Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Something published

Before I went to the SMMT Drive Day one of my aims was to try and make contact with someone from the press. I managed, quite by chance, to bump into someone I exchanged emails with a year or two back. As a result I'm working on a car review for him and, in the meantime, I was asked to write a short news piece on the new small Rolls-Royce. Check it out by clicking on the title or click here.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

SMMT 08 – A tale of 2 Renaults

Two cars I was very keen to try at the SMMT test drive day were the Renault Laguna GT with Active Drive and the Clio Renaultsport 197 Cup. Having heard the rumours that Renault were going to be doing four-wheel steering and then seeing the press release confirming how they were going to do it I was eager to try it. With the Clio, I wanted to try a quick Renault hatchback.

Renault Laguna GT with active drive

The Laguna looks impressive and feels good to sit in but comes up short on the move. The first irritant is the steering wheel, which is annoyingly not round. The gear lever feels somewhat loose and floppy, which is how the whole car feels. Four wheel steering works every bit as well as expected but the rest of the car does not invite, encourage or reward hard driving. If the GT suffix usually denotes Grand Tourer the Laguna is rather too much Tourer and not Grand enough.

Renault Clio Renaultsport 197 Cup

If only the Laguna could enjoy the polish and fine tuning that made the Clio what it is – which is to say rather wonderful. True, you sit more on the car than in it and getting in and out of the deeply contoured Recaro requires considerable agility but it puts a smile on your face. Everything about the Clio 197 feels taught and positive, it positively begs to be driven hard and fast – with verve and enthusiasm. Although it feels too high that difficult to enter seat is superbly comfortable and holds you in place perfectly so you move with the car. Somehow this has been achieved without making the Cup unbearable on the motorway.

Friday, 23 May 2008

SMMT Test Day 2008

Last year I wanted to go to the annual Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) test day but I was too slow in applying. This year I was better informed and got my name on the list in plenty of time. As well as providing the opportunity to drive lots of different cars it is a superb opportunity to meet the press officers and press fleet managers and other journalists. I’m sure I could have made more of the opportunities to make contacts but I’m quite pleased that I have made some new contacts.


My day’s driving started with a Jaguar XK8, it was supposed to be an XKR but I wasn’t about to complain. Without a doubt this is a magnificent car, smooth, refined and surefooted. It was a fine way to learn the curves of the Millbrook hill test route and to get a feel for driving round the high-speed bowl. Those test tracks do a good job of replicating country road and motorway driving respectively. There was also a “City Course”, which didn’t feel much like a city but is laid out in a series of tight curves with a couple of speed humps for good measure. I had great fun whizzing round in a couple of Fiat 500s – I fear I may have upset the man from Fiat by saying that I preferred the cheaper more basic model. More than any other car I tested I could see myself actually buying a 500 for my own transport.

Fiat 500

The other interesting pastime of the day was to see what was in demand. Bentley, for example, had 4 cars and by lunchtime all the time slots were fully booked. Nissan was taken aback by the popularity of the fuel-cell concept vehicle and so was Audi for the R8 and RS6 Avant. According to the list of vehicles there were 2 RS6s but only one actually appeared to be in use. The Nissan and Audis were the only cars I felt I missed out by not trying – maybe next year.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

The search continues and other thoughts on a Saturday morning

Up early today to collect the pipe ordered by the Citroën dealer last week. Not the right part, despite what the computer says. They did try to find the correct part but to no avail. Did give me the contact numbers of people who might be more sympathetic to my plight and who might be able to correctly identify the part I’m after.

Another moan about advertising. Last night I saw a BMW advert on television, promoting their Efficient Dynamics system for reducing fuel consumption and all the nasty stuff associated with burning a hydrocarbon fuel. The theme was BMW saying “thank you” for all the things that saved fuel, such as gravity. One of the things thanked was “the stop sign that allows the engine to switch off and save fuel”! Can you believe such a thing! The very act of stopping and starting is incredibly wasteful.

Treated myself to a McDonald’s breakfast on my way home from the garage. In the past I’ve struggled to get these things home without the coffee cup falling over and spilling. Today, somehow, I managed it – despite having a longer journey than I used to. I’d like to think it was down to my prowess as a driver but I wonder if it is down to the soothing properties of Citroën suspension?

A real treat as I drove through my village, 3 vintage cars in convoy. The lead car had the look of a Bugatti and, as it drove past, I could see that the two other cars were also Bugattis. They were all 4-seat open tourers and much quieter than I expected. Two were Type 50s and one, I think, was a Type 40. It is nice to see rare cars being driven, rather than confined inside a museum

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

A blast from the past #3

Two speed supercharging.

There is, as the popular saying would have it, nothing new under the sun. So when I read a press release from Antonov Automotive Technologies proclaiming 2-speed superchargers the way forward I recalled that the idea has been tried on piston-engined aircraft. In aviation the idea was to maintain performance at altitude so as the aeroplane climbed the pilot would select a gear to speed up the supercharger. It was a crude but reasonably effective way to compensate for the thinning of the air.

A supercharger is an air pump and while different types have different characteristics but, broadly speaking, the faster it runs the more air it moves. Antonov’s idea is to run the supercharger relatively faster at low engine rpm to boost low-speed torque without blowing the engine up at high speed. They don’t say this, of course, but that is what it amounts to. The behaviour of the supercharger should be fully automated and imperceptible when driving. The goal is to allow vehicle manufacturers to use smaller engines that are more economical.

I’m not sure how plausible their claims are. Superchargers are not the most efficient means of increasing performance. I’m not convinced by anyone who claims that superchargers don’t have the heat issues of turbochargers. Anyone who has used a bicycle pump knows that compressing air makes it hot, the air isn’t particularly bothered how it gets compressed. Two-speed supercharging is an interesting idea but I wonder when engineering fashion will swing back towards big, engines in low states of tune combined with high gearing – the sort of thing seen with the BMW 525e and Renault 5TS.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Citroën: moving out of the bargain basement?

In the ongoing saga of the hydraulic pipe I ventured bravely to the parts desk of my local Citroën dealer. I am told that owners of old BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes can order parts from the dealer as though they were ordering parts for current models. Of course you need to pay Mercedes-sized prices for that facility. Citroën offer no such assurance but I went armed with a part number and a mental picture of what it should look like. All credit to Murley Citroën of Leamington Spa, they found the part was available and have promised to order it. Maybe one day I’ll be able to drive my car without fearing the sudden loss of hydraulic fluid.

I also noticed that the showroom had a new C5 on display and I couldn’t resist going in for a closer look. It is an impressive looking car; it does have a German look and feel. The doors close with an impressive thunk and the interior is full of handy cubby holes with damped lids. I’m not sure how much praise I want to lavish on the C5 as I still feel betrayed by the absence of self-levelling, oleo-pneumatic suspension across the range (just as I was irritated by the elimination of the Citroën short-travel brake pedal on the old C5). Final judgement depends on actually driving a C5 or two.

Behind the C5 was a silver C6, looking as impressive as ever and unmistakably French. Next to the C6 was a C-Crosser, another model I’ve not had the chance to study at close quarters. It looked like another quality product, with nice plastics and high quality switches. Contrast this with Citroën’s recent efforts to sell cars based on low prices and generous discounts. Somehow the cars looked like bargain basement products, more like the stuff the Malaysians and Koreans used to make.