Thursday, 28 January 2016

What Goes Around Comes Around -Audi Brings Back The Baby Benz

LET ME describe an evolutionary loop I have been pondering, beginning with the Mercedes-Benz 190E. With surfaces and architecture from the C111 concepts, the 190E appeared in 1984 without precedent in either concept or aesthetic. 

Such were its exquisite proportions and tight styling, Ford brought one into the studio when they designed the four-door Sapphire saloon based on the Sierra. (Let us pause for moment to recognize the irony that Ford, who insisted on the Sierra’s polarizing soft shape for minimized drag, should use the chiseled 190E for inspiration.)

Meanwhile, in 1988 Audi begun developing the first A4. Moving away from the banded tail-lamps that had appeared before the A-prefix, Audi used the Sierra estate when benchmarking for the A4 Avant, which appeared in 1995. Both put stacked lamps outside of the bootlid, within a soft corner and plenty of metal between it and the glass. 

The following year, the Audi A3 was introduced. Although the tail-lights gained a slanted top edge, the influence from the Sierra estate remained clear. Neatly, I always thought, the first A3 had a little notchback serving as a gentle reminder of the other saloons in the Audi range. 

The 1990’s were a time, remember, when Nissan Primera’s, Opel Vectra’s and now Ford Mondeo’s offered either four- or five-door varitaions of the same model. It was crucial to Audi’s move upmarket that those slanty-backed 100s and 5000s, nevermind their strong association with aerodynamics, were consigned to the past. Emulation of top-of-the-range saloons was key. Even Suzuki had a go with the Baleno which sought to emulate, rather fancifully, the E38 BMW 7-Series.

In the 2000’s, 4x4s ditched their wellies and donned trainers to become SUVs in Europe, whereas China still favoured saloons. And as the Audi A4 moved upstream, the A3 was afforded room to grow. The A4 is now (quick internet search) over 4.7m long, just 50mm shorter than the first A6, and the new Audi A3 has sprouted a boot and grown to 4.5m –about the same as the Audi 80 that the first A4 replaced.

I rather like the new A3 saloon. There has been one parked outside my flat recently, and I always shoot it a glance when passing. Black, five spoke alloy wheels, tan leather interior, and of course that lovely dashboard. There is a clever surfacing trick between the rear wheel-arch and the shoulder, where the fender double-backs on itself for both a wide shoulder and a wide arch. Look at a typical section of a car, and it is something of a staircase where each crease makes it ever wider. The A3 is more of a zig-zag, bringing the same drama to narrower restrictions. 

Audis have become rather too formulaic of late, so this kind of detail adds some much needed intrigue. It is the perfect example of a Goldilocks car. Not too big, not too small. Premium without seeming ostentatious. Discrete, but holds your gaze when you see one. Just like the Mercedes 190E.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Anything For A Quiet Life -Finding The Perfect Family Car

IF YOU had asked me at any point over the last six months which family car I intended to buy, you would have had a different answer every time. The job is a familiar one, but the winning candidate must balance a disparate variety of tasks. Nursery runs, trips to Ikea, drives across Europe and space for a couple of adults and a couple of child-seats, maybe more. Scaling up or scaling down the bearing of any of these criteria will give you wildly different answers. A Ferrari 456GT would whizz self across the continent, but forget picking up furniture. I daresay a Volkswagen Up! would carry offspring to nursery, but that is like taking vitamin pills instead of eating food. I need a bit more luxe for my money.

In the build-up to any big purchase, the anticipation is to be savoured. Everything seems possible, and the distinction between an idea and a decision is deliciously obscure. Countless hours were spent on used car websites, made all the more tantalising because a new arrival in the family meant I actually had to buy something. It all started with the G-wagon. A big, blocky, go-anywhere car built to outlast your grandchildren. But considering the criterion of long-distance travel, wind noise and comfort relegates this to impractical curiosity.

Next up, a Land Rover Discovery. A couple of friends swear by theirs, but it really is a big car, and for our budget we would have to compromise on mileage and the older engines. But that didn’t stop me looking at Range Rovers. If ever there were a Porsche 911 of off-roaders, the Range Rover is surely it. From three doors to five, short wheelbase to long, the cab-back short front-/long rear-overhang proportions have remained unchanged. Today’s Range Rover introduces a whole host of new technology and lightweight materials, and design director Gerry McGovern has slicked it back too, making it the first Range Rover to be so stylized. In this way it reminds me a little of the 996.

The previous Rangie was different. It was the 993 of off-roaders. The design pure, the character defiant, and from inside low windows offered an unmatchable atmosphere. It truly is one of the great designs. I remember meeting one of its designers when it first came out, and he described it as an off-road Bentley. This was an avant-garde idea at the time. Fifteen years later Bentley has gone ahead and made one of their own with the new Bentayga. Rolls-Royce will soon follow.

But a family car is not bought to validate design judgement. It has a job to do. Back to Mercedes, and this time the enigmatic appeal of the W124. I once drove a 500E, and found it extremely impressive as a story, but space was tight, performance rivalled by today’s turbodiesels and the electrics are liable to overheat. I still gape each time I see one, but that Porsche-engineered story isn’t quite enough to compel. Four seats only rules it out, plus, sadly, the exquisite first generation CLS. Sanity ruled out a Maserati Quattroporte.

Let’s try the S124 estate instead. This has to be one of the finest proportioned cars made. My wife made the excellent observation that it was a big Fiat Panda. Put the two side-by-side and one has to acknowledge the similarities. The surfaces are a little fuller on the big Merc, but those clean lines and exquisite details mark both out as intellectual superiors. Certainly one could buy an S124 for less than half the price of a contemporary car and be sure to get something almost as smooth, reliable and comfortable. Many weeks were spent trying to justify it, but fuel consumption, surpassed safety and missing Isofix tethers are strong points against it. In the end buying a twenty year old car to last another twenty years didn’t quite make sense. Neither did a Panda.

The fact a S124 was even on our list is remarkable. It is very easy to get caught up in details when comparing today’s Passats/Mondeos/Mercs, when all we really needed the car to do is what our Peugeot 505 and Austin Montego estates had done thirty years before. For every time I found myself musing that a facelift was worth the extra money, I countered that pretty much anything would be at least as good as our Peugeot 505 was in 1988. Half an hour was even spent looking at 505s –getting scarce, y’know.

The hunt continued, and inevitably when one searches for a big estate, Volvo must surely find its way onto the list. I am going to have to regurgitate the Porsche analogy. The V70 is the 911 of estates, bearing immediately recognizable and unique proportions that have been carried through several generations. We found a black D5 AWD from Monaco and came very close to buying it. That five-cylinder engine has so much character and power, and the seats fabulously comfortable. My wife absolutely loved it, so we tested a more frugal, newer version with integrated child-seats, and went away to think about it.  But I couldn’t quite shake something that my boss said. Volvos are great, but buy one and you are getting technology that is fifteen years older than BMW or Mercedes. As I pawed the controls and heard the various bongs of safety warnings, I did wonder.

And then Dieselgate. The emissions scandal enshrouding Volkswagen made me realise that the era of diesels is over. Not just yet, but certainly within the lifetime of our car. In Europe, only Britain has a steeper levy on diesel than petrol. Others will surely follow. And as NOx now enters the parlance of the population, so voters will demand tighten controls. True, hauliers and more than 50% of drivers use the black pumps, so change will be gradual. But the day of electric hybrids is fueled by petrol, not diesel, and it comes ever closer.

Change the search term to petrol, and a whole new world of possibilities opens up. BMW in particular offers petrol cars with fuel consumption bettering diesel Discoveries and Volvo XC90s. And then there is the refinement. I had almost forgotten how much nicer a modern petrol engine is to drive. No shake on start-up, or shuddering centre-consoles at idle. More linear power. It is the more modern experience. Getting into a diesel afterwards is just a little bit uncouth.

So we found another Mercedes, the W212 estate. A big, simple Labrador of a car that is utterly undemanding and does the job without fanfare. Fantastic seats, nimble steering and a colossal boot helped too. There is something wonderfully calming about following that three-pointed star at the end of the bonnet. Knowing you can never catch it means one never tries, and the car assumes a more gentlemanly gait. Mercedes used to boast that the heart-rate of their drivers was lower than those of any other marque. It is a quality not to be underestimated: the Mercedes-Benz E-Class is our new family car.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Letter To The Editor

A letter what I wrote a couple of months ago in the wake of the VW emissions scandal. I didn't send it.

Thursday, 7 January 2016

On The Wings Of A Dove

CONSIDER A dove and pigeon: genetically they are identical, yet one is a symbol of hope and freedom, the other of dirt and disease. Cynics argue that a Volkswagen Golf and an Audi A3 are identical, and that there is no need to pay more for the Audi, yet Audi manages to convince enough people to pay the extra. 

Just as we don’t judge either bird’s ability to fly in consideration of their image, so the image of the Golf or A3 depends little on its ability to travel. Comfort, safety, space, security, quality, reliability: these are the pragmatic considerations of car ownership. But the first reaction that defines one’s favour is the way it looks. This is the value of design.

Would The Real 911 Please Stand Up?

IN THE garage downstairs there are three 911s: an '87 Targa, a '99 996 Cabriolet and a 997. Caught between the 993 and the 997, the 996 has been overlooked for not being a) as original as its predecessor and b) not being as good-looking as it successor. Yes, there were quality concerns, but the looks have plenty to do with the low prices too. Lets discuss why they should be set to rise.

We live in an entertainment society, so said J Mays when promoting his concept of retrofuturism. You didn't have to go and reinvent the wheel with a new design, just lean on the past and let the feel-good factor carry you through. 

Watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit years ago caused some feel-good when Jessica Rabbit appeared on screen. Such exaggerated features where shorthand for desire. Hold that thought in your mind as you look at the 991 now: that coke-bottle body has little to do with the grand-daddy 356, and more to do with over-blowing a pastiche. I don't want the rationale to cloud was is ostensibly a desirable shape, but that ought not mean that the 996 with its straighter bodyside be demeaned for sticking closer to the original 1963 formula.

Ah, the original formula. Remember the debate over air- versus water-cooled. How aficionados dismissed superior technology. There are always two camps when it comes to change: those who like the last version of any model because it represents the ultimate in its evolution, and those who take the earliest of the next as it represents the start of a new paradigm. Old-guard 911 fans favour air-cooled versions, and those looking for muscular modernity leap straight to the 997. 

So lets talk about the 996. Fried-egg lamps, Boxster-ties and water-cooling. Three features any other 911 doesn't have to think twice about: it was always going to be an uphill fight to win the crowd. Lets take them on one at a time. 

Sunny side-up: Yolks. Hard to come by now. Every new car has fully incorporated the indicator into the headlamp unit, sitting behind the same cover. Not much chance for graphic distinction, more a swathe of albumen. Consider those fried-eggs as a swan song, a feature that ties the car to its age. Far from being egg-like, the orange indicators remind me of the time when they sat separately on the bumper, before daytime running lamps took over.

Boxing clever: With the recent launch of the spectacular GT4 the Boxter/Cayman combo has established themselves as iconic model in their own right. From being joined at the hip twenty years ago, the Boxman and 911 have evolved into two distinct model lines. The 996 has had the association loosened, while the GT4 gives the current 911 a run for its money.

Water, fool: Driving a Mercedes 380 SLC, I'm aware of the attention garnered by the grander 5.0 V8 version, which introduced aluminium hood and roof and trunk deck. This appreciation is correct. Technology and progress has always brought about keener interest in cars that use them. Except the 996. Now it is simply recognised as progress, while at the time it was simply considered change. What typically singles a car out for classic status is a uniques feature, often borne of innovation.

The 996: the true successor of the '63. But I'd still rather have a flat-nose.

Great Expectations: Waiting For The Apple Car

LET IT be known that designing cars is largely a retrospective activity. Only when the competition moves on do we realise the short-comings of our own products and areas for refinement. We rely on marketing to tell us how other cars are perceived by the customer. These, cars that were conceived four or five years ago, used to direct cars that still have another four years to become a reality. By the time a car is launched, the opinions used to forge it are nearly a decade old. Still, when the whole industry does it, no one seems to mind.

Tesla slapped the car industry in the face. Soon it will be Apple's turn, if the rumours of an Apple car are to be believed. Tesla staff have been wooed to the big Apple; personnel from Daimler, too. It wouldn't be too far fetched to imagine that Marc Newson's recent appointment to the orchard has something to do with wheels. Newson, of course, was responsible for the superb Ford O21C, a concept developed in tandem with Ford that eschewed the conventions of automotive design language. That Newson is so adept at detail design too makes him the ideal candidate for a product as complex as a car.

So what will it look like? How will it differentiate itself? How will it operate? These are just some of the questions being asked by established car companies as they come to terms with this invisible threat. Even if they knew the answer and what a likely retort might be, implementing it would require another loop of marketing feedback. Knowing, or not knowing, what the Apple car will be is purely abstract: it will invariably be a revolutionary product. It has to be. Apple is under pressure to use its $150billion liquid assets to increase shareholder return.

Aside from the overall form, one of the biggest differences will stem from an idealist design culture conceived under Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive. They will, I imagine, have dictated what they want, and find a way to make it -a far cry from other companies bound by platform-sharing and marketing appraisal. Volkswagen Group might have a competitor in cut-line quality and flush glazing. The interior is probably a little easier to imagine that the exterior, and one marked change must be interior quality. A comprehensive interface is surely a given, mixing voice, touch, and analogue controls. The analogue will be most interesting; already the Apple Watch shows how a classical form can be reinterpreted in an intuitive manner, and the materials used for the bracelets give some clue at least to the taste, if not the breadth, of the interior fabrics.

With so much talk around the Californian collection, notably Tesla, Google, Faraday Futures and Apple, it is worth mentioning the efforts from Europe. In the smooth-as-a-pebble Citroen C4 Cactus, Citroen has found what must be the most Apple-like car since the Ford O21C concept, while BMWi perseveres with establishing tangible sustainability as a core component by which cars a judged, not to mention the extraordinary powertrains. The Volkswagen Up! is a modern day Giugiaro Fiat Panda that has as much to do with industrial as automotive design.

Then there is the matter of cost. How can smart-phone wielding twenty-somethings on zero-hour contracts make the leap to car ownership? You can expect a new take on vehicle leasing for a start, paying per usage with guaranteed buy-back values so that only the difference between new and used is paid for. Costs will also be saved by the dealership network -alone enough to turn an industry on its head. Forget about showrooms. The car will be the centre-piece in Apple stores (why not suspended behind glass?). Order on-line and they will bring to your house. When something goes wrong, they will replace with a new one, all your customised settings automatically transferred.

There are some things out of Apple's control. Like stone-chips. Like bird-droppings. Like scrapes from a shopping trip. It is one thing protecting your iPhone in a pocket; quite another thing to leave a car at the behest of its surroundings. Much of the appeal of Apple products is that immaculate first impression: expect their cars to feature self-healing paint at the very least. This is expensive, and it will make it very hard for competitors to offer options like this on their own products at a price-point already accepted by the customer.

The biggest question by many is what it will be like to drive. There are three answers to this. First, and most obviously, you won't be doing all the driving, the car will. Autonomy, stupid, provided Apple's legal eagles can get the law to bend their way. Google has: no interface, no lawsuit. Answers two and three depends on how ambitious Apple is willing to be. The conservative answer it that it will drive just fine. Planted, safe, responsive; all those things marketing has divined from public consultation. But this assumes the car behaves only in one way. The third answer I'm hoping for is that the Apple car will feel exactly as you want it to feel. Imagining downloading an app that makes the car feel like a Lotus Cortina. Or a Duesenberg. Or a Cadillac Seville. The better your driving, the more options open up. Cars are already so variable in their dynamic set-up, that imitation of another product is surely only a matter of time, performance limited only by what the powertrain can achieve.

Ah yes, the powertrain. Apple is brilliant at producing products that consume energy; not so hot at providing energy. If Apple really wants to succeed, they must take note from Elon Musk and consider how to cleanly match the energy demand of their cars. Then it becomes a land-grab as corporations buy up acreage to meet demand using wind or solar energy. BMW, it is worth noting, uses energy from a hydroelectric powerstation in its manufacture of i cars for zero carbon footprint.

I suppose the final point is how one product can satisfy a global market of varying road-widths, people-size and preferences. Answer is: there will likley have to be more than one Apple car. A Nano, perhaps? Wait -Tata beat Apple to it. At this rate, Samsung might well do.too.

Saturday, 25 July 2015


A SLIGHT lag in new posts, loyal readers: my apologies. Normal service will resume soon.

Thank you for waiting.