The ‘trouble’ with modern cars

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Car-Company-LogosI like cars and am lucky enough to get a new one every three years through work – that gives me the ability to choose what I want (within reason), so there have been a number of makes driven over the years. I have also come to realise that in terms of reliability there isn’t much to choose between makes nowadays – French, German, Italian, they are all much of a muchness these days….

I can hear you all shouting “NO – Germany make the best cars” – well not in my experience. Yes, they are more solidly built (although my Volvo was the most solid), but in terms of reliability there is nothing to choose between them. Let me explain. . .

The most reliable car I have driven? An Alfa Romeo, it was faultless for three years and had no ‘niggling’ issues.

Second best? A Volvo – one minor issue with the air-conditioning ‘that went away’ – otherwise a great car.

The mid range – Citroen, Renault, Peugeot and VW – all had a number of minor faults but never let me down.

The worst based on the number of visits to the dealership for an ‘untraceable issue’ over the first few months of ownership? Mercedes!

None of the above have ever let me down, but most have had annoying faults – especially the Mercedes – so as I say, all cars are equal now – some may be more solidly built – but the quality of components and the chance of ‘minor’ faults is about the same.

The question is whether this is a good thing or are we still being sold underdeveloped and poorly quality controlled cars?

And for the record my Merc is now just over two months old and has had its 4th visit to the garage – and I am still waiting for a call to resolve the problem promised to me two weeks ago………

An even more pointless Prius?

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Once in a while a car comes along that is so pointless that it beggars belief – some would claim that the original Toyota Prius filled that role – perhaps slightly unfair as it did develop some technologies that have found their way into many vehicles – but the overall concept is in my opinion deeply flawed (I am not a fan).

good looking - not!

As I understand it one of the Prius ‘selling points’ is its low fuel use (totally flawed as well) – this is managed by being aerodynamic, light and having an electric motor (it’s a hybrid). The downside of all this is that it is noisy (very), built from rubbish materials (the interior is like a 70’s eastern block car) and generally ‘nasty’ (told you I don’t like them).

To make matters worse it also is nowhere near as economical as Toyota claim – so you have to put up with all the downsides with no upside! (It doesn’t even save many fluffy bunnies) The only fun to have in a Prius is getting out of it!

So can someone please explain to me why they are now producing the Prius+? This is in effect a people carrier version. Now I am a fan of small people carriers, I have had a few in my time and they are excellent for growing families. What they are not however is aerodynamic, light or economical – plus cheap build quality is a definite ‘no no’ in a people carrier – it needs to be bomb proof against small people!

So unless I have missed something Toyota have just produced the worlds most pointless car!

A limo for the ‘new age’?

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the beast

We are all used to seeing limos on our streets now a days – they used to be the preserve of presidents and royalty, but now every hen do or similar has a limo. But they are normally huge, with really poor environmental credentials – the worst is probably President Obama’s;

Known as ‘the beast’ it carries tons of extra reinforcements like bulletproof glass, bomb-proof chassis, run-flat tyres and personal oxygen supply and is thought to be able to survive a direct hit from an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) and biological weapons. One also assumes that it is not particularly economical or ‘green’!

However there is now an alternative – based on a cute city car (possibly one of the cutest currently built) and with electric power! The car in question?

A Fiat 500! But this one has been custom-built with a few extras;

Enter Castagna Milano, and its LimoPresidential, available to discerning buyers (or anyone with the money) as build-to-order vehicles.

Combining two electric motors capable of reaching a top speed of 100 mph, and a battery pack large enough to carry its occupants in opulent luxury for 160 miles, the all-electric limo is certainly different.


At nearly twice the length of a standard Fiat 500, the limo boosts the diminutive city car’s proportions from a tiny 3.5 meters in length, to 5.32 meters and an increase in wheelbase by 1.8 meters, to 4.1 meters. The vehicle’s height is also slightly raised to 1.58 meters. The all-electric LimoPresidential loses some of the maneuverability of the original but will still be more agile than President Obama’s armoured Cadillac!

I love the idea of a greener mini limo – I can’t see it catching on but it is a great fun idea! Oh, and the downside? A certain Algerian Dictator was a previous client of the company!

A practical hybrid? – apart from the price!

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I have a very poor opinion of hybrids since a Prius tried to kill me. More seriously they have not so far in my view provided a decent driving experience and decent savings in both fuel and emissions (the Prius is nowhere near as economical as Toyota claim unless you drive like a snail!).

yes it's an estate - what do you expect - it's a Volvo!

In recent months the next phase of hybrid electrics have started to appear or be announced (I don’t count the plugin Prius (it’s a personal hate thing). But the likes of Peugeot, Citroen and Vauxhall are starting to produce more interesting machines. All of them do appear rather ‘hobbled’ though – with either poor performance or economy.

The latest offering from Volvo however does appear on the face of it to be a possible ‘decent hybrid’;

The V60 Plug-in Hybrid is powered by a 212bhp 2.4-litre diesel engine (good start!), which drives the front wheels. The rear axle is driven by an electric motor, which provides a further 69bhp and the car has a six-speed automatic gearbox. The 11.2kw lithium-ion battery pack is situated beneath the boot floor and can be charged from the mains, or boosted by the diesel engine’s alternator as well as by recapturing energy generated by the brakes.

On average, the V60 Hybrid should return 148.6mpg and emit just 49g/km of CO2 – pretty impressive figures (and far better than a Prius). But there is a more interesting side to this car – there are three driving modes available – Pure, Hybrid and Power;

Selecting Pure allows the car to drive for 32 miles on electric power alone – plenty for urban trips.
Selecting Hybrid engages the diesel engine to increase performance, so much so that the car can tow up to 1800kg (possibly more important for Volvo drivers?)
Power mode combines the electric and diesel motors to give an output of 276bhp, which should do the 0-62 sprint in just 6.9secs – pretty good!

The downside? The cost – Volvo are offering them at £47,000 – just a bit on the expensive side!.

Electric cars – a failure or the wrong market?

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I have blogged previously about the current crop of electric cars and the motor industries attempt to get us away from our internal combustion engines – my view has been that they are not ready yet for prime time and more importantly are being pushed into the wrong market segment.

Our Government have also played their part in this – the £5,000 government grant was supposed to make 2011 “remembered as the year the electric car took off” – sales figures suggest this is not to be.

Only 106 electric cars were bought in the third quarter of 2011 through the scheme, this marks a significant slump in demand on already sluggish-take-up, with 465 cars registered through the scheme in Q1 and 215 in Q2.

The number of electric vehicles in the UK stands at just 1,107, a tiny chunk of the country’s 28.5m cars. But the government had hoped to incentivize take-up with the launch of grants of up to £5,000, preserving the grant during last summer’s cuts and putting aside £43m, or enough for 8,600 cars, until March 2012. The scheme is due to be reviewed again in January.

The Governments view is that the slow take up is due to a poor choice of vehicle – despite the Nissan Leaf getting car of the year? My own view is that the average motorist is not ready for the electric car in its current form. It does not replace the average family car due to range and charging issues. The electric car is still a rich mans toy – the Tesla being a classic example. The lack of a real charging network is also an issue.

I would argue however that the manufacturers are not marketing to the correct sector with the correct designs. Electric cars are ideal for city cars – most journeys are short and the emission profile is ideal to reduce city smog etc. But more importantly why do ‘city’ cars in their current form mostly have 4 seats and weigh so much? Nearly all city journeys are by single occupants – the only vehicle close to a true city car at the moment is the smart.

The car manufacturers need to address this – some are looking at it and the Audi concept appears ideal at this time. It was recently shown at the Frankfurt Motor show and is a zero emission 2 seater – but will they have the guts to develop and build it?

Fuel prices and the Governments problem

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We are all slowly ‘getting used’ to the price of petrol and diesel, it is quite noticeable that people are generally driving slower and watching what they use – basically because it now hurts when you fill up and it’s only going one way over the next few years!

Recent research by the AA suggests that drivers have cut their petrol consumption by more than 15% since the credit crunch and the recession began. They calculate that petrol sales in the first six months of 2011 were 1.7bn litres less than in the same period three years ago. Not an insignificant amount, but there is another side to this equation.

Wether or not you believe this fall is due to the cost of fuel or not, this fall in petrol sales has cost the Treasury nearly £1bn over the six months to June this year. That is a serious number (even by today’s standards) and has to be recovered in some way by the Treasury.

One positive result has been lower emissions of exhaust fumes which helps the Government towards their emissions targets. But, rest assured they will want their pound of flesh in lost taxes somehow – and from the motorist, so there is more pain to come…..

The start of a realistic charging network?

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One of the major issues holding back the uptake of electric cars (like car of the year Nissan Leaf) is the lack of a decent national charging network – people correctly believe they can’t realistically do long journeys in an electric car. Because of this electric car drivers have been unwilling to break free of the city and hit the open road. Well now green energy firm Ecotricity has launched the world’s first national motorway charging network for electric vehicles and all the power is coming from renewable sources, from the Wind and the Sun. If you are an Ecotricity user at home or work (and they will price match the standard suppliers tariffs) the charging points are free to use – quite an attraction.

It has installed free power points at 12 Welcome Break service stations, with 17 more promised later in the year.

Welcome Break’s power outlets offer two types of sockets – a three-pin one for 13A current supply and a seven-pin one for a higher 32A supply. Using the 13A supply takes around 12 hours to charge the vehicle and would probably require spending the night in one of the service area hotels – not a great idea unless you were planning to break your journey this way.

Opting for the higher current option will top-up a car in just 20 minutes – and fully charge it in one hour, so in the time it takes to get a cup of coffee and a sandwich, the system can charge your car. The downside? Not all electric vehicles are compatible with the newer 32A system.

This is a real step forward and if a major roll out of similar charging points is made across the UK it would offer a real option to the city dweller who only goes on long journeys once in a while (and there are a lot of them). For once a positive addition to our motorway service stations!

It can be done!

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Today I have been up to Gateshead for work, travelling up the A1 – not the fastest road but a steady journey.

To date on a long journey I have not got close to Volvos “official” miles per gallon figure of 75mpg for my car (and I don’t expect to). But today it did 67.5mpg which can’t be bad in anyone’s language. And I wasn’t driving like an old man either – I think the engine is finally loosening up!

Oh, and it’s not a hybrid! – it’s a proper car!

The proof!

Fuel from food waste – brilliant idea!

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This was a source of a great deal of amusement in my office – although it makes good sense to me.

The fuel of tomorrow

Greenergy, a firm based in Immingham is to take pasties, pies, crisps and other food waste that would otherwise have gone to landfill, to extract the oil they contain to blend with diesel to make a form of bio diesel.

The firm has invested £50m in its production facility to enable it to process used cooking oils and it is now able to make biodiesel from high fat solid foods such as pies, sausage rolls, pastry and crisps which are not fit for sale because they are mis-shapen, overcooked or past their sell-by date – a great way of helping to deal with food waste in this country.

These food products, which can contain between 25% and 30% oil and fat, are sourced from a variety of food manufacturers nationally. Other suitable foods include oil from fish frying containing high quantities of breadcrumbs.

Any food solids that remain are dried and either composted or used to produce energy through anaerobic digestion – making the conversion even more eco-friendly.

Part of the reason for the location at Immingham is the nearby port of Grimsby, which is one of the largest food processing centres in Europe.

The quantities of biodiesel currently being produced from solid food waste are small, but they are expecting to scale up so that this soon becomes a significant proportion of their biodiesel production

I think it’s great to be taking these products, which would otherwise have gone to landfill or compost, and turning them into a new source of fuel.

No surprise – no one wants electric cars!

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I have blogged before about electric cars and in particular how despite the Governments best efforts to promote them they are just not ready for ‘prime time’ yet.

The Government’s £5,000 grant was intended to boost sales of electric cars which generally cost a third more than petrol or diesel vehicles. It appears that their hoped-for electric car revolution, jump-started by this grant, is getting off to a very slow start with just over 500 people signing up to the scheme since it was introduced at the start of the year.

Car of the year - why?

The figures were revealed in a parliamentary answer by the junior transport minister Norman Baker, and show that 534 electric vehicles were registered to the so-called “plug-in car grant” during the first quarter of 2011. So far, only 213 have been delivered.

The incentive scheme, devised by the Labour government to mitigate the fact that electric cars typically cost at least a third more than conventionally powered equivalents, has sufficient funding during 2011 (the only year for which it is guaranteed pending a coalition review) for 8,600 cars. If sales fail to pick up it will struggle to reach a quarter of that figure!

There is expected to be a “sales surge” as more of the nine cars that qualify for the grant come onto the market in the coming months, among them Vauxhall’s Ampera, the Volt from Chevrolet and the new, all-electric version of Toyota’s popular Prius hybrid.

While electric cars are a significant outlay – the first two cars on sale, the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Nissan Leaf both cost about £28,000 – the AA calculates they can be run for about 2p per mile, against around 14p per mile for a similar-sized petrol or diesel car. They also pay no vehicle excise duty, have cheaper insurance premiums, are exempt from London’s Congestion Charge and can be charged for free at some public car parks.

The Leaf, which saw 20,000 pre-orders worldwide, has won the European and world car of the year awards, voted by motoring journalists.

But, despite all this the public can’t get over the fact that these are not a satisfactory alternative yet for good old petrol or diesel cars. Time for another idea?