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………

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!.

Crash proof cars are here!

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This morning as I drove down the ring road to work I was wondering what to blog about when suddenly an idea appeared large and dangerous in my rear view mirror! I had read on the BBC website earlier a story about ‘crash proof cars’ which I thought was quite interesting, but it appeared that such a car already existed – certainly the lady in the 10-year-old white Fiesta behind me thought her car was crash proof!

remember this?

Now the idea of making cars ‘incapable’ of crashing is not a new one – companies like Mercedes and Volvo have for a number of years been researching this, and started to add ‘radar’ based systems on their cars in recent years. These either take the form of ‘smart’ cruise controls that maintain a set distance or emergency brake systems that can stop you in an emergency automatically!

If I am honest I am not 100% sold on these systems – partly due to seeing the Volvo press demo of their braking system fail (and the car plough into the item it was supposed to stop behind). But also because I like to retain control of things!

Now as far as the lady in the Fiesta was concerned she obviously had reactions far swifter than a Formula One driver – she was very close to my rear (and no I was not going slowly or travelling slower than the traffic in front) and if I had stopped suddenly she would have hit me. She obviously believed she could stop, which raises the question of how we teach people to drive and more importantly how we manage their continuing development!

As a Chartered Surveyor I have to complete continuous professional development and prove this to my governing body – the RICS – lawyers, accountants and most other professions are the same. Frankly it makes sense, we need to be up to speed with all current thinking and still be competent.

But with driving we can pass a test, and then drive for 50 or 60 years with no further testing (unless we have a very bad accident and kill someone) – surely that is wrong? Over 70% of accidents are caused by driver error so by developing ‘un-crashable cars’ are we not approaching the problem from the wrong direction?

And to the lady in the Fiesta (who won’t be reading this)? I hope you see Christmas, because if you continue to drive like that you may be another statistic before then. The wording from all car manuals relating to anti-lock brakes is a good adage to follow;

You cannot rewrite the laws of physics – if you are going too fast nothing will save you!

Is blue the new green?

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Is it just me or is there some subtle colour changing going on?

Over the last 20 years or more being environmentally aware has generally been referred to as being ‘green’ – a sensible choice of colour I would suggest, as much of the earth is green and the environmentalists aim is to try to keep it that way! In recent years the term has become more mainstream and I would suggest does not (always) mean that you are ‘weird’ as well!

Consequently the marketing men latched onto this and added ‘green’ to products to make them sell to those with an environmental conscience (and those without but who wanted to appear so!). My Volvo for example has a green logo – to indicate one assumes, that it is a low emission car and therefore more friendly to our planet.

But it appears a change is afoot, especially if one considers some of the car brands, and their environmentally friendlier cars;

The main culprits;

Volkswagen – Bluemotion range (blue badge)
Mercedes – BlueEfficiency (blue badge)
Ford – ecomatic (with a blue colour for ‘eco’)
Vauxhall – ecoflex (eco in a greeny blue)
Toyota – blue badging on Prius and any hateful hybrid they produce
Fiat – ecodrive (it’s blue)
Hyundai – blue badges

BMW – EfficientDynamics (ok so no blue here – yet) – probably too busy making all their cars look ugly!

Ok, there are still some who still have green logos, but I am sure its only a matter of time before the marketing men change their colour schemes as well!

Seat – Ecomotive (it’s green!)
Renault – eco2 – and its green!
Skoda – Greenline (yes it’s green)
Volvo – edrive (green)

See what I mean? We are being turned blue! Surely this is just the act of some cynical marketing men – but what will happen when they get bored with blue, what will be the next ‘green’?

Should environmentalists now be referred to as being blue?

Do cars actually have any ‘character’ anymore?

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I like cars, always have, I subscribe to Car magazine and like to follow what happens in the industry. As a kid we always went to the motorshow in London at Earls Court and at that time I could (and still can) tell you the difference between Austins, Morris’s, Triumphs etc. Although many of the cars were even in those days ‘badge engineered’ they still seemed to have character – although that may just be another word for unreliable!

Nowadays I don’t have the time (or inclination) to keep so up to date with car models, but I do know who owns who and what models are based on what other car (sad I know).

It’s a Seat – you can tell by the badge.

So when we collected our hire car at the airport this week and it was a Seat Ibiza SW I knew it was based on the VW Polo – so should be good. And it is, infact it is an excellent car – refined, well equipped, comfortable and really good to drive – so what is my problem?

Well, firstly why would anyone buy a Polo? This car is as good, it’s better equipped and cheaper. To me it’s a no brainer.

But, and here is the issue as I see it, if you blindfolded someone and drove them in this car or the Polo I doubt they would be able to tell them apart. Some would say that is good, it shows all cars are now good – and I agree that it is almost impossible to buy ‘a bad’ car these days.

But if you are spending serious money on a car (and they are not cheap) then do you not want something special? If you are looking at serious cars – Ferrari or Porsche or Lamborghini they look different, but, and this is a big but, they have very different character in the way they drive, sound and even feel.

It appears that cars for the masses have lost this and I for one think that is sad!

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!

Car emissions are dropping – it’s official!

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There is a general trend in our office towards more efficient cars, partly due to fuel costs but mainly if I am honest because of the company car tax rules – the lower the emissions the less tax you pay (thankfully no one has decended to choosing a hybrid yet!). This trend appears to be a general one as there has been a steady drop in car emissions over the last few years with the latest figures showing a 3.5% drop in CO2 in 2010 to 144.2g/km.

Perhaps more impressively 40% of cars now emit less than 130g/km, compared with just 1% in 2000.

More than half of new cars had emissions below 140g/km, compared with 8.2% in 2000

Since the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) started its CO2 report in 2000, average emissions from new cars have fallen by 20%, from 173.5g/km to 144.2g/km.

The 2010 reduction is the 10th successive fall, but is slightly smaller than the 4.7% drop recorded in 2009 and the 4.2% decrease reported in 2008. Difficult economic conditions and the scrappage scheme have encouraged people into smaller cars and helped with these bigger reductions in average levels over the past three years.

More importantly – most of these cars aren’t hybrids – wh needs them!

‘Imaginitive’ green advertising from Volvo!

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As a Volvo driver now I have to look for any hint of  ‘street cred’ that I can for my car – the general view in the office is that my flat cap, pipe and slippers are just around the corner. Well I have now found some quite imaginative and dare I say ‘trendy’ advertising by them!

Volvo has recently taken out adverts in several newspapers warning drivers in London about a scam involving the unauthorised sale of Volvo DRIVe boot badges for the avoidance of the London Congestion Charge. The notice states that vendors are offering badges to unsuspecting members of the public for upwards of £800 on the false premise that the badge will, on its own, exempt them from the daily £10 congestion charge.

If it seems a little far-fetched that’s because it is. The ‘warning’ is actually a ‘clever’ piece of advertising by Volvo to highlight its DRIVe range of low emissions cars that are exempt from the London Congestion Charge as they emit less than 99g/km of CO2 – (the C30, S40 and V50 DRIVe models all qualify).

It doesn’t stop with newspaper adverts though. There is even a suitably amateur website that Volvo has mocked up at which claims to offer the DRIVe badge kit at a ‘special introductory price’ which includes ‘full installation instructions’ and works on whatever car you drive. But if you click on any of the ‘Buy Now’ links you’re instead sent to the Volvo website with details of the DRIVe range.

This may not be the most avantgarde advertising campaign ever – but its pretty cool for a Volvo!

OK, so I really must get out more!

So in reality how green are electric cars ?

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I have commented here recently about the current ‘trendiness’ of the electric car. We are being told by the media that it is to be the ‘big thing’ this year – although without digging too deep it is easy to see it won’t be!

Green car?

The BBC’s recent ‘electric mini to Edinburgh’ farce also highlighted the medias total lack of understanding about electric cars – they are not designed or capable of long distances – so why try?

However all this activity has set me wondering – how green is an electric car once you take our power generation into account in this country? The results make very interesting reading and create even more hurdles for the electric car to jump.

Back in the summer of last year I changed my car, I blogged about it here. I wanted to go ‘greener’ so tried various options, however the upshot was a Volvo V50 diesel. It had reasonable green credentials and importantly emitted 105 g CO2 per km (the newer version is 99 g per km). So how does this compare to an electric car?

There is a general assumption that electric cars are “cleaner” than petrol/diesel/hybrid cars, but  electric cars cannot claim to be “emissions free” if they are powered from an energy grid supplied by power stations burning coal or gas. Or even nuclear, for that matter.

Tailpipe emissions for electric cars can be classified legitimately as zero – which is certainly beneficial for an urban environment where local air pollution is a huge problem – but is this pollution simply being displaced meaning that it still ends up in the atmosphere but via the route of a power station’s stack as opposed to the exhaust? And, crucially, is less like-for-like pollution being emitted by using an electric car as opposed to one reliant on the internal combustion engine?

In terms of emissions, over the course of 19 recharges, the average transport cost of an electric car is 21 kWh per 100km – about four times better than an average fossil fuel car. 

But, (now the interesting bit);

 In terms of carbon emissions, 21 kWh per 100 km is equivalent to 105 g CO2 per km, (assuming that electricity has a footprint of 500 g CO2 per kWh).

That’s exactly the same as my Volvo – a car that allows me to go 500 – 600 miles between refills!

Yes, the electric car does not pollute a city atmosphere, and its silent. But perhaps we need to step back and consider the current  move to electric cars is perhaps a touch premature?

Now if we had much higher levels of renewable electricity generation that would change things a lot………….