Andrew Frankel - Road cars

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So is the future electric?

Right now we exist in a strange hiatus between the car’s past and its future. You might say that statement could apply equally to any moment in time but this is different. Everything that can sensibly be divined about what’s coming suggests that the biggest change of direction in car design in over a century, since the battle between petrol, electric and steam no less, is almost upon us.

And yet despite this apparently certain and imminent future, we, the car-buying public, are doing all we can to ignore it, aided and abetted by a car industry happy to go on developing cars using technology which some at least believe will soon be rendered obsolete.

The reason is that while all are agreed change is coming, achieving consensus on what that change might be is not just difficult but impossible, not least because even those who have nailed their colours to the mast appear to be reaching for their claw hammers to take them down again.

Let’s take Toyota as the most pro-active proponent of the hybrid technology that has hitherto shown the way forward. I’ve been driving the new, third-generation Prius and while I’d stop short of saying I liked it, it no longer feels like a laboratory on wheels: it feels like a car. In fact, I quite admire it.

But we know it’s only a stop-gap, a Bailey Bridge to carry Toyota to hybrid’s promised land. Here batteries and electric motors don’t assist an internal combustion engine, but the other way around. Using lithium-ion technology instead of the antediluvian nickel-metal hydride batteries found in almost all hybrids, you commute to and from work on a daily basis on electric power alone, recharging your car from the mains at either end and only reverting to petrol power to charge the batteries when your journey puts too many miles between power points.

So far so good. The problem is not the technology, which exists and is proven, but getting it to market at a price both the manufacturer and customer can afford. Tadashi Arashima is the president and CEO of Toyota Motor Europe, and he was good enough to admit that “the cost of this technology is considerably greater than we first thought”. Moreover, despite 500 of these ‘plug-in’ Priuses being leased later this year, he was unable to tell me when the car might go on general sale.

Toyota is not the only company appearing to go lukewarm on hybrid technology. Jochen Heizmann is on the board of Volkswagen and he told me that while VW had extant hybrid programmes, further development of petrol and diesel engines was the preferable way of achieving substantial yet short-term affordable emissions and consumption reductions. His views are backed by Rupert Stadler, the head of Audi, who now views hybrid as “a bridging technology” with a lifespan of “five to 10 years”. Indeed it would increasingly seem that instead of being the answer to our short- to medium-term needs, hybrid is little more than a training ground to allow car manufacturers to learn enough about electric power to ease the transition from a fully fossil-fuelled past to a fully electric future.

Nissan is ahead of this curve and has just shown its new Leaf which is not a hybrid but instead a fully-electric, lithium-ion power family car about the same size as a Ford Focus. With a top speed of around 100mph and a range of 100 miles it’s clearly not yet suitable as an only car, but as a city commuter it may yet make sense particularly if incentives and concessions reduces its projected price of around £20,000 to make it competitive with conventionally-powered rivals. Certainly Nissan is confident, and will make around 200,000 annually after sales start at the end of next year.

Others see it differently. A couple of weeks ago I found myself at a private test track driving the odd-looking Peugeot 3008, which its makers hope will be the first diesel-electric hybrid car to be offered for sale. Its engineers are very excited by it, for the numbers are little short of extraordinary: over 70mpg and under 100g/km of CO2 are impressive enough for a full-size crossover family car until you realise it comes complete with a powertrain generating over 200bhp. The best the current Prius can manage is 134bhp, and while the bulk of the Prius’s environmental advantage comes in town because beyond the city limits it is largely powered by petrol alone, the 3008 should prove fuel-efficient wherever you drive it.

But as with the plug-in Prius, the snag is likely to prove to be the price. I did ask Peugeot how much a diesel hybrid 3008 would likely cost and an answer was not forthcoming. Instead I was asked what kind of premium I thought customers might be prepared to pay and when I ventured it would be unlikely to be more than 10 per cent, conversation became fairly hard to come by.

The other interesting dimension to these various conversations is not what is being said, but what is not. A couple of years back you could barely talk about the future with an industry executive without the words ‘fuel cell’ popping up, but not once in any of the conversations mentioned above did the car manufacturers volunteer the fuel cell as having any kind of future at all. When I suggested it to Herr Stadler from Audi, he said “the technology that will make them possible is still too far away at present”.

What can be divined from this? Simply that talk of the impending demise of the internal combustion engine has been exaggerated and there remains at least some life left in the old technology yet: next year VW will offer a diesel-powered Polo for sale with near-identical emissions and economy to the latest Prius without a battery pack in sight. And it’s hard
to see car manufacturers continuing to invest billions in hybrid technology if it really is an increasingly expensive and short-term solution. In the longer term, opinion appears to be swaying towards an all-electric future, with revolutionary battery technologies finally coming on stream.

But that’s only right now. Over a hundred years ago there were those who also argued that electricity held the future to personal transport. Twenty years ago, two-stroke was all the rage. More recently there have been some who claimed the answer was hybrids and others who pointed to fuel cells. Sadly, the only real truth to emerge is that when all is said and done nobody knows for sure and, unlike a hundred years ago, time is running out.

*****

New Range Rover is a guilty pleasure

It was fun after all the worthiness on the left to clear the cobwebs with a run up the road in the 2.7-tonne, 510bhp, 5-litre, supercharged, V8-powered leviathan that is the latest Range Rover to hit the streets. It costs £79,995 and were jail terms being handed out for CO2 production, it would be looking at 20 years to life with no chance of any emission remission. It’s one of those cars that if you even think about such things you couldn’t turn the key.

But if you subscribe either to the view that global warming is a huge conspiracy theory or, indeed, that the damage is done and there’s nothing we can do about it so you might as well enjoy what time is left, this is the greatest luxury SUV ever built. Better than any VW Touareg or Porsche Cayenne, better even than Audi’s outrageous Q7 V12 TDI. This is a Range Rover that will hit 60mph in under 6sec – a Range Rover, for heaven’s sake – but is otherwise as quiet and restful as you could wish. The cabin has received some detail attention, most notably placing a TFT screen where the instruments once were. But eight years after its introduction, it still comes with a sense of a occasion you’d need something of the calibre of a Rolls-Royce Phantom to materially improve upon.

As guilty pleasures go, there aren’t many more guilty, or pleasurable, than this.

*****

Aston’s Vantage V12 outshines DBS

Aston Martin has made a terrible mistake in bringing this Vantage V12 RS to market. Effectively it is the standard V8 Vantage but featuring the 510bhp V12 engine from the top-of-the-range DBS. The suspension has been retuned to cope with the extra power, extensive use of carbon fibre is made in the bodywork and ceramic brakes are available.

The result is the best Aston Martin road car I’ve ever driven and I speak as someone who’s been unusually lucky in that area. It’s much more raw than Astons of late, even faster and yet sufficiently civilised to use as a long-distance machine. Most interesting of all is that the extra weight of the V12 has not degraded its handling: indeed so successful has the work on the chassis been that it feels as lucid as the V8 and more planted. After many hours on both road and track, the only conclusion to draw is that no Aston ever handled as well as this.

This is the first Aston Martin I have driven in over 20 years that I have loved with all my heart. You may then wonder why the dreadful mistake. It’s simply that at £135,000, I can’t see why anyone interested in driving would ever choose to spend a further £16,000 on the less attractive, slower, poorer handling, more flawed DBS, unless of course driving the same car as James Bond really is that important to you.

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