Friday, September 15, 2017


The Suzuki Swift story actually starts back in 1985, with the company’s now famous 1.0L three cylinder engine, which not only powered Suzukis, but a range of minicars produced around the world, wearing other manufacturers’ logos.

An example is the Daewoo Tico – a badge-engineered version of the Suzuki Alto.

The next Swift appeared in 1989, with three engine options, 1.0L, 1.3L and 1.6L – but one thing never changed and that was exceptional fuel economy, and the overall durability of the design.

In Australia the Swift joined the GM-Holden lineup badged as a Barina (left), and quickly won a reputation for outstanding economy and reliability. It isn’t unusual to see Barinas with over 200,000km on the odometer!

However, the big news in the Swift story, was the 2005 debut of a car which sold more than three million models around the world in just eight years.

The Suzuki company is 108 years old this year, beginning as a maker of industrial sewing looms, moving on to record-breaking motorcycles, light commercials, and of course small cars. As I wrote in a recent post, Suzuki just stuck to what it did best – fuel-efficient, well-made, compact and reliable transport. 

However, with the 2017 range Suzuki has moved Swift right into the heart of the highly-competitive small car segment, with a range which not only boasts its aforementioned qualities, but also new driving technology, incredible structural rigidity, and fashionable equipment like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

I’ve never rated Suzuki design as pace-setting – more, workmanlike, but the 2017 cars appear to me to have moved Suzuki exterior design to a new dimension.

The designers took the basic structure of the 2005 version, made it lower, wider and, amazingly, shorter, whilst still achieving incredible interior space efficiency.

Swift comes to market on a new global platform which is incredibly strong.

I’ve just been driving the absolute base GL version, and also the GL+, differentiated really just by equipment levels.
After many kilometres behind the wheel of both versions, there’s no doubt in my mind that this latest Suzuki small car may well push the company towards breaking its own production records.

The Suzuki GL manual is AUD$16,990; a Jatco CVT auto adds another AUD$1000.

The GL+ has more equipment, only comes as an auto, and is priced at AUD$19,990.

The topline GLX is AUD$22,990.
After all the glamourous cars which have been parked in my drive over the last few years, you may wonder about the focus I have on sub$20 grand cars – but these small cars play an important role in the global car market – bringing motoring to the masses.

The top-of-the-range Swift, GLX, has Suzuki’s excellent turbocharged 1.0L three cylinder, mated to an Aisin 6-speed torque convertor automatic and quite frankly this is the best powertrain package, in terms of performance and driveability.

All other models use a 1.2L naturally-aspirated four cylinder, with twin injectors per cylinder, but quite frankly, despite fuel efficiency of 4.6L/100km, I find it not only a bit wheezy; but it feels poorly matched with the CVT automatic.

Perhaps using the 1.4L engine offered in the base Baleno might be the answer, because the 1.2L/CVT combo in the Swift is constantly ‘hunting’, especially at higher freeway speeds and undulating roads.

Or maybe it’s just a recalibration job.

One thing stands out particularly, and that is the inherent strength of the new Swift. It almost feels as rigid as a seam-welded rallycar. This has great benefits in steering precision, and the overall handling. The new Swift is very surefooted, and that’s an important aspect for young drivers specifically.

Quite frankly, I feel that the entry-level car, with the 5-speed manual is almost as much fun as my original Mini 850.

It’s a very honest package, and even though it lacks the touchscreen system, it does have Bluetooth and connection for an iPod/iPhone for music.

There's also well-located access points for charging your phone, and a USB socket in the centre console.

I should also mention Suzuki's capped-price servicing package, which is really good value.

If I was charged with selecting a first car, I would be hard-pressed to go past the Swift GL – it’s economical, good value, performs well, it’s comfortable and roomy and, strangely, I think it’s the pick of the pack.

The interior trim quality has been criticized by some toffee-nosed reviewers, but I think it's well-designed, hard-wearing, good quality and practical.

The pricier models do not depart from the basic package, apart from additional software, or ‘drivers’ aids’ as they are now referred to.

Naturally, you get a complete entertainment touchscreen, with Bluetooth, Apple Car Play/Android Auto and GPS too! Plus there's Suzuki's steering wheel-mounted Cruise Control which is very easy to use.

The small trunk, however, passes my test for capacity, because it will accept my two 65cm suitcases - albeit, standing up, with parcel shelf removed.

The Swift is an incredibly well-engineered car, it has an astonishingly good ride, for a car on a short wheelbase, pointing to just how well resolved the whole package is.

If you wanted your young driver to be ‘protected’ then all the (drivers' aids) software works as advertised. However, I think that encouraging young drivers to rely, in fact depend, on software to make up for poor basic driving skills is a dangerous premise.

 Suzuki has a come a long way in 108 years, and on the evidence of its current products, will be with us for a lot longer, as long as demand exists for small cars with high intrinsic integrity and most important, value-for-money.

Saturday, September 9, 2017


Let’s say the essence of design is to stand out, to be above the crowd.

Well, the LC500 (a look-at-me, look-at-me, sort of car) has vaulted high into the dynamic design stratosphere.

This car began as a Californian-designed concept from Toyota’s CALTY studio in Newport Beach, and debuted at the NAIAS in Detroit in 2012.

It was intended to breathe new life into the brand, and heaven knows, Lexus needed something.

A succession of vanilla sedans, which began in 1989 with the LS 400, ensured most of us felt that ordinary, everyday cars were giving ‘conservative’ a bad name.

I think the LF A coupe was a breakaway by some young Toyota tearaways, but I think the LC-LH concept in 2012 shouted that Toyota was prepared to risk its reputation as the ‘Taichou of Hoshu-teki’ and put it out there.

In 2015 the job of taking concept car to production car fell to Tadao Mori at Toyota’s Technical Design Centre in Aichi. Working alongside Toyota chassis engineer Koji Sato, the two young men have essentially refined the concept into a new global architecture for all Toyota/Lexus front engine-rear drive cars.

Koji Sato
Sato calls it a mid-engine platform, because the bulk of the weight of the engine sits behind the front axle line, and in addition to balancing the weight distribution this move by itself allowed Mori to ensure the production car looked as much like the concept as possible.

There is the expected mix of high tensile materials like high-strength steel; carbon fibre; aluminium and magnesium. Exotic and pricey!

The LC 500 certainly stands out on the road, and in the driveway – even in white! I’m not sure I would say it’s a good-looking car, but It’s certainly different to anything coming out of Europe.

The muscular haunches and the broad front section suggest an egg being broken into a frypan – it sort of spreads out across its footprint.

Inside, the cabin design is also unique to the brand, and although it features quality materials, fine fit and finish margins and quality components, for me it’s much too ‘bitsy’.

Wherever the eye lands, there’s a disjointed vision – nothing looks like a smooth linear flow of lines and surfaces.

Also, despite the apparent ‘quality’ of the components the operation of the central command centre is incredibly frustrating and clumsy.

The super-sensitive touchpad and execution button is simply too hard to operate when you’re supposed to be concentrating on driving.

The technology too adds another level of exasperation. Try just simply pairing your phone!

However, when you press the Start button and blip the throttle, all is forgiven. Just the sound at idle, and the howl as the engine spins up the tacho scale says this is a seriously powerful car.

The 5.0L V8 produces 351kW (470hp), and also a suitable ‘bark’ as it snaps through the gears – especially when you have tuned it for showing off, using the mode selector on the left of the instrument binnacle.

The 2UR-GSE V8 has been in service with Toyota in various guises, but this latest version produces maximum thrust thanks to dedicated flow-design work on the cylinder heads by Yamaha. Yes, Virginia, it seems like the whole automotive world turns to Yamaha for the finer things in flow design.

One of Toyota’s marvels of technology in this coupe is the outstanding 10-speed auto transmission. It’s a torque-convertor type, with some truly inspired design and engineering. It produces a higher level of smoothness in operation, and I think is probably the car’s most outstanding and noteworthy technical achievement.

On the road the weighty coupe (1970kg – 4343lbs) blasts off from the standing start with impressive surge, despite a power-to-weight ratio that the European manufacturers like Jaguar, Aston Martin, AMG and M-Sport would think was far too beefy for a pure performance car.

However, the weight, and the massive wheel/tyre combination provides prodigious grip, and allows you to confidently sail into tight corners much too fast for your own good, then save yourself for more fun, by pouring on the lock and pushing the go pedal.

Not only does the LC 500 point with precision, and ooze out of corners with the 10-speeder serving up a beautifully linear flow of oomph, but the steering wheel is a most beautiful piece of design, and great to hold.

Yes, it was fun to thrash about on the twisty bits, and blast off into the distance with the active exhaust system delivering a symphony of sound, but really it’s not for me – this flashy bit of kit.

At AUD$192,000 it’s a big pricetag; but if you’ve got the dosh and hanker after some pure performance and refinement, then for my money I’d strongly suggest raiding the bank account for another AUD$23-Grand and plump for an Aston Martin V8 Vantage.

I would like to put Sato-san into the Aston Martin for a test drive, and see what he says when he’s finished. I’ll bet, if he’s honest, he’d say: “N-i-c-e! That’s what I was trying to do.”

The sad thing for the Japanese pretenders is that the Europeans do it so easily – but then they have had a lot more experience at producing cars which marry performance with panache, and a palpably sophisticated style and execution.

Friday, September 8, 2017


This past week the Australian automotive industry lost the skills and experience of a very capable CEO, simply because he made the right decisions.

What this proved was that a combination of weak management, a severe shortage of commonsense, hubris and lack of flexibility in decision-making is costly – to all involved.

Richard Emery, up until last Friday, was CEO of Nissan Australia He took the job in February 2014, and despite heroic and strenuous efforts by the then interim CEO, to clear excess stock, there were still 40,000 unsold cars sitting at Nissan’s holding yard and on dealers’ lots.

Mr. Emery undertook an urgent and stringent review of Nissan’s Australian operations and made the pragmatic and surprising decision to withdraw all of Nissan’s passenger cars from its catalogue, and focus on the company’s core strength – SUVs and pickup trucks, plus two high profit sports cars.

His experience and his innovative thinking resulted in clearing out the old stock, trimming the company’s cost base, creating a business plan with improved economy of scale and setting up a path to improved profit margins, both for Nissan and its dealers.

Richard Emery’s resumé clearly underscores his business acumen and wide range of experience (and success) in the volatile Australian automotive market – where more than 60 different brands of cars fight for oxygen in a crowded market.

Here’s Emery’s background, and note the relatively long tenure in each of his former roles, which tells me he was valued for his contributions.

CEO Nissan Australia – 3 years, 8 months
General Manager Sales (Mercedes-Benz Australia & NZ) – 5 years, 5 months
Sales & Marketing Manager (Mitsubishi Australia) – 6 years
Regional Sales Manager (Audi Asia Pacific) – 2 years, 10 months
Sales & Marketing Manager (Land Rover Australia) – 7 years

The decisions he implemented at Nissan Australia were aimed at bringing stability, and a robust cost base for a company, which quite frankly, has meandered confusingly for many years prior to Richard Emery’s appointment, apparently lacking real leadership. Its actions confused both dealers and consumers.

I had a unique window into the level of confusion about to occur following an interview I had in 2012 with then current CEO of Nissan Australia, American Bill Peffer – whom I have heard others describe as like a ‘lightweight suit’.

Peffer emphatically told me he saw enormous opportunity for Nissan’s range of cars, and subsequent to that meeting I witnessed a massive increase in numbers, and an ever-widening range. History now tells us that many of those cars were among the thousands which were sold off by Richard Emery’s emergency plans to stabilize Nissan Australia.

Bill Peffer was gone less than a year later, but his decisions lingered on as the company’s costs escalated almost out of control.

Richard Emery had outlined his plans to Nissan’s head office in Japan earlier this year, and while one could assume it was less than pleased with the decision to cut passenger cars, there must have been nodding approval for Emery to go ahead.

Then in June of this year, during a visit to Australia by Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance superstar, Carlos Ghosn, and a review of business plans for Nissan Australia, Richard Emery’s innovative proposals unraveled. Not having been briefed on the shock moves before his visit, Ghosn apparently took umbrage that Nissan’s reputation would be severely damaged by not offering passenger cars in its Australian product line.

One can only assume that Richard Emery’s direct reporting line in Japan chose not to apprise Carlos Ghosn of the extent of the changes Emery charted – allowing Mr. Ghosn to discover for himself during his Australian review meetings.

Last week, Richard Emery, a bright, engaging, energetic and positive executive left the Company, and was replaced overnight by a young Canadian, Stephen Lester, who had been Managing Director of Infiniti in Canada.

It appears that all Emery’s product plans will be undone and rewritten to reinstate passenger cars, and that leaves Lester with the unenviable task of trying to make the new plans work; increase market share; and incidentally, find a way for the company to make money and be profitable.

Good luck with that then.

No-one has ever said that justice has a role in business, but in Richard Emery’s case what makes me sad is that his intensive cost-cutting, his plan to only offer vehicles which will sell in profitable numbers, and his stabilization of the company will bear fruit under Lester’s watch.

However, by the time that happens Nissan Australia will have lost its best chance ever to remain relevant, and profitable, in the cutthroat Australian market.


Keith Crain & Franz-Josef Paefgen
Back in March 2004 my buddy Keith Crain and I were sitting with Bentley Motors' Chairman, Dr. Franz-Josef Paefgen, on the Bentley display at the Geneva Salon.

We were discussing color and trim combinations for Keith's own Bentley Continental GT coupe, which he was just about to order.

The previous weekend Keith and another good friend of mine, Bob Lutz, had spent time tooling around Detroit in one of my Continental GT press test cars, discussing its merits, and its impact on the luxury car scene.

As we looked at a variety of combinations on an interactive display, Keith turned to me and said: “You know JC, this is gonna be a hell of a car to facelift.”

I replied that I thought the Continental GT coupe would be a bit like Range Rover – that subsequent restyles and facelifts would never depart very far from the original shape.

After 66,000 Continental GT coupes have gone to owners around the world since its debut in 2003, Bentley Motors has finally introduced its most serious attempt to date to ‘facelift’ the iconic coupe.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I think it’s a fabulous update, and gives a new edge to the looks, and the performance, while retaining the essence of Dirk van Braekel's original design.
Built on a new platform, codenamed MSB (shared with the new Porsche Panamera), the 2018 Continental GT is 85kg lighter, and it’s 6.0L W12 produces 626hp (467kW), driving through a new ZF 8-speed Dual Clutch transmission. It moves from zero to 100km/h in just 3.7 seconds, and top speed is 333km/h.

However, these are all just numbers. The driving experience is something I am very much looking forward to when the first cars arrive Down Under early next year.

There have been other significant changes under the skin.

The front axle has been moved forward 135mm, meaning the wheelbase is now increased by 110mm, and the car is 50mm wider. Although it remains the same length overall. These changes however have a greater effect on the coupe’s appearance, as much as providing better interior packaging and greater stability on the road.

Styled after the EXP 10 Speed Six concept car shown at the 2015 Geneva Salon, the production car is rumoured to also get V8 and electric powerplants.

Designers John Paul Gregory, Bora Kim and Xavier Domontier worked on the exterior of the concept car; but the final production version was styled under the direction of Bentley Motors’ new Head of Exterior Design, John Paul Gregory (left).

However, I think there have been bigger changes inside the coupe. The new dash looks sharp, and crisp, and the centre display features a 'rollover' design which switches from a 12.3" touchscreen, to three circular dials - very neat.

I should give Keith Crain a call and see what color and trim combo he’ll order this time around.