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

Posted by Richard Aucock in What I learned today.
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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).


Secrets of the new Toyota Prius March 20, 2009

Posted by Richard Aucock in The minutiae of cars.
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I was honoured to speak with the chief engineer of the new Toyota Prius, Akihiko Otsuka, at the Geneva Motor Show recently. Honoured, because the young dude is quite a guy.

Oozing enthusiasm for the Prius, his groundedness and sheer enthusiasm wowed me. We’re close in age, he and I, and I really felt how ‘here and now’ he is. Think everything that’s dynamic and invigorating about modern Japan, for an idea of his approach.

secrets-of-the-new-toyota-prius1This whirlwind of ideas shows in the new car, which really is quite something. Official fuel economy of the current one doesn’t always carry through to reality, I said. Unbowed, he admitted so – a key target of the new car was to improve on this.

He told his team to benchmark against the Volkswagen Golf 1.9 TDI – not the default 2.0 TDI, which is a fair bit less efficient. Quite a challenge, as I know how economical that engine can be. But Otsuka ‘beat it’.

A new approach to body design helped here – he allowed the aerodynamic engineers to work with clay models, ‘despite the expense’. This is unheard of in the car industry, where stylists normally hold sway. But, getting aerodynamics engineers so closely involved in the shape means the drag factor is a startling 0.25. An old Mini, by way of comparison, is 0.56….

However, while the hybrid gear is the big deal, he admits that this contributes only half to the overall 14 percent economy improvement. The other 7 percent?

‘Low rolling resistance tyres, aerodynamics and other energy improvement methods.’ The same, in other words, as employed on a VW BlueMotion, Volvo DRIVe, Ford ECOnetic, SEAT Ecomotive…

This fact brings home the law of diminishing returns. And the scale of the challenge car makers face in making cars continually more green.

I have an absolute mass of information from the discussion, which I’m using to write a piece for Automotive Engineer magazine. Overall, though, meeting Otsuka-san was quite something. In a month or so’s time, we’ll be finding out if his car is as good.

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.

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.

£3 billion classic car industry goes green March 15, 2009

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A classic car mag has launched something I’ve been wondering was possible for years. Making old cars green.

Classics Monthly has just launched the ‘Engenius Awards 2009’. This is a hunt for classics that have been made as green as a modern car.

Such as? Well, a fully-catalysed Mini, using a 60mpg Toyota Aygo 1.0-litre engine would be quite cool. If not, indeed, a version using the 85mpg smart diesel engine?

Or, how about a Golf GTI MkI with VW’s 50mpg 1.4 TSI engine? A Jaguar E-Type with a BMW 3.0-litre diesel? Let’s hang it way out – what about an NSU Ro80 with a full Toyota Prius hybrid drivetrain transplant?

3-billion-classic-car-industry-goes-green-and-ecoThis is proper inventor territory. Classic car nuts do amazing things, when they turn their minds to it. Creativity in the business is rife. By giving them a green agenda, Classics Monthly is focusing this spark of invention on sustainability.

And I, for one, can’t wait to see what readers come up with.

There are two awards on offer, one for the industry and one for enthusiasts. It’s going to run throughout the year, with shortlisted cars appearing at the NEC Classic Motor Show in November.

My challenge is to drive some of them beforehand… Maybe even adding a twist to my fledgling Mini project?

Oh, and how about this for a killer stat. Gary Stretton, Editor of Classics Monthly, revealed that the classic car industry’ contributed £3 billion to the economy in 2006.’

£3 billion!

That’s even more than the Government pledged to bail out the car industry back in January. Classic car owners to the rescue, then. sounds like just one more justification for me to buy a Mini.

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.

China’s green example to the world March 13, 2009

Posted by Richard Aucock in What I've mused upon today.
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Earlier in the year, I had dinner in London with visitors from China’s motoring media. They were here on a fact-finding mission, and were keen to touch base with like-minded sorts from the UK.

It was a superb evening, full of lively debate and contrasting viewpoints. I tried to give them lots of insight, but reckon I took just as much from the evening, if not more. I promised in particular to follow one tip-off closely: mark my words, said several of our Chinese guests – new car sales back home are going to skyrocket.

This was in complete contrast to the dreadful 2008 gloom we in the UK had been suffering. What made them so confident? Over to Kevin Chen, CEO of Gasgoo: ‘From January 20, the Government will cut the sales tax on cars 1.6-litres and under, from 10 percent to 5 percent…’

In other words, smaller, more eco-friendly models were to be given an incentive: they’d carry half the tax of thirstier ones.

chinas-green-example-to-the-worldAnd how it’s worked. From being in the doldrums, China’s new car market was up a startling 25 percent in February. A quarter! To get a measure on how many cars this is, consider that in February alone, over 600,000 new cars were sold…

The net effect is huge. Massive. Even though 1.6-litres and under doesn’t sound that green compared to UK green schemes, it’s a big difference for China. Over there, the European ‘downsizing’ trend has yet to catch on. This is thus an admirably green and eco move – and, with the promise of more cash in its back pocket, has seen a generally save-not-spend society hit car dealers in droves.

Why do I mention this? Well, I’ve just been called by City Talk Liverpool, to speak on their Sunday morning show with Edward O’Hara MP. Rob McLoughlin is the presenter, and we’ll be debating this week’s potential good news for Land Rover Halewood, plus the implications of what Mandelson’s been saying.

The relevance of China, then? Well, the car tax reduction is a useful case study of  how the world’s biggest car market responded to green new car sales incentives…

Clever cars? We ‘aint seen nothing yet March 9, 2009

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Land Rover, Orange and the Ordnance Survey aren’t known for being particularly complementary bedfellows.

But, with the TRL smoothing the waters, they’ve come up with something that’ll make yet another potential big difference to car CO2 emissions. The Sentience test bed.

This is the Clever Car. It uses smart sat nav to plot a route, see what traffic conditions are ahead, moderating engine accordingly. Clever, aye? You’re suspicious. Well, (for now) fear not. This is not (intended to be) ‘dumb waiter’ style speed restriction.

clever-cars-we-aint-seen-nothing-yetRather, it is the car using adaptive cruise control to idealise the acceleration and deceleration – as per traffic up ahead, the necessary speed gain needed to scoot between point and – get this – counter the gradient of the road in the most eco way possible.

Like the driver who looks ahead, and adjusts the throttle accordingly, rather than the less clever ‘point ‘n squirt. Oh, and then brake’ merchant.

Orange provides the ‘net-enabled telecommunications, but it’s OS’s mapping data, detailing gradient, bens in the road, roundabouts, even speed bumps, that really gives it intelligence.

An example. Green drivers know that accelerating at the bottom of the hill creates momentum for ascending it. So, uses less fuel. This is what the Sentience car does. Ingenious. And generating claimed fuel savings of nearly a quarter.

What’s more, with real-time navigation systems, it can alter profiles according to traffic flow as well as road conditions up ahead. It can even vary and restrict speed, according to the probability of something slowing the car at a junction up ahead, and meter speed for best flow through traffic lights.

There’s been a lady from Brake today, banging on across all the news channels that speed kills. Yes, speed. Not a single other factor, just speed. Make everyone drive at the speed limit and accidents will be cut to zero.

What utter guff. Luckily, companies such as this quartet are being a damn sight more intelligent, and developing mobile comm cars that will both save the world and a few lives in the process.

Their only problem is, the degree of autonomy they’re calling upon drivers to hand over. With the Brake woman in mind, that’s maybe a debate for another day…

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…