Road cars

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It’s not just the Eurozone that’s trying to get used to a two-speed Europe. The European car industry is in very much the same boat. On the one hand you have the premium German brands such as BMW, Audi and Mercedes, to which you can add aspirational marques such as Land-Rover, Mini and Rolls-Royce. At present and in no small part thanks to booming Asian economies and the resurgence of the American market, these companies are working flat out to keep up with demand for their products.

And then there are the others, such as Vauxhall/Opel, Peugeot/Citroën, Renault and Fiat who currently face the invidious choice between keeping factories busy building cars that cannot then be sold, paying for these factories to be left idle and making their workers redundant, or selling them off altogether so they cannot be used again if and when the good times return.

In the UK there are more contrasts. Take the Nissan plant in Sunderland: in the past month it’s been announced that not only will a new small hatch called Invitation be built there, but it will also make the car that will re-introduce Nissan to the family hatch market. Between them these two will create over 3000 jobs and will take car production on Tyneside far past 550,000 units per year. Before Nissan, no UK car factory had ever produced 400,000 cars in one year. So now they’re putting on a third shift, running the facility right around the clock for the first time in its 26-year history.

Now turn your attention to Ellesmere Port in Cheshire. General Motors is widely believed to need to close two facilities in Europe to deal with its overcapacity problem, and by the time you read this it may already have decided whether its Cheshire factory will be one of them, therefore ending over a century of UK car production by Vauxhall.

The fear is that all car manufacturers with this problem are just waiting for someone to make the irst move. Carlos Ghosn, CEO of both booming Nissan and struggling Renault, has said that “if someone restructures, it’s going to force everyone to restructure”.

But it seems there is little else in the way of options – and if we think we’ve got it bad in the UK with the threat to Ellesmere Port, spare a thought for the French. Here Peugeot, Citroën and Renault suffer from falling demand, some of Europe’s highest wage rates and a lack of global reach for their products. Soon something has to give and the only remaining questions are what, and by how much?

The idea of a flying car is almost as old as the automobile itself, and various contraptions capable of travel by both land and air have been wobbling around the skies since the 1920s. But the dream of a commercially viable craft has remained elusive. Now that may all be about to change.

The Terrafugia Transition is, in the words of founder Carl Dietrich, “a roadable airplane” that will fly for five hours at a cruising speed of over 100mph, or drive along the Interstate at the same 65mph as everyone else for a similar period of time. It is, in very basic terms, an aircraft with folding wings and a 1.3-litre Rotax engine capable of powering a rear-facing prop or, at the push of a lever, the two rear wheels via a continuously variable transmission.

Why should the Transition work when all others have failed? According to its test pilot Phil Meteer, it’s all down to its weight.

“Trying to package all you need to make a vehicle work properly both on the road and in the sky has always made the resulting craft too heavy. But by using a carbon-fibre structure, we’ve been able to keep our vehicle’s weight to a minimum.” He’s not joking: the Transition may be longer than a Rolls but it’s lighter than a Caterham.

But its use is not for driving up to and then hopping over trafic jams. Unless you’re in the remotest parts of Alaska, where you’re allowed to take off and land on roads, you’ll still need an airstrip. But with 5200 airstrips in the US alone, the nearest on average less than half an hour away from any given citizen, Dietrich hopes it will appeal to traditional flyers who hate landing somewhere and then having to figure out how to get to their inal destination.

Terrafugia already holds over 100 orders for its £175,000 craft, which will start to be filled about a year from now if the Transition gets through around 100 test lights required for certification. Sadly there are as yet no plans to bring it to Europe. There was plenty to look at on the stands of the New York Auto Show, proving car manufacturers now pay more attention to this East Coast event than its LA rival held in the autumn. The new Dodge Viper was an obvious crowd pleaser, not just because of its 8.4-litre, 631bhp motor, but also because its unveiling came with the reveal of a race version designed to compete in the American Le Mans Series.

I thought it didn’t look quite as good as the old Viper, but when they fired up the mighty V10 the roof nearly came off the building. Almost as much power (621bhp) can be found under the bonnet of the Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG, thanks to a mild reworking of its aged 6-litre, twin-turbo V12 engine. Ask Mercedes why it persists with this powerplant when its new generation of 5.5-litre V8s are better in every important regard and the simple response is “because we have customers who want it.”

Not to be outdone, BMW showed the convertible version of its new M6 while Fisker finally revealed the mid-sized saloon which it hopes will establish it as a serious player in the executive car market. Called Atlantic, it’s an electric car with a range-extending petrol engine, tipped to be priced at around £40,000 when sales start next year.

But the big news of the show wasn’t a car at all, but a name: Jaguar inally confirmed what we all already new, which is that the new E-type has been given the green light for production. And as most also suspected, it will indeed be called F-type.

And finally, Carroll Shelby used New York to reveal his latest limited-edition take on the Shelby Mustang. By completely re-engineering its 5.4-litre supercharged motor, a brain-boggling 950bhp has been achieved for the street-legal version. The race car will put 1100bhp under the right foot of its driver. How all this can be effectively deployed through the somewhat restrictive medium of the Mustang’s live rear axle is not yet clear, though it is anticipated that the 50 owners who will take delivery of one for a price of around £125,000 will have a great deal of fun finding out.

Andrew Frankel

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