Monday, 31 December 2007

2008 Wish list – a few more things

Time to finish the New Year wish list with a few final ideas:

Visit the Geneva Motor Show – The Geneva show is possibly the most prestigious motor show and with cheap flights isn’t as expensive to go as you might think. If this wish doesn’t come true I have only myself to blame. Need to get my skates on and book.

Drive more cars – At the start of each year I wonder what I am going to drive. Keeping up with the latest and best new cars is a difficult business – with any luck I’ll manage to borrow some press cars in 2008. I’d like to have a go in the Fiat 500 and the Renault Laguna coupé with 4WS (although that might be due in 2009).

Get published more often – it is a bit of a chicken and egg situation but hopefully the more cars I can drive the more saleable features I’ll generate and the more stories I can get in print the more likely it is I’ll be able to borrow press cars from the manufacturers.

Drive a Bristol up the Fosse Way – don’t know how likely this is but when I drove up the Fosse a couple of months back I wondered how nice it would be to do the journey in a decent car. I could practically hear the thrum of the Bristol’s BMW-derived 6-cylinder engine and see the view over the curvaceous bonnet. Or would I prefer the hushed progress and generous view from a later V8 Bristol? Better try both I think.

All that remains is to wish you a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.

Sunday, 30 December 2007

After the journey

The BX and I survived the 300 mile round trip to see my family over Christmas. It was not, by any stretch of the imagination a pleasant journey but it was an instructive one. The backache that sets in after 15 minutes gets no worse and is soon forgotten at the end of the journey. The engine feels perfectly happy at 70mph and even for occasional stretches at 80; Citroën claimed the BX14 could do 100mph and it feels like it still could. The vibrations through the steering past 80 were enough to put me off trying; at some point I must get the front wheels balanced. Cruising at 70-80 is also an expensive business as I estimate the fuel consumption is no better than 32mpg at those speeds, staying between 60 and 70 is much more economical but does increase journey times. I also checked the speedo accuracy against the emergency telephones (roughly 1 mile apart) and at 60 I would estimate the speedo at about 5% fast. On the homeward leg of the journey I cot caught in a traffic jam and I discovered that my car does not like extended periods of ticking over and crawling along. The idle speed starts to fluctuate and pulling away feels erratic. When I opened the driver’s window I could smell petrol so I wonder if the carburettor needs adjustment.

Monday, 24 December 2007

The long road ahead

I’m feeling a little apprehensive, I’m about to do a long journey in my Citroën BX – the first really long journey since I bought the car. I know it’ll happily go at motorway speeds but it sounds a little frantic. I’ve also discovered that, without the height adjustment of my old BX, the driving position is less than comfortable. If I end up with a chronic headache and backache at least I’ll know why.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

It is good to be back in the driving seat

At last my car is fixed. It is a salutary experience to go without the use of a car for an extended period. Nothing quite prepares you for the sheer inconvenience of depending on friends and on public transport. Only when I am without a car do I truly appreciate the freedom the car brings. When I am reunited with my car I remember why I find it so irritating to be told that the car is a bad thing. Maybe in a large city car-free life is possible but living in a village and working in a small town it is very difficult. Shopping posed the greatest difficulty, the local shop is limited in what it sells and while there is a good butcher and a greengrocer the queues on a Saturday morning are quite off-putting. You can’t go shopping before work because the bus leaves before anything is open and the shops close before the bus brings you back. And if you miss the bus it is an hour to wait for the next one.

Having the car seen to by a professional mechanic (and PGS in Warwick are very professional in the way they work) also highlighted a few things that I will need to attend to in due course. The exhaust system is showing its age here and there, as you would expect given a past history of short journeys; the battery might be on its last legs; the oil needs changing as will the cam belt. I would add to that list a desire to get the suspension geometry checked (there is evidence of uneven tyre wear), the wheels might need balancing and I need a new steering wheel as the one on the car is breaking up. At least with the tyre pressures set correctly the steering has lost some of its weight and the wobble is reduced.

It was tempting to go for a long drive but there will be plenty of opportunities for lengthy journeys in the next week.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Number crunching

The British digital television channel “Dave” shows, amongst other things, repeats of the BBC’s motoring program Top Gear. I was watching one of the repeats today, the episode where a Bugatti Veyron and a Cesna light aircraft race across Europe. The Veyron has a power gauge to show how much power is being used at any given point. The presenter observed that at 80mph the Veyron needed only 50 of the 1,000 or so bhp to move it along.

It made me think; 50bhp isn’t a huge amount of power but is it more or less than ordinary cars need for a typical motorway cruise?

Exact figures are hard to come by but I looked at a selection of cars with about 50bhp and also with top speed around 80mph. The Chevrolet Matiz has 50bhp and can do 90mph; the Fiat Panda 1.1 has 54bhp and can do 93mph. You have to go back many years to find cars with top speeds in the 80mph range. In 1966 a Ford Cortina needed 63bhp to do 82mph; by 1970 a Hillman Avenger could manage 81mph on 53bhp although the Citroen GS looks like it was ahead of its time by doing 93mph on 55bhp.

I’m not sure if this proves anything except that it takes less power than you’d think to drive at motorway speed.

Friday, 14 December 2007

2008 Wish list part 2

No Gears

With the end of the year rapidly approaching you can be sure that lots of retrospective views of 2007 are being readied for publication. Rather than look back (which I will do) I would rather look forward and think about some of the cars I’d like to drive in the next year.

Once upon a time I owned a Ford Granada with an old-fashioned 3-speed automatic, which worked well but could have used another ratio. At the other extreme I once borrowed a Land Rover Defender which had ten possible gear ratios by combining a 5 speed gearbox with a low-ratio transfer box. On the road such low gearing was no use but on the whole you can never have too many gears. The greater number of gears the easier it is to keep the engine working either at speeds that offer the best mix of performance and economy (or the best of either if you prefer).

There comes a point where increasing the number of fixed gear ratios becomes impractical. Some Mercedes have 7-speed autos (and they seem to work well) while Lexus have an 8-speed transmission in the LS-series but how far can this strategy go? There must come a point where either the Van-Doorne or Torotrak transmissions, with steplessly variable gear ratios between fixed limits, become a smarter choice.

The logic behind such transmissions is persuasive, the engine turns at a steady speed and the transmission adjusts the ratio as the car accelerates. Eventually the transmission finds a point of equilibrium where the power supplied by the engine is matched by the power necessary to maintain a steady speed. At anything less than top speed the transmission will adjust so that the engine is turning as slowly as possible in order to maintain a steady cruising speed. Steady speeds are not really what I am interested in; I want to know how the transmissions cope with transitions, from cruising speed to acceleration, stopping and starting. A transmission without fixed ratio steps also promises to be an interesting aural experience; it is the one thing that nearly everyone dislikes about stepless transmissions and I want to see how I feel about it.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Heroes and Villains 2 Peugeot 406 V6 coupé

Looking back over cars that have made an impression, whether good or bad. Some cars have lived up to my expectations, some cars have disappointed. A good reputation or a prestigious badge is no guarantee of hero status.

The Peugeot 406 coupé is probably my favourite of all the cars I’ve never written about. I liked the shape which was no worse for containing elements of other car’s styling. The way bonnet, windscreen pillars and front wings merged reminded me of the Toyota Soarer. There was a faint echo of the 1968 Dodge Charger in the slightly recessed rear window.

What I enjoyed about the 406 coupé was that it was fast and surefooted without being in any way harsh or “sporty”. Every road test I’ve read criticised the 406 for over light steering but I prefer response to weight and in that respect the steering was fine. In fact every control was beautifully responsive without being hard work to operate. The only disappointment was the gear lever, which had that slightly loose, floppy feeling that seems to be a Peugeot family trait. In a 206 that is fine but in a £30,000 car I would expect the lever to move with a well-oiled precision and without slop.

One flaw could not spoil my enjoyment of the car. Overall the 406 had an air of class; it felt well made, the leather seats were very comfortable and the driving position felt more coupé than saloon. Given the good impression the Peugeot made I feel almost embarrassed that this is the first time I’ve actually written anything about it.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

2008 Wish list part 1

Jaguar XF

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With the end of the year rapidly approaching you can be sure that lots of retrospective views of 2007 are being readied for publication. Rather than look back (which I will do) I would rather look forward and think about some of the cars I’d like to drive in the next year.

Top of the list is the Jaguar XF, and I’ve stepped into the deadly trap of falling for the car purely based on how it looks and the badge it wears. It is a dangerous position to be in; if I like it, how do I know it isn’t because I am under its spell; if I do not, is it because I was simply expecting too much?

The most appealing aspect of the XF is the interior and particularly the rotary control knob for the automatic transmission. It is such a simple, yet sensible idea that I’m surprised no-one has done it before. The console in which the knob is set looks like a work of art – although it does remind me of the consoles fitted to American muscle cars of the late 1960s.

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Jaguar XF console

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Plymouth GTX console, can you see why the Jaguar makes me think of this?

Sunday, 9 December 2007

To be a motoring writer…

If you want to become a motoring writer you need certain qualities. The hide of a rhinoceros and the patience of a saint are probably foremost. More often than not you’ll have people saying “no” and, if you are lucky, “sorry” as you try to sell your ideas and work to editors. What you also need is an endless reserve of ideas that are both brilliant and simple. Driving a Ferrari down from the UK to Monaco to see the Grand Prix would make for a great feature but not simple. Unless you own one, you’ve got to borrow a Ferrari; you need tickets for the Grand Prix itself and hotel accommodation – unless you can somehow persuade someone else to pick up the tab.

Then again I’ve had the germ of an idea which could be brilliant but which does hinge on a co-operative press office. If I succeed it’ll be a first for me, it is nerve wracking but if you don’t try you never get anywhere. I’ll let you know how I get on.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Heroes and Villains 1 – BMW 325i e30

It is time to look back over cars I’ve driven that have made an impression, whether good or bad. Some cars have lived up to my expectations, some cars have disappointed. A good reputation or a prestige badge is no guarantee of hero status. Most of my judgements have been based, out of necessity, on a single car. I understand the limitations of this method and therefore no judgement is final. A bad car can rise in my estimation but equally a good car can fall from grace.

First to come under scrutiny is the 1980s icon the e30 version of the BMW 3-series. With smart, square-cut styling; smooth 6-cylinder engines; good build quality and a sporting reputation it was the small saloon everyone wanted. Even now it is held up as a sporting icon.

The example I drove had plenty to commend it. It was nicely made, the interior plastics were clearly a cut above mass-market cars, it had a light and airy cabin, a good ride and a smooth 2.5 litre 6-cylinder engine. What surprised me were the things that were not good. The driving position felt strangely offset, the wheel and pedals were not in line with each other or with the seat. The engine did not feel as though it had 177bhp and made more noise than I expected. The worst aspect was the steering; low-geared and slow to respond; it also grew heavier as more steering was applied which made the steering feel like winching a heavy weight up a slope.

Maybe a 325i with sports suspension and a close-ratio gearbox would feel more like a sporting car. As it stands the e30 3-series is a fine, well-made, quality saloon but I can’t understand how it earned a reputation as a driver’s car.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

I’ll get by with a little help from my friends

As you might remember fourwheelsteer’s usual mode of transport is a Citroën BX – or rather it should be. Just over a week ago a small but vital metal pipe, that supplies fluid to the braking and suspension system, fractured. At the time I didn’t know where the fluid was coming from, all I knew was that it was pumping out under pressure. Thankfully there is an active community of BX owners centred around the website. There is very little the people in the club don’t know about the car. It was a club member who took away my old BX and he (along with the two club members who came with him) spotted the break in the pipe.

Having spotted the faulty part all I need to do is find a new pipe. I contacted my local Citroën specialist mechanic; who was confident that he could make one as long as he could get the right type of pipe. To do that I would have to get my unbraked car with floor-scraping ground clearance to the garage. Citroën specialist Pleiades could also make a pipe if I could measure the length but I would have to bend it to the exact shape. Trying the local Citroën dealers was suggested but they struggled to identify the correct part.

This morning I went out and photographed the offending pipe as best I could. It wasn’t easy as the pipe is buried at the bottom of the engine bay. I posted the pictures on the BX club forum and now have a part number. There is even the possibility that someone in the club might have a spare one.