Plugged

Nissan Leaf

So, the Nissan Leaf. The price has come down a bit since it was first launched. It was too expensive then and I think it’s still too expensive now but I’m glad it’s here. It was a courageous move to launch a proper electrically-powered family hatch when it did. Apart from assorted Renaults, I don’t think there have been very many other pure electric-drive cars launched.

There’s a Focus which is even more expensive than the Nissan. There are also assorted Germans coming from Audi, Volkswagen and Mercedes, none of which are going to be cheap. Better men than I have done sums which show that the cost of running a Renault Zoe including the battery lease offers marginal savings over a diesel hatch like a Clio. I don’t know about that. Diesels have their own issues in the form of their particulate emissions of course and as someone whose nicotine-kippered lungs don’t function quite as well as they should, I am grateful for every reduction in PM10 levels.

BMW i3BMW got in there ahead of the other Germans. Unlike the others, BMW chose to develop unique vehicles to carry their electric drivetrains. Audi, Mercedes and Volkswagen have developed electric versions of the A3, B-Class and Golf respectively and Mercedes has borrowed tech from Tesla. It’s also a bit expensive but it’s a BMW so we sort of expect that. In fact, it’s less expensive than the Focus Electric in its basic spec. The Focus is very well equipped but so is the i3 and just look at it. The Focus is the facelifted version so it looks a little like an Aston Martin but the i3 looks like the future.

I’m smitten with it, very smitten. It’s made from carbon fibre and has suicide rear doors and the interior is probably the most gorgeous I’ve seen on a car in several yonks. It’s odd-looking on the outside, but good-odd. It’s much more to my taste than the Nissan Leaf. The Leaf looks like it’s on its way to a geography lesson. The BMW on the other hand is definitely on its way to a BDSM masterclass.

Shhhhhhhhzzzzzzzzzoooooooooooommmmmmm

Meanwhile the Tesla Model S is on its way to mug an XFR, and then steal an M5’s lunch money and sneak up behind an S-Class. I’ve seen a few of these out and about and they glide. It’s a shame that the rumbliest, grumbliest V-twin motorcycles in the world are knows as Electraglides because if ever a product deserved that name, it’s this one. There is a new one which has a second motor driving the front wheels giving it 690hp in total. It’s such a Q-car that it’s really a q-car. It doesn’t even shout about not shouting about its performance. It even has a reasonable range. You can’t get a green one any more which seems a little ironic, but still.

I don’t think electric cars have been this sexy since the days of the Jamais Contente. (The world landspeed record holder in 1899, look it up. It was driven by a famous Belgian and everything.)

There are still people insisting that the power for personal mobility be produced locally using fuel cells and maybe that’s true but I think it’s adding an extra layer of unnecessary complexity to the system. You need to produce the hydrogen, distribute it and then process it on board the car before you generate your electricity. It all seems inefficient compared to plugging in like you do your mobile phone or your laptop.

¬†Anyway, I’ll have an i3 in orange. You know how I feel about orange cars.

The Rotties 2012

In line with everyone else at this time of year, I’m going to be handing out awards to my favourite cars. The Rotties have to be the least prestigious awards in the automotive world and I can’t imagine that terribly many Rottie laureates are going to be all that chuffed to be on the winners’ list. I have absolutely no budget for hosting a posh dinner anywhere and we all know that drinking and driving don’t mix in any case. I’d hate for an award winner to get a ban on the way home from the Rotties awards ceremony down the Dog and Sprocket. On the other hand, it might be something to put into a press release on a quiet day in Ulan Bator, so here goes.

Least Memorable Car of the Year

The shortlist for this award was quite long. There is stiff competition among the forgettable cars on sale in Britain in 2012. There’s the Thingie, you know, the Thingie. You know it. You must. You go past enough of them on the way to pick up some more Cornflakes on a Saturday morning. It looks quite nice in that anonymous dark blue shade. Then there’s the Whatumacallit. You must know that one. It has a very nice handbrake button. It’s driven by genial people. You’ve never seen one cut anyone up because it’s quite slow and the drivers are too amiable. Neither the Thingie nor the Whatumacallit is the winner tonight. Each has at least one feature which brings it to mind. No. This year’s Least Memorable Car is… Nope. It’s gone. Can’t remember. We’ll come back to it later.

Dysfunctional Family Car of the Year

For the man who thinks he has everything.

The dysfunctional family has very particular needs. Mum and Dad, (or Dad and Dad, or Mum and Mum – this is 2012 after all) are not going to be talking to one another. The children are going to be bored, hate one another and on the point of pre-pubescent violence pretty much all the time. Had the Rotties been around in 1995, the Renault Espace F1 would have been a shoe-in to win. Everyone wears a crash helmet and it’s incredibly noisy so communication would be impossible. The four seats each have multipoint harnesses so the children would be restrained from striking each other in the few brief moments when the terror generated by its acceleration subsides. An 800bhp V10 engine from a Formula 1 car will cause enough acceleration to subdue the belligerence of even the stroppiest 10 year old and drown out their screams anyway.

And the award for Dysfunctional Family Car of the Year goes to...

My arbitrary rules have excluded the otherwise perfect Renault Espace F1. It’s too old, too singular and has too much black paint on its otherwise acceptably yellow bodywork. Instead, the Rottie for Dysfunctional Family Car of the Year goes to the remarkable new Land Rover Discovery. The parents up front can avoid talking to one another. This new one has the screen which allows the front passenger to watch a movie (The Witches of Eastwick or The Wars of the Roses for example) while the driver uses the sat-nav on the same screen. There would be no point in asking the front seat passenger to help with directions. They’d only point out where you’re going wrong in your life. You know exactly where it all started to go wrong in any case: getting involved with them. You can have it with a rear seat entertainment package which allows the passengers to watch films instead of scream at one another. The seat backs are durable enough to cope with the most inisistent of rhythmic kicking. The 3.0-litre diesel engine is joined to an 8-speed automatic gearbox as used in the Range Rover and assorted Jags so while the family may be dysfunctional, the car itself does everything one could possibly reasonably ask of it.

Least Memorable Car of the Year – Take 2

It’s on the tip of my tongue.

Wait…

No, sorry it’s gone. We’ll have to come back to it again.

Sports Car of the Year

Sports Car of the Year? Really?

2011 was a good year for sports cars. We’ve had the Porsche Boxster Spyder (almost like a Boxster S, just a little more powerful, slightly lighter and with a tent thing instead of the powered folding roof) and the really rather smashing Morgan +4 Supersports about which I have really been dreaming. I talk in my sleep fairly often. Her Indoors says that she is sometimes bamboozled by my nocturnal mutterings. I may have been mumbling about leather bonnet straps in the night.

So, why is there is a photograph of a Transit minibus at the top of this section? You’ll have to bear with me a little on this explanation. If you actually play any real sports at all, you’re not going to be able to use your Boxster or Morgan. If you play darts or snooker, you could. A set of ‘arras’ or a snooker cue would fit into either one easily. If, God forbid, you commit golf you’d have to put the clubs and their stupid, stupid bag onto the passenger seat so you couldn’t carry a passenger. That would be all right though because people who commit golf don’t really have friends. Real sports get you sweaty though and no darts player has ever got sweaty playing darts except just before his heart attack.

I’m a skinny runner and I can carry a pair of cross-country spikes in a very small canvas bag which would fit on my equally skinny friend’s lap. I could get away with the Porsche and or the Morgan. If you play another real sport like rugby and have any friends then you need a Transit minibus to take you and your friends to matches. Rugby players can be largish chaps (or chapesses, 2012 again) and they have lots of kit including all that poncy body armour. Dysfunctional Dad could use his Discovery, I suppose but he’s probably not allowed to play sports any more. He needs to take the boy or girl to their Saturday morning misery session instead. Some of my friends used a Transit minibus for their Three Peaks Challenge during the summer and found it an admirable way to get from one mountain to the next.

So, because sports cars are of limited use to anyone who actually plays sports, the Rottie for Sports Car of the Year goes to the Ford Transit minibus. It sort of makes sense.

Least Memorable Car of the Year – Take 3

Nope, still can’t remember. Moving on.

Most Over-engineered Shopping Car of the Year

In case Knightsbridge gets flooded.

I have no idea whether Keira Knightley has a sister, nor do I care. If she does, she’s probably nearly as gorgeous as Keira but not quite. In the same way, the five door version of the Range Rover Evoque isn’t quite as gorgeous as the three door. I’m not going to give in to the marketing people and call it a coupe because it’s not. Neither am I going to cut off my own nose just to spite my face and ignore the smallest Range Rover. Every time I see one of these things, it acts like an attention-hoover. It just looks right. The proportions are unusual so that it looks bigger than it really is. That those same marketing people are quite clever is a given. This very wonderful car is going to be badly parked in the better shopping areas of the world’s costlier cities. It’s capable of doing so much more but like Keira – and her sister – nobody is going to be interested in it for anything other than it’s looks and that’s a crying shame.

Least Memorable Car of the Year – Take 4

Ummm… Oh, forget it.

Repmobile of the Year

Because even muttering rotters can be sensible too

This is the only car I have driven of all the ones I’m handing out awards to. I’ve racked up over 30,000 miles this year in my Octavia Elegance. It’s done everything I’ve asked of it without complaint and with only a couple of small faults. Last winter, on the coldest of cold days, the windscreen washers froze on a motorway journey and I had to stop on the hard shoulder to wash the salt and grime off the screen myself. It was -12 Centigrade and the wind chill would have been horrendous so I’ll forgive it that. Rather more inexplicably, just last week I came out of the house to find all four windows wound down. The car was locked and the ignition was off. My step-son is not a practical joker so I have ruled out one particular reason why this might have happened. I’m slightly worried that it will happen again in a less safe area or on a wet and wild night but so far it all seems normal. No more ghosts in the machine. Oh, and the headlamp doesn’t want to come out so that I can replace a blown bulb but that might be my cack-handedness. I’m not good at things like that.

Those are the only faults or frustrations I’ve registered in 18 months and 52,000 miles. I have driven from Darkest Aberdeenshire to the Fens in a day with no backache, no ringing in my ears and on much less than a tank of diesel. The 1.6-litre common rail engine is powerful and torquey enough in this car to let me get on with driving without beimg stuck in a queue of slow moving traffic unless I have one of those nervous passengers. The dark upholstery even hides chocolate stains admirably. It has plenty of stowage space round the cabin for the little bits and bobs of a rep’s life on the road. The boot is gigundous and easily swallows everything I throw in there. I love this car and I’m already dreading the day I have to replace it because it may have been replaced itself by then.

The Muttering Rotter’s Car of the Year

Car of the Year, 1932

You know that this is a car blog of uninformed opinion, don’t you? So my Car of the Year is not based on long exposure in road tests. Sadly. My Car of the Year is the one which I have most wanted to spend time with. The Morgan 3 Wheeler is that car. I’ve read every word written about it. This is the car I’d have in my garage while the Audi A7 and McLaren MP4-12C – the other cars on the shortlist – sat alone, cold, unloved and lightly vandalised on the pavement outside. The A7 is beautiful and beautifully appointed and the McLaren is scandalously fast. The thing is that while I can imagine either of them taking me to my happy place quite quickly, my happy place is the driver’s seat of a Morgan 3 Wheeler.

Sic Transit…

I love driving round in a Transit. There’s something manly about it. I know I’m not alone in this. My mate was doing an exhibition last week and had a Transit to move his stand. He was booted and suited but didn’t feel out of place in the van. It’s always just the thing. It might be white and slightly battered round the edges. It’s almost certainly not owned by the man behind the wheel and it’s usually driven like it’s on its way from a bank job but it’s still pretty much the greatest thing on the road.

There are exceptions and I saw one of them today. You can buy an abomination called a Transit SportVan. The one I saw was blue rather than the red one in the photo above. It had racing stripes, big alloys and was moving even more quickly in the outside lane of the A1(M) than Transits usually do. I’ve had a wee rant about inappropriate sportiness before and this is an even more egregious example than the rev counter in an Aygo I was mithering on about last time. Transits aren’t sporty. They can be ludicrously and intimidatingly fast especially when they’re 18″ from your back bumper. That’s still not sporty.

Transits should have a few dented panels and a copy of¬† The Sun plonked on the dash. They shouldn’t look like a refugee from a drive-by at Halford’s. Unless it’s Supervan. If you’re basically a van body tied onto a racing car chassis, normal rules just don’t apply to you. That’s one sick Transit.

Silly Little Cars Doing Damage To The Industry?

I read this article on the All Cars Electric site this evening. It’s about some of the more embarrassing electric cars seen at the Geneva show last week. Electric cars can be fun. There is no need whatsoever for them to be poorly designed and shoddily built sheds with plugs attached. Okay, there are a couple of reasons. First that the manufacturers are naive and second that they’re venal. I don’t know which are which and I’m not inclined to find out.

The link drawn in the article between the kit car world and the car industry is good but I disagree. EVs are still very much a niche product, just one in which the major manufacturers are beginning to take an interest. Nissan has recently built its millionth Qashqai. It did that in just over four years. It’s going to build only 50,000 Leafs this year. Production will increase when its US and UK plants come on stream but that’s not going to be for some time yet. I don’t think that Volts will outsell Tahoes in Chevrolet dealers or Amperas do more business for Vauxhall than Astras or Insignias any time soon. It’s not because they’re bad cars but because in spite of the money they’ve invested in developing EVs, they and their dealers would rather sell cars they know to customers who just want to buy a car.

EV customers, or at least the early adopters, are going to know more about EVs than the dealers and will care about them more than the people who build and sell them. It’s an odd situation. The time will come when the enthusiasts have all bought their vehicles, assuming that they can afford them. It’s what will happen then which intrigues me.

Nissan in particular has a problem. A Leaf is an expensive piece of kit. It’s the same price in the UK as a 370Z roadster but it’s not going to attract the same customers at all. Nobody is going to wander into its dealers to buy a Micra, Juke or Qashqai and walk out with a Leaf unless the salesperson is an absolute superstar. The Leaf is a stand-alone product and one which has to establish its own infrastructure of customers and fans. Nissan is working hard to do that with an interesting social media marketing campaign but it can’t call on a body of existing customers.

Ford, GM, Toyota and Renault will all bring cars with plugs to market during 2011 and 2012. In a sense, Nissan will find it easier to sell Leafs to the wider public when it has more competitors. The manufacturers will have to sell the idea of cars you can plug into the wall. When there are more of them doing that, the message will be spread to more people more of the time. When that happens, any damage done by the likes of the execrable G-Wiz will be forgotten.

When Harry Met Sally. (Not Really.)

Because When Ford Sued Ferrari wouldn’t really have worked as a title. Well, I thought about it and then changed my mind. I mean, I wanted to do something about faking a spectacular orgasm but couldn’t work it in neatly enough. There was something about faking a spectacular toy ejection from an over-large perambulator but that doesn’t really work either.

Anyway.

Ummm, Ferrari F150, I think...

Ford is launching a lawsuit to protect its trademarked “F-150” nameplate which gets attached to monstrous pick up trucks against those well-known commercial vehicle builders in Modena, Ferrari.

And this is the Ford F-150, isn't it?

Ferrari has called its 2011 F1 car F150 in recognition of the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy. Who wouldn’t want to mark that in some significant way?

Unfortunately, Ferrari’s evident patriotic pride has upset Ford to the point that in order to protect the investment they have made in the F-150 name, Ford is spending money on a lawsuit in a US District Court. The damages they are seeking will probably be less than the amount they have to spend on lawyers. Daftness, if you ask me.

It’s worse than that, in fact. Ford sells thousands of these things in a year and the business is very profitable for them. They will probably sell more of their F-150s in a few minutes than Ferrari will build in the course of the 2011 season, even if Alonso and Massa go on a bit of a banzai bin it spree all year and destroy a chassis each at every race meeting.

If the Ferrari turns out to be a dog this year, then at least we’ll all have a chance for some good pick-up truck jokes.

As with most things in business, there’s a long back story to this. Back in the early 1960s, Ford almost bought Ferrari. They fell out over how much control the Old Man would retain over his beloved racing team and the deal fell through. Ferrari sold a stake in his company to the Agnelli family and FIAT and Ford went on a spending spree to beat Ferrari at Le Mans. Ford, or maybe Lola, built the GT and won in 1966, 1967, 1968 and 1969. Ferrari hasn’t won at Le Mans since. This is an old, old family feud.

Ford has a history of winning but occasionally its lawsuits come unstuck. A British kit car manufacturer called Dutton was producing a faux-roader called a Sierra in the late 1970s. Ford wanted to use that name on its replacement for the Cortina. It sued Dutton and was forced into accepting a compromise; Dutton could continue to use the Sierra name as long as they referred to is as the “Sierra kit car.”

I like the F-150. If I were in the market for an oversized beer-hauler, I’d have one rather than the Dodge or Chevy alternatives. And Ford is a company with some momentum now. The new Focus is in the dealers and, slightly apologetic looks apart, is set for success. There’s an electric version of it coming soon to grab attention from the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf but this week, they’ve shot themselves in the foot. Shame.