Saturday, 26 December 2009

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly of 2009

Retrospectively published by AROnline on 5/1/2010

Skelton's Car of The Year 2009, the Jaguar XJ

Right, time to be serious for a moment. 2009 is drawing to a close, and I think it's an appropriate time to list the year's good, bad, and ugly from the world of motoring.

I'll start with the things I've liked the look of, and want to explore further. And the biggest story here is the new Jaguar XJ. It's incoherent from some angles in some colours, it's big, and the back end is a tad bland. But it works overall in the right colour, it's modern, chic, and sure to be a hit. The interior is a departure for Jaguar, but it captures the moment, and will make the ownership of a Jaguar into something genuinely aspirational for the young professionals of today. As soon as my local Jaguar agent gets one in, I am going to go for a look at it. And be smitten at first glance, no doubt.

I don't have a local Bentley agent, so I can't do this with the new Mulsanne. I've always been a Bentley man, and whilst there are some questionable options upon the new car, in the right colour and spec it is a thing of overwhelming beauty and, doubtless, has a crushingly smooth driving experience and wonderful ride. I looked in vain at this year's MPH and Classic Car Motor Show for one, and none were in attendance. Another on my wishlist.

A wishlist which also includes the little Royce; the Ghost. I've been looking on Pistonheads, and these cars are being advertised at a premium; almost at Phantom prices. It is more elegant than it's big brother, and much as I love the Phantom for it's interior, the Ghost is more my kind of car. It's tricky deciding whether I prefer this to the Mulsanne, which is a compliment indeed to the Royce. I see a future head to head article for some magazine or another coming up...

...although what I'd pitch against Aston Martin's Rapide is a hard question. You could argue Porsche Panamera, but the proportions aren't as good and it's just not the same. Lambo Reventon? Nah. Maserati Quattroporte? Looking dated. The Aston's a superb car on the face of it, and one I really want to see in the metal. But what benchmarks are there to compare it against, really? It's a car I think will be great, but how can we quantify the greatness of a trend-setter?

Aston's other trend-setter, however, is a mess. The Cygnet is an ugly duckling that just is not necessary. Sure, I can see where they were coming from; a small prestige car is precisely the recipe that makes the work of Vanden Plas so attractive. But a Toyota with Aston badges just doesn't work in the same way that, say, a Jaguar badged Fiesta might have done. Aston's brand ethos is nowhere to be found in the Cygnet, and this makes it the year's biggest disappointment.

The MG6, I have to say, has left me cold too. It just doesn't seem to be as accomplished as it could have been, it looks bland, and lacks a sufficiently wide range. It's also too expensive, and in any case the Roewe is the one I want. Yet despite this, I want it to do well. I desire nothing more than for my opinion to be wrong - although it's Chinese it represents the last vestiges of our motor industry, and for this reason it deserves to succeed.

The tragedy of the year has to be GM's announcement that SAAB are going to be wound down. I've always rather liked what SAAB have done, so to hear that GM have decided to sell bits off to China and pack the rest up is frankly heartbreaking. One hopes a gallant saviour can step in before it's too late.

And the ugly? Well, that epithet can be applied to most cars in production today.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Baby Aston Revealed

Written for Octane

Aston Martin Cygnet.

Aston Martin's Cygnet concept , announced in June 2009, has been revealed in what seems to be production-ready form. When first revealed, Aston accompanied its press release with images of a part-completed clay model, based clearly upon Toyota's tiny iQ city car. Marek Reichman's team at Gaydon seem to have created a shape which not only draws from current Aston Martins, but retains the basic structure and underpinnings of the Toyota.

Aston design cues are liberally scattered upon it, from the boomerang rear lights to the twin bonnet vents of the V12 Vantage, yet the overall effect is somewhat cluttered and awkward of countenance. The interior, questionable colour scheme aside, seems to have been trimmed to Aston Martin's characteristically high standard.

No details have been released yet about the Cygnet's running gear, although it is presumed that it will be powered by the same 97bhp 1.3 version of Toyota's 1NR-FE engine that already powers top spec iQs and other Toyotas. The extra weight of the Cygnet's interior and gadgets would blunt performance, but it would be reasonable to expect 0-60 in around 12 seconds and a top speed of about 105mph.

Cynical observers would note that the car's low CO2 level, offset against those of Aston's current range, would lower the brand's average CO2 emissions. However, Aston Martin's CEO, Ulrich Bez, has denied rumours that this was the company's motive. 'This concept is akin to an exclusive tender for a luxury yacht,' claims Dr Bez. 'It allows us to apply Aston Martin design language, craftsmanship and brand values to a completely new segment of the market.'

Aston intends to sell the Cygnet - at around £20,000 - to existing Aston Martin customers only. However, the company expects sales of up to 2000 per year if they put the car into production, and may expand sales beyond Europe and even to people without a 'proper' Aston Martin if demand is high enough. The company are still trying to pretend that the Cygnet is a concept car, although on the strength of the images we feel that Aston are likely to market it given the resources used to create it.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Modern Classics

Retrospectively published by AROnline on 6/1/2010

Bristol's 411 Series VI - a modernised classic.

There seems to have been a craze in recent years for upgrading and modernising classic cars. Off the top of my head, I can think of a number of cars which could be revamped either by the factory or an outside company: all Bristols, the Jensen Interceptor, and a good few Jaguars (XJ S3, XJ-S, MK2 and XK150). That said, I suppose KWE would upgrade any of the 'Series' XJs, and that JD Classics would turn their hand to any 'MK2 family' saloon or any XK. I also seem to recall, although I'm not 100% certain, that Aston Martin offer a similar modernisation service to that of Bristol.

All in, there must be fifteen or twenty types of classic car which are available with all mod-cons in 2008. I'm torn as to whether or not this is a good thing. The personal appeal of an 'Arthur Daley-spec' mustard yellow Daimler Sovereign 4.2, yet with a Tracker, high intensity Xenon headlamps, and a modern radio is huge. The idea of a Bristol 412 with aircon, uprated brakes, and electric door mirrors appeals still more. But is it right to take something that's already acclaimed and change it?

It could be seen as cheating on the part of the owner; if you can't cope with a classic car's foibles or put up with it's lack of modernities, buy a Vectra and have done with it. Air con and digital radio do not belong in a Mark Two Jag. In fact, you could go further and say that when it's finished it ceases to be a MK2 any more.

However, to have that mindset is, I think, to miss the point of the conversion. It's not, and is not intended to be, a showpiece. Neither is it intended to be exactly as the original is in feel or experience. No, the appeal of a car like the V-Eight Jensen or Knowles Wilkins XJ-S is that you get the style of an old car but none of the drawbacks. It's rebuilt, modernised, and ready for all that daily driving and a high mileage can throw at it. What you are purchasing when you buy a JD Classics XK150 is a brand new car that looks like - and by and large should feel like - a classic car. It would be folly to say they're the same as the originals, but in a sense that's why they appeal. This sort of modification should give you the same sort of experience as you expect from, say, a Bristol 411, but with all the conveniences you'd get in your Mondeo. This makes it a genuinely usable classic car.

I only have one criticism of the idea, and it's this: all the cars that seem to be catered for by the modernisation market are niche cars; cars that for reasons of economy or space just wouldn't be practical for anyone on a budget. Add to this that their cost, although considerably cheaper than the modern equivalents, is by no means easy on the pocket. As a Yorkshireman, this lack of sensibility has led me to spot an opening in the market. So, which firm will be first with the modernised Austin Allegro?