Thursday, 30 July 2009

Peugeot's 306 - the best banger for your bucks?

Between 1993 and 2002, Peugeot's 306 was one of the most popular small family cars available in the UK. A replacement for the Peugeot 309 (Does this make the 306 a Talbot Horizon MK3?), the car was styled by Pininfarina, based upon the Citroen ZX platform, and built at the former Rootes factory in Ryton. Engines spanned 1.4 to 2.0 4 cylinders, with a couple of popular XUD-based tractor powerplants thrown in for good measure. Two facelifts; one in 1997 and one in 1999, ensured that the car remained fresh until it's demise.

Yes, I admit it, the 306 is old news. The youngest of the cars is now seven years old, and its successor has also been replaced. But there is method in what seems like a mad choice of review. I've been running the family 306 now for a number of months, and as such I feel it's the perfect car upon which to cut my reviewers' teeth.

We've had the 306 in the family for about six years. It's a 1995 M plate 1.8 XT automatic, in Forest green with a beige velour interior. Due to a dealer error, we got it well below book - £1500, now worth between £500 and £700. And I genuinely think that at that money, it's a bargain worth investigating.

Let's start with the positives. The car is reasonably quick - although it's a little car with a 1.8 engine I'd expect the autobox to rob it of power. The car seems lethargic on paper, but unlike anyone else Peugeot measure these with fully laden cars. It handles well; the passive rear wheel steering conspiring with the excellent chassis to ensure that the car remains sure footed in any real world situation. The steering itself is well weighted, and spirited driving can put a smile on your face. The ride seems poor, but that can be attributed to the condition of Sheffield roads. If I'm honest, it's certainly no worse than, say, a Jaguar X Type. The car is comfortable, spacious (I'm 6'3", and have transported people of considerable girth in comfort - for people of a more orthodox size there is plenty of room for five), and with the beige interior, it's an airy and pleasant place to be. The radio in the car is a Blaupunkt unit, of a design exclusive to Peugeot, and whilst I've only ever used it to listen to Radio 2 I can confirm that it is a good unit; with superb sound quality. The boot is reasonable for the size of car, and on short local runs the car will return twenty miles per gallon. On a long run I am confident the car would return between 35 and 40mpg, which for a large engined automatic is by no means bad. And, purely from an aesthetic point of view, a day spent cleaning and polishing the car, and re-blacking the rubbing strips, can make it look almost new.

However, it's not all good. I have seen it said that French cars are essentially solid, but the 'tinsel' - unnecessary bits such as trim and toys - aren't of superb quality and will break. This is the case. The radio unit sometimes requires a restart before it will play anything, and even then on occasion it refuses to emit sound. The trim surrounding the sunroof switches is currently held in place by two blobs of Blu-Tack; the original clips having succumbed years ago. The trim piece on the rear ashtray is in the glovebox; several attempts to mend it having proved futile. And the steering wheel is made of a soft touch plastic which looks like elephant skin. It isn't, however, quite so resilient. Fourteen years of be-ringed hands upon it have left their mark - the top half feels as if it is made of sandpaper. And because ours has the rare beige trim, and a rare steering wheel design (In 1995 Peugeot must have used 7 different styles, one of which - ours - is like hen's teeth), we have been unable to source a replacement. I am, as such, actively seeking a set of driving gloves.

But these are but a few flies in what seems a very pleasant ointment. For £500, there are few cars that are so accomplished, and that I feel would offer the same amount of driver enjoyment and confidence. I am a Rover group fan, but I seriously doubt that either the R8 series 2/400, or the HHR series 400, is quite so accomplished for quite so little an amount of money. Buy a 306 if you're on a budget. You shan't regret it.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

And now for something completely different

Just been dared to post this. I wasn't told where I was to post it, so i thought I'd stick it here out of harm's way.

That is all.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

The Jaguar Mark X. J.

Last week, I wrote about the new XJ. I am sad to say that my last paragraph seemed awfully prophetic. I stated that it could well suffer the same fate as the Mark Ten; it could end up being too big, too vulgar, and too brash for Britain. It could also have suffered the same problem as it's ancestor; that of employing styling motifs not suited to a car of it's size.

I was only too right.

The front end is superb, sublime, and lots of other things beginning with S. However, I refuse to believe that the back of the car is Callum's work. That man can style cars - the back of the new Jag hasn't been styled. Behind the rear doors is all wrong - that boot is at the wrong level, the rear window extends too far, it's too slopey, and I've seen better arses on chimps. And I haven't yet seen Ray Charles credited for his hand in styling it; the black D-pillar. Ultimately, the problem is that it doesn't really flow. It's too fussy and disjointed to really look good from the rear - the rear window is far too shallow in it's rake, and extends too far towards the back of the car. Don't in any sense get me wrong, I love four-door coupes, but (and it does pain me to say this) even Merc's CLS is more coherent.

What Jaguar SHOULD have done is a swoopy three-box design. Leave it as it is to the back of the rear doors, and after, say, the foremost edge of the rear lights. But the bit between these should have been more restrained, more upright, more - dare I say it - like a proper Jaguar. Had they managed to pull this off correctly it would have sold like hot cakes on a cold November morning in the snow. But it was not to be.

The interior also represents a radical departure for Jaguar - and having conferred with a number of friends I have discovered that the walnut makes the dash. I'd quote my mate Will, but what he said regarding the Sport interior (which lacks the walnut and eschews cream leather for an all black, Germanic look) isn't really suitable for public consumption. All recognise it as a Jaguar - but then my tests were conducted with a standard interior. A de-tree'd and black interior would produce very different results.

So. Jaguar have cocked up. Let's hope there aren't too many of my mindset out there. But there's still a faint glimmer of hope. I do get the impression that it would look good in black. Let's pray it's the only shade they decide to offer it in.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Is Daimler dead and gone?

I write this, uncertain as to the fate of one of my favourite names in the history of motoring. Since 1969, Daimler has been effectively a trim level denoting the very best XJ-series Jaguar one could buy. Yet I don't see how this can continue. The next XJ is, by all accounts, a swoopy and low saloon - an XF taken to further extremes. To me, a Daimler is an upright, upmarket, wood-and-leather fest. I can't really see this working on the new XJ.

So, as I see it, there are 3 options open to Daimler. Firstly, a Daimlerised version of the new XJ - I will provide a digital mock-up when the XJ has been launched on Thursday. Secondly, Daimler produce a completely seperate car in a new class, utilising the XJ's platform. Thirdly, the Daimler marque; part of Britain's motoring heritage since 1896 and the manufacturer of our own monarch's personal car, is laid to rest.

Of the three, by far the most tempting is option number two. I can see it now almost - a retro-styled upper crust limousine in the same vein as the old DS420. Priced to compete with the next Bentley Arnage and the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, it could share the XJ's platform and 5.0 supercharged V8. A new, DS420 evoking bodyshell with ample room for 5 + 2 occasional passengers, and a considerable boot, the car could even be built by hand if it could remain cost-effective to do so. I believe the car would sell - it's not flash like a product of Goodwood or of Crewe, yet it would be suitably upmarket for Mayoral transport and even for lesser royals. Certainly, it would be a good car to have if you were a chauffeur. And the name? I foresee a return to Daimler of that historic nameplate; Sovereign.

But I fear that the most likely outcome is option three. After 113 years, Daimler would become defunct. One of the few historic British (OK, Indian) nameplates we have left will cease to be - and our nation of once great marques the world over will take one step closer to becoming a production base for exclusively foreign metal.

Tragic, isn't it?

Thursday, 2 July 2009

The next big thing from the big cat

In just a few days' time, Jaguar will unveil the new XJ. We've seen the teaser pics, we've seen the photoshops, and within a week we'll have seen the finished article. And some aren't looking forward to it.

The general consensus is that it looks like an XF that's been scaled up, and this is the root of the problem. Many do not like Jaguar's 'new and bland' design direction. I beg to differ, and would argue that the current cars are the most Jaguar-like since the XJ40. I'm not saying they're perfect - XF, the clearest vision of Jaguar's future, is flawed. The grille should have been a cross-hatch grille like the first XJs. But that's really beside the point.

Jaguar have spent the last twenty years perfecting a 'retro' design theme which, many would argue, is the raison d'etre of such cars. But if you take a trip down memory lane, examining the MK2, the E-Type, the XJ-S, the original XJ, you find a stream of contemporary designs completely at odds with how we see Jag today. The XF, and new XJ, are no different. To satisfy those who crave nostalgia, the new cars even take design hints from these revered brethren. That hump over the lights on the XF? MK2. The general four-door sportscar lines? MK2. The face - a square grille with 4 round lights? Take a look at a Series 1 XJ. The hump in the bonnet? XJ-S. And the wide shoulders - remind you of something?

Will it be a success? To answer that, I think we should look again at the XF. You see several - certainly here in South Yorkshire I see as many as I do S-Types. It's been a big hit - capturing a new market for Jaguar and managing to retain a large proportion of their old customers. And I'm confident XJ can do that for the class above.

Ultimately, I suppose we shall have to wait and see. XF looks like a modern MK2, XJ is predicted as a modern Mark 10. That failed because it was too big for Sixties Britain. It's possible that in the recession-stricken 'Tens' which are to follow, the new XJ may well suffer the same fate.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

A gamble worth taking?

Written for AROnline

I’ve just seen pics of the next Aston Martin. It’s not, as you would be forgiven for thinking, a large and expensive GT car with a large V12. Instead, it’s the answer to a question nobody has ever asked.

It would seem that Aston Martin have done some market research, and found that many of their customers keep a small car - a MINI Cooper for example - for town use. The Aston only comes out to play on longer distance trips and nice days. Fair play to the owners; petrol’s £4.68 per gallon now, and I can’t see many Aston owners enjoying the frugality of 20mpg.
So Aston, in their wisdom, have decided to introduce a small car to replace the MINI in their customers’ portfolios. This car, the Cygnet, is based upon Toyota’s iQ. Little is known as yet, and Aston have not confirmed that it is anything more than a concept, so much of the next few lines will be speculation.

The car is expected to be launched towards the end of 2010 at a price of between £20,000 and £25,000. This should price it to compete with the MINI Cooper (after the prospective buyer has chosen options and option packs).

It should also undercut it’s only true rival, the Radford MINI Miglia, seen on AROnline. Toyota will import up to 2000 iQs for Aston per year, which will then be ‘finished’ at Gaydon. This ‘finishing’ consists of a remodelled nose (using the iQ’s own headlamps), new wheels, and an interior retrimmed in the finest hide, utilising the standard iQ layout.

It is possible that this heralds a new age of co-operation between Aston and Toyota - future Astons such as the proposed Lagonda 4×4 may use Lexus hybrid powertrains, but neither party has yet commented upon the potential for future marque interaction.

The whole concept of an exclusively styled and trimmed version of a small car appeals to me immeasurably - the project reminds me of Vanden Plas’ work in the 1960s and 1970s with the 1100, 1300, and 1500. But I cannot help wondering if it is a wise move for Aston.

Yes, the concept of a small Aston Martin for town use is a novel one, and initial exclusivity is maintained by the fact that Aston would only be offering them to existing owners in the first instance. But a £25,000 Aston city car could also ruin the brand’s cachet, and because of the brand it would cost much more to insure than the other upmarket city cars Aston are expecting to capture sales from.

The Cygnet could be the start of a new profitable market sector for Aston, but I rather feel the opposite could happen. Unless Aston Martin are very canny about what they choose to do, I believe that the ugly duckling Cygnet could well become the company’s swansong.
I know that my opinion is not shared by all. Steve Cropley, of the influential motor magazine Autocar, believes that the project deserves a fair chance and will do well. I sincerely hope he’s right. But I doubt he is. Aston look to be on the verge of taking their biggest gamble since the Lagonda of the 1970s, and it’s one that I for one don’t think will pay off.