Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Chic & Cheerful - Fiat's Nuova Cinquecento finds a fan..

Unless you're registered blind or housebound, you cannot have failed to have noticed the steady influx of the cuddly new Fiat 500 onto the nation's roads.

This unashamedly-nostalgic reworking of Fiat's classic from the 50s has stolen the hearts of thousands of style-savvy motorists not just here in the UK but throughout Europe and even further afield.

Even BSM have chopped in their fleet of staid Vauxhall Corsas as they rush to embrace the cheap running costs and undoubted stylistic attaction of the little Italian bambino.

Everyone it seems is anxious to get into one of these fun-filled retromobiles, and contributor Alexander Henry is no exception..

Unlike many people, I was never a fan of the original Mini. Perhaps it was memories of being driven to school in musty smelling British Leyland era versions in awful colours with plastic seats, bouncing along on rusted out subframes, or perhaps something else. But I didn’t like them. The reinvented BMW version when it came along in 2001 didn’t stand a chance then. Although I wasn’t keen on Issignosis’ original I was at least able to recognise its place in motoring history, an important brick in the wall of car development – clever use of space, suspension, drivetrain and value for money making it accessible to most. The new one to me missed the mark totally. It was none of these things. It had room for the driver and front passenger and nobody else. Or their stuff. It was bloody expensive. It wasn’t really British even. And worst of all, it rapidly became adopted by legions of estate agents. The MINI (as it is now known) could do nothing more to make me hate it, despite reports of it being good to drive.

This whole retro thing, started with the Beetle, taken over by the MINI didn’t float my boat. Both of these attempts to recapture the youthful, swinging spirit of the original cars seemed to be excessively cynical. The Beetle, built for pennies on an outdated Golf platform in Mexico, and powered by a VW Transporter engine in the wrong place was never going to last surely? And then came the reports of Citroen reinventing the 2CV and FIAT the 500. Citroen’s claims arrived in the form of the lumpen C3, but FIAT came good on their word, previewing the Trepiuno concept which was clearly on the verge of crawling down a production line. This new 500 confused me. I wanted one.

The fuss died down, I still hated the MINI and its estate agent clients, the Beetle continued to look more and more ridiculous, and occasional reports of nuova 500 progress appeared in the motoring press. I rediscovered my love for small Italian cars at about the same time FIAT was doing this themselves, purchasing one of the first of the excellent Grande Punto models – the first decent small Fiat since the Panda a few years beforehand, itself the first decent small Fiat since the original Punto was launched. FIAT had discovered their mojo again. Finally, the nuova 500 was a reality. The press had their cars, James May test drove one on Top Gear and pronounced it a joy, and not being able to wait, I set to work on the Italian language car configurator, forming my ideal car. All of a sudden this made sense. I was transported back to my childhood – seemingly infinite variations of colour, trim, specification, stickers, brightwork, engines. No limits. Every engine could be had in every trim, every colour, every option. I ordered the teaser brochure. This in itself was a marvel – a glossy A5 sized ring bound funpad, with stickers to move about and reposition, overlays and colour swatches.

When they announced it was only going to cost £7,900 in the UK, it was clear that my relationship with the Punto was coming to an end. Not so my outstanding finance on that car however, so it had to wait. A trip to the dealer managed to assuage any fears of it being too small to consider but a test drive had to be put off until February 2009. With my girlfriend in tow (actually, she was just as keen as I and drove it first) we set off in a posh Lounge specification car, powered by the 1.3 diesel engine. The ability of the car was remarkable. It felt solid, grown up, well made and put an enormous grin on my face as it was thrashed out of creepy Crawley on a test route. I always say that the worth of a car is always clear once you’ve had it up on two wheels and this demonstrator did not escape. It showed it was a proper FIAT, responding to every demand in the way I would expect.

With a motoring history averaging one car a year over 13 years, surprisingly only two of them were brand new. Choosing a new Clio in 1998 and even the Grande Punto in 2006, was fairly easy if underwhelming. Set the budget, choose the colour and that’s about it. When sat opposite the dealer having completed the test drive and committing to purchase, actually choosing a 500 is really rather difficult. Much was made of the MINI’s umpteen million spec combination and the 500 is much the same. Start with a blank canvas and make your own choice. To be honest, this could have been very difficult for me. As most around me will attest, I suffer from a form of selection anxiety. I find it distressing choosing breakfast cereal in Sainsbury’s and often linger here for several hours. Choosing a multipack of crisps has much the same effect on me. It’s one of the reasons my local supermarkets recently started opening 24 hours. And to the best of my knowledge there are only 83 kinds of cereal and 52 types of crisps. I had 500,000 Fiat 500 specifications to choose from.

Fortunately I had been practising for nearly two years already, since the car was launched in Italy. Many an evening definitely NOT wasted, spent configuring, saving, naming and recolouring – all in the name of research and an eventual aim. So where best to start? Number one consideration was budget. I’m not wealthy. I work in Insurance. I have a company car already which is quite posh. It was always going to be the Pop version, the entry level car. Not only this but the Lounge model which is the next one up has horrid seats and a glass roof which robs headroom. I didn’t like the wheels on the Sport version. These concerns and a firm belief that a small Fiat is always at its best in basic, solid paint and wheel trim form started me off. When it comes to cars, I believe in a law of diminishing returns – the basic car is always worth paying for if it’s good. You drive the chassis, the engine, the brakes, not the trinkets. Trinkets break and fall off, get tarnished and don’t pay you back what you forked out for them in the first place. With a basic version you get most of what the car means, for the least outlay.

You also get nicer seats.

The 1.2 petrol engine was chosen. This was the same motor as in my Punto, which was quite a lot bigger. It did the small FIAT petrol thing perfectly – loved to rev, sounded great, provided pace that belied its miniscule power rating and rewarded being driven HARD. In the 500 it’s a revelation. This engine is actually really old, but here it is clean, refined yet fizzy and economical. It’s the only motor to emit under 120 grams of CO2 and thus place it into £35 a year tax country, unless you include the diesel. A diesel in cars this size is always a false economy so this was rejected. It was always going to have the black ambience – steering wheel, seat belts, dash trim and inserts and seat tops and despite worries about stains, the red seats.

What colour outside? White. The only free colour. And the colour that works best. Everyone else seems to agree, literally every other one I see is finished in this colour. The car was ordered 14th February and duly Christened Valentino. I’ve never named a car before. I don’t think I have ever admitted in public that I have now done so either.

Valentino was delivered the day after my 30th birthday and we celebrated together with a tour of the South coast – Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight. Everywhere we went, the road ahead was scanned for other 500’s. Every one we spotted was flashed and (nearly) everyone waved back. This is a game I play over 6 months later and I never tire of it. It seems the 500 makes people smile. A Spring outing to the AutoItalia festival at Brooklands brought an enormous amount of pleasure with Valentino being parked with dozens of other cars, driving through the crowd thronged event on a beautiful sunny day sandwiched between Ferraris and Lamborghinis is something I will never forget.

The funny thing was that this modern interpretation of the original 500, a car which has a passionate following, was never questioned. Many an Issignonis Mini can be spotted wearing a ‘100% BMW FREE’ sticker. I’ve never heard nor seen any unpleasant comment from the original 500 brigade, despite the new one’s engine being in the wrong place, Beetle style. In fact, at Brooklands, new and old were parked up together like boys and girls at a primary school barn dance, only voluntarily.

The new 500 is a marvel. It’s £3000 less than the cheapest MINI. It’s smaller, yet has more space inside. It’s cleaner, more accessible and isn’t identified with hateful estate agents. OK, it’s not perfect – the ride is a little bouncy, the steering has no feel to speak of and some of the components feel a bit cheap but the return on the investment is staggering. And confidence must be high – BSM recently agreed to replace their entire Vauxhall fleet with the little FIAT and this can only be a good thing for residuals, with demand for used examples surely being pushed up by new drivers with wealthy parents looking to buy their offspring something they feel comfortable in. I’ve only seen girls learning in them though, which makes me wonder – how come I never feel at all.... metrosexual driving this car? How come I see so many blokes driving them and how come so many blokes seem to be driving powder blue examples? This is something I can never explain, although I did note that every original 500 I see is being piloted by a man, generally with a large beard.

Alexander Henry

Friday, 23 October 2009

All change!

There is an ancient Chinese proverb - or is it a curse? - "may you live in interesting times".

The old order changing as Moseley leaves....? Jean Todt, has been voted in as President of the FIA.... the protector of the current regime.... rather than the candidate for change...

Meanwhile, back at FOM/FOA, Bernie, the owner of all other three letter corporate acronyms, has a bit of a problem....

Simon Gillet at Donington seems to have blown it in a very big way and clearly cannot raise the money to prepare Donington for the 2010 British GP. Bernie will probably reluctantly go back to Silverstone who will surely hold out for a multi-year deal, their recent improving financial position suggests they can afford to play a tougher game of poker with Bernie this time around.

Is it the end of the British GP? I doubt it, even Bernie recognises what a PR disaster that would be for him and for the FIA.

Other gossip suggests Jenson Button may go to McLaren for 2010 and not stay at Brawn after all.

I doubt it, somehow, for many reasons.... Money is not his prime motivator, but loyalty is important to him. McLaren, I think, will not want two recent world champions at the same time and maybe could not even afford them!

Toyota's last minute bid for the McLaren bound Raikkonen is, according to Toyota team boss John Howet very cash limited and I am convinced Ross will reach a deal with Button although Ruben's position is perhaps more fluid....

Looks like we shall have lots to talk about in Abu Dhabi!!

Graham Benge

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Jenson Button - F1 World Champion 2009

The champagne has all been drunk, after a few hours fitful sleep the hangover is easing and for Jenson Button realisation dawns that he is, indeed, the

2009 F1 World Champion

.... even if he will never win a Karaoke competition.

After 21 years in karts and working his way up through the lower formulae, Jenson reached F1 with a surprise - to him - call from Williams to join them for 2000. Frank and Patrick recognised that there was some great talent buried deep inside Jenson but they probably never really drew it out.

As Jenson started to earn some very good money he didn’t always spend it wisely quickly earning him a reputation as a bit of a playboy driver, a reputation that has dogged him throughout his F1 career.

During the last fifteen years I have met and interviewed Jenson many times and never found him to be the sort of arrogant wastrel he is often portrayed as by the red tops. On the contrary I always found him to be charming, friendly and likeable. I have also never found anyone inside F1 with a bad word to say about him, he is, unusually, both liked and respected up and down the pitlane.

Yet in many ways the last 9 years in F1 have been bit like his earlier career with flashes of brilliance interspersed with long periods of being just a journeyman driver. Even some of his staunchest allies have had their doubts that he had the talent to really go all the way to the very top. The podiums were slow to come, until this season only 1 win - in Hungary – was on his score sheet.

I often thought in the last couple of years that in many ways Jenson’s career could be compared with that of Sir Stirling Moss, indeed, they have great respect for each other. Stirling could probably have won even more races and even been a worthy F1 champion if he had not always preferred to drive British cars rather than any other even when they were clearly the worst cars on the grid.

Similarly, many have felt Jenson stayed loyal to Honda too long. Accepted they looked after him very well but they never gave him a car he could really shine in and then pulled the plug when it suited them leaving him and the rest of the team with a bleak – or no - future at the end of 2008.

But the collection of people that had been Honda F1 had one ace in their pack, Ross Brawn. Persuaded to return from a sabbatical and already having guided Benetton and Ferrari to 6 World Championships, Ross, when we met him early in 2008, clearly had massive belief that the team and its drivers, could deliver. In the absence of anyone else coming in to buy the team Ross put his money behind that belief and his name over the door.

For Brawn GP 2009 has been a fairytale season. The new car was immediately quick. They won the first 7 races. And despite having a lower scoring mid-season they have now captured both the Drivers and Constructors titles in their first year of existence. Truly remarkable.

Congratulations to Jenson and to all at Brawn … everything they have achieved is much deserved, determination, talent and hard work proving to be an unbeatable combination.

Graham Benge

Saturday, 17 October 2009

F1 - Brazil Qualifying

Brazil... Samba, sun, carnival.... Wrong!

With a soundtrack by Wet Wet Wet and even the weatherman struck by lightning, Saturday Qualifying in Sao Paulo was a 3 hr marathon of torrential rain, huge accidents and, for very nearly 2009 Champion, Jenson Button, massive disappointment.

With Red Bull rival Sebastian Vettel failing to reach Q2 all seemed in favour of an all Brawn front row, but seemingly with the wrong tyres at the wrong time, Jenson slumped to 14th.

But worse was still to come for Jenson... Team mate and rival Rubens Barrichello got through to Q3 and as the weather improved, so did Barrichello, the local crowd going wild as the Brasilian took pole in the frenetic closing seconds.

The title could still be settled tomorrow with Button too far back to see much of the action... Or, as we suspect Bernie would prefer, it will go down to the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi?

It is tomorrow's weather that may decide the 2009 champion... An unmissable race is in prospect!

Graham Benge

Monday, 12 October 2009

Daytime Running Lights - A Bright Idea?

Car manufacturers are fond of their acronyms - even the most basic of cars on the market these days sports ABS, AC and quite possibly EBD..

The majority of the sytems or features to which this cacophony of capital letters refer evolve as the result of legislation - airbags (or SRS in Acrospeak) being pretty much a standard legal fitment to cars and vans these days for example - and on the whole are accepted by the motoring public - enthusiast or not - as A Good Thing, so long, in the eyes of the aforementioned keener driver at least, they don't impinge on the act of driving.

Indeed, it's hard to remember a time when the wearing of seatbelts wasn't a compulsory part of the whole driving experience and one would probably have to go to some lengths to track down a hardcore non-wearer these days as the vast majority of drivers and passengers quite rightly understand the benefits of buckling up.

I think it is safe to say then that we here at Motortalk Towers are keen proponents of non-invasive safety ideas but certainly do not adhere to the nannying approach which some would have us follow (I'm thinking here of the ever-threatened speed limiters which groups such as Brake believe all cars should be fitted) and eye with interest any new ideas which may find their way onto the roads in the name of 'safety'.

Which brings me onto our Acronym Of The Day:


For those not familiar with this latest collection of capitals, DRL stands for 'Daytime Running Lights' and while not by any means a new idea, they are seemingly becoming a more regular sight on our roads.

Here in the UK we are probably pretty familiar with Volvos and Saabs driving around with their sidelights & more recently headlights on during the day.

This is as a result of the law in Scandinavian countries requiring all cars to display their lights as soon as the engine is running - a sensible idea on the face of it given the short days and limited amount of ambient light available for a good part of the year at such relative proximity to the Arctic Circle.

Other countries are following suit too - since as long ago as 1990 Canada has required all vehicles registered for use on her roads to feature DRLs and more recently Italy, Hungary and the majority of the European Union's recently-admitted former Eastern Bloc countries have passed legislation requiring their use.

Whilst it is not yet a UK or even EU-wide law that cars have their lights on during the day, it would seem that the feature is likely to become a standard fixture on new cars as they are replaced or even facelifted by the manufacturers as the economies of scale make it simpler to include the functionality on all cars built for that particular market.

And this then, coupled with the explosion in popularity of LED lighting in the automotive world, is why we are seeing more and more cars driving around with what appear to be very bright sidelights during daylight hours - ostensibly glowing as a warning to other road users and pedestrians that the vehicle has its engine running and is thus presenting a potential hazard, but also increasingly I suspect as automotive jewellery; the equivalent of motoring 'bling'.

Probably the most dedicated follower of this particular fashion is Audi whose offerings from A3 right up to the range-topping R8 feature some form of DRLs - whether it be the humble incandescent filament on the family A4 or, more overtly, the oh so glitzy swoop of light-emitting diodes which hug the headlights on the aforementioned R8 & are most certainly attention-grabbers, which, ultimately I suppose is the point..

Opinion is seemingly divided on DRLs - whether as safety equipment or as sparkly addenda - with some seeing them as nothing more than a legitimate way for the fog-light brigade to tool around with the equivalent of a tackily-festooned Christmas tree on the front of their cars (aftermarket LED kits are already on sale in Halfords - expect to see them hastily attached to a Saxo near you sometime very soon) whilst others think that they are a waste of energy and only serve to increase fuel consumption at a time when filling up is already almost prohibitively expensive.

Motorcyclists particularly are concerned about the increasing use of these lights, believing that their own particular safety margin of riding with headlights on in daytime will be negated as they disappear into the glare of light from every other road user.

Those on the pro side say though that having some form of light showing at the front of the car can only be a good thing and point to studies which show that accidents in countries where DRLs have been used for some time are reduced - particularly in territories such as Scandinavia where daylight is at more of a premium.

Whatever your view though, it seems that manufacturers are keen to equip their designs with the latest must-have technology and with everyone from Audi through to Vauxhall fitting DRLs to their cars, whether they be there purely for safety reasons or increasingly as aesthetic features with which designers can enhance the 'face' of their brand it seems that daytime running lights have a bright future..

..sorry, couldn't resist..

Dave Wakefield.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Land Rover Rally - Rural Life Centre, Tilford, Surrey

Can anyone think of a better way to spend a few hours on a Sunday than walking round a collection of Land Rovers, new and old?

OK, I can hear some sarcastic comments so don't answer that....

As regular followers of UKMotorTalk will know, 4x4s, and specifically Land Rovers, have long been my particular area of interest in the motor world... A Ferrari just doesn't have the same appeal to me as a Series 1 Land Rover!

So, a slight drizzle in the air as we arrived at the Rural Life Centre in Tilford in Surrey was not going to dampen my spirits...

Set in the fascinating surroundings of the museum, (well worth a visit any other day!) this fine collection of Land Rovers came from near and far... But, of course, it is not only the cars that we came to see, their owners were also on hand to chat to and share their own stories...

Amongst the early examples was this fine 1948 Series 1 which, as it says, was the second off the production line.

On a purely practical note, having information sheets, such as this one, on each and every Land Rover on display, was great for the casual observer... I realise that to some a 1948 Series 1 will not differ in any great way with a modern Defender (can I hear those sarcastic comments again?), and to have a concise note of age, model and any interesting historical points was really useful.
It wasn't all 60 year old nostalgia of course... We also spent many happy minutes talking to owners of much newer craft.... Freelanders, Range Rovers and Discoverys also being included.
On a very anoraky note, I was pleased to see a Discovery that was probably registered just minutes after my own... Its registration number only differing by a few numbers... Why does this give me a warm feeling??? Answers on a postcard!
All in all a really enjoyable few hours... Even of interest to the most junior member of the UKMT team... Though I will have to encourage him (and his father!) to not refer to all Land Rovers as 'tractors'! The owner of the Overfinch Range Rover would probably NOT be impressed! ;-)
Sites of interest:

Monday, 5 October 2009

Japan GP Report

Red Bull and Vettel arrived at Suzuka ready to go for broke. They knew that the constructors' and drivers' titles were just still within their reach but only if they scored a big haul of points.

Unfortunately “go for broke” also applied to Mark Webber who did just that in a big way in final practice, so did not even take part in qualifying.

But Vettel was peerless all weekend, his pole was by a huge margin and his early race laps were more like qualifying laps as he built a very substantial margin over the rest of the field to take a very impressive race win on this most tricky of circuits.

The double Championship leaders Brawn had a rather more torrid weekend, team boss Ross Brawn admitting the cars were simply not at their best. They lacked speed, downforce and favourable tyres. They also suffered from the safety car period after Alguersuari’s massive accident – his second car-destroying crash in 48 hours! – and were lucky to bring the cars home with Barrichello 7th and Button 8th, Button’s drivers' championship lead cut to just 14 points from his team mate, Vettel in with a slim chance to win the driver’s title if he scores heavily in the final two races.

In front of their home crowd Toyota’s second with Trulli was very welcome, especially at a circuit owned by Honda, and Lewis Hamilton’s third could so easily have been second but for the first KERS failure.

Worthy of a mention is Heikki Kovalainen’s cheeky move on Fizzy in the Ferrari as both exited the pits. He caught the old timer napping and undertook him, best move of the race by far and one of the best of the season!

The Brawn points might have been improved as the Stewards investigated Nico Rosberg’s pace into the pits under the safety car but they, after several hours’ consideration, allowed the results to stand.

So, onwards to Brazil where the championship might well be decided although conspiracy theorists will explain the title will go down to the last race, it being the first race at Abu Dhabi. Only time will tell....

Graham Benge