What a dull year 2010 turned out to be. It’s true that Ferrari and Porsche produced their best new cars in a generation (the 458 Italia and 911 GT3 RS respectively), but down in the cheap seats populated by cars which we can actually afford, it was perhaps the most unadventurous, underachieving year I can remember. The Nissan Leaf’s Car of the Year award was thoroughly deserved, but the truth is it said as much about the lack of credible opposition as it did about the clever, impressive but expensive and flawed electric hatchback.
It seems as if the industry has paused for thought, sat down and taken a deep, contemplative breath before throwing itself at the future it knows is almost upon it. For however boring 2010 was, 2011 will be at least as commensurately captivating.
It’s not that the list of new product is inordinately long — in fact it seems smaller than usual — it is what’s on that list that’s exciting me. Starting with the smallest, the Aston Martin Cygnet (below) will be ruffling the cognoscenti’s feathers by the summer. Although a large part of me wishes it wasn’t happening, I think its detractors miss the point: it’s not there to either desecrate the marque or provide urban transport for owners of rather more traditional Astons, though it might prove adept at both. Its real purpose is to bring down the average fuel consumption and emissions of the Aston Martin fleet so it’s not clobbered with punitive taxes. Unlike Ferrari, which is lumped in with Fiat, or Porsche, which is now part of VW, Aston stands alone. So providing a car that does over 57mpg makes a lot of sense, whether we like it or not.
But the most interesting small car we’ll see this year — much to the chagrin of the litigious Ms Zoe Renault — is the Renault Zoe. True, this little electric car won’t be shown in production form until the end of the year, and it will be 2012 before you can buy one, but in its cute shape lies the suggestion that you might buy an EV for reasons other than a desire to ram your environmental saintliness down your neighbour’s throat. It’s also going to be cheap, up to 10 grand cheaper than the Leaf. It has the potential to do what the Range Rover did for SUVs in 1970 and be the first car of its type you bought for reasons beyond its unique way of working.
There’s going to be important activity in the family car sector too. Historically speaking the two most impressive cars in that part of the market have been the Ford Focus and BMW 3-series, and all-new versions of both go on sale in 2011, albeit at either ends of the year. You can find out what the Focus is like on page 114, but you’ll have to wait until next winter to get the inside track on the 3-series. It’s a massively important car, not just because it’s the only premium machine to have had a regular presence in the UK’s top 10 best-selling cars over the last 20 years, but also because it’s the hub of BMW’s road car activities. In all the years I’ve been doing this job, I’ve never driven a bad one.
On the subject of brilliant BMWs, we’re owed a new M5, and when it comes in the autumn it will be the first to derive its power not from high revs and normal aspiration, but a pair of turbochargers. So while the engine capacity and cylinder count are down from a 5-litre V10 to a 4.4-litre V8, power is going to take a huge hike, from 500bhp to the far side of 570bhp. What I don’t know is whether it’s going to be any lighter: it’s only when cars like this stop chasing cheap horsepower and turn their attention to serious weight loss that the fun really starts. How much more impressive and better to drive would any such car be if, instead of gaining another 100bhp, it achieved the same power-toweight ratio by shedding mass instead?
I wonder how much BMW wishes it had been able to keep Land Rover. It was, after all, the reason it really wanted to buy Rover in the first place, and if the Range Rover Evoque (below) fails to take the company to hitherto unimagined heights of sales success and image improvement, something will need to go badly wrong. The unerring eye of Gerry McGovern has produced a landmark design, a crossover SUV even I covet, despite experiencing feelings for the genre that vary between indifference and loathing.
And so to the two most significant cars of the year, at least to true enthusiasts. First up is the MP4-12C, the car McLaren says will start a process that will see it selling in Ferrari quantities by the middle of the decade. You can never say for certain, but I’ll eat this laptop if the MP4 (can I call it that?) is not faster than any comparable Ferrari or Lamborghini, lighter and more frugal. It will be strong thanks to its carbon structure and, I’ve no doubt, beautifully built. Objectively I struggle to see how it can be anything other than the class of the field. But these cars have also to connect on an emotional level and I feel ill-placed to judge how hard the McLaren name tugs at the heart strings. Nor do I know whether its turbocharged engine will make said heart leap when it’s fired up, nor if the throttle response of a normally-aspirated unit has been achieved. All I do know is it will be fun finding out.
We have a new 911 too. Not another variation on the theme, but only the third clean-sheet design in the car’s 46-year history. As it’s to be unveiled at the back of the year, Porsche is keeping quiet about the 991, but it will still be powered by a flat-six motor slung out behind the rear wheels, so you can forget any talk of mid-engined V8s. We know also it will be capable of becoming a hybrid, though not from launch, and that its design will have incorporated the possibility of a low-cost, four-cylinder turbo motor. A four-cylinder 911? Porsche doesn’t want to do it, but the engine is already running, ready for installation in the Boxster which now seems certain, and there is precedent in the form of the slow but nimble 912 of the late ’60s.
There are many other cars I can’t wait to drive in 2011: the all-new Caterham, new Mercedes SLK, brand-new BMW 6 and 1-series, the Mini coupe and a raft of supercars from the Merc SLS convertible past the Aston One-77 to the allnew Lamborghini Murcielago. There’s also the intriguing spectre of the Peugeot 3008 Hybrid4. Why am I talking about another hideously ugly crossover in such company? Only because it’s the world’s first diesel hybrid, and if 200bhp and 99g/km of CO2 is anything to go by, it’s a genre we’ll be seeing a great deal more of in the future.
So let’s forget dull, dreary 2010 and enjoy what promises to be a vintage 2011.
My Motoring Month
New Caterham is a step away from the seven
I am much enthused by news of the Caterham-Lola SP/300R, most of all by plans to put the car on the public road. For so many years Caterham appears to have been hidebound by the Seven, and it’s immensely encouraging to see it break out and try something new.
Of course, we’ve been here before. Back in 1994, and perhaps because I’d had the unique distinction of having owned one Caterham, built another, raced a third, written off a fourth and run a fifth as a company car, I was deemed suitable to be the first hack to try out the new 21. The fact that a mate had designed it may have helped too.
The idea of the 21 was to civilise the Seven without taming it, so you’d have all the fun and thrills but in a car you could actually suggest buying to your other half without proceedings being issued against you. I still think it was a good idea and the car itself did exactly what was promised. Unfortunately not only were both Caterham and I demonstrably wrong about the 21’s potential, the public’s appetite for such a car was about to be sated by the Lotus Elise. The 21 sank almost without trace: even an apparently conservative sales prediction of just 200 cars a year turned out to be wildly overambitious. In the end just 48 were built.
The 21’s problem was not that it was the wrong car, but that it came from the wrong company. However much more usable it might have been, a civilised Caterham was also somehow a diminished Caterham.
There is reason to think the future is bright for the new car, despite the existence of rival and fabulous designs from, in particular, Radical. This is more and not less of what Caterham does so well: a sub-600kg, 300bhp machine given extra pace, presence and credibility by Lola’s chassis and aero package. It’s said to hit 60mph from rest in 2.5sec, and given the organisations behind it, it would be a brave man to bet the lap times won’t be impressive too. £60,000 might sound like a lot to spend on a Caterham, but I suspect that whether you have one as a race car, track car or road car, after your first few laps you might struggle to say it wasn’t worth it. Perhaps Caterham might permit me to see for myself?
Why Detroit is no longer the Motor City
The decline in the Detroit motor show now seems at last to be following in the footsteps of Motor City itself, whose population has halved in the last 60 years. Once grouped with Frankfurt Tokyo, Geneva and Paris as the show no news-gathering automotive hack should miss, new metal of interest to an international audience was thinner on the ground this year than any I can remember.
Audi revealed the new A6 saloon, BMW the already heavily-trailed 6-series. Toyota showed an MPV version of the Prius and Hyundai its unusual Veloster coupe. But as far as genuinely all-new cars that will be sold around the world go, there was little else.
Even the once big three on the occasion of their home show were close to catatonic relative to the huge noise they once delighted in making inside the Cobo Hall. Chrysler showed updated versions of the 300 saloon and Jeep Compass, Ford’s most important exhibit was an electric Focus, and when I asked General Motors what it might be showing that could be of any interest to the UK market the answer was ‘nothing’.
There were some interesting unveilings at the Detroit event a concept of a racing version of Porsche’s hybrid 918 supercar (below left), and Tesla revealed a lot more about its five-door Model S. But compared to what well be seeing displayed in Geneva in a few weeks time, it was slim pickings indeed.
Why? There’s the difficult economic situation in general, the specific financial difficulties from which Ford, GM and Chrysler only now seem to be emerging with varying degrees of success, but most of all its down to the competition. Important motor shows are popping up in all kinds of places you’d never have looked at in the past: from Moscow to Mumbai and on to Goodwood recently I was even asked if I’d be attending the Qatar motor show. And that’s without mentioning China, whose Shanghai and Beijing shows are now often favoured over Tokyo by car manufacturers. Nor should we forget domestic competition from the increasingly important shows in Los Angeles and New York. With a choice like that, and with Detroit by size no longer even figuring in the top 10 US cities, its understandable why companies now choose to go elsewhere rather than peddle their wares in the teeth of the Michigan winter.