Andrew Frankel – Road cars

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Fuelling, the debate

Perhaps the most impressive thing I have seen from a car manufacturer of late is Honda’s decision to put its FCX fuel cell car into production. It means Honda is the first car company actually to do what so many others have threatened and, while the finished product is only available to lease in the US, it is a huge step in what the whole car industry and most of us who rely upon it for personal and public transport must fervently hope is the right direction.

Fuel cells are fiendishly complex in operation but, mercifully, so simple in concept that anyone familiar with the world’s best-known chemical formula will understand its principle at once. They function by reacting hydrogen with oxygen, producing electricity that can power a car (or, for that matter, a house or pretty much anything else you choose). And the reason most of the world’s major car manufacturers are so excited by them? As we all learned at school, when you chemically combine hydrogen and oxygen, what you get is H²0 – pure water and nothing else. A bit better for the planet, you will agree, than the oxides of carbon and nitrogen and all the other nasties that currently cascade out of even the cleanest conventional exhaust pipes. In theory you can drink the liquid that drips from an FCX tail pipe and, having done as much and lived to tell the tale, I can vouch for the fact that it works in practice, too.

So if Honda and many other manufacturers have been working on fuel cells since the 1980s, why have they only now started to become available? Firstly, this technology has taken a long time to develop into a form that might be regarded as a viable alternative to conventional fuels. Until recently, they were too bulky, too heavy and lacking in both power and range. But the FCX, with 136bhp, a top speed of 100mph and a range of 270 miles is at least respectable in these regards.

The second problem is one of infrastructure: the energy companies won’t provide the hydrogen refuelling stations necessary to support a fuel cell future without the cars to use them; meanwhile the car manufacturers won’t make and sell fuel cell cars if there’s nowhere for their customers to fill them up. 

It may sound simplistic and even stupid, but that, if you’ll forgive the pun, is the essence of it. Honda’s solution to this is a home filling station where your hydrogen is extracted from the same gas supply that cooks your food and heats your water. Which is clever for sure, but not exactly clean.

The elephant in the room that few companies like to talk about is that no-one has yet discovered a viable way to produce hydrogen that is both cheap and clean. Steaming it out of gas is affordable but dirty and consumes valuable fossil fuel, while using wind, wave or, most likely, solar power, is clean but prohibitively expensive. How long will it be before a truly cost efficient way of producing hydrogen cleanly is with us? No-one knows but estimates vary from ‘several years’ to ‘never’. Without a technological breakthrough, though, it is not unrealistic to think of a truly clean fuel cell future as being 20 or more years away.

So what, then, in the meantime? It seems that despite it all, reports of the death of the internal combustion engine are once more exaggerated. It’s inefficient, unclean, noisy and increasingly unpopular, but it is also all we have. What is remarkable is how much development this 19th century technology still has within it. Even a decade ago the idea of a 2-litre diesel engine that would produce over 200bhp and power a four-seat coupé to 60mph in little more than 6.5sec, reach almost 150mph yet return over 54mpg overall would have been considered implausible to the point of being fanciful. 

But it’s under the bonnet of the BMW 123d and it’s on sale now.

What is clear is that not only will further efficiencies be found from petrol and diesel motors, there will be an increasing dependency on bio-ethanol, particularly from manufacturers of high-performance cars because it offers the blissful combination of being a nearly carbon-neutral and renewable energy source which actually increases engine outputs. Expect diesels to start finding their way into all sorts of unlikely cars too. Mercedes’ AMG division is actively considering it and when I put the once preposterous notion of a diesel-powered Bentley to head of engineering Dr Ulrich Eichhorn, he said the huge torque and extra range offered by diesel made it a fuel entirely in keeping with Bentley brand values, especially as proper power can now be extracted from diesel with no refinement penalty. The only question is ‘will our customers buy one?’, and that, I guess, is something you’d only find out for sure by trying to sell them one.

As for hybrid power, I suspect that were it not for the American and Japanese market’s historical and now nonsensical aversion to diesel, it would not even exist. A few weeks ago, two colleagues of mine at The Sunday Times drove from London to Geneva, one in a noisy, cramped and slow Toyota Prius (77bhp, 0-60mph in 10.7sec, top speed 106mph), the other in a quiet, spacious and swift BMW 520d (177bhp, 0-60mph in 8.1sec, top speed 144mph). Despite deliberately taking a route that included a fair mix of urban, country and motorway roads, astonishingly it was the big executive saloon and not the little eco-box that used the least fuel. Sooner or later the world will choose between diesel and hybrid, much like it chose between VHS and Betamax. I know what my money is on, and it doesn’t have batteries.

*****

Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG

When did you last see a car receive a facelift that really worked? Either the manufacturer does so little to distinguish the new generation from the old you wonder why they bothered, or they try to ‘improve’ the styling of the original and end up wrecking it. Sadly, it is into the latter camp that the Mercedes-Benz SL falls. Slapping a pugnacious nose onto the once svelte face has had a calamitous effect and suggests Mercedes still has an insufficiently firm grip on its new design language.

The big change under the bonnet is the replacement of the 5.5-litre supercharged V8 that hitherto has powered the SL55 AMG with a 6.2-litre normally aspirated V8. Power is down a little, from 525 to 518bhp, but torque has fallen off a cliff – it now musters 464lb ft at 5200rpm, compared to 531lb ft from the old engine at half those revs. It sounds disastrous but, in reality, this new SL is a sight more accomplished. Not only does it do the boring stuff better – it uses less fuel, emits less CO2 – it feels better balanced and sharper. You have to work the motor to get it to deliver, but with a new semi-automatic transmission that changes gear as fast as a Ferrari 599GTB, that’s rarely a chore.

The SL is one of those cars you resent at first, but once you’ve dug beneath the surface, it turns out to be better, if less charming, than ever.

*****

Ariel, Caterham and Caparo T1

I bumped into ex-BTCC racer Phil Bennett recently at a fuel station near Silverstone. He is honing the Caparo T1, a car which has had more than its fair share of teething troubles. Bennett is evangelical on the subject of the car and if you think that’s because Caparo is paying him, you don’t know Phil. Not only are the numbers mind-boggling – he reckons it would lap the old Nürburgring at Group C pace (and as a former lap record holder for a road car there, he’d know) – just as importantly the reliability, so conspicuous by its absence early on, appears to have been found.

A few days later I got a call from Simon Saunders, the founder of Ariel, to tell me about the 500bhp engine he’s slotting into the back of the gorgeous Atom, and then another from Caterham announcing that the same supercharged 2.4-litre V8 motor had been earmarked for one of its cars.

That’s three British sports cars due on the market this year all boasting about 1000bhp per tonne. I’ve driven a few race cars with similar power to weight ratios and nothing short of a ride in a military jet will prepare you for the assault on your senses. Whether your idea of fast is defined by Golf GTi, Porsche 911 or Bugatti Veyron, these cars will take it and burn it before your eyes.

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