Tuesday, October 31, 2017


In 1995 I was invited to Seoul, South Korea, by the VP of Product Development for Daewoo Motor, Ing. Dr. Ulrich Bez - whom Daewoo Group Chairman, Kim Woo Choong, had poached from Porsche AG, to develop four brand new cars.

With what are now known to have be very dubious financing and loan arrangements, Kim Woo Choong had acquired GM’s majority interest in Daewoo in 1983, in order to create an independent Daewoo Motor.

In addition Kim Woo Choong also built a huge corporate empire, called Daewoo Group, which included civil engineering, ship-building, construction machinery, computers and electronics. Daewoo Group, almost overnight,  became one of South Korea's most influential and powerful 'Chaebols'.

Dr. Bez and I met at the Daewoo Design Forum. He wanted to reveal to me four new model concepts, which were planned for launch in 1997 – and he was eager for external, non-Korean feedback on the cars.

The four new models were to be called Lanos, Nubira, Leganza and Matiz. The Lanos, Leganza and Matiz were all designed by Ital Design.

Lanos revealed traces of Giugiaro’s 1995 submission to Honda for the Honda Civic; whilst Leganza was simply a scaled-down version of the Kensington concept car, which Ital Design had presented to Jaguar in 1990.

However the design of the Nubira was contracted to Italy’s I.D.E.A Institute, simply to see what a competing design house would produce.

The Nubira clay was a stylish, completely different take, from the Giugiaro-designed Lanos and Leganza.

Nubira was a very attractive, innovative, and efficient package, with exceptional interior space given the modest exterior dimensions.

Power came from a 1.6L twin cam four cylinder GenII engine, manufactured in Australia by GM-Holden and mated to a Daewoo-built five speed manual; or the GM-supplied 4T-40 automatic.

The brand-new Kunsan plant in which Nubira was built was one of the most modern facilities in the world at the time, and the quality at end-of-line was very impressive. Less than 5% of cars which came off the line required any sort of rectification.

The suspension design was a product of collaboration between the program manager in Korea and Daewoo’s Technical Centre in Worthing, Sussex. The chief engineer for suspension was a former Lotus suspension specialist, and the end result featured components which were surprising for a mass market sedan, including a Panhard rod which resulted in a very well-controlled ride and handling compromise.

I drove a Nubira prototype extensively at the Millbrook Proving Ground in Britain during a Daewoo ride and drive program in September 1996, and was very positively impressed with its competent handling.

In fact, given different circumstances, I think Nubira (with capacity increased to 2.0L) could have formed the basis of a very successful racing sedan, such was the competence of the handling developed by its ex-Lotus handling specialist.

Nubira J-100 (top) and J-150 (bottom)
Because of its GM links, Nubira was based on the GM J-car platform, and appeared in two forms before Daewoo Motor collapsed. The original car was codenamed J-100, and the facelift car, with significant improvements was the J-150.

The closing of Daewoo Motor may have resulted in personal disgrace and jail for the founder, but the vehicle programs were admirable, competent and surprisingly sophisticated – which I attribute to the technical oversight and expertise of Dr. Bez.

Ulrich Bez’s BMW/Porsche experience mirrors the impact which ex-Audi designer Peter Schreyer is having today on the cars from Hyundai-Kia.

Daewoo (Chevrolet) Lacetti hatch and sedan
Beyond the J-150; there was the General Motors-influenced J-200, badged as the Lacetti. The hatch was designed by Ital Design, and the sedan by Pininfarina. They introduced a range of body/chassis refinements, but were also the very last cars to carry the Daewoo badge.

We must no longer consign Korean cars to the ‘pretender’ box. They are world-class, benchmark cars, deserving of respect and consideration when making choices. They are solidly designed and built, reliable too, and I’m sure will deliver impressive durability.

Given the fact that the next generation of personal transport is such an unknown, married to the fact that you may need to make a decision today on what to buy – then Korean cars deserve to be in the mix.
They represent good value, and integrity, and if you can overcome badge bias, they will deliver long term satisfaction. Do you want anything more?

Friday, October 27, 2017


Now answering to dictates from its new Chinese owners; trying to respond to its heritage as ‘the world’s safest cars’; building in enough luxury to compete with Audi/Mercedes/BMW/Jaguar; and sticking on badges that say ‘All Wheel Drive’ like Range Rovers; whilst advertising twin-charged engines with Polestar-like racecar performance.

This is a very confusing mish-mash of mandates from which to develop a mission statement. Plus Volvo now tells us that all its cars will be exclusively powered by electric motors from 2020!

What is going on in Gothenburg?

Just exactly what IS a Volvo today?

I think there’s been far too much sweating in saunas, and then rushing outside into the snow to beat each other with birch boughs!

Actually, I secretly admire this bunch of Swedish sauna babies – they are survivors! 

When my friend, designer Peter Horbury took up the Head of Design post at Volvo, he told me quite emphatically that Volvo had a strong, sensible, innovative and individual culture which infused their thinking on all facets of car-making.

Volvo is nothing like Saab, they are completely different cultures. Saab was populated by a bunch of innovative, independent, automotive miscreants; while Volvo is populated by grown-ups, who know a lot about making cars for worldwide consumption. That is distinctly different from Saab, which seemed to exclusively concern itself with Swedish car consumers’ tastes, and preserving its kinky personality profile.

Which one's still here? Volvo, that’s who. Still based in Gothenburg, still preserving jobs for Swedes, but now with the financial backing of Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, it seems supercharged to face the uncertain future of the car business.

All this meandering around the subject of the Swedish survivor is prompted by this week’s motoring in a Volvo XC60 wagon.

It’s the 'almost top-of-the-line' T6 model, with a 2.0L four cylinder boosted by both a supercharger and a turbocharger – mated to a slick Aisin 8-speed automatic and all-wheel-drive courtesy of Borg-Warner. The XC60’s off-road capabilities might not quite be on a par with Range Rover, but hey, it will easily amble up and down some of the steepest slopes on my off-road test track very surefootedly.

So what is the XC60? Is it a Range Rover-like bush-basher; or a luxury shopping trolley?

Actually it competently handles both tasks, and once you’ve become an owner you will appreciate many thoughtful touches in the interior and its general performance and economy.

Most buyers in this segment will be shopping XC60 against Land Rover Discovery Sport, and Range Rover Evoque, and in the end the final decision will probably be the deal you negotiate – because all three of these competitors are equal in design, performance and visual appeal.

Here's a snapshot of the segment from the YTD September VFACTS stats.
This XC60 will sell well, because its  forerunner has been Volvo’s most successful wagon. The original XC60 was launched in 2010 and as of this month production volume will exceed one million vehicles. The superseded XC60 accounted for 30% of Volvo’s global sales.

It’s also defying the trend where vehicles sell strongly at the start of their life, and then sales slowly decline as it ends production. Volvo says the original XC60 is selling better now than when it was launched. Seems the Swedes are on to something with this package.

There’s no reason why the new XC60 should not continue the trend. The base model is priced to compete, right on AUD$60,000; but the car I’m driving is the top-of-the-line T6, twin-charged model with AWD, and it’s just over AUD$78K.

However, it performs well, handles well, crashes through the bush with ease, and features some interesting tech, as a prequel to rapidly-advancing autonomous vehicle design.

If you read DRIVING & LIFE regularly, you’ll know I can’t give a toss for all this intrusive tech; self-driving cars; lane-change avoidance; and adaptive cruise controls – but Volvo has delivered a very impressive package of this new-fangled stuff, which means it’s already a key player in the emerging technology.

If you’re impressed by this sort of thing.

Me? Couldn’t give a damn. I’ll be pushing up daisies by the time this stuff becomes the norm.

Just give me Apple CarPlay and I’m happy – and in that department the XC60 delivers.

However, based on my first drive, I think it would be a difficult car for me to own. 

It's the memory seat system. This really is a pain in the backside, because it’s got two problems. Apparently when the Swedes are designing seats they must assume that in Sweden a 95 percentile human is 2m tall!

When you get in the car, the seat moves back so far, that yours truly (who is just 162cm tall) can’t reach the brake pedal, to press it, and be able to start the car!

Then there’s the seat memory. According to the on-screen owners’ manual, you simply set up mirrors, seat and steering to suit; press the ‘M’ button until the warning light illuminates, and you get between 1-3 seconds to press the M1 button! Okay, let’s try that. Nope. As soon as you press the ‘M1’ button the seat reverts to the settings for the previous 2m-high Swedish male, for whom the system was obviously designed! Which means every time I got in the car, I had to reset seat, mirrors and steering. Back to the drawing board boys!

Volvo joins the world of modular architectures, by basing the XC60 on a shortened XC90 platform. Actually, the system is called 'Scalable Product Architecture' (SCA), and allows total customisation of all platform elements.

Overall, the XC60 is a very pleasant car to drive. You may have to wring the engine’s neck to get Polestar performance, but the 8-speed Aisin transmission is well-calibrated, and you do get paddles to make it all more fun.

The central touchscreen is a design tour-de-force, despite the fact that its OS is the very ancient Windows CE platform. Apparently Volvo will soon switch to Android OS.

 Aaron, my Volvo tech guy, said just think of it like an iPad, complete with horizontal/vertical swiping, and it’ll all become easy to use in no time at all.

The dash features Volvo’s version of Audi’s active dashboard, and works well, but what I really liked was the ‘overhead’ view of your parking manoeuvres on the central screen – it’s brilliant tech!

The Volvo XC60 is a competent competitor in this crowded SUV market over AUD$60K; but it’s clear evidence the Swedes are going to fight hard to remain both relevant, and revolutionary – and that’s a good thing for the carmakers and the consumers.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

'D' is for Design

Before I write about my drive in the new Alfa Romeo Giulia, I would like to revisit some recent Alfa Romeo history, by way of my own car, the delectable 159.

Looking back over recent sedans, one of the most significant cars for Alfa Romeo was the 164, which was conceived as part of the multi-company Type Four program – shared by FIAT, Alfa Romeo and Saab.

The 164 was designed by Enrico Fumia of Pininfarina, and was built on the platform common to the Saab 9000; FIAT Chroma and the Lancia Thema.

The 164 was followed by the 166 (Tipo 936), designed by Alfa Romeo’s new Director of Design, Walter de Silva in 1996. In total the 164 sold 273,857 cars – however the 166 failed to catch on. Despite its svelte shape, it has to be registered as a disappointment.

De Silva then designed the 156 in 1996, which was built at the Pomigliano d’Arco facility outside Naples.

It won the European Car of the Year in 1998.

The ill-fated GM-FIAT joint venture in 2000 was a chance for both companies to develop cost savings in purchasing, engine and platform development, and some crossover between the production design divisions. However, in 2005 there was a messy divorce.

One major benefit for FIAT occurred however, when GM offered FIAT the 'Premium Platform' it had developed for Cadillac, Buick, SAAB and Vauxhall. In fact none of those companies wanted the so-called ‘Premium Platform' – because the interior package was tight, the platform was heavy and internal cost was too high.

One aggressive concept, tagged 169 (right) emerged, but was quickly discarded.

The problem FIAT faced was a lack of money to fund an original (and unique) platform concept for Alfa Romeo - eventually deciding donor platforms from FIAT would have to suffice.

The raw truth is that Alfa Romeo simply never made a profit, by internal accounting standards, and as much as there was a desire to see the marque recover the lustre it boasted throughout its history, there simply was no justification.

The prospect of the GM 'Premium Platform' was manna from heaven.

Walter de Silva had by then moved on to head up design at Volkswagen’s SEAT division, so FIAT turned to Giorgetto Giugiaro’s Ital Design to create a shape for a new car to replace the 156, which was to be codenamed Tipo 939.

The 939 is larger than its predecessor at 4660mm (183.4 in), some 225 mm (8.9 in) longer than the Alfa 156; 1828 mm (71.9 in) wide, and 1417 mm (55.7 in) high.

Giugiaro's design had a slightly 'faster' windscreen angle than 156, which created problems with the interior package, but the Project Manager decided to compromise for the sake of a more flowing external design.

Once the final decisions were signed off, work began immediately and the Alfa Romeo engineers were thrilled to be developing a 'unique' Alfa Romeo.

Paolo Beneggi was 939 Project Manager, and Carlo Fugazza was Head of Platform for D-E segment (159, 159 SW, Brera and Spider). 

Like the 156, the 939 was made at Pomigliano d'Arco, under the strict management of Alfredo Leggero.

(Beneggi continues to work for FCA Group; Fugazza retired, and Leggero is now Head of Technologies for FCA).

The main problem with the Tipo 939 was always its weight. According to a conversation I had with Giugiaro’s son, Fabrizio, he said it was about 200kg too heavy. However, the program proceeded, despite the breakup of the GM-FIAT joint venture, because FIAT wanted the 156 replacement on the market as soon as possible. Soon prototypes appeared at the Balocco test track.

The 159 debuted at the Geneva Salon in March 2005, to widespread acclaim.

In 2008 Alfa Romeo developed its own weight-saving program, which included changes made to the interior, dashboard, instruments and materials, and aluminium components were introduced, which reduced kerb weight by 45 kg (99 lb).

Two of the 159's most public roles was, firstly, as chase cars for the 'baddies', in the opening sequence of the James Bond film 'Quantum of Solace'.

Also, they were a very common sight as patrol cars on the autostrada for the Carabinieri.

The 159 was a very successful car for Alfa Romeo, with more than 240,000 cars built between 2006 and 2011.

The Giulia was intended as the logical successor for the 159, and FIAT asked both Ital Design and Pininfarina to contribute design ideas for the new car.

However, by the time the discussions were held Ital Design had been acquired by Volkswagen Group; and the last remaining Italian carrozzeria – Pininfarina and Bertone – were essentially out of business.

The Giulia was designed in-house by Alfa Romeo Centro Stile, led by Head of Exterior Design, Allesandro Maccolini (right).

Fabrizio Giugiaro told me 159 was a ‘personal and passionate project’ for him, and his father, and they remain intensely proud of the result.

I still consider the surfacing on the 159 as one of the finest-ever examples of Ital Design’s work.

My own 159 now has 90,000km and apart from regular servicing, tyres and fuel, has cost me nothing! Perfetto!