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What I learnt… from Fleet News, 20 March 2009 March 20, 2009

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So far, new car sales have fallen by 28 percent. The new car market is predicted to fall from over 2 million new car sales, to 1.7 million sales, or less.

Yet the SMMT says it could be boosted by 250,000 sales in an 18-month period by a new car scrappage scheme.

what-i-learnt-from-fleet-news-20-march-2009It would have to incorporate nearly new green cars to be of any benefit, though, a leasing company boss told Fleet News. Surprisingly, he said this would have to cover cars up to four years old.

This would stimulate the used car market and thus boost the new car market.

But, isn’t the used market already thriving, as buyers seek extra value? Aren’t car auctions seeing record results and a shortage of stock? I think he’s barking up the wrong tree here.

… Fleet sales once accounted for over half the new car market. Now, due to the recession, it’s down to 44.8 percent. Retail sales are, relatively, booming, taking 55.2 percent.

This is despite reports that retail customers are sitting tight, waiting for the Government to decide on a scrappage scheme. If it comes, I’d expect the proportion to become even more skewed.

… Those fields of cars we keep seeing on the news are just an illusion. Actually, fleet bosses say, there are not loads of cars sitting ready to go. So, huge fleet discounts are not on the table. One chief told Fleet News that swingeing cutbacks by car makers last year have slashed inventories.

… Car makers making the best of the recession include Ford, whose market share is approaching 20 percent – a massive increase on 15 percent last year. French makers are struggling, though. Citroen has 2.8 percent, Peugeot 3.8 percent (down from 6.1 percent) and Renault just 2.7 percent (down from 5.7 percent).


What I learnt from Autocar – 18 March 09 March 19, 2009

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… I saw a heavily cloaked test car a few weeks ago on the M42. Looked like a Jaguar, beneath the disguise. It was – the new XJ, which Hilton says will be unveiled in June.

what-i-learnt-from-autocar-18-march-09It was going to be a reskin of the current model, but is much more than that. Jaguar’s taken the lessons from the XF – a rehashed S-Type – and applied them here, for an extensive overhaul using the same air-suspension wheelbase.

Styling will wow. Jaguar designer Adam Hatton stressed as much over a beer late last year, at a function in the Cotswolds… and I believe the Malvern-dwelling dude (who rates the Citroen C4, but doesn’t like the new MINI).

There’s even going to be an all-glass panoramic roof.

Jag’s 3.0-litre V6 diesel will feature: this is so powerful and eco, it makes the V8 diesel redundant. Range Rover only for that, then? Seems an expensive way of doing things.

… VW’s said it’s planning a Bluesport range of green performance cars. Like Bluemotion, but faster. Raking in more profits, then.

… Mercedes will sell a diesel version of the next SLK, due in two years. As it’s based on the fine current C-Class platform, expect the brilliant C 250 CDI engine to feature.

… Sweden is not to ban petrol and diesel in 2020. It will ban them in 2030 instead. So that’s why Saab and Volvo are so big on biofuels…

More on the mighty Alpina D3 Bi-Turbo March 18, 2009

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Matthew Kidd, sales chief for Alpina GB, dropped me a line after reading my post on the new Alpina D3 Bi-Turbo. It’s even more of a machine than I first thought!

more-on-the-mighty-alpina-d3-bi-turboAs he says, ‘this is no simple chip-tune’. Engine software, for example, is completely bespoke to Alpina – written from scratch by the tech guys, and downloaded into the car on the regular BMW production line.

It even has its own engine wiring loom.

All this is why the 123d’s 2.0-litre twin-turbo enjoys such a power boost. But, here’s something: the bigger Bi-Turbo actually weighs less than the 123d! What’s more, at 1480kgs, it’s also 25kg lighter than the 325d.

Where it matters: up front.

It also has those distinctive big Alpina wheels, but they hide far more besides. The suspension comprises:

· Stabilisers from M Cars

· Secondary springs from the 335d

· Unique camber, caster and rolling radios

· Unique primary springs

· Bespoke settings for each variant – saloon, Touring and Coupe D3

Less than 100 saloons will be sold a year. The Touring and Coupe will be even rarer – ‘just a handful’.

Matthew’s invited me up to Sytner HQ in Nottingham, to test drive it for MSN Cars and Car Dealer Magazine (Alpina’s 14-strong UK retailer network will certainly be interested!).

When I can get up there, look out for more on how it fares on the road!

What I learnt… from Autocar, 11 March 2009 March 18, 2009

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… Top VW product man Ulrich Hackenberg says customers are prepared to pay more for Bluemotion ‘green’ cars. That’s because they’re 5-10mpg more economical. Win-win for VW, then. It gets more cash for each car, which customers are happy to buy in decent numbers.

what-i-learnt-from-autocar-11-march-2009With such a business model, why would it thus apply the Bluemotion changes to all models, cutting such a profitable revenue stream?

VW’s rivals may snipe and say that ‘all our cars are green, not stand-out green specials’ – but they ‘aint getting the profits of VW. That’s why Bluemotion’s here to stay.

Hackenberg also says customers are understand that they must look at engine technology, not size, to gauge performance. Good news for the downsizing trend.

… Next year, MINI will start selling patterned soft-top Convertibles. Not easy to productionise down at Oxford, but extremely lucrative, I’d have thought.

… Renault reveals the Megane Renaultsport 250’s carryover platform has been re-engineered to take a short-shift 6-speed gearbox. Why go to the trouble? Unless there are future transmission developments we’re not aware of…

… The Golf R32 will lose its heavy V6 for a more eco four-pot turbo. Probably the TTS’s 268bhp unit. It’s for handling as well as emissions, says VW.

… the origins of the TTRS’s five-pot turbo are revealed. It’s actually a tuned-up version of an engine seen in the US-spec VW Jetta. Not, as Audi claims, half a Lamborghini V10. Ahem.

Social media brings close access to heroes! March 17, 2009

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Social Media is all about community, relationships and helping one another out. So, after days puzzling over my WordPress site layout, I had to admit defeat…

… and ping my social media mentor, Brendan Cooper. After meeting and communicating online, we met up ‘in real’ for the first time last week at Tuttle, and I’m still riding on the buzz from this.

social-media-brings-close-access-to-heroesHelp!, I asked Brendan. I can’t get flaming subscribe-to-feed tags into my blog profile – and they’re a must-have. Any tips?

Brendan came straight back with the answer four days of internet searching had failed to resolve. Succinct, on the money and just what I needed. And then, when I came across another grumble, I cheekily sent another e-mail: result? He was straight back, with two lines of aid that, when I enacted them, roused a cheer you could hear in Cherbourg.

Now, we’re all linked up – so do please follow me, if only to repay some of the effort that’s gone into it! – and I can only salute once again the brilliant Brendan Cooper. A true hero.

Coffees are on me next time, I’ve promised…

The Alpina that’s greener/faster/rarer than a 325d… March 16, 2009

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BMW usually covers all bases, but a hole in its range was highlighted today. OK, it’s a small hole, but nevertheless…

What’s the 3 Series diesel buyer to do, who finds a 320d too slow, but a 325d too, well, you know, ‘not quite a 330d’?

Well, you’d think, the 1 Series comes in twin-turbo four-cylinder 123d guise. With 214bhp, it’s got bags of go. It’s obvious, then. Chuck this into the 3 Series, revive a classic nametag from the past, and bingo. Yet another niche filled.

rarer-than-a-325dNot so fast. Earlier today, BMW told me there are no plans for a 323d. Pity. The engine is a gem, and the lighter 2.0-litre engine would help create a wonderfully balanced high-performance diesel.

Help, however, is at hand! See, Alpina GB clearly shares my thinking. And has just started importing the Alpina D3 Bi-Turbo. Yes, it’s a 3 Series saloon, with a 123d engine transplant, and the usual hardcore Alpina makeover.

It looks great. But if, like BMW, you think ‘hey – why not just buy the peachier six-pot 325d’, here’s some stats:

Alpina D3 Bi-Turbo/BMW 325d M Sport

Price: £29,950/£30,825

Power: 214bhp/197bhp

0-62mph: 6.9secs/7.4secs

MPG: 52.3mpg/49.6mpg

CO2: 143g/km/153g/km

Compelling, aye? Furthermore, with the Alpina, you get a stackload of ‘in the know’ kudos to boot. Those stripes, those badges, those wheels, that ALPINA sticker on the front splitter…

But is it any good? Are pace and economy fair substitute for the loss of six-cylinder smoothness?

A test drive request has duly been sent. Watch this space.

Speaking live on City Radio FM March 15, 2009

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Today, I was a guest speaker on City Talk Liverpool radio. The presenter, Rob McLoughlin, had Eddie O’Hara MP in the studio, and brought me in for some journalistic insight.

They’d got my name from reading the news pieces I’ve been writing for Car Dealer Magazine. All this fuss kicked off on Wednesday, you see, after the BERR assembled car industry chiefs, Ministers, bank folk and other senior people. For a heads-up on how to get the industry into gear.

Like the industry, the meeting stalled. The RMIF emerged and screamed that it had ‘failed’. Mandelson came out and said the Treasury and, in particular, the Bank of England were dragging their feet. The Bank of England responded by biting its tongue, kicking the cat, then saying it was ‘puzzled’ by Mandelson’s comments.

Even the BoE press release seemed fit to explode… I can only imagine what the language flowing through the meeting was.

speaking-live-on-city-radio-fmHence, McLoughlin’s interest. First, he grilled O’Hara, on what the Government was going to do. ‘It’s going to cost you votes!’, he said. This is going to cost me nerve endings, I thought.

After a short while, it was over to me. ‘Which plants are at risk in the UK?’ Heavens above. No time to respond though, as McLoughlin quickly added the Liverpool-specific line. ‘What about Ellesmere Port and Halewood?’ In all honesty, I ventured, things are more positive for them than most. Both have secured a green future model, in the Ampera and LRX. This alone opens up a big chunk of green Government cash. Back to O’Hara. Phew.

The debate continued, and we discussed the future model, the sheer oddness of Mandelson’s comments, what can be done to revive the market and, broadly, my insight on the industry’s view of things.

Pleasingly, it went well. Haven’t done much radio chat, but I quite got into it by the end.

But, for a bit of insight, what happens to guys like me on the line? Well, they call you up a few minutes before, then you hear a live feed to the broadcast station. There’s no warning that you’re ‘live’, so you simply start chatting when you’re name’s called. Listen to talk shows from now on – all those mentions of the guests’ names is vital, to elicit both concentration, and a response!

At the end, the feed cut, it was a quick thank you from the producer, a swap of mobile numbers, and back to reality. My summary? As I reviewed in the news at the end of the week – Land Rover’s green future is positive, and the key to it getting a shot right now is confidence.

Maybe, just maybe, I’ve played a small part in boosting that. If not, the call from Land Rover will be first in tomorrow…

Land Rover MINI has big future March 15, 2009

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Land Rover is going to do a MINI with the new baby Range Rover. Due in 2011, it won’t just offer fuel economy comparable with a Ford Focus.

It will also, once again, see the brand changing with the times.

They started out as farmer’s hacks, Land Rovers. Posh farmers led to the Range Rover, but as farmers farmed out their fields for posh houses, so the models themselves became more Sloane Ranger. Growing in size, stature, and price.

A hole at the cheap end of the range developed, so the Discovery came in. then, a whole new sector was created, with the Freelander. The Land Rover for those to whom farming meant Saturday market.

Now, big is bad. Pricey is bad. The market has shuddered, and Land Rover’s core has with it. If Land Rover is to not only survive, but have relevance, it needs to change.

land-rover-mini-has-big-futureWith the LRX Range Rover, it’s doing just that. Big? Thirsty? Brash? Less popular than a foxhunt on Playgroup day? Not a bit of it.

It’s the anti-SUV, a Range Rover for those with an eye on the future.

But who want iPod, not just generic MP3 player.

I reckon it’s likely to be a winner (Land Rover has a knack of this: see, well, every new model it’s ever launched). Not only does the production-intent concept look great, it’s crucially about the size of a Focus. Perfect. Even the very first diesel on sale in late 2010 will do 50mpg.

In time, there’ll be a 60mpg hybrid version, with sub-120g/km CO2 emissions. Comparable with a VW Golf Bluemotion, then.

It won’t be cheap, of course (not least because £400 million is being in vested in it – on top of Land Rover’s £800 million green investment. It’s too clever to not be: don’t expect many variants for under £30k. But, as it’s going to be the must-have car of 18 month’s time, that’s not going to be an issue.

Land Rover started off small, and only became big with time. To ensure it stays big, it needs to go small again. Come 2011, this model will have a big part to play in achieving that.

Far from colour me bad for the AA March 11, 2009

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COLOUR sells cars. I know that. What I didn’t know was how important it is for branding.

Nearly two-thirds of people, apparently, reckon that colour is more important to a brand than slogan, typeface or logo. I thought about that for a while.

I then started to muse. Colours and car makers… now then. Ford – well, it’s blue, isn’t it? Mercedes? Silver. Alfa Romeo, red. Renault, yellow. Honda, white. Jaguar, green. Lamborghini, orange. Land Rover, metallic maroon.

far-from-colour-me-bad-for-the-aaIt isn’t just car makers, either. Shell? Yellow. BP? Green. Texaco? Black. Sainsbury’s? Orange. Silk Cut, purple. Egg, green. Coca-Cola, red. And, etc, and so on and thus forth. Try it – it’s a lot of fun. UPS, brown: see? (For proof, Google it.)

This takes us on to the AA, which commissioned trademark lawyers Withers & Rogers to come up with the report. They’re yellow. Not like Green Flag, who are Green. Nor the RAC, who are blue – erk, sorry, orange.

It’s pretty impressive stats they quote – the AA is the ‘most recognised by colour alone’. Respondents were presented with a list of brands, and asked to name the main colours used in their identities. Results are thus:

•    AA yellow and black – recognised by 98 per cent
•    Easyjet orange – 93 percent
•    Cadbury purple and BP green – 88 percent
•    Royal Mail red – 85 per cent.

I’ve always been a sucker for thinking in colour. At least now I’ve learnt there’s method behind it.

Of course, the problem comes when there are conflicts. I also think of SEAT as red, for example. Audi as silver. BMW is blue. Volvo is a funny metallic yellow. Citroen, a particular shade of light metallic blue. Can you give a brand a particular colour, and if so, how bespoke is it to that brand? Is a red Ferrari sullied by a red Alfa, and is this cheapened by a red SEAT?

Indeed, how do you give a brand colour? By history (Jaguar), by high-profile motorshow cars Volvo), by adopting a simple consistent colour that you stick to over the years (Renault)? There’s a debate. But, whatever it is, makers such as Daihatsu, Kia, Hyundai, Mazda and Skoda need to find out, if it’s as key to the brand image as Withers & Rogers says…

MultiAir does MultiJet for petrol March 8, 2009

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Diesel has devoured the bulk of car maker development budgets in recent years.

It’s been a quick and dirty way for them to reduce parc CO2 emissions. Petrol’s been left lagging. Fiat’s helping it catch up, and giving us a new acronym in the process. MultiJet for diesel, meet MultiAir for petrol.

As the company that invented common rail injection, now de rigueur for diesel, MultiAir is thus maybe quite significant (not least because it’s not as dirty as diesel). But what on earth is it?

A way to make petrol engines 25 per cent more fuel efficient, that’s what. God knows, they need it. Geneva was the first signs that development budgets are switching to petrol. How they’ve some catching up to do. The weediest 1.2 Grande Punto can’t even average 48mpg. The zappy 90bhp 1.3 turbodiesel? Nearly 63mpg. Plus 20g/km less CO2. That’s a big difference (circa 25 per cent in fact), even if the problem is that you do pay for it.

Now then. How it works. Fiat told me that if you want to enhance diesel performance and emissions, you need to control how much fuel you inject into the cylinders. It’s down to how accurately you can do this, too.

For petrol, though, the trick is to play with not the fuel, but the air being injected.

Normal engines have a ‘dumb’ intake valve. This can only open or close. How much air goes into the cylinders depends on the throttle valve, further up the air supply chain. This is (says Fiat) wasteful. What you should be doing is controlling the intake values themselves, electronically. At source, rather than further up the chain, so to speak. How to do it cheaply, though? That’s what’s been keeping car companies busy, apparently, since the 1980s.

Fiat’s solved this. MultiAir is easy, cheap, variable valve actuation, giving full independent control over what the intake valve does. Hurrah. Diesel eco without the diesel cost, plus cheaper fuel to boot. This is big stuff. But this realisation didn’t come before I’d interpreted a tech-heavy press release…

Token technical image that next to nobody will understand, not least me

Eventually, I found out MultiAir uses a piston connected to the intake valve. It’s moved by a cam, but the clever part comes because it’s connected via a hydraulic chamber. A solenoid valve controls this. This can have two states – open or closed. Now, then:

• Solenoid closed? Oil behaves a like a solid body. Intake valves do what the mechanical cam says.

• Solenoid open? Bingo: intake valves decoupled from intake camshaft! They close instead under valve spring action. (This is why Fiat also fitted a hydraulic ‘brake’, for soft and controlled valve closing…)

So, what tricks does it offer? Well, the solenoid is always closed for maximum power. But for low-rev torque, independent operation comes in. It opens near the end of the cam profile, meaning the values close early – trapping as much air in the cylinders as possible.

However, for part load, it opens much earlier, which does all sorts of clever things to airflow. This boosting torque. Or, it can be opened later, boosting ‘higher-in-cylinder’ turbulence. These two modes, called ‘MultiLift’, can be deployed in the same stroke, which is the really, really clever part. And which is why it’s taken so long for the ECU engineers to map…

It’s not just for petrol, either. Potentially, it reduces diesel NOx emissions by 60 per cent, and taking 40 per cent of unburned hydrocarbons out of cold start emissions. Indeed, Fiat says that this is just the start. MultiAir could even see petrol and diesel engines unified, rather like Mercedes and VW are proposing with DiesOtto.

The first MultiAir will be a 1.4 Alfa Romeo later this year. Fiat will also fit it to its new two cylinder engine, coming to the 500 in 2010.

No need to hedge bets on the fuel of the near-future, then. Seems it’ll be a bit of both…