Robin Brown

Journo. Editor. Tutor. Dour northerner.

May 2014 update

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What I’ve been up to on a professional footing over the last few months…

Lecturing

I’ve finished teaching at the Universities of Salford and Sunderland, with only marking remaining. Over this academic year I’ve taught around 300 students at three universities and eight modules.

Liverpool

I’ve edited The City Tribune over April and May, it’s a new publication whose first edition covers the International Festival of Business in Liverpool during Summer 2014. Read it here. Interview here.

I’m currently revamping Liverpool Underlined.

Automotive

I’ve recorded two PetrolPod podcasts with Gavin Braithwaite-Smith. The latter was recorded at the SMMT driving day at Millbrook in May.

I’ve written a four-page special feature on cars and gadgets in the fleet sector for Professional Manager Magazine, the official mag of the Chartered Management Institute. I’ve had a number of press cars on review, including the Peugeot 2008, Peugeot 308, Nissan Qashqai, Suzuki Swift and Citroen DS3.

Miscellaneous

I’ve contributed several articles to All About History magazine, the most recent of which was on the fall of the Aztec civilisation, the front page splash – finally the A/S Level in Archaeology came in handy.

I’ve also written articles on Richard Nixon, Jack The Ripper and the birth of Hollywood for the magazine.

Written by Robin Brown

May 24th, 2014 at 9:36 pm

Posted in Robin's News

The Extraordinary Bad Taste of the Great British Menu

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I’ve watched the latest series of The Great British Menu with a growing, open-mouthed horror. Not because of the litany of absurd dishes – burned food, ash and soil seems very popular this year – but because there’s some of the stupidest, most facetious plates of food being created in the name of celebrating the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

Every year the show has introduced a far-fetched conceit that is shoe-horned into programmes showing peole thinking about cooking, then cooking, then watching in lip-biting tension as Marcus Wareing asks them if their cooking is sufficiently English. Last year seemed to mark the nadir, when bewildered chefs were consistently asked if their food was funny.

This year they’re being asked if their food honours terrified Allied soldiers fighting their equally terrified German opponents. Which seems a bit like asking whether my teaching pays sufficient tribute to Norse gods – or whether the Roundheads would be impressed by my podcasts.

Leaving aside the notion of ‘celebrating’ D-Day – the line between commemoration, memorial and celebration seemingly blurred these days – how does one pay tribute to a bloody battle through the medium of food exactly? This year’s dishes have seen ammo crates, ration cards and shrapnel helmets employed to house plates of nosh. What japes. Why not go one step further?

“Adam has served his venison parcels in hollowed-out chemical grenades, with a side serving of gravy in a canister of Zyklon B.”

At what point does a pivotal moment in a war become beyond the pale? How about the liberation of Auschwitz? The detonation of Little Boy above Hiroshima? The carpet bombing of Dresden? The attack on Pearl Harbour? Presumably we wouldn’t deign to ‘celebrate’ these instances with a plate of saltmarsh lamb and samphire or a salted caramel creme brulee, nor serve a gigantic field mushroom rising above a flattened Japanese town constructed with burned edamame beans? Perhaps you think my rhetoric offensive – in which case ask yourself whether an entire programme predicated on exactly the same notion is offensive.

Is this an issue of time elapsed? I can imagine a silly programme where chefs from Lancashire and Yorkshire compete to see who can make the best regional dishes with a passing reference to the Wars of the Roses. But many WWII veterans are still alive. On that score would we serve a cocktail to ‘honour’ Vietnam vets called Agent Orange? Centre a throwaway food entertainment show around the Falklands conflict? First Iraq War? The Troubles? 9/11? Of course we wouldn’t.

So how has this one got the OK? Here’s how one foodie blog sees it:

This year’s theme is a whopper: the 70th anniversary of D Day. As such, chefs must create dishes that evoke the wartime spirit of the generation which fought for our freedom as well as honour the bravery shown throughout the Second World War.

Let’s parse this for a second. Food that accurately represents what dodging hot metal, designed to tear your body apart, is like? Food that accurately represents what it’s like to face down a Nazi war machine that exterminated six million Jews in concentration camps? Food that accurately represents what plunging a bayonet into the chest of enemy troops is like? Hmm.

There’s talk of one chef travelling to Normandy to the scene of the allied invasion; Frances Atkins retracing her father’s D Day experiences through her menu; and Emily Watkins drawing inspiration from her grandfather, a prisoner of war.

Asking someone about their experience of being a prisoner of war so you can cook some powdered-egg cake off the back of it? How can no-one see how blithely offensive this is? Here’s a tweet from the Twitter account of the same blog:

Would people who fought, killed and died on foreign battlefields care about the lack of dates on a dish created as a ‘celebration’ to their sacrifice 70 years later? My guess – and I recognise that I’m going out on a limb here – is that they would not.

Foodie types – those who commission these programmes and those who participate in them – seem to have come to the utterly mistaken conclusion that their work is in some way important. In show after show we’re showed meals that are supposed to be witty and humourous, produced by some of the most humourless, self-important and monomaniacal people who walk the earth. They have come to believe their own press – that putting a pork loin in a water bath is, in some way, worthy of praise.

It’s the only explanation for a programme where one chef asks another whether his potted shrimp dish ‘honours’ the combatants in a protracted series of battles in which 20,000 people lost their lives.

• Am I alone? Thankfully not. Here’s what Twitter makes of it.

Written by Robin Brown

May 6th, 2014 at 8:23 pm

Posted in TV

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February Update

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Fast Cars Robin Brown

My first book, Fast Cars, is in shops now. It looks like this.

I have completed an article on Jack The Ripper for All About History magazine and will be commencing my latest article for Professional Manager Magazine this month, probably on crossover SUVs.

I’m teaching at the University of Sunderland over five modules this semester. Most of the modules I’m teaching on revolve around digital and social media, including MAC114, MAC296, MAC297, MAC299 and MACM69 at Sunderland.

I am also teaching digital media at the University of Salford.

I’ve finished at the University of Westminster, where I delivered a module I wrote on News and Feature Writing.

I’m currently working on editing a magazine for the International Festival of Business, which will be held in Liverpool this Summer.

I recently attended launches for the Citroen Grand C4 Picasso and Volvo D4 engine range. I recorded podcasts at both with Gavin Braithwaite-Smith. You can hear the former below. I recently updated a page on my automotive experience too.

Written by Robin Brown

February 4th, 2014 at 3:13 pm

Posted in Robin's News

The New Black: Chevrolet Volt / Vauxhall Ampera review

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A few decades ago, when a hydrogen fuel-cell or the Porsche Cayenne were mere dreams in the mind of a madman, there was such a thing as a diesel-electric powertrain, pushing people and freight all over the country and no-one batted an eyelid. The diesel engine generated electricity that drove the wheels. Clever eh?

Fast forward to the 21st Century – you know, the new millennium when we’d all get to work in a flying car and eat food pills for breakfast – and General Motors has rediscovered this revolutionary powertrain. It works like this: A small engine burns petrol and, instead of driving the wheels, it generates electricity. This electricity, in turn, powers an electric motor that drives the wheels. It sounds more complicated but, weirdly, it’s more efficient (although GM has admitted that on very rare occasions – Christmas and the Queen’s birthday and so on – the petrol engine can drive the wheels directly, though this is akin to the USS Enterprise passing Warp 9.9).

But there’s more. Energy can be recovered while coasting or heading downhill, meaning you can generate more electricity from movement and gravity. More cleverness. If that doesn’t float your boat then you can plug it into the mains and charge it up at home, at work or at one of the (rather low) number of charging points around the country.

Chevrolet calls this technology Voltec – and it’s new in the automotive world. As we’ve seen, this technology has been around for a long, long time however – a sign of how slowly the car industry grasped the necessity for change that it’s only just become financially viable. Not that it is for GM, who are reckoned to lose money on every Chevrolet Volt and Vauxhall Ampera sold, of course. Whether it’s cost-effective for private, business or fleet buyers is an intriguing question too. But more of that later – here are my thoughts on the Volt (and Ampera too – I’ve driven both and the differences are not meaningful).

I love it. I wholeheartedly love it. It delights me, it amuses me, it surprises me and it wows me. Years ago we might have called this the X-Factor. Let’s say it has a certain je ne sais quoi.

The Volt looks cool; it has a certain whiff of the muscular styling that left the country with Dodge and Cadillac a couple of years back. But while they looked rather clunky – the automotive equivalent of a 20-gallon hat and Smith and Wesson sticking out of a belt – the Volt looks imposing and rather different.

Step inside and this impression continues. It’s not uncommon to see car interiors compared to TARDISes – or smart LCD screens imagined as Starfleet technology. The Volt reminds me of Blake’s 7 starship The Liberator: bright, white, smart and clean – a vision of the future from a time when that didn’t mean the dirty industrial neo-noir of how we tend to envision things to come in these permanently-disappointed days. The Volt doesn’t talk to you in a haughty voice – I’d guess Justin Bieber if it did talk – but you wouldn’t be inordinately surprised if it started yakking at you about the weather.

Start up the car and there’s a bunch of noises more akin to a gaming console firing up. That sensation is compounded by the displays that spring into life when you press the start button, swimming into sight like the interface of the 360 or PS3. This is clearly not accidental; in fact it’s one of the first of a new paradigm in how we communicate with our cars. It’s not the first example of the way that our cars will dazzle us with information via a pretty screen, but it’s one of the more noticeable.

If you have any charge in your Volt’s batteries, you will pull away with the gentle, almost imperceptible, whoosh of an electric car. This is a genuine thrill that has yet to wear off for me and it’s a constant audible reminder that the car you’re driving is Other, something new.

It’s at this point that the Volt can go one of several ways. It is an electric car, with caveats. It is a parallel hybrid, if you drive it that way. It is a series hybrid, if you run out of electric charge. It’s a plug-in hybrid or a KERS-powered hybrid, or both. Or it is essentially a petrol car with some brake energy regeneration. It depends entirely on how you drive it and how you treat it. And that determines entirely how much it costs to run.

Drive it as a pure EV – this is possible if you follow a logic diagram and can tick yes all the way down – and your bank manager will kiss you. Drive it as a pure petrol car – this is possible if you take every path of least resistance – and your bank manager will tut and shake his head. Children will cry when they see you and you will feel all hollow inside. The difference, over 10,000 miles a year, could amount to thousands of pounds.

Still, either way, Boris will ensure that you don’t pay the Congestion Charge in London; the Treasury won’t be chasing you for any road tax and neither insurers nor your local repair man will be your friend as you’re unlikely to be putting as much business their way. If you ran the Volt purely on electricity it could cost you as little as £5,000 to cover 10,000 miles in a year by my reckoning (I have a C in GCSE maths so make of that what you will) – perhaps less than half of a similar petrol car.

That means the quoted fuel economy and CO2 figures are quite, quite meaningless. That’s not Chevy’s fault, but these European homologation numbers seems to get more absurd with every new car. You might as well ascribe a mile-per-gallon rating of 270mpg to your house, cat or Yorkshire Pudding as the Volt. The answer, in my view, lies somewhere between 40mpg, 80mpg and N/Ampg. Where 270mpg comes from is a genuine mystery to me. So too the 27g/km for CO2. Eh?

The Volt is, then, a tool and it’s up to you to use it in the way for which it was designed. You wouldn’t buy a hammer to fix your broken china pot nor a bicycle to cover your daily 100-mile commute. The Volt can be used incorrectly in much the same way, though the worst that can happen is that you blow a lot of money on a cool car – you wouldn’t exactly be the first to make that mistake. Use the Volt well – remember how we’re taught that electricity can be our friend if used properly? – and I think it could the start of a beautiful friendship.

If this were a Top Gear review then, at this point, I’d do a massive switcheroo and suggest you shouldn’t buy one. So should you buy one?

No. And, yet, yes.

Car-buying is about to become a heck of a lot more complicated. Oh, sure, these days you have to factor in running costs to special offers, divide by cashback, multiply the finance and reverse the polarity of the neutron flow. But that’s child’s play to what’s coming. It is phenomenally hard to work out whether a car such as the Volt will save you money.

To do so you need to know your annual mileage, your electricity tariff, your most likely commutes, the proximity of various charging points and your projected savings on the likes of road tax, insurance and maintenance over, say, seven years. Got that? OK, here’s your next task.

What are the Volt’s likely resale values? How long will the battery last? Should you buy a wallbox for faster, more efficient charging? Will a new generation of superconductors make electricity much cheaper? Will petrol prices rise exponentially in the next decade? You might even have to bear in mind the prevailing temperature in your part of the world, how hilly your commute is, how busy it’s likely to be at certain times of the day, whether you mainly drive in urban or motorway environs…

Only you can answer any of these questions. In the same way that fleet managers spend time poring over spreadsheets, gnawing on a pencil and frowning before handing you a piece of paper on which they’ve written VAUXHALL ASTRA and HYUNDAI i30, you will have to calculate up to a dozen factors – some of which will be hedged bets and best guesses – before deciding whether the Volt will save you money.

My own experiences with this car, in this area, have left me nonplussed. On the launch I was mightily impressed by the figures achieved and potential savings. On a more recent encounter, when I racked up around 600 miles in the car, I was less impressed. Whether because of my style of driving (fairly conservative, believe it or not), weather or other conditions, I got barely 20 miles from charging the car up – a long way shy of the potential 50 miles the Volt is capable of.

For those 20 miles I had the car plugged in to the mains at 120V for around 12 hours; by my reckoning at a cost of about two quid. Now, how far would a new diesel engine at 50mpg combined cost to cover the same distance? I suspect the difference is down to a few pence. I’m well aware of the other financial savings on road tax, maintenance and the like, but the Volt has an asking price of around £30,000 (£35,000 without the government incentive for which it currently qualifies), perhaps double the price of cars that offer comparable size, performance and economy. There are numerous cars that go for £30K but I find the most instructive example to be the Jaguar XF. A Jaguar XF!

I could say more – in fact I once delivered a piece to camera, in one take, on the mathematics of electric cars that lasted well over a minute and has driven all who’ve seen it to horrible tears – but I think the point is made. You will spend a lot of time figuring out whether an EREV makes sense for you – and when you have it you will need to have your wits about you like never before.

Because while you can drive the Volt as if it’s a pure ICE car it would be utterly pointless to do so. It would be like insulating your loft and then leaving all the windows open in Winter. It would be like buying a Toyota Prius and driving it down the motorway at 90mph. It would be like pateintly collecting and sorting all your recycling every week before throwing it in the bin. As a pure petrol car the Volt is a little short of poke and returns about 40mpg. Further, like the Prius example, there is no point in buying one if you have a heavy right foot – you’re simply chucking money down the drain.

30 years ago you had a simple choice. Small family car; big family car. Little car; big car. Slow car; fast car. Cheap car; expensive car. 4-star petrol, manual, two seatbelts and a choke. Not any more. Rather like the way that privatisation has made choosing an energy provider a baffling and distressing paper-chase of incomprehensible tariffs, car-buying is becoming similarly discombobulating. Whether this concerns you or not depends entirely on your approach to buying and owning cars.

If you’re a worrier, a pen-chewer, a bean counter then the coming age of EVs, EREVs, hybrids, turbo petrols and ultra-efficient diesels are going to make your life a living hell. If, on the other hand, you simply buy cars because you like them – and to Hell with the cost – you might revel in the dazzling range of choices.

And I think the Volt (and its Ampera sibling) might just delight the discerning car-buyer. It’s new, quite different, vaguely futuristic and exciting in the way that few new cars are. It’s a technological marvel, it has style and it’s a car that certainly says something about you. I’m not entirely sure what it will say, but I perceive a much bolder, more offbeat, pretentious-in-a-good-way vibe to the Volt. That name, that powertrain, the gaming-like interface and the fairly radical centre stack. It screams that it is different to the rest of the car parc; a commitment to awkwardness; a statement of uniqueness.

The Volt is, in essence, the new Saab. I can imagine architects driving this car. Doctors, dentists, history teachers. People who own a coffee table book of Klimts, the DVD of that Scorsese film on Bob Dylan and a black rollneck sweater. Glib? Yes, I don’t care – you can read the What Car? review if you want luggage space or ISOFIX information. The Volt is the new Saab, you read it here first.

That means the Volt is my car of 2012, not because of its economic or ecological credentials, not for its rather ordinary driving manners or somewhat awkward use of interior space. But because of what it is not. It is not like most other cars; it is not like any other cars. It makes driving feel like a new experience again – new skills to learn, new sensations to come to terms with – a car that feels like a kick up the arse in its use of computer trickery to communicate and cajole.

It’s the way that GM has not made a hair shirt of this car; rather something bold, futuristic and exciting. Instead the differences are made a virtue; accentuated and pushed to the fore – an ECU that has more information than you can comprehend, showing you what your car is doing in real-time and making it a defining factor of what this car is all about.

How many decades have passed since the first diesel-electric trams and trains? 50 years later EREVs and plug-in hybrids will be the norm soon – the opportunity to offload responsibility for power generation onto national grids will be too good for car manufacturers to resist. It’s ironic that this very old concept has been reanimated as a car of the future, but that’s what it is. And guess what, we can expect to see petrol-electric trains using this form of powertrain again in years to come. Good ideas never die – they just go out of fashion, but then they come back. The Volt is the new Black.

Written by Robin Brown

January 28th, 2014 at 5:26 pm

Posted in Car reviews

Heavy Vettel: Infiniti FX Vettel review

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Buying a car is ridiculous, when you think about it. What else would you spend ten, 15, 30 or even 60 grand on, having consulted a few mates down the pub, at work or in the extended family? I can spend a good five minutes comparing nutritional values and prices-per-kilo of cereals I’ll spend two quid on. If I were to scale that up to £15,000 how much more time, relatively speaking, should I spend researching a car purchase? (the answer is 860 hours if you’re doing the maths).

You might peruse the web – or buy a What Car? compendium of reviews; such an information overkill I genuinely wonder whether anyone finds them useful at all, apart form an exercise in confirmation (or conformation) bias. And what of the myriad online car guides? I’ve come to suspect they’re virtually useless unless there’s a recognisable brand name behind them. Google has killed them off in the search engines, so anyone without a recognised, trustworthy name is toast.

So, people look for peer reviews. Friends, family, experts they may know. Terry bought an Astra and he loves it. Jackie had one of those German ones and it’s nothing but trouble. Dad has always bought Fords… People like familiarity when it comes to spending lots of cash. They do not like, well, unfamiliarity.

Just ask any Chinese manufacturer – Brilliance, Great Wall, Geely, Chery, SAIC – how easy it is to break into a Western market. All have baulked at the prohibitive costs and long-term investment required to bring a new automotive product to market, or made a piecemeal entry. And we have some recent salutary lessons about what happens when foreign brands come to British shores – though if Dodge had ever brought the Challenger to the UK they could have chalked up at least one more sale.

Bringing a new car manufacturer to market is very hard. Again, people like known, trusted names when it comes to big-ticket purchases. There’s the lack of a dealership network, the lack of brand recognition, the lack of peer knowledge. Very few people in the UK have driven an Infiniti, never mind owned one – that rules out one of the best ways to market available to a manufacturer looking for conquest sales.

And when you’re looking to take customers from manufacturers with loyal buyers like Mercedes and Lexus – or the ‘cool’ exec brands such as Audi and BMW – you have your work cut out. Infiniti has a car to rival virtually ever car in the premium range. A compact exec with convertible and coupe versions; a large exec; a crossover SUV and a large SUV. Throw in a hybrid and you’ve ticked virtually every box. The only problem is, very few people know about them.

So, Infiniti has a challenge stiffer than Mark Webber trying to get his hands on the new Red Bull Racing front wing. But it does have a significant advantage over the Chinese. It has strong product. And it has the fastest man in the world signed up. At the time of writing Sebastian Vettel has just won his third successive F1 championship; he’s the youngest man ever to take three titles, nevermind three successive titles.

Win on Sunday; buy on Monday. That’s an old maxim known throughout the world of car sales. But does it make any sort of sense? Will people rush out to their local Infiniti dealerships – now at six sites predominantly in the south-east and Pennines – and put down a five grand deposit on the EX crossover SUV simply because Vettel came sixth in Brazil? Well, no, but the Infiniti livery plastered all over Seb’s car, helmet and overalls certainly won’t do any harm in giving the brand a leg-up in the consciousness of the UK’s 30m drivers.

Nor will having a halo product with Vettel’s name plastered all over it. The Infiniti FX 5.0 Vettel has taken the manufacturer’s largest car and transformed it into an absolute weapon; a chrome- and metallic-bedecked SUV with badging, vents and actual spoiler. An F1-esque spoiler on an SUV. Oh yes. Inevitably there’s a load of carbon fibre all over the shop, inside and out, and a power is boosted to 414bhp – 30 more than the standard FX 5.0. That makes it capable of a frankly ludicrous 186mph with the speed limiter removed (155mph in the UK).

And the Vettel Edition is keen to shout about it. A ridiculous engine note that suggests nothing less than approaching death from above has serious intent. Like nature’s colour-coded warning signs – bright reds and yellows for ‘do not approach’ – the sound of an unblown 5000cc petrol engine is engaging on a primal level.

So it’s fast, it’s loud – but how does it handle? Sadly I have to report that I can’t offer a full assessment. On the dispiriting network of roads and estates around Stockport there wasn’t much opportunity to see what this luxo-performo branding exercise was made of.

Which is a shame because the power delivery is wonderful and it feels capable of a lot. What I can tell you is that a lot of body roll has been ironed out with the lowering of the suspension and the various aerodynamic tweaks the Vettel boasts. It’s got a lot of downforce and it’s pretty slippery so it would be interesting to see what’s it’s made of on a track. The steering is pleasingly heavy and fairly direct; the ride fairly comfortable despite the stiffened springs. Even so, the Vettel weight over two tonnes. It feels big – and squeezing this left-hand-drive beast through rush-hour urban traffic wasn’t especially relaxing.

Off-roading? Well, I guess you could if you really had to. But would you take a £100K beast like this into the rough stuff? I suspect not, and with that ground-hugging style I’d suggest that some of the green stuff you might see by the side of Herman Tilke’s finest is the worst you should attempt in this peculiar SUV. In that regard the Vettel edition reminds me of the more exotic versions of the Porsche Cayenne; a big car that’s designed to be fast and luxurious first and worry about CO2 emissions and dragging a caravan to the Dordogne second.

Though I regard the Cayenne with the same amount of fondness as I regard Bernard Ecclestone, I’d suggest the Vettel loses out to the GTS on pure performance. And the big Infiniti is never going to best some of the blingier Range Rovers in the key departments, even though it does feel like it would dispense with the Rangey like Seb passing Schumacher (respect, but not much) when it comes to driving dynamics.

The Vettel is powered by a 5.0-litre petrol engine, with more power coming from a remapped engine and redesigned exhaust system. That makes 414 horses and over 380 torques; 62mph in 5.6 seconds. There are splashes of Brabus-sourced carbon all over the car in an effort to get the car over the 300km/h plus an F1-inspired rear foglight. There are no roof rails and the brakes are ported from the standard car.

At £105,600 it’s almost over double the price of a vanilla FX. For that not-inconsiderable amount of cash you get that £5K carbon fibre spoiler, alloy wheels that are almost five kilos lighter than standard rims and an interior bedecked in carbon, Alcantara and magnesium.

This car is a tank. A nuclear sub. A juggernaut. It weighs two tonnes and it’s still really fast. Inside you feel cosseted, enclosed – the wheel comes out and the chair moves forward when you get in – it makes you feel like an almost-organic part of the Vettel. A velvet glove inside an iron bastard.

But there are problems. The 21-inch wheels look absurdly big and are just one of the elements that conspire to make the Vettel a rather ugly car. Inside – despite all the expensive materials – it doesn’t look especially different from the other Infiniti interiors. And it costs £105,800.

So, this Vettel-badged SUV is something of a curate’s egg. I wonder if the Vettel association might have found a better outlet with the GT-R within the Renault-Nissan Alliance (a term that always puts me in mind of Star Trek realpolitik, like the Klingons and Romulans have joined forces). Let’s reflect for a moment on what this alliance puts out. The world’s best-selling electric car; hybrids; tiny seven-grand city cars; a supercar; a range of SUVs, including a genre-defining crossover; pick-ups; little vans; big vans; execs; coupes; hot hatches; supercars and some of the most ridiculous cars that ever lived – I’m looking at you Juke-R and Twizy.

You might wonder what Renault-Nissan gains from a costly, long-haul launch of Infiniti and its already-large range of executive cars. The answer is margin. Sell 100 Nissan Pixos or sell one Infiniti FX with all the toys. Factor in economies of scale, the spreading of production costs – platforms, powertrains, fittings – across millions more cars, and there’s more imperative. Modern car-making is all about leveraging – and that brings us nicely to Sebastian Vettel.

Because the team that has won the last three Formula One titles is now called Infiniti Red Bull Racing – and it’s a partnership that goes well beyond naming rights. Technology transfer, the champ’s name on a car and the fastest man on the planet at the wheel. The Vettel Edition is really an extension of that branding. As such it doesn’t really feel like a car to be assessed alongside the G Convertible, M hybrid saloon and EX crossover I have also driven and enjoyed. In fact, against those cars the Vettel Edition feels like a concept more than anything – there for show, with a metaphorically hollow interior.

So, yes – it’s a struggle to launch a new car manufacturer in a new market – and it’s debatable how good the Vettel Edition is in isolation. But Renault-Nissan is playing a long game, in which Vettel and his souped-up SUV are simply the initial moves on the board. It is looking to Infiniti – and beyond.

Written by Robin Brown

January 28th, 2014 at 5:23 pm

Posted in Car reviews

Citroen C4 Grand Picasso review: Glazed and Confused

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Citroen has a reputation for innovation and creativity. Thinking outside the box, or blue-sky thinking they call it these days. I tend to think of it as a dash of typical French insouciance, stubbornness – in the same way that in the French countryside they defend the right to drown sparrows in armagnac: why shouldn’t we have air suspension? Why shouldn’t we have a steering wheel that doesn’t move in the middle? Why not sell a vast Gallic barge that costs forty grand and sells in single figures (in its last full year the glorious C6 sold just six models).

So it seems fitting that Citroen has seen fit to reinvent the MPV with the new C4 Grand Picasso. How so? Well, it looks nothing like an MPV. There’s something of the hatch, estate and even SUV about it. From the rear three-quarter angle it looks very smart, depending on the trim level the interior looks Audi or BMW-class; a spot of DS class bleeding into the C range.

The facts and figures look promising too. The new C4 Grand Picasso sells from £17,500 and is the first model on the new PSA Peugeot Citroen EMP2 platform, which you can expect to see pressed into employment on many more cars on UK roads across the Citroen and Peugeot ranges and, conceivably, Vauxhalls if a mooted tie-up with General Motors Europe goes ahead.

It’s shorter in height and length than the previous model and weights 140kg less, no mean amount on such a car, and yet has more interior space. Boot space is ‘class-topping’ and extends to 630 litres and a load space of 2.5 metres with the front seat folded down. You could probably fit two horses inside.

Citroen is good at this sort of space-juggling and the interior gives the driver and passengers much more visibility too, with exquisitely narrow A-pillars. The panoramic sunroof, which comes as standard, is wonderful – flooding the cabin with light – and the sliding sun visors a clever touch. There is more glass here that a Richard Rogers tower block.

What else? Well, Citroen says it’s the first car of its class to sneak under 100g/km with the 90bhp eHDI powertrain. Good for them; there are many powertrains available of petrol and diesel flavour. While I wasn’t able to sample the petrols I can report that the HDi 90 manual VTR+ – feels underpowered and the e-HDi 115 manual 6-speed Exclusive feels about right.

The drive and ride? Well, this is where things get tricky. While Citroen says handling has been improved the C4 Picasso doesn’t feel very nimble. Not only that, the car feels unsetlled over poor road surfaces, even breaking traction when cornering at a sedate speed over some uneven tarmac at one point. While the car will cruise comfortably and take speed bumps in its stride, it crashes over potholes. Like the DS5, it feels too stiff to me.

But here’s the thing. Do customers really care? Citroen says that of all the customers who’ve given feedback on their DS5s – a car that every single motoring journalist I’ve discussed it with has criticised the ride – not one has mentioned the ride quality. This touches on something we mull on PetrolBlog from time-to-time – do car-buyers give a hoot about the things that car nerds think are important? Clearly not, the Citroen Xsara Picasso sold 2.5 million units and was one of the most unpleasant cars I’ve ever driven. Objectively bad, I’d say.

The new C4 Picasso is not objectively bad. It’s not even subjectively bad. It’s a car that has a lot going for it and the sort of car that people who buy SUVs will love. But there are a couple of things that are objectively poor: the binnacle under the seats (there are more storage spaces here than a Google server farm) has a sharp, hard edge that’s more than capable of inflicting a nasty scratch.

The seven-inch touchscreen isn’t especially intuitive and requires a patient finger – the manual equivalent of having to talk to someone stupid very… slowly… indeed… Users of smartphones will be tearing their USBs out in frustration. On all trims bar the top-level Exclusive+ the trim on the seats feels cheap and rather nasty; the manual tailgate feels heavy and doesn’t have a grab-able handle; difficult if you’re a bit wee and weak. I can never seem to get quite to grips with Citroen seating positions. And the ride just doesn’t make sense to me.

The good? The more powerful engines are lovely and refined, the gearbox smooth, the running costs good, the safety rating and technology impressive, the interior space clever and plentiful, the looks different and natty and the ultra-low loading lip and boot floor something to genuinely get excited about, if you’re inclined to get excited about such things. Exclusive models upwards get Citroen’s space-age rear LEDs that are spiffing and the interior on the range-topper a real revelation.

These models start at £23,460 for the THP 155 manual 6-speed Exclusive+ and they’re a very strong proposition indeed. It’s got lots of lovely toys, including active cruise control, a blind-spot monitoring system, park assist, and electronic footrest and massage seats and an electronic tailgate with a memory function. But it’s the quality of the interior that really sets it apart – the top-spec car is seriously good quality. So much so I’d defy anyone to tell it apart from an executive-level interior without some serious prodding and chin-rubbing.

To lob in another physcial expression of doubt, the new C4 Picasso has left me scratching my head. The VTI models are lacking in some departments; the Exclusive seem to want for very little. Roughly half of these models – when specifications and engines are taken into account – would leave me cold. The other half I would doff my hat towards.

No other car has left me with a feeling of existential crisis. Citroen listened to its customers when building this car; it filmed their interactions with it and asked them what they wanted. The result is somewhat schizophrenic but it seems to be what customers want – I can’t help thinking back to the Xsara Picasso, easily the worst car Citroen has made in the last 20 years and probably the best-seller.

Acknowledging all that, does it matter one jot what I think of the C4 Picasso’s ride quality? Am I, essentially, obsolete when it comes to writing car reviews? Aren’t we all? Has anyone, out of all the people who have asked for my advice on buying a car, ever taken it? Not many, looking back. Most of them bought a bloody Audi A3, after all.

To sum up, this French MPV ticks all the boxes it needs to, gets a qualified pass on a couple of others and flunks the ones that don’t matter. Isn’t that a perfect lesson in how to make a volume car in these straitened times? Perhaps manufacturers should stop listening to motoring journalists; the last time they did the result was a To sum up, this French MPV ticks all the boxes it needs to, gets a qualified pass on a couple of others and flunks the ones that don’t matter. Isn’t that a perfect lesson in how to make a volume car in these straitened times? Perhaps manufacturers should stop listening to motoring journalists; the last time they did the result was a Suzuki Kizashi with a CVT and 2.4-litre petrol engine.

Citroën has built a new C4 Picasso that it knows car-buyers will like, with 10,000 orders on the continent already. In that context a motoring journalist complaining about stiff suspension seems a little like a restaurant critic complaining about the gherkin on his Big Mac.

Written by Robin Brown

January 28th, 2014 at 5:15 pm

Posted in Car reviews

Electric can lighten costs

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My first column for Professional Manager magazine, written in 2012

At the turn of the year the press is full of ‘best of’ lists: albums, films, adverts, cars – you name it. I’ve been pondering my cars of the year and have found it very hard going. A few years ago, they were neatly segmented by fuel, segment and more. Not any more.
This year there’s a dazzling spread of vehicles that are hard to compare to one another.
Rather like a radical new album from a favoured band, I’ve been unable to figure out whether I’ve liked a lot of last year’s new metal or not – mainly because they’re so… new. Plug-in hybrids, electric cars, extended-range electric cars – these are whole new genres in motoring.

Over 2012 I’ve driven several electric vehicles, ranging from the charming and ridiculous Renault Twizy to the suave and grown-up Vauxhall Ampera (AKA the Chevrolet Volt – it’s the same car underneath). On the whole I can’t help but feel very impressed – and a little bit excited – about the technology. Driving electric vehicles (EVs) is a thrill that has yet to wear off.

However, when I come to write about them I find all the usual downsides stacking up: range, battery life, residual values, real-world costs, the lack of infrastructure – the evidence against electric cars seems damning, and it makes them hard to recommend to the majority of private buyers.

I suspect that most fleet managers share my reservations about this new glut of eco-cars, despite the potential for substantial fuel savings and a nice little green tick on your company’s end-of-year report, the marketing value of which can be significant. For this admittedly large group, the cons still outweigh the pros.

But what of the rest? Despite my reluctance to recommend EVs – or Extended Range Electric Vehicles such as the Ampera/Volt – to the majority of fleet managers, there are business sectors that I think would enjoy huge benefits from taking a punt on one these battery-powered machines.

A friend of mine – a bona fide genius as I’m sure he won’t mind me saying – is working on a medium-sized electric van, the kind used by florists, builders, caterers and so on. He believes the vehicle will sell like petrol in a fuel strike. Why? Because he’s done his maths.

He knows that most delivery vans have a static, daily round-trip; he knows that these vans are likely to be stored in a depot with ready access to charging facilities overnight (when electricity is cheaper); he knows that few of these vans will ever be required to travel further than the range they’re equipped with; and he knows that businesses who run large fleets will be interested in savings on fuel, tax and maintenance. As a result his van is designed to tick all of those boxes – and very little else. It’s a product designed for a very specific buyer.

I suspect there’s a similar algorithm that fleet managers could use to figure out if the new generation of EVs from Nissan, Renault, Chevy and Vauxhall will meet their needs. Many will find that they’re better of sticking with their high-efficiency, low-CO2 diesel models – the usual suspects on those end-of-year ‘best of’ lists. But those fleet managers who get their calculators out might just find some extraordinary upsides to taking a punt on electric.

Bright sparks – six EVs to check out

Chevrolet Volt

Using General Motors’ revolutionary Voltec technology, the Volt uses an electric motor to drive the wheels, powered by either batteries or a petrol engine. As such it can be used as a pure EV or as a conventional petrol car.

Vauxhall Ampera

Vauxhall’s take on the Volt is essentially identical, but trim levels and prices differ slightly. At around £30K for both, however, these cars face some stiff competition.

Nissan Leaf

The current leader of the electric-car pack, the Leaf is Ford Focus-sized but a pure EV. Claimed running costs are eye-catching, but the radical nature of the Leaf may deter buyers.

Renault Zoe

Renault’s second-generation EV is Fiesta-sized and has a fast-charge capacity. It looks normal, which could be a big plus, has a sensible asking price and a range in excess of 100 miles.

Toyota Prius plug-in

Whether cars are classed as EVs seem to be a matter of semantics or marketing as much as anything, but the new Prius can be plugged in and charged electrically – and offers a limited EV range. Stiff asking price though.

Mitsubishi iMiEV

With an initial price tag that could stun an ox, the iMiEV wasn’t a quick seller; however, Mitsubishi has lowered prices and makes some eye-catching claims to the iMiEV’s capabilities.

Written by Robin Brown

January 25th, 2014 at 4:32 pm

Posted in Car reviews

Meet your new smart device: Your car

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My second column for Professional manager magazine, written in 2013

My generation long-since became sceptical of ITALS Tomorrow’s World ITALS-esque claims of how radical technology will very soon make our lives easier. X-ray glasses, tea-making household robots and a contraceptive pill for men? Anyone seen any of those down the shops? Thought not.

Yet one of these fabled never-never inventions is close at hand – the self-driving car. Volvo, Audi and Toyota are ploughing resources into motors that can drive themselves. Meanwhile, the likes of Google and Apple are looking very closely at how they can integrate their technology into cars. In many respects, the technology for these futuristic vehicles is mature.

We already have the radars and cameras that judge the distances to nearby vehicles and read road signs; algorithms that calculate whether a crash is in the offing or adjust adaptive cruise control settings; servos that control steering wheels and pedals; stop-start systems that cut ignition when the car comes to a halt.

The implications for safety and fuel economy are varied, but the potential to free up drivers’ time while on the road is obviously significant. A colleague once told me of a former boss who insisted that his employees were able to study and complete paperwork and conduct telephone calls all while at the wheel. While that’s obviously barking mad, it may not be for long.

So what do we need to make these road-borne offices a reality? Answer: data. The vehicles need to be able to receive, crunch and transmit huge amounts of data on traffic, location, speed, acceleration, and myriad other factors. There is no existing platform by which cars can send and receive vast quantities of information in this way. But connectivity is the next big thing in carmaking. It’s fair to say we’re heading for a paradigm shift in the way we build and use cars.

The modern car is close to being a movable communication device. Part-phone, part-computer, part-vehicle, it will take the initiative should circumstances demand it. The pan-European eCall initiative – designed to relay data to emergency services in the event of an accident, mirroring systems already offered by Volvo, Peugeot, Citroen and BMW – becomes a viable project with such connected cars.

Concepts such as pay-as-you-drive insurance – or road tax – become possible where real-time data can be transmitted direct from the car. Think cars that inform fleet managers when services are due – and whether breakdowns are imminent. Cars that feed back driver behaviour in real time, perhaps even to other cars on the road. Cars that can download software patches and upgrades in the way your smartphone or tablet might. It becomes difficult to predict where this might take us very quickly, but mobile service providers, satnav manufacturers, warranty providers, insurance companies, leasing companies and government treasuries will all be watching developments very closely.

The end point of all this is the car-as-smartphone. You won’t need to connect your wheels to your phone; your car will be your phone. Or tablet, or PC. I’ve sat, agog, in a Range Rover watching live television on the Jaguar Land Rover dual-TV screen, but that’s nothing compared to a car that is connected with the web, the car behind you, centralised weather and traffic stations; perhaps even your house.

By the end of the decade every new car that hits the road will have the ability to communicate with every other car on the road. Terabytes of data will be harvested every second on cars, drivers and roads. The ramifications are enormous, fluid and not necessarily easy to predict but, amid the plethora of possibilities, the connected car is the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle to creating a driverless world. And that’s one Tomorrow’s World-style forecast I’m happy to put my name to.

Tech five

Real-time satnav

Satellite navigation that can aggregate traffic reports have been around for a while, but the next generation of satnavs will use telemetry from other cars to construct best-bet routes in real time.

Driver assist

Designed to prevent an accident from happening in the first place – and mitigate the worst of an accident if it should prove unavoidable – technologies such as traction control, brake assist, ESP and ABS are making it harder to crash a modern car.

The seeing car

Many cars can currently park themselves, with only a modicum of human input, while others offer cruise control that adapts to the speed of the car in front. Volvo cars can tell if you’re wandering out of your lane, check your blind spot and even if you might be feeling drowsy.

Voice control

Make a phone call, ask your satnav to make a phone call for you, toggle media. Voice control currently means your attention needn’t waver while driving; in the future it could mean asking your car to take you home, tell your partner know you’ll be home late or pop the kettle on ready for your return.

The internet

Like electricity connecting up a grid, web access will join all the constituent parts together – feeding vital data on other roads and road users to navigation and driving systems that can make a self-driving car a viable prospect.

Written by Robin Brown

January 25th, 2014 at 4:29 pm

Posted in Car reviews

A Brighter Future?

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My Q3 2014 column for Professional Manager

Longer fleet cycles combined with rapid changes in technology and legislation make it imperative to futureproof new car leases.

It pays to see what’s down the road. We’re naturally risk averse these days – we want to know that our decisions stack up; that they make sense in context and in terms of what’s to come. See a red light approaching, for instance, and it makes sense to ease off the accelerator. You save a little fuel; you lessen the wear on your brake pads; you mitigate against someone rear-ending you at the lights; you give yourself a little pat on the back. It’s an example of future-proofing on a micro level, but it makes total sense to apply the same thinking on a larger level.

Take out a lease on a car now and – if you’re still on a three-year cycle – you won’t part with it until halfway through 2017; plan for replacing your current fleet and you need to start thinking about the economic and technological landscape in 2020, especially if you delay your fleet rollover beyond 36 months, as is increasingly common. While I don’t have a crystal ball there are some obvious issues to be aware of, whether announced by the government already or likely to be a factor by the time your next cycle comes around.

Tax is the obvious place to start, with the planned removal of the diesel surchrage and new BIK rates for ultra-low-CO2 cars. From April 2015, two new company car tax bands will be introduced at 0-50g/km and 51-75 g/km CO2 – starting a 5% an 9% respectively as the market anticipates more alternative-fuel cars with ultra-low CO2 emissions.

The opportunities for the cost-conscious manager or user-chooser are obvious, as they are for the planned harmonisation of BIK rates for petrol and diesel cars from April 2016. What’s more, from April 2015, the threshold at which the 100% first-year write-down allowance applies will reduce from 95g/km to 75g/km, as CO2 is driven down across the board and incentivisation of electric vehicles continues apace.

What else? Well, what’s inside your car requires some attention too, or you could find yourself without your dose of breakfast radio inanity during your commute. A digital switchover, which could be announced at any time, could render your car’s audio systems obsolete within their three-year cycle. While the chances are this won’t happen for several years, there’s no way of knowing you could be stuck with a motor that can only pick up pirate radio and Scandinavian phone calls. Most cars feature DAB as an option – or as standard on the majority of specifications, but cars at the cheaper end of the spectrum may not.

Similar electronic systems such as satellite navigation, hands-free technology, internet connectivity – and safety kit such as parking cameras – will also continue to develop rapidly. Soon any newish car without those features will start to look dated.

If you’re of the opinion that we’re starting to emerge from recession in the UK then crack out the Champers – or the Cava at any rate. But be aware that the attractive list prices and interest rates of the last five years are rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

What’s more, it’s important to view a new car in terms of its total life-cycle cost – that means not only thinking about running costs, but taking a view on projected residual values too. CAP and Glass’s will provide whole-life running costs by crunching data on per-mile running costs and residual values for new cars – taking into account all the relevant factors in terms of running costs, list prices, technology and desirability – so they’re invaluable for anyone planning a new purchase, but most car magazines will have data on resale values.

With the difference in residual values between comparable cars often as much as ten per cent, there can be thousands of pounds between a car’s three-year residual values. Arm yourself with this data if you want to future-proof your car purchase.

Future-proofing isn’t simply about which car to buy though. What happens if you car is involved in an accident? Do you have coverage? Will there be a replacement? A fully-maintained lease may be a good idea, but balance it against the escalated monthly costs such an agreement may incur – can you afford to tie yourself into an expensive contract that might last for 60 months?

Leases are getting longer, while developments in technology and respective regulations are gaining pace. This is all interconnected. No-one is going to buy a used car that immediately stings them at the pumps, has an unimpressive safety rating relative to brand-new cars or features obsolete entertainment equipment. Driven by increasing regulations, the pace of change is accelerating. While it’s not always possible to make out the road ahead, you can certainly mitigate the effects of that uncertainty and the imperative is clear; decisions made now could make a difference of thousands in three, four or five year’s time.

Future Shocks

Six areas that could change significantly in the next three years

Electric vehicles – EVs, especially EREVs and hybrids, aren’t going away. Don’t ignore new powertrain technology if it could work for you – an be aware of any new subsidies for these cars.

Tax changes – The rapid development of low-CO2 engines means changes to BIK are likely on a rolling basis, while the diesel surcharge will also disappear. While efficiency savings are likely to bottom out soon, the downward trend will continue.

Environmental trends – As turbo petrol engines improve and alternative fuels enjoy stronger incentives, diesel may become less of an obvious choice.

Regulatory changes – Proposed accounting rules will stipulate that leased assets will have to appear on company balance sheets, though there is no current schedule for this change.

Technology – Buy a car without DAB and you might suddenly find yourself without Ken Bruce on the radio during your morning commute. Consider infotainment and connectivity too.

Safety – Car safety changes very quickly. Buy a car without an excellent NCAP rating now and – in three years’ time – it could dent resale values, not to mention bodywork.

Written by Robin Brown

January 25th, 2014 at 3:19 pm

Posted in Car reviews

Group test: Small family cars

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Three potential small family cars, written for Professional Manager magazine

Alfa Romeo Giulietta

Alfa’s new small family car is quite the looker, with an attractive, clean design idiom that really sets it apart from the other cars in the sector. This being an Alfa it’s designed to appeal to drivers on an emotional level and the striking looks and eye-catching trim – rocker switches and the Alfa DNA control, which determines drive dynamics, on the console add a dash of Italian flair.

The real star of the Giulietta is the 2.0-litre JTDM-2 diesel engine, however. It’s capable of 62.8mpg combined – there’s a long sixth gear for cruising – and while it only has 140bhp there’s up to 350Nm of torque available. In Normal mode it’s pleasant enough; in Dynamic mode the car comes alive and can withstand some expressive driving with ease.

The Giulietta isn’t cheap, but there’s lots of kit on the middling Lusso model that I tested. User-choosers will warm to the hatch’s sports looks and performance; managers may nod appreciatively at the running costs – crucially CO2 is at 119g/km.

Good

Stunning exterior looks; eye-catching details inside
Flexible diesel engine offers performance and economy
Fun to rag around in Dynamic mode

Bad

Prices for this model look high
Ride comfort isn’t great on poor road surfaces
Rear space for passengers isn’t great and boot space is only adequate

Renault Captur

The long-awaited Gallic interpretation of the Nissan Juke looks great and the styling sets it apart form the volume superminis on the road and its Japanese cousin. The alloys, body-coloured bumpers and the jacked-up stance of the small SUV means a high seating position and good visibility. Step inside and you’re treated to impressive interior space, though the boot space rather betrays the Captur’s small-car roots.

Sadly the driving dynamics can’t match the promise of the styling. The Captur is reassuringly dull to drive and has no off-road credentials. But does that really matter with acceptable ride comfort and a strong engine like the 1.5-litre diesel engine? I’d argue not – the powertrain is smooth, quiet and has enough grunt to pull the car without straining and comes in at 95g/km in manual guise.

The Dynamique MediaNav includes an integrated multimedia tablet featuring a seven-inch touchscreen, satnav, Bluetooth, USB and hands-free tech – great for the too-busy-to-stop motorist – while every models benefits from cruise control, an ECO setting and hill-start assist.

The Captur may not win over any boy racers, but for the fleet manager it’s a proposition that demands inspection.

Good

Strong styling means the Captur will turn heads
Low depreciation and CO2 mean attractive whole-life costs
Good interior space, smooth engine and gadgetry should attract managers

Bad

Boot space is not particularly impressive
Driving dynamics are nowhere to be found
Ride can feel twitchy at high speeds or difficult conditions

Vauxhall Mokka

Vauxhall’s assault on the same territory as the Captur is the Mokka, an elevated supermini of the kind that Nissan has found such success with in the shape of the Juke.

It’s the sister car of the Chevrolet Trax – a surprisingly engaging car – but General Motors is using the Vauxhall to target the fleet market and, while the cars do have some distinguishing features, they’re essentially built on the same platform.

Where the Mokka – and Traxx – differ from the Captur is in the provision of four-wheel drive, but it’s the specification that is the real winner, matching a lusty-yet-economical diesel engine to strong technology.

Kit includes steering wheel controls, a digital radio, cruise control, hill start assist, hill descent control, dual-zone climate control, parking sensors, Bluetooth, alloy wheels and colour-screen satnav.

It looks good, it’s comfortable, it’s spacious and it’s economical, and while the diesel engine is rather grumbly at low revs it’s flexible and surprisingly swift.

Good
At higher revs the engine is rather fun
Very smart interior with good storage
Excellent levels of specification

Bad
Engine is grumbly and comparatively high in CO2
Price looks steep against competitors
Handling is dull

Written by Robin Brown

January 25th, 2014 at 3:15 pm

Posted in Car reviews