Road cars

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Andrew Frankel

1 andled with care, the internet is a wonderful thing. How else would 500,000 people and counting have been able to see almost

immediately Mark Higgins pull off the greatest save I’ve ever seen in a car? If you have so far been denied this treat, just type his name into YouTube to see the start of his bid to break the Isle of Man TT course lap record for a road car.

But our ever-expanding browsing ability has also had serious consequences for car manufacturers and the way they peddle their wares. Historically people would visit a dealership on average between three and four times before deciding to buy a car. Now they visit once, and already know what they want.

The ramifications of the car buyer being able to do all their research from the comfort of their sitting room has had a fundamental affect not only on how they buy cars, but the cars they buy. In the past people were horribly exposed to slickly marketed mediocrity because they lacked the tools fully to inform themselves. This is why

20 years ago the best-selling car in the country, the Ford Escort, was also one of the worst.

Now people don’t have to get up, go out, walk to the shops, pick up a copy of What Car? and hope the car they want is being reviewed that month; at the twitch of a mouse they can read 100 opinions not just about the car that takes their fancy but every conceivable rival it might have. So their choices become informed.

What do car manufacturers used to peddling substandard product do about this? It seems they have no choice but to raise their game. Take Hyundai. Ten years ago its ranges were shockingly bad because they were designed before the internet era, sold on price and didn’t need to be any better. But Hyundai got the message and in the short term sweetened the pill by loading equipment onto its cars, creating at least a sense of value while it prepared a new generation of cars fully competitive with the European opposition. And now the content and product is right, it doesn’t need to undercut everything else. People look online and see smart, well-equipped product, read the reviews, like the five-year warranty and sign on the dotted.

The strategy works. The Hyundai/ Kia group has just overtaken Toyota to become the third-best-selling car company in the US, while over here sales have risen from a pre-crash 34,000 in 2007 to a projected 64,000 this year. All of which leaves an interesting question in need of an answer. ‘The Chinese are coming’ is a phrase you hear as often now as you heard ‘the Koreans are coming’ 10 years ago. There is a feeling we are shortly to be swamped by Chinese cars that’ll simply move into the space vacated by Hyundai,

Kia and others and undercut the market. But will it happen? I think not. Or not in this way.

Until the Chinese can build cars that are genuinely competitive with marques already established in Europe, price is the only weapon they’ll have. But not only is the market signalling it is prepared to pay for better cars, even those remaining in the budget end of the market will be able to choose between, say, a new Chinese car and a two-year-old Korean car. If it’s a Hyundai it will still have three years of unlimited-mileage warranty remaining.

This is why the Chinese’s best bet is to buy into established brands. Their problem is that most of the good ones have already been snapped up, in the main by Volkswagen. But I suspect it’s why Geely bought Volvo and the only reason Saab might yet survive, of which more on the other side of the page.

somewhat amused by the announcement this month that ZF has designed an automatic transmission with no fewer than nine forward speeds.

It cites fuel consumption (and therefore CO2) savings of up to 16 per cent, because in ninth gear at 75mph an engine will turn at only 1900rpm rather than the 2600rpm required by its six-speed automatic.

The cynic in me suspects this has everything to do with allowing car manufacturers to make ever-lower emissions and consumption claims, and very little to do with improving the lot (or bank balance) of the person behind the wheel. Using ultra-high gearing is now a standard manufacturer ploy to improve quoted consumption figures because the test from which these figures are derived is completely removed from the real world. Would you be surprised, for instance, to learn the total distance a car must

cover to be certified is less than seven miles in a test that takes under 20 minutes and is conducted on a rolling road? Or that the test is taken with all ancillaries turned off, that it makes no allowances for gradient or corners and that at no point are the cars made to accelerate hard, or hit motorway speeds? No wonder it is getting ever more difficult for drivers to get anywhere near the official claims for the cars they buy.

A nine-speed gearbox may improve fuel consumption by 16 per cent in the weird and completely artificial world in which this data is currently generated, but in the real world? Perhaps ZF would care to supply two otherwise identical cars, one with six speeds, one with nine, and let us find out for sure?

celebrate the 50th anniversary of the original, Aston Martin has revealed a new Zagato (above), based on its V12 Vantage model.

And while only racing versions have so far been built, a road car is certain.

I’ve not seen it in the flesh yet, though from what I’ve seen in photographs, the car is more arresting than attractive.

When I look at Zagato’s more recent products, I see far more misses than hits. I liked the Lancia Hyena from 1992 but previous Aston efforts, including the 1986 V8 Zagato and 1992 DB7, were most kindly described as challenging, while cars like the Maserati Biturbo Spyder and 1990 Alfa SZ were just plain ugly. Let’s hope this new Zagato is better in reality than on the page.

we closed for press, BMW gave some details about one of its worst-kept secrets: there’s going to be a new M5 before the year is out.

It has a new 4.4-litre, twin-turbo V8 that will have 552bhp, which is close to double the output of the 1985 original. It also beats the 500bhp of the most recent M5 by over 10 per cent, yet, says BMW, comes with a 30 per cent drop in emissions and fuel consumption. Which is quite clever.

The gearbox is still a paddle-activated sevenspeeder, but is now a double-clutch design instead of the jerky, robotised manual transmission that came close to spoiling the M.5.

Sales will begin in November with UK prices starting at £73,000. Expect them to go fast, in every sense of the phrase.

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