More good news from that one-time basket case called Alfa Romeo. Soon after you read this, the covers will come off what Alfa will describe only as ‘a sports car concept’, though it is widely believed to be a precursor to a rear-drive production car selling in the highly profitable £35-40,000 where it is sure to cause the Porsche Boxster and Audi TT a few headaches. If the buzz is true, the car will be mid-engined and rear-wheel drive, making it the first new Alfa to point its power at only the correct end of the car in over 20 years. I exclude the 8C because it’s a Maserati.
Alfa, whose tribulations have rarely been dull, nevertheless becomes more interesting to watch by the week, the difference being I now detect a genuinely positive aura around the Milanese marque. In the Giulietta (top) it has its most competitive product since the ‘Sud, something even its botched launch (it was going to be called ‘Milano’ until a matter of weeks before it went on sale) couldn’t spoil.
But the real significance of the Giulietta is not so much the car, as the platform upon which it is based. Rightly, wrongly but either way inevitably, a good platform is a car manufacturer’s most vital asset. If you have one it can be pulled, pushed, stretched and cajoled into all manner of formats, spinning off outwardly new cars for remarkably little extra development costs. And if you don’t, as Alfa has found out these past few decades, life can be difficult.
But you have to be careful what you do with your platform, and Alfa’s next move with theirs will likely horrify the purists. The plan is to make an SUV, the first in its history. Instinctively I hate the idea. Beyond those designed to work in fields, I’m no great fan of SUVs in general and mid-sized so-called ‘soft-roaders’ in particular. And it is into this category that the new Alfa will undoubtedly fall. You can compare one to another and discover that, say, a BMW X3 is far better than an Audi Q5, or that a Skoda Yeti beats the Nissan Qashqai hollow, but compare any of them to a conventional car from the same brand costing similar money and their inherent faults become blindingly obvious. Whatever form this new Alfa takes I’ll bet now that it’ll be slower, more cumbersome, less fuel-efficient and less fun to drive than the Giulietta. Higher and heavier as it will undoubtedly be, it would be a physics-defying miracle were it anything else.
And yet we should not be too hasty to condemn. Time has taught us that Alfa Romeo cannot be sustained by the Alfisti alone. It has to find sales beyond such narrow confines and search instead among the rather larger number of prospects looking for a stylish car they think will fit their lives and impress the neighbours too. It can use its new platform to precisely these ends. Should the cars that result succeed, they would then provide Alfa with the means to make machines rather more in keeping with what you or I might hope for from the marque. Porsche is the world’s leading exponent of this art: I have been more vocal than most in my reservations about the Panamera and Cayenne, but even I can’t deny that it’s profits from cars like those that help make cars like the 911 GT3 possible.
What’s interesting is that Volkswagen is now sniffing so hard around Alfa Romeo that Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne has felt the need to issue a single-syllable assurance that the brand is not for sale. Bear in mind too that of them all, VW knows a winner when it sees one.
If Alfa isn’t bought by VW, SEAT employees should probably breathe the loudest sighs of relief. Despite showing a sure touch in managing brands all the way from Skoda to Bugatti, VW has struggled to realise its stated aim of turning SEAT into a Spanish Alfa Romeo. If VW got its hands on the real one instead, it would be more unkind than unfair to ponder what future remained for SEAT within the portfolio.
Talking of making good use of one platform, news reaches me that a new Aston Martin is on the way. Positioned as a luxurious Grand Tourer sitting between the DB9 and DBS, the new car will be called the Aston Martin Virage. As the DB9 now costs around £125,000 and the DBS £175,000, there will be no surprises when Aston reveals that the Virage will be priced at around £150,000, or that its engine produces 490bhp, exactly midway between its two sisters.
Insiders admit there was much debate over the use of this title. On the one hand it is catchy and consistent with Aston naming policy, on the other it’s indelibly associated with one of the worst cars in Aston’s history. In fact, in the case of the automatic Virage Volante, the single worst Aston I’ve driven. Long after he’d left Aston, the late Victor Gauntlett declined to tell me how little money he’d had to develop the car on the grounds that “you wouldn’t believe me if I did”.
Aston says the new car represents a substantial step forward in terms of ride and refinement, adding that it takes these qualities from the outstandingly comfortable Rapide saloon and applies them to the coupe format. Visually it is clearly a DB9 derivative, but with a butch front air intake and dramatically flared sill extensions it has a look of its own. Having only seen fuzzy pictures I’ll reserve judgement for now until I see it in the flesh at the Geneva show in March.
Mazda is trumpeting the production of the 900,000th MX-5 roadster (below), an extraordinary achievement for a car launched in 1989 just as the tide appeared to be against two-seat roadsters.
However, amid the back-slapping taking place in Hiroshima, Mazda might ask itself why the car you can buy today has failed to build on the original’s promise. As someone old enough to have tested the MX-5 as new, and to have been blown away by it, today’s car makes you wonder what Mazda has been doing the past two decades.
The first MX-5 was absurdly better than it needed to be: not just in its gorgeous looks but its sweet engine, brilliant gearbox and, most of all, the best-balanced chassis of any car you could then buy. Scooped up by enthusiasts and fashionistas alike, it provided Mazda with a golden opportunity to build a sub-brand that would continue to deliver dividends for years.
To be fair, Mazda did try with the MX-3 and MX-6 coupes, but you didn’t need long in either to know what half-hearted attempts they were. Even the MX-5s that followed were merely a little more comfortable or powerful than the first: to date none has been better to look at or drive. The current third-generation car is five years old now, so the fourth has almost certainly been signed off. Let’s hope that at the very least the millionth MX-5 is as good as the first.
My ‘Motoring’ Month
The man making Renault and Nissan electric
Toddled off to Paris for the prize-giving of the Car of the Year award, this time to be placed in the grateful hands of Carlos Ghosn (above left), CEO of both Renault and Nissan, for bringing the latter’s Leaf into production as the world’s first proper, all-electric family car.
The car industry has never been short of remarkable people but even by the standards of the greatest industrialists, Ghosn’s many accomplishments are worthy of note, not least in turning Nissan a leviathan saddled by $20 billion debts and ruinous overcapacity when he became president 11 years ago into the lean, profitable, forwardthinking business it is today.
Time alone will tell whether his decision to nail the colours of both Nissan and Renault so clearly to the electric mast will pay off in the long term, but he will know as well as anyone that while timing is important, it’s nothing like as important as time. Toyota alone knows how much money it lost in the early years of the Prius, but the reward is that now the name is almost as synonymous with hybrid powertrains as Sellotape is with sticky-backed plastic. In the electric world, that is territory Ghosn wants for Renault and Nissan.
When he enters a room, the multilingual French-Lebanese executive carries more than a certain presence, albeit one augmented by a small entourage of assistants and, in this case, some rather bright camera lights. But to talk to he is accessible, straightforward, interested and interesting. Ghosn told me that within four years Nissan alone would be producing between 500,000 and a million wholly electric cars. Incidentally, at least 50,000 of them will be built on Tyneside.
Lotus shouldn’t smooth over test track’s cracks
I hoped that during my visit to Hethel to drive the Lotus Evora S (see page 114) I’d be let loose on the famed Lotus test track. This is where most of the great Lotus road cars were developed and where its most successful racers were shaken down before heading off for the next Grand Prix. In the event the track is being turned into an FIA-spec test facility which Lotus boss Dany Bahar told me would be “beffer than Fiorano”. As an exFerrari man, I guess he should know. But I was allowed out on a small portion the diggers had yet to reach and was told I might be the last person outside the factory to drive even pat of the circuit in its original form.
The problem with the new circuit is that it might be too good. What made the Hethel track so distinct was that Lotus never had enough money to maintain it properly, so it existed in a state of perpetual near-disintegration, just like the public roads on which we drive. And I have never doubted that a sizeable chunk of the reason that the Evora S and its kin are so startlingly able not just on the track but in the real world is the decayed and imperfect environment in which they were developed. Lotus engineers still express surprise at how useless competitor vehicles are through the track’s notoriously bumpy and sometimes flat Windsock curve, but if there’s a tougher single test of a road car’s suspension than that, I’ve not come across it. On a super-smooth FIA-compliant surface, almost all of that challenge will go.
New Golf could run rings around 24-hour rivals
Just before going to press I headed out to Vallelunga to test the most extraordinary Golf I’ve ever seen. VW Golf and Scirocco racers have been embarrassing the big boys at the NOrburgring 24 Hours for some years now, but it seems VW now wants to up the ante.
The Golf24 has a 2.5-litre, five-cylinder engine directing a mammoth 440bhp through all four wheels, more than double what a roadgoing GTI has to offer. As for the chassis, it is so extensively modified its ended up 40cm wider than the standard car. It looks incredible, sounds like a Viper GT1 car and is clearly super-quick, though for reasons too tedious to explain here I ran out of time to drive it. Hopefully I’ll climb behind the wheel in the next couple of months and confirm what I already suspect: if you’re a front-runner at the ‘Ring this year it won’t just be the umpteen Mercedes SLS, Audi R8, BMW M3, Aston Vantage, Lexus LFA and Porsche 911 supercars you’ll have to look out for. There’s likely to be a small family hatchback right there with you too.