Saturday, 26 September 2009

A new vehicle concept, 30 years ago.

Written for AROnline

I'd like to talk about Audis and BMWs in this blog. There, I've said it. Those who may be outraged by such talk on this site, please feel free to keep quiet. But I have a very good reason for doing so, and it involves possibly my very favourite of all BL's products.

Audi have recently launched their A5 Sportback, and BMW the competing 5-Series GT. These cars are both, as far as I can see, pointless. The Audi A4 and BMW 5-series are already available as a saloon, or for those who want a tailgate, as estates. So naturally, we need hatchback versions of both to plug the gap in the middle. Of course, I may be missing the plot spectacularly here - after all, German execs are not my thing. They might be aimed at someone wanting something more exclusive than an A4 or 5-Series, in which case they will achieve their aim. For about ten minutes, until everyone has them.

Alright, I'm being overly cynical. But this is because both companies, as far as I can see, cater for the markets these cars are aimed at already. The idea of a large and upmarket hatchback is one that appeals to me greatly. Which brings me nicely into the BL themed bit of the blog.

The point I'm making is this. Audi's press release states that the Sportback is "a new vehicle concept" and "setting new trends in vehicle design". BMW haven't been quite so fatuous as to assume that they originated the concept of an executive hatch - their press release bangs on about a cross between a classically styled GT and a saloon car. But in either case, it is implied that the concept is new. In 1976, Rover replaced the P6 range with the SD1 range. This was an executive hatchback; and unlike the Audi or BMW, it can rightly claim to be a first. And it was a hit - it was upmarket, and made by a company with a history of producing good executive cars (albeit under the umbrella of BL, so quality wasn't always quite right). It spawned many imitators, but the Rover is the one everyone remembers. It was replaced in 1986 by the 800 - available as a fastback by 1988. The 800 was a cop-out in my opinion; offered in saloon form for those who didn't see the appeal of a hatch, and thought was even given to market the hatch as an inferior model under the name of 600. With the exception of Vauxhall's Signum, executive hatchbacks pretty much died with the 800 in 1999. They didn't even bother by the time the 75 came along. Since then, the genre has more or less ceased to exist. And everyone else who tried seemed to fail in this sector. How many Renault Safranes, Fiat Cromas, Ford Granada MK3s, and Citroen XMs have you seen recently?

But the press will love the A5 Sportback and 5-series GT, stating that a large executive hatchback is a great idea. The reason? Because the 2 companies doing it are the darlings of the popular motoring press; Audi and BMW. Yet I doubt the idea will take off again, because they've done it the wrong way. Going back to the top of the blog for a second, both cars already have an equivalent saloon and an equivalent estate. And I am yet to work out quite why we need more choice than that. I mean, if neither an A4 or A4 Avant suits you, there are several other perfectly good executive saloons for similar money. If you want a medium sized Audi, what's wrong with the normal A4 or Avant?

Rover got it so right it was untrue in 1976 by launching their new executive car with this one body style. No choice, you took it or left it. And they cleaned up. And I'd even go so far as to say that had they continued with the theme of the large executive well-appointed hatchback - preferably V8 and RWD but it needn't even be that - Rover may well still be here.

Monday, 7 September 2009

New directions for Royce and Bentley

Written for AROnline

I’ve always been a bit of a Bentley man. Since Quentin Willson outlined just how inexpensive a Turbo R can be on Top Gear when I was seven , I have made it my ambition to one day own one of these cars. No mere Royce would do, it would have to be a Turbo R or RT. The immense power of these cars coupled to their girth and their splendour is, to me, an utterly irresistable package. Things are much the same when it comes to the Spirit/Turbo replacement, the Seraph and Arnage. I’ve always seen the Spirit of Ecstasy as a little nouveau riche when compared to the flying B. And yet the tables seem now to be turning - the bewinged lady seems to have become the beacon of good taste, and the B on the bonnet of a Bentley could now be taken to mean ‘brash’.

The Bentley Continental range just seems to lack the grandeur that a Bentley SHOULD have; the je ne sais quoi that appeals so in the older Bentleys such as the Arnage and the Continental R. And you see far too many Continental GTs, GTCs, and Flying Spurs pimped up to look like homages to bad taste and excessive wealth. The Mulsanne I wrote about some weeks ago seems to come pre-pimped, with wide chrome window surrounds, a tacky grille, and chrome dinner plates masquerading as wheels

I didn’t like the Phantom when it was launched some six years ago. I thought it was far too overt, too expensive, too tasteless for the true connoisseur. But, in a dark colour and on the right alloy wheels, it has matured into quite an attractive and restrained car. And Rolls-Royce seem to have pulled off the same trick with their new car; the Ghost. Set to retail at about £200000, the car is pitched at Bentley Mulsanne customers and at those seeking to downsize from a Phantom to a car which measures only 17′8″ in length.

The Ghost is based upon a BMW 7-series floorpan, and a 6.6 litre twin turbo version of BMW’s V12 is it’s powerplant of choice. This results in over 560bhp and 575 lb ft of torque - more than you get in the Phantom and about the same as the Mulsanne is predicted to have. Using an eight speed - three or four too many for my liking if I’m honest - automatic gearbox, the car should accelerate to 60 in 4.7 seconds, the same as a Bentley Continental. Cosmetically inside and out it’s basically a shrunken and slightly more sporting copy of the Phantom - not only more subtle than it’s larger sibling, but more subtle also than the new Mulsanne. Kit-wise, it’s unlikely potential owners will be left wanting - the electronic toys on offer include a 330-yard night vision camera and automatically dipping headlamps. The sound system has more speakers than my house, and a 12.5GB hard drive for your mp3s. No doubt it will also be iPod compatible.

Convertible and Coupe variants should be announced following the car’s appearance at next week’s Frankfurt Motor Show, and the saloon will go on sale in the not too-far-distant future. Pimps and rap artists need not apply.