Saturday, 28 June 2008

Red letter day!

What a busy day, travelled down to Essex to drive a Ford Model T. Some things are worth making an effort to do and this was one of them. Although it was completely unlike anything I’ve ever driven it was (or could be, with practice) surprisingly easy to drive.

Just studying the Model T was an education. Here was a car that was not only affordable to buy but simple and robust. No need for specialist care – a competent blacksmith could probably make replacements for any metal part that broke. It is a world away from the elaboration of new cars and so much better for it.

Ford Model T

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Honda FR-V – now it is gone

Time I think to reflect on the Honda FR-V. On the whole I enjoyed driving it even though it was far removed from the type of car I would choose.

One thing that I wasn’t expecting was the performance, maybe not hot-hatch fast but certainly brisk. The engine was as good as one would expect from Honda and coupled to a 6-speed gearbox with delightfully close ratios and a snappy action. Mounting the lever on the dashboard might have been done in the name of leaving the floor clear but it also put the lever exactly where it should be – level with and less than a hand span away from the steering wheel. How many people, I wonder, will zip along in their FR-Vs revelling in the crisp performance as they keep the revs up? Alas, anyone who does will find a fly in the ointment – the engine does seem slow to respond to a closed throttle. Come off the accelerator to change gear and the revs will not fall away as quickly as you would hope.

Two final things should be said in praise of the engine. One is that it is a quiet companion unless you are wringing it out. As my long suffering passenger observed, you are aware that there is an engine running somewhere but it never intrudes. The other thing is the engine bay. Many people complain that modern engine bays are just acres of plastic trying to look like an engine. That is not how things are in the FR-V; you can see the engine and all the major components. As far as I can tell anything you might need to access (to check fluid levels, for example) is easily accessed. It is a joy to see an engine so honestly presented. Of course being a Honda you’ll never actually have to repair it but you could if you had to.

Returning to the subject of enthusiastic driving, the FR-V handles better than expected. The steering, I thought, felt a little odd with slightly inconsistent weight you could never be quite sure if the neat, leather-wrapped steering wheel was going to be light or heavy to the touch. Weighting aside the steering was accurate and responsive and the handling almost never gave cause for concern. Almost because I did manage to provoke a twitching lurch from the rear – but it had to be provoked and most drivers won’t be so silly. Other than that you couldn’t fault it, remarkable given the sheer height of the thing and even more so when you consider that it rode comfortably too.

Something should be said about the in car entertainment. I was initially critical of the sound it made but careful adjustment of bass and treble sorted that. The radio seemed reluctant to find any stations unless manually tuned to the correct frequency but that might be operator error. When I loaded 2 CDs into the in-dash player I could listen to the second all day but nothing would persuade it to give me CD1 without first ejecting the other disk. Finally, as a listening environment the FR-V leaves something to be desired. At speed there is a lot of white noise, a combination of road and wind roar – it isn’t especially loud but it will drown out softer pieces of Bach and Beethoven. The Scissor Sisters, however, come through loud and clear.

I found the leather seats quite comfortable but I would have preferred slightly more under-thigh support. I did wonder if the seats had been made slightly shorter than ideal to make the legroom seem more generous. That said, I did a couple of long journeys without aches and pains and I also did plenty of enthusiastic driving without fearing that I’d slide right out of the seat.

Somehow I knew I wouldn’t dislike the FR-V but I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did. Designing a successful small MPV can’t be an easy job but Honda has certainly succeeded. If you want something as compact as a Civic but with more space and greater versatility the FR-V could be just what you need.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

More thoughts on the Honda FR-V

Took a friend out in the FR-V today as I was interested to see how it would rate from a passenger’s perspective. His first observation was of a lack of legroom, not good from someone of no more than average height. Three people in the front seats would be very cosy, he suggested. Other irritations included a mystery draught at neck level and noise coming from the roller-blind cover over the luggage boot.

The lively performance and mechanical refinement were well received. Also praised were the build quality and the tasteful interior trim.

I’ve got a long journey in the Honda tomorrow; it will be interesting to see what that brings to light. There is also the matter of trying to take some more photographs – that was going to be a job for today but the weather was against me.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

What's outside today?

I've got this Honda FR-V 1.8 iVTEC on loan this week. Initial impressions are favourable; it is comfortable, easy to drive and reasonably quick. Getting used to the width of it has taken a bit of time - the FR-V isn't actually that wide but it feels wide because it seats 3 across in the front and back.

Honda FR-V

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

BMW GINA Light concept car

Just a brief entry as I've got to do a full write up about BMW's latest concept car. What I wanted to say here, where I can afford to be less objective and more opinionated, is how much I love it. Not only does it challenge lots of preconceived ideas about how a car should be made but the thinking behind it promises to challenge the attitude that "we've always done it this way". Of course it helps that the concept car is beautiful, a classical roadster with the engine at the front under a long bonnet. Hopefully all future BMWs will look as good as this.

BMW GINA light concept car

Friday, 6 June 2008

Word of the week: Doppelkupplungsgetriebe

I don’t speak German but there is something wonderfully clear and logical about it as a language. Even I could see how Doppelkupplungsgetriebe means double clutch gearbox. And how, you might ask, did I stumble upon this gem? It was in a Porsche press release detailing revisions to the 911 (direct fuel injection is the other major update). According to a knowledgeable friend it is pronounced:

"Doppel" is pronounced as the spelling suggests and means double.

"Kupplungs" is pronounced with the emphasis on the "Kup" part of the word – clutch, presumably.

"Getriebe" is pronounced "G'Treeber" – literally gear box?

So now you know!

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Evolutionary thinking

About the most difficult question I was asked by a friend after the SMMT test day was what my favourite car of the day had been. How on earth could I choose between the varied delights of the Jaguar XK8 and the Fiat 500? Something coarse but entertaining, like the Vauxhall Astra VXR Nurburgring or civilised and satisfying like the Audi A4 3.2FSI SE.

The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution X SST was the only car that could stand a chance of being the best at almost everything and so, by default, the Evo had to be my favourite. Don’t, however, think that I was less than keen on it. In fact I enjoyed the Evo intensely – so much more, in fact, because it was more civilised than I expected. The twin-clutch sequential transmission must have helped; how could a dreaded “flappy paddle” gearbox shuffle forward and back at parking speed with such suavity?

Never mind parking, this is a car for whizzing, charging, zipping and dashing. How beautifully it danced on Millbrook’s hill route, up and down hills, around ever tighter corners. The transmission worked well as an automatic but was pure bliss when changing gear manually. With the gear changes at the second fastest setting (I never tried the fastest) the response to the paddles felt instant. The only complaint I had was that second gear could have been higher as dropping down from 3rd gear always seemed to have the engine screaming its head off.

Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X SST

It was the engine and transmission that dominated the experience. The steering and brakes must have been fine, the ergonomics acceptable. I do remember that the driver’s seat was good. I certainly can’t think of anything that was wrong with it.

Before I drove the Mitsubishi Evo I wondered what the appeal might be. Surely sticking a powerful engine in a family saloon was a mistake, diverting it from the proper purpose of being sensible family transport. In fact the way it goes is positively addictive, I just want another go, I need to feel that gear change again and the G-forces as the Evo charges round another corner. And maybe I need to try the manual version too for good measure.