Andrew Frankel – Road cars

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124

The shape of things to come

A thousand issues ago, just as the first edition of The Brooklands Gazette was being set in the presses, so too was an Austin Seven being built at Longbridge that, many decades later, would find its way into my family. It is the only car I have ever driven in which traffic posed no problem. Even in the excruciatingly stifled environment of the Channel Island that was my home until I was old enough to make good my escape, you could drive this 10 horsepower, 747cc, side-valve bath chair at qualifying pace without the smallest risk of being delayed by another road user, let alone breaking the law. And when that law forbade all speeds in excess of 40mph, you get some idea of just how slow was the pace of one of the very few cars to pass as viable family transport back in the days when this magazine was in its infancy.

But though its speed was limited it was never limiting. On the contrary, because the baby Austin Seven did everything so slowly – accelerate, corner, slide and stop – I found it rather liberating. Thanks to the fact that I could never bear to be at the head of a queue of traffic, I felt obliged to drive it as fast as I possibly could absolutely everywhere, at which pace it was just capable of keeping up with the rather relaxed gait preferred by the island’s indigenous population in more modern machinery.

Compare this experience to that offered by the new Nissan GT-R, tested on page 124. Driving that car fast in public is, more than anything, an exercise in saintly self-restraint. If you keep away from race tracks, there are very few places left in the UK where you can even begin to put such a car through its paces without falling foul of the law or being a menace to other road users. Even attempting to use its power to the full is an exercise in futility as all that power really achieves is to reduce further the time spent in free air, between pockets of traffic. Ironic, isn’t it, that in one of the fastest road cars ever created, you’re always at the back of any given queue of traffic.

Between them, the Austin Seven and the Nissan GT-R show starkly that speed and fun actually have very little to do with each other – indeed in this real world that we are forced to inhabit their interests are often contradictory, and sometimes diametrically opposed.

The reasons for this are not just social and environmental but also because speed is relative and its novelty soon wears off. Most people who have done Le Mans a few times, even in the era before the chicanes, will tell you that after a while 200mph seems entirely routine. In fact if you’re chuntering down the straight at the double-ton and something else comes past going 40mph faster, even 200mph can seem frustratingly slow. Similarly, when I got into this game 20 years ago, any road car that could genuinely hit 60mph from rest in under six seconds was a bona fide member of the supercar club. But now you’ll go no slower in a diesel powered BMW 3-series and we think nothing of it.

By contrast, fun is a constant. No one at all interested in driving ever tires of the delicious pleasure of real steering feel, a properly balanced chassis, instantaneous throttle response, an incisive gearchange and an exhaust note you’d choose for the church on your final journey. And these attributes need not even be expensive. But they are becoming increasingly rare.

What, then, will cars be like when the 2000th edition of Motor Sport hits the shelves, computer screens or is projected by holograph into your home? I have some hope they’ll not be the amorphous blobs of some dystopian future as predicted by Woody Allen in Sleeper.

The first thing that’s going to happen is that cars are going to start losing weight because their manufacturers will have no choice in the matter. If predicted emissions and consumption targets are to be met even in the short term, weights will have to tumble. If, at the same time, influential bodies like Euro NCAP do what they should have done from the start and test primary rather than merely secondary safety, it will prove what not enough people know already: it is easier not to have the crash at all in a light car than have it in a heavy car.

Cars are so heavy now that if you look back 30 years, you’ll discover that BMW’s flagship limousine, the 735i, weighs less than the aforementioned diesel BMW 3-series does today, which is itself one of the lightest contenders in its class. This is unsustainable.

As weight comes down, so performance and handling improve, and the ‘feel’ we all crave but can barely recognise today will return and cars will become fun again. And there’s no need for their straight-line speed or cornering powers to be curtailed – indeed simple physics shows that, all other things being equal, they should be augmented further.

But even if speed is legislated away and we’re all forced into small, ultra-economical tin boxes, do not presume for a moment that the days of enjoyable driving are over. A few weeks back I drove £800-worth of 20-something-year-old Peugeot 205XS, a car with a grand total of 85bhp to call upon from its 1.4-litre engine. It is fair to say the experience has haunted me ever since. It made most modern cars seem dull, slow-witted and lifeless by comparison as well as letting me explore every corner of its dynamic envelope without incurring so much as a dirty look from another road user, let alone imperilling my driving licence.

Don’t misunderstand me, I have always been a fan of certain fast cars and always will be: by the time the 1001st issue is published, I’ll have driven the new Ferrari California and know now I won’t be sleeping much the night before I do. All I am saying is that speed can only ever be part of the pleasure of driving a car and unless it comes complete with a full measure of many other equally important components, its pursuit is a pretty pointless, not to mention a potentially counter-productive pastime.

*****

BMW 330d: The gap widens

No company has a greater capacity to come up with brain-boggling statistics than BMW. For while some make faster cars, and others more frugal ones, none that I am aware of is capable of combining these with anything like the same level of success. This new 330d is just the latest and most preposterously efficient example.

Eight years ago, I had a 330d for a year and discovered a car capable of almost 140mph and almost 40mpg. Well today’s 330d has to be electronically restricted to 155mph, yet will cover 50 miles in the course of burning a single gallon of diesel, or 49.6mpg to quote the exact combined consumption. It will also hit 60mph from rest in six seconds flat: 20 years ago you’d have needed a Testarossa to beat that.

Little else has changed to the rest of the 3-series. There are some minor cosmetic updates that largely succeed in making its shape slightly less dull, while the infuriating iDrive operating system has been replaced by one that actually works. Frustratingly the seven-speed double-clutch gearbox that seems to be the answer to all those wanting the convenience of an automatic with the immediacy of a manual is only available on coupé and convertible versions of the 335i, all other models have to make do with a conventional manual or automatic.

Even so, the 330d was the best car in its class before these enhancements. Now it seems further ahead than ever.

*****

Rolls rides out the storm

The UK figures for September sales have been released, and if the domestic market is representative of the pain being felt throughout the western world, the luxury car makers are in agony. Bentley, Lexus, Saab and Alfa Romeo all recorded sales drops of over 40 per cent, while Porsche lost a third of the business it was doing in the UK in the same month last year.

And yet at least two car manufacturers whom you might think would count among the worst hit of all, appear still to be making hay. Ferrari says its new California is sold out until 2011, while Rolls-Royce sales figures to this point in 2008 are over 40 per cent higher than for this time last year. Strangest of all, these cars are still selling strongly in Europe and the United States.

What lies beneath these stats? We will have to wait until all the speculators are flushed out of the Ferrari order book to see the true situation there, but with Rolls-Royce my very strong hunch is that if you’re in the market for a car costing, at the very least, £269,500, you’re not going to let an inconvenience like the greatest financial crisis in living memory stand between you and your chosen set of wheels.

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