Tuesday, October 30, 2018

A-CLASS ACT

Mercedes-Benz is enjoying a new renaissance, which began with overhauling its entire range, and started (as far as I’m concerned) with the new C-Class. I have a real soft spot for this car, and I still think it's the BEST conventional sedan that comes out of Sindlefingen.


It’s the right size, it looks great and it rides and handles exceptionally well. I think designer Robert Lesnick has achieved a great combination of proportion, styling cues, and a truly contemporary shape. Despite the appearance of other new models following the same themes, the C-Class will be Lesnick’s enduring legacy.

Of course the design operation at Mercedes-Benz is directed by Gordon Wagener, but it’s when you get down the studio food chain to the lead designers, Robert Lesnick’s name pops up a lot. He’s a very talented designer.

Mark Fetherston (left) and Robert Lesnick with GLA clay

So, moving on to the latest new model, the new A-Class, in this instance the lead model, the A200. Comparing the new W177 to the outgoing W176 you may see little change in the overall shape, but it’s in the details that this new car is such an outstanding design success.

The lead designer already has a great track record in this compact class. It’s Englishman, Mark Fethersten (right), who was also responsible for the CL A sedan, and the GLA.

The new W177 points well, rides with great aplomb, and handling and grip is excellent. The steering is beautifully weighted, and the wheel boss has something new for you to get used to - touchpads on each horizontal spoke.

There's also a Lexus-like touchpad at the rear of the centre console, but unlike the Toyota version this one is easy to use, positive to touch and make correct selections on-the-move.

But there's more, inside boasts a major addition, and Mercedes-Benz call that MBUX, which embodies everything from instruments to entertainment and information, in a smart rectangular shape which can be manifestly modified for the driver’s specific needs. Goodbye instrument clusters as we knew them, welcome the new age of graphics-driven info delivery.

The greatest impact of the new design is clearly at the front, where the intersecting edges come together. 


Along with a variety of tasteful material choices, the new cockpit design is also a masterclass in sophistication. Pegged as a competitor to Audi’s A3, and BMW’s 3-Series, I think the A200 provides a palpable difference in design, performance and comfort when lined up against its competitors.

I think the A200 could be the most pleasant compact driving experience I have enjoyed so far this year.

This car will be built in both Mexico and China, and in the A200 the 1.3L turbocharged four-cylinder was co-developed with Renault. The 7-speed Dual Clutch Transmission is provided by Getrag.

Like many of the small-capacity turbocharged engines that are turning up these days, the A200’s delivers a sprightly 120kW @5500rpm, and a staggering 250Nm of torque from just 1620rpm. The performance in this base model is more than acceptable, that is until you load up with four adults, and the strain starts to show.
Gottlieb Daimler signature etched into the windscreen is a great piece of one-upmanship

However, with its slick MBUX interface Mercedes-Benz is clearly chasing tech-savvy millenials – and they will love it! There’s a SIRI-like “Hey Mercedes” personal assistant which has great AI properties, which will ‘learn’ commands and preferences over time.

A Class is an important model for Mercedes-Benz Australia, selling around 5000 cars last year, a 10% improvement over 2016, for an average 30% share of its segment over the past few years.

The only impediment to the W177 racing away from the pack is a steep price increase (around AUD$3000), but M-B will explain that away to prospective buyers by focusing on MBUX, and the new interior ambience.

In Australia the A200 starts at AUD$47,200, but the car in this post has options bumping the price to AUD$57,650!

When you analyze your basic motoring needs, it’s hard to say you need anymore car than the A Class for single person mobility. I could certainly live very happily with the A200.


Friday, October 26, 2018

I'M STILL LOVING IT!

Yes, I know it's a Toyota ad tagline, but it's very appropriate after one week's ownership of my new KIA Cerato Sport hatch.

Without being ridiculous, this is everything I wanted in a new car - modest purchase price; solid reliability; long warranty/capped service etc; and a pleasure to drive.

The reality of my motoring today is around the 'burbs of Australia's Gold Coast, not track days, interstate blasts, nor tempting fate with the plethora of speed cameras.


I could dream about owning a Bentley Continental GT coupe; or an Aston Martin V8 Vantage, but the responsibility and cost of ownership is just too much - not to mention I'm short of the 'readies' to buy anything that exotic.

On that basis the Cerato is the perfect package.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

RAGTOPS IN HAVANA

About seven years ago I wrote about efforts by the Obama administration to lift some of the sanctions on Cuba, which I speculated may allow Cubans to update their personal transport - rather than keep a lot of old Detroit clunkers on the road

Read the post here:
http://www.drivingandlife.com/2011/01/new-cars-for-cuba.html

This week, my good friend Hans Tholstrup, who visited Havana sent me this photo of a range of ragtops parked up in the Cuban capitol.


The cars are still old, though not as old as some, but there's no doubt that Cuban vehicle restorers, mechanics and spray painters have elevated their work to the status of an art form.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

LA MIA PASSIONE ALFA ROMEO

I have been raving about my Alfa Romeo 159 since acquiring it in 2009. First, because I could achieve a lifelong dream, to OWN an Alfa Romeo, after a long corporate career of assigned company cars and used cars.


Second, because I was able to buy the car which suited me (bad left knee, difficulty driving manuals), a 1.9L diesel with Aisin 6-speed auto painted in beautiful Rosso!

Okay, so it's not a classic, but that doesn't matter to me. I wanted a contemporary, reliable, medium-sized Alfa Romeo which handled like all Alfa Romeos should - and my 159 fulfils that dream - perfetto!

Also, after just over 95,000km it hasn't cost me a cent, apart from regular servicing, fuel and tyres!

However, I have decided that since my driving experiences in Alfa Romeos have been quite varied, I would pull together collages of the models I've driven - all of them memorable for one reason or another, to share with you.

My first international experience happened in 1976, when Autocar Editorial Director (formerly Sports Car World editor), Steve Cropley and I, borrowed an Alfasud Giardinetta from the Alfa Romeo press fleet.


We drove from Rome to Ventimiglia to attend the F1 GP in Monaco, and then returned the car to Arese, near Milan - a round trip of almost 1000km. That got the juices going.

Also, it was perfect for the trip because we were both lugging around enough baggage for our three week trip to Italy and the UK.


Mind you, it was two years earlier, in Australia, when I enjoyed my introduction to the marque after an extended two week road test of an Alfetta 1.8L sedan that really converted me into a 'pretend' Alfisti. That rear transaxle setup provided great front-to-rear balance, and you could push it into corners with undaunted confidence.

Aah, bellissimo!



When the Alfetta GT coupe model was launched I could not wait to get behind the wheel. Mechanically it was supposed to be the same car as the sedan, but it seemed to be more nimble, and it was better-balanced when cornering at speed. Great fun!



I was Editor of MODERN MOTOR magazine from 1972-1977 and drove a variety of Alfa Romeos in Australia and Italy during those years, some from private owners, and others from the Alfa Romeo press fleet in Milan.



Of this collection above, probably the most memorable was the Montreal (left, centre) - what a beast - fabulous!

From the group below, I think the 166 (top left) was the only one to disappoint. It had more performance than the 156, but it's handling was too soft, and sloppy. They dropped the ball on that one - but, after all, it was intended for the U.S. market.



So, my passion been directed to my 'current squeeze', the 159 for the past nine years.






However, my Italian love affair has come to an end, with the departure of my beloved Alfa Romeo 159 to the big wholesaler in the sky. As the car continues to age, parts availability and pricing is a big issue, especially when living on retirement dollars, so whilst the car is in great shape, now is the best time for us to part company.

Right now the head rules the heart so I will acquire a new car with a long warranty, regular gasoline, and a solid reputation for reliability and excellent operating economy.




Friday, October 5, 2018

JAGUAR XJ-220 - VISION ACHIEVED?

I have a very intimate connection to the XJ-220. Thanks to my very close friendship with Jaguar’s Chief Engineer, Jim Randle, a man I admired and respected. I spent a lot of time with Jim, and with his family.

Many automotive luminaries have criticised some of his ideas, but he was a ‘Jaguar Man’ through and through – and his integrity was unquestioned, and that was what I admired most.

On every business trip to Coventry I always managed to set an appointment with Jim, usually late in the afternoon, so we could chat in his office, and occasionally take a walk around the Experimental Department to look at what his team was working on.

I know, I know – what a privilege. To see projects that were years away from realisation because of the trust created between us as colleagues and friends.

In April 1987 on a visit to Jaguar HQ’s PR department I got a message that Jim Randle wanted to see me at 5:30pm in the Experimental Department.

When we walked through the various body-build areas, we entered a ‘back room’ and I saw a covered prototype.

Jim whipped the covers off a plywood body ‘buck’, to reveal the basic outline of the Jaguar XJ220.

He then explained to me what the project was; how it had come about; and that he hoped to unveil it on October, 18, 1988 - Press Day at the British Motor Show, held at the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham.



Given the state of the prototype I thought this was very ambitious timing, until Jim explained that it was an ‘after-hours’ project worked on by a team called ‘The Saturday Club’ – made up from a team of volunteers who worked on the 220 at every available opportunity, especially weekends.

The following year I visited the Experimental Department two nights before the British Motor Show, when Jim showed me the finished prototype.

I have to admit I was quite emotional at the time – not only because of the exclusive access to the project, but also because of the impact it had on Jaguar, and everyone associated with the company.

History records that the unveiling was a really big deal in Britain, and Jaguar received 1500 applications over the next few weeks, for the planned production of 350 cars.
Jaguar Chairman Sir John Egan, with Randle at the NEC on Press Day.

Of course, a depression-like recession hit the world shortly after and Jaguar only ever made 275 cars. Some of the remaining cars, which did not have a name against them were a bit hard to move, so Jaguarsport (run by TWR) used the ‘C’ version (top) in competition, including Le Mans; and an ‘S’ model which was a faux-racer (centre).

And, in 1983 Jaguar Cars North America became involved in the ‘laugh-a-minute’ Jaguar Fast Masters racing program at Indianapolis Raceway Park – which managed to smash up a lot of aluminium-bodied XJ-220s (bottom) every weekend for six weeks, just for TV coverage on ESPN2.



As far as I’m concerned, the only positive thing that came out of that program was that I got to drive one of the race cars at Nazareth Raceway in Pennsylvania, on a media day, promoting the Series.

For me, the most interesting facet of the entire project was the decision by Tom Walkinshaw to replace the 7-litre V12 Jaguar DOHC engine, in favour of a 3.5L twin-turbo V6.

Tom said the V12 was too heavy, and the V6's improved power-to-weight ratio would better serve the car’s performance targets.

The Jaguar diehards were devastated, but for me the more fascinating background was the origin of the V6 engine (above), and I have quite specific intelligence on this issue.

In the 1970s I was on the editorial staff at MODERN MOTOR magazine, and we followed developments at Leyland Australia very closely.

In 1972-73 the engineering team at Leyland Australia was working on a replacement for the 'very-average' Morris Marina, and had created a project called P82, for which the engineers had developed a V6 engine, by cutting two cylinders off the V8 engine used in the large P76 sedan. The P76 engine itself was a derivative of the Rover 3.5L V8, acquired from Buick!

The development of the V6 engine was very well advanced in 1974, when BL Limited sent a brash young executive, called David Abell, to Australia to, among other things, announce Leyland Australia would cease activities as a full vehicle manufacturer, and instead become an importer of virtually the entire catalogue of Austin-Morris-Rover-Triumph-Jaguar models.

After the announcement was made, Abell sold off the entire Leyland Australia site to the Australian Government, and then made sure that the results of every single engineering program was packed into containers and shipped back to the UK.

The V6 engine prototypes, drawings, castings, and associated production equipment ended up at BL Motorsport at Abingdon, which was managed by a ‘colorful’ personality, called John Davenport.

To cut a long story slightly shorter, the V6 engine became the basis for the very successful powerplant in the MG Metro 6R4 rally car (right), developed by BL Motorsport.

I’m going to quote from the Wikipedia entry regarding the rest of the V6 story, as I know it to be accurate:

TWR purchased the rights to the V64V engine from Austin Rover in 1989 and developed a completely new turbocharged engine, codenamed JV6, under the auspices of Allan Scott, with proportions roughly similar to the V64V, and suitable for sports car racing.
As the V64V was originally naturally aspirated, it was necessary to redesign all parts of the engine to accommodate forced induction. A few of the changes included increasing the displacement to 3.5 litres, strengthening the internals and adding two Garrett TO3 turbochargers.
The JV6 engine would first be used in the JaguarSport XJR-10 and XJR-11 racing cars; its compact dimensions and low weight also made it an ideal candidate for the XJ220. 

Because of its V8 engine origins, the engine had a 90° bank angle, four valves per cylinder and belt-driven double overhead camshafts. It shared a number of design features with the Cosworth DFV Formula One engine.

The V64V engine chosen had a short but successful career as a purpose-designed racing car engine. It had been modified by Cosworth engine designer David Wood for Austin Rover Group's Metro Group B rally car, the MG Metro 6R4. The redesign work necessary to create the Jaguar/TWR JV6 engine was undertaken by Andrew Barnes, TWR's Powertrain Manager, and also involved Swiss engine builder Max Heidegger, who had designed and built the race engines used in the XJR-10 and XJR-11 racing cars.

Max Heidegger
The XJ220's V6 engine had a bore x stroke of 94 mm × 84 mm (3.70 in × 3.31 in), dry sump lubrication, multi point fuel injection with dual injectors and Zytek electronic engine management. The engine was manufactured with an aluminium cylinder block and aluminium cylinder heads with steel connecting rods and crankshaft. In the standard state of tune, it produced a maximum power of 550 PS (542 bhp; 405 kW) at 7,200 rpm and torque of 475 lbft (644 Nm) at 4,500 rpm.
TWR insiders will quietly admit that the Leyland Australia prototype V6 can be originally traced back as the origin for the V64V engine, but will also tell you that eventually the engine used in the XJ-220 was a bit like ‘grandfather’s axe’ – it had had a number of ‘heads and handles’!



The story of the XJ220 is the stuff that would be ideal for a novel, given the multitude of personalities involved, and their separate agendas. In the meantime, I am confident that none of my colleagues on the Jaguar Cars Board had any idea of this technical skulduggery, or, at the time, even the existence of Project XJ220!



Wednesday, October 3, 2018

MAZDA MX-5 - IT'S AUTOMATICALLY A SPORTS CAR

This week I was confronted, or should that be ‘affronted’, by an MX-5 with a folding metal roof and an automatic transmission.

I am something of a traditionalist, so my choice of MX-5 would initially be a ragtop, with a manual transmission.

So, here's a 2.0L engine; a 6-speed auto and folding metal hardtop. What sort of a sports car is this?


I’ll tell you – it’s great. The Mazda auto is a torque-convertor type, with steering wheel paddles, and it’s as smooth as silk.

As far as an audience is concerned, I can see this car being a real favourite with women in southern California, with a penchant for speed and handling, but the option of a closed roof; or wind in the hair.

It’s all about the numbers.

This car may appeal to many fewer people in Australia, but its real target market is southern California (or Florida), the home of the slush-box, and the comfort of a cool/warm, air-conditioned cabin.

The design also helps preserve expensive hairdos as well.


The RF (retractable folding roof) is about 50kg heavier than the roadster, and the suspension settings are stiffer – there’s also a lot of road noise from the Bridgestone Potenza tyres, which are all contributors, I think, that could actually limit this car’s appeal to women.

However, the PR Manager for Mazda North America tells me that the RF is very popular with women.

However, despite all this I’m pleased to report the RF has not relinquished one iota of the MX5’s famed agility and feedback to the driver.


Both models are responsive, and one benefit of the auto version I rate highly are the gearshift paddles, which quite frankly I think makes cars more enjoyable to drive quickly, than stirring a manual.

The MX-5 RF auto is about AUD$45,000 – but its competition are all priced in the same region, it’s just a matter of personal taste.

Monday, October 1, 2018

PANAMERA 2018 - OR, HOW TO SQUASH THE LIFE OUT OF AN SUV!

There was always been 'talk’ of a four-door Porsche, but many Porsche enthusiasts, who detested the 924 and 928, figured Stuttgart’s vier Türen Paket (four-door package) would be an ungainly lump.

Such a concept labeled as a 928 4-door, named Concept H50 (right), was designed in secret in 1987, but surprisingly, only revealed at Pebble Beach in 2012. Ugh!

Then of course there was a private attempt way back in 1967 (bottom). It was by two American designers, Dick Troutman and Tom Barnes from Culver City, CA, who cut up three Porsche 911s and created their own 4-door concept, using original ‘front doors’ for the rear, which utilized the original front door hinges, so they opened as ‘suicide doors’. Again, Ugh!

The question was how do you fashion the design concept, shape and styling subtleties of the famed 911 into something harmonious with the brand values? 

At least in terms of appearance? Because power and performance would never be an issue for the engineers at Zuffenhausen.

In 1988 my very good friend Dr. Ulrich Bez was charged by Porsche management to develop a four-door concept, which he did, and the 989 was styled by Porsche’s chief designer, Dutchman Harm Largaay (below).

I think it was very attractive, but Ulrich Bez left Porsche in 1991, and the project was cancelled in 1992.

I think I’m on the same wavelength as most students of automotive design when I say that when the first Panamera appeared in 2009 it was, at least from the rear view, butt ugly.

It was not a cohesive design, as the 911-ish front end simply did not marry well with the rear hulk, it had a big fat bum!

I believe the first Panamera was designed by Grant Larsson, but one problem was that the-then CEO demanded there be enough headroom in the rear, so he could wear a hat! Really!


So the first Panamera (above) appeared in 2009, and although a lot of Germans bought their first Porsche four-door, the Americans shunned it.

Fast forward to 2018, and this new car looks to me like a Cayenne which has been squashed flat – good thing too, should happen to all SUVs if you asked me.

There are some similarities with its SUV sibling. The Panamera is endowed with pure Porsche performance; it has four doors; a flexible and practical interior plus AWD - but it stops there.

The new Panamera has a beautifully-resolved rear end - design flares, taper, rear lamps, lines that when flowing forward match beautifully with a front end very reminiscent of the 911.


Although, another of my very good designer friends, Automobile Magazine's design columnist, Robert Cumberford remarked in his review: “It’s still no beauty, but at least it’s not a beast.”

Okay, so it looks better, and it goes well, as you’d expect. I’m not going to go into the numbers.


The Panamera Turbo I drove went like the clappers when the right switch was activated, and whilst it cornered like on rails wearing its Continental Contisport tyres, there was a lot of tyre noise, and as other testers have suggested, maybe the 20 inch wheels with more rubber will be quieter.




However, as the owner spends all their time inside, it’s the cabin that stands out in this 2018 redesign. It’s quite a spectacular combination of pure Porsche Design; contemporary approaches to trim materials and finishes, and as up to date as any modern-thinking Porsche fan would choose.


The other thing is that you sit very low in the car, which heightens the sense of speed over the ground, but what I didn’t expect (along with ALL the bells and whistles), was its sheer practicality.

In the same vein as another VW Group product, the Czech Republic’s Skoda Superb, the rear hatch is humungous, and reveals a very useful rear compartment.

With the seats lowered it offers up 1300 litres of carrying space.

But, how would it look visiting Bunnings or Home Depot hardware stores on Saturday morning? Quite stylish I expect, and the envy of everyone enjoying a sausage sizzle.

BTW, this new Panamera will share its platform and architecure with the latest Bentley Continental GT coupe.

After powering around recently in the Maserati Levante SUV, with the Maserati staff assuring me it was really a ‘sports sedan’, let me tell you I’d have this Panamera Turbo in my garage anytime. It’s the real thing!

We should talk more about the design process, later on.

Mind you, I’m not quite sure where I would hustle up the AUD$465,000 to acquire the test car!