The Car Club
In what has been a busy year on the new vehicle scene, more than a few have stood out from the pack, but before going there it's probably worth mentioning that right now it is very much a buyer's market.
In some sectors, like compact car and utility, the major players are waging a price war. And it is this activity rather than a robust economy that is driving the new car market to record levels. You can buy a compact car with a list price of around $33k for $25k if you're prepared to haggle a little or threaten to walk down the road and buy the competitor's product (which will be on sale for a similar price). All good for Christmas shopping then.
So what took our fancy this year? In the light car sector it was rather a slow 12 months, introductions limited to the Jazz Hybrid and Mirage. Oh, and lest we forget, the Fiesta ST.
This is a truly remarkable little performance hatch; there is very little on the road that this wee tearaway won't keep pace with, and its exhaust noise above about 4500rpm is very much in a racer's mould. Not only is it quick in a straight line but with torque vectoring it is also a rabbit in the corners, and its fast steering is among the best of the electric set. We liked it very much, and so did Top Gear reviewers, who felt it was the best new introduction for 2013. It may not seem inexpensive at $35k compared with regular Fiestas but you need to consider how much you'd pay for similar performance and dynamics elsewhere.
We may feel embarrassed about the average age of our vehicle fleet, around 13 years, thinking it's among the worst in the developed world, but despair not.
Having taken a few days downtime in Italy and viewed the streets of the main tourist traps there, I reckon we can hold our heads high.
Well, a bit higher perhaps.
For over there the car is treated more like a dodgem than something in which you can take pride. Most cars, the vast majority seemingly, are ratty old superminis, with plenty of evidence of crash and bash encounters. Next to nobody can be bothered to clean their vehicles.
Many cars seem to get very little use. Perhaps that's because the traffic jams at rush hour in the bigger cities are appalling, and there are good public transport alternatives.
None is perfect, except perhaps those associated with some electric motors which have no gears at all, direct drive, so no power losses, no gear changes to make. An ideal transmission then.
But given everyone driving around in humming electric cars is still some scifi fantasy - we are probably two decades away from that at least - then a transmission of some description is part and parcel of everyone's medium term car future.
We were asked recently for a round-up on current transmissions and given we get to drive them all that seemed like a reasonable request. Having said that, we have yet to experience Porsche's seven-speed manual. We bet the uptake for it isn't huge, given their PDK twin-clutch transmission with the same complement of cogs is so brilliantly sorted. Porsche manuals are also fabulous though, with just the right heft and teflon slick action. Moreover, shifts can be rushed through without hesitation or complaint. Racing really does improve the breed and it shows here.
However, manuals as a breed are fast going the way of the dinosaurs and dodos; they are an endangered species and will slowly fade to grey. Out with the old and in with the new. It's all about what's fashionable. Likely as not it's also because the new breeds of automatics are so efficient and quick shifting, not to mention possessed of more cogs, that the general public has already moved on and considers manual transmissions as quaint as other yesteryear icons like carbs and drum brakes. And the truth is they are largely right.
In any retail sector, the hot product one year is sometimes old news the next. A change is sweeping through the road bike market: sportsbikes are being supplanted by sport-tourers, adventure bikes, cruisers and even some streetfighter nakeds and select supermotos.
There are many reasons for this. I like to put it down to the fact that Sky Sport is not really interested in what its moto-mad subscribers want to watch, and is more concerned about profit. Ever since the monopolistic content provider decided that MotoGP wasn't good TV and its subscribers could go without - they claimed Dorna was asking too much for the rights - sales of sports bikes have been tracking down. Actually, if we're fair, they'd been tracking down for some time before that, but Sky Sport deserves a grilling for their decision to quit live coverage of MotoGP. Suzuki saw an opportunity and sponsored a highlights package which shows on TV3 some Sunday afternoons. Thanks for that, Suzuki; it's appreciated. Thanks also to Sommet Sports for stepping in and doing what SkySport couldn't seem to organise: show MotoGP live.
Thankfully, Sky Sport saw fit to continue showing World Superbike racing, which is arguably just as exciting. Lean angles might not be as dramatic but there are more riders in with a shot in any race. The form Tom Sykes on a Kawasaki exhibited last year has carried through to victory this season; he was edged by Aprilia's Max Biaggi last season by half a point. Robbed he was, but this year he's made amends.
Yet does all this translate to sales of sports bikes? You'd have thought so, wouldn't you? We asked Kawasaki distributors and they said around 25 ZX-10Rs had been sold year to date, half the number compared with five years ago. Instead, sales of their sport-tourer ZX1000 and ZR1000 streetfighter have been bubbling along nicely.
If there is any single development in the car industry that has made driving less fun, less interactive, it is the wholesale move to electric power steering. Why most companies have adopted it is obvious: improved fuel consumption (and therefore emissions). In Europe there are tax breaks for low emitters and hence there is a pecuniary advantage to reduced fuel consumption. Though the gains from adopting electric steering are small but significant, the negatives seem to have been overlooked or brushed aside. They are not minor.
There is no easy way for humankind to wean itself off a diet of fossil fuels for powering planes, trains and automobiles. The hope that the electric car would set the world to rights continues to be just that. Meantime, clever (if complex and costly) hybrids are developing apace. Some petrol-electrics are achieving effective fuel use figures that are on a par with those of 100cc scooters. Though still expensive, plug-in hybrids have a promising future.
In the meantime, cars powered by increasingly frugal internal combustion engines will rule the roost. And that's where electric steering comes in; it's one of a range of interventions that, when combined, can produce a marked reduction in combined fuel consumption. The electric power steering system is simpler and lighter to begin with, but importantly it only uses energy when you're turning the wheel. Belt-driven hydraulic systems use energy the entire time the car is running. It's this difference that saves fuel, to the tune of about 0.3L/100km or around 3 per cent. This might not seem like much but when lots of these small fuel-saving interventions are added up, suddenly modern motors are using about 50 per cent less fuel than their 20-year-old counterparts.
There are other advantages to electric steering. It makes self-parking and lane-keeping possible, two steps on the road to the autonomous car (just shoot me when these arrive). Little wonder, then, that some minor tactility issues with electric steering have been overlooked. In mass-market cars, especially small econoboxes that aren't that sporty anyway, we've no real problem with this. Nor do consumers, especially when they're getting novelties like dual-mode steering, as in various Fiats, Hyundais and Kias. There's light weighting for round-town driving, and less assistance on the open road. These systems may be relatively devoid of feel but no one seems to mind much.
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