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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 – 18 March 09 March 19, 2009

Posted by Richard Aucock in What I learned today.
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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…

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

Posted by Richard Aucock in What I learned today.
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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.

Saab’s lost 2 decades February 22, 2009

Posted by Richard Aucock in What I learned today.
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I want GM to survive. With its E-REV Chevrolet Volt/Opel Ampera, it has a future fuel revolution on the shelf, tantalisingly within reach. Painfully close. But it doesn’t half deserve a kicking for what it’s done to Saab.

It’s the early 1990s. You’re a volume manufacturer, who fancies a bit of posh. But, lo – you have a slightly leftfield but still premium brand in your portfolio. What an oppo: treat it as a separate division. Give it oily bits from one of your best-selling cars, and let it produce its own version. Give it the cash to make this entirely bespoke – needn’t cost a fortune. The margins on said car will bring home the bacon.


At this point, Volkswagen and GM split. Audi came up with the so-so but beautiful first-gen A4. Slickly marketed, it sold in droves. Ii inspired the VW-based A3. The VW-based TT, and so on. You get the picture. Audi was raking it in, becoming a cash cow the equal of its parent. ROI: unquantifiable.

GM, however… Lord, how I want to put the boot in. It gave Saab the dire Cavalier platform. Then, as if that wasn’t bad enough, didn’t give it enough cash to do much with it. Then, sent the mediocre Vectra bits to Trollhatten, and told them to make a 5 Series rival. Then, cut the direct debit. Then, started whining that Saab still wasn’t doing an Audi, and told it to make a 3 Series alternative. OK, this 9-3 Sport Saloon was a start, but Saab’s heart clearly wasn’t in it.

Then what? Nothing. Audi brought out the A3. BMW the 1 Series. Merc the C-Class Sport Coupe. Saab’s answer? Despite having GM’s pretty decent Astra platform to call upon? Nothing. Open goal; ah, there’s the ball, flying into row Z.

Since the 9-3 Sport Saloon? Zilch. Nothing epitomises this torpor more than the Vectra-in-drag 9-5, limping on year after year. It was average when new. It’s abysmal now. The 9-3 has just been jacked off and ‘allroaded’, 5 years too late, and apart from the 9-4X, still not with us, there’s nothing.

Now it’s being taken on by the Swedish Government. Seriously, thank God. Because they can’t do any worse a job than GM. Of course, it’s not that straightforward. There are reasons why GM didn’t do a halfway decent job. But, on the showroom floor, what does the customer see? Elderly, average cars, a 2-model range, and the quickest possible route to the megalith that is Audi. A maker launching 10 new cars in 2009 alone.

GM needs to be saved. There are brilliant people there, once the chaff has been cleared out. Here’s just hoping the person with the casting vote is a greenie. And not a Saab fan.