opinion, Lancia was to Italians, as Citroen is to the French. Slightly quirky, unusual designs, definitely not mainstream, and choosing a Lancia defined you as ‘different’.

One by one the famous models passed into history. For me, a bright spot came in 1975, when I spent two weeks in the brilliant 1.8L Beta sedan.

It was a capacious, great handling, high performance luxury touring car. I featured the Beta in a 2-car MODERN MOTOR comparison test along with my all-time favourite Italian car, the Alfa Romeo Alfetta.

My high point of Lancia driving came with a brief test drive of the sexy Stratos. That was a memorable drive.

But, now to the last Lancia – the Ypsilon.

The word, Ypsilon, is really a description of the ancient Greek letters ‘y’ and ‘u’ and was ‘borrowed’ in 1985 by FIAT Centro Stile to be attached to the successor to the Autobianchi Y10 (right).

The Lancia Y, designed by Enrico Fumia (right), came along in 1995, and was only offered as a 3-door hatch, based on the FIAT Punto.

In 2000 newly-appointed FIAT design director Mike Robinson created the Nea concept car, which spawned the current Ypsilon design theme.

The version I recently rented in Italy was a 2006 in-house re-design by Alberto Dililo, and although it’s still unusual, it is less exotic in its proportions and appearance than some previous Lancia concept cars.

Once inside, the major downside becomes immediately apparent.

It’s tiny, I doubt you could hold a cat, let alone swing it around.

The trunk is so small, due to the excessive taper in the plan view, the tumblehome and vertical planes, that it could not even accommodate our 2 x 64cm suitcases, without lowering the rear seat!

The 1.3L Multijet FIAT diesel is gutless, although it did return fuel economy of 4.3 L/100km. The 5-speed manual is a bit like stirring jelly, but you need to make good use of it on the autostrada.

The Ypsilon is built in a FIAT factory in Tychy, Poland – and the assembly quality is very inconsistent. The trim fit and finish margins were all over the place and a few bits and pieces fell off during the week.

Quality is not the Ypsilon’s strong point – which means it’s not a great option for rental car fleets.

Unfortunately neither lingering, residual respect, nor the fancy Lancia badge translates into any sort of special experience behind the wheel.

I think it’s quite sad to see such a revered marque slowly dissolve into a puddle of oil on the floor.

In design terms Lancia’s history boasts a number of highly talented designers, including Vittorio Ghidella, Enrico Fumia,  and most notable, American Mike Robinson.

Also, many times it appropriated the skills of Bertone and Pinifarina for concept cars.

Its modern day rally successes with Stratos and Delta Integrale were impressive; the D50 racing car of the 1950’s was a brilliant combination of Lancia and Ferrari qualities; and Lancia was the first modern car company to introduce a smooth, production V6 engine.

So, as we departed Bellagio to Malpensa airport it was farewell to the last Lancia, a humble little hatchback, representing a mere hint of the marque’s great, lifetime achievements.

Saturday, May 27, 2017


After less than four months contemplating what it will do with a huge facility in Germany; and an existing range of Opels and Vauxhalls, it is looking certain PSA Groupe has virtually decided that the current range of GM-conceived cars will finish at the end of their current cycle plan.

During my recent trip to Europe I reconnected with my network of informers to catch up on the latest in the PSA-Holden saga.

Such a decision means for Holden, that its new models which will follow the re-badged Opel Insignia and Astra, will be French designed and built.

Apparently, PSA Groupe has decided that it is simply too complex trying to ‘grandfather’ the GM models into its future lineup.

The most practical solution will be to terminate the current Insignia and Astra, so that PSA can forge a new range of modular platforms to serve the Peugeot and Citroen brands.

Work was already well underway on the successors to the next generation Peugeot 508 and Citroen C5, and the PSA Board is poised at a critical point of finally deciding to kill off the GM cars, in favour of its own concepts.

For Holden, this is bad news and an even bigger PR nightmare, as it faces a future with an ‘orphan’ range of German-designed models, which will last just one generation, plus, maybe, a facelift..

Probably the only good news from all of this is that the buyers of the 2018 Holden Commodores will have a unique car for their garages.

A future classic? I think not, just another dollop of detritus resulting from carnage in the car world!
Classic Commodore? Maybe not!

You read it here first! Even Holden suits in Melbourne are unaware of these automotive industry machinations.

The reason for these critical decisions is that despite splashing the cash on acquiring GM Europe’s operations and current production; PSA Groupe itself is not exactly flush with cash. Peugeot and Citroen sales, both domestic and global, are patchy and barely holding up, and capacity at its own facilities are grossly under-utilised.

This means that with the addition of the Russelsheim facility in Germany, PSA is capable of producing many more cars than it can possibly sell, so some severe rationalization has to occur, especially in light of any plans to expand its output in China.

The result will require significant commonisation of platforms, powertrains and models – which leaves the German-designed cars out in the cold.

Remember, one of PSA Groupe’s most important backers is the Chinese company, Dongfeng.

However, whilst it may hold an interest in PSA, Dongfeng is certainly not one of China’s biggest, or financially strongest, automotive companies – meaning all of the partners in this mélange of motor car companies are slightly shaky.

So, Carlos Tavares has a huge challenge on his hands balancing future model development, boosting sales, creating efficiencies, and realizing an acceptable return on investments.

No pressure then!