Small but perfectly formed
Murray's urban concept edges closer to reality
It seems that ex-Formula 1 designer Gordon Murray's dream of seeing his T25 and T27 city cars in production is at last on its way to reality. He says the concept has been sold (Murray always intended to license the technology rather than manufacture the cars himself) and that with "a following wind" the cars should be in showrooms within three years. There's no denying the process has taken time — I have one of Gordon's drawings of a T25 framed on my wall, signed and dated in 2008 — but his faith in the project has never wavered and is now on the point of bearing fruit.
The T25 and its electric T27 brother are automotive pioneers — and not just because they feature one-plus-two seating, with the driver sitting in a centralised position, and weigh a mere 500kg (a Smart ForTwo is half as much again). The real revolution is the way they are made, with a separate chassis to which a body is attached. At its most basic level this is the way all cars were made before the advent of spaceframes and monocoques, but modern technology allows Murray's design no loss of torsional rigidity compared to an equivalent monocoque car, nor any safety compromise. What makes the system attractive is its almost infinite adaptability, with simple bolt-on pre-painted panels enabling any body style to be married to the same chassis. This manufacturing process is called iStream and is also available to licensees, four of which have signed up during the course of the last year. That has prompted Murray to employ a further 30 staff at his base in Shalford, Surrey.
Cash boost for Lotus
After what seems like years of unrelenting bad news from Lotus Cars, leading many to speculate that the brand would either be sold or allowed to die off, hopes have been raised that a future exists for the once-great marque.
In its first big move since taking over Lotus, Malaysian owner DRB-HICOM has announced £100 million of investment across the three companies that make up Group Lotus — Lotus Cars (maker of the Evora, Elise and Exige), consultancy firm Lotus Engineering and Lotus Racing (builder and developer of competition GTs). This announcement has no effect on the Lotus-branded Formula 1 team. The first visible use of the money will be the recruiting of more than 100 new staff to work in engineering and manufacturing.
The firm's recent woes have been well chronicled: the Evora was and remains a sales disaster while the five-year, five-model recovery plan of ousted boss Dany Bahar was widely derided as overly ambitious and unworkable. It is understood that this plan has now been discarded and that Lotus will focus on improving and developing existing products while reducing its manufacturing costs.
And it seems the plan is starting to work. Lotus sold 80 cars in the first five months of this year. This might not seem like much, but is 10 cars more than were sold in the whole of 2012. Cars like the Exige S and Exige S Roadster are gaining favourable reviews and improved showroom traffic.
The big unknown at the moment is whether the first of Bahar's projects — the new Lotus Esprit — will reach the light of day. Unlike his plans for a new Elan, a city car, a four-door coupe and a new Elise, the Esprit programme was considerably advanced at the time of his departure. It is possible it could be brought to market at relatively little cost and provide Lotus with the all-new product it desperately needs to sell in crucial markets like China and the US — and at a time when economic recovery seems finally to have reached the domestic market.
Off-roaders from Bentley, Jaguar... and Aston?
Like them or or not, if you are a prestige car manufacturer it seems you can no longer avoid having an SUV in your range. In the most important markets — particularly China, America, Russia and the Middle East — they are the fashion accessory of the moment and look like staying that way.
Thus Bentley has confirmed a production SUV and, if there is any truth in the rumours at all, Jaguar is tipped to pull the covers off its first SUV at the Frankfurt Motor Show on September 10.
The Bentley SUV will go on sale in 2016 and is believed to look very different to the challenging shape of the EXP 9 F concept shown at Geneva last year. A pure premium product based on the same platform that will underpin the next Porsche Cayenne and Audi Q7, the Bentley is anticipated to cost around £125,000, which is also what you currently pay for an entry-level Continental GT.
The SUV's confirmation comes with news that Volkswagen is going to invest £800 million in the Crewe marque and recruit a further 1000 members of staff. To give some idea of what this means, it's slightly more than the initial amount invested when VW bought Bentley in 1998 to finance the total transformation of the factory, the development of the Continental GT and the ultimately successful Le Mans programme. News of the Jaguar is far thinner on the ground as the company won't yet admit to an SUV's existence. Instead of being a vast and exclusive offering like the Bentley, however, it is set to be a cheaper, higher-volume model that aims to share the wild success of the Range Rover Evoque (whose underlying structure it seems likely to share).
There might soon be further news about British premium SUVs now that Aston Martin has announced a technical partnership with Mercedes-Benz's high-performance AMG division. Widely believed to be a prelude to a marriage of mutual convenience — Aston needing Mercedes' clout and technology, Mercedes needing a halo brand following the death of Maybach — it is unlikely that Aston Martin will ignore the potentially transformative sales prospects of an SUV. With Bentley, Maserati and even Lamborghini heading into off-road territory, it is probable that a Mercedes-based, Aston-branded SUV will not be far behind.
Suzuki powers new Seven
Caterham has released a few more details of its hotly anticipated new entry-level Seven. Costing less than £17,000 — some £5000 cheaper than the current base Caterham — the new car will feature a 660cc, three-cylinder turbocharged engine married to a five-speed transmission, both supplied by Suzuki. This is the smallest engine ever to be fitted to a Seven, the first with fewer than four cylinders and the first to make it into production with a turbocharger.
Caterham says the new car will be the lightest it has ever made and will "pay homage to earlier incarnations of the Seven". It also talks of 'major revisions' to the suspension layout. As teaser shots show, the car retains the double wishbone front suspension developed by Caterham long after it bought the rights from Lotus. It's a reasonable punt to suggest the new car might eschew the De Dion rear axle used by all Sevens since the 1980s in favour of the live axle arrangement of all Lotus Sevens and early Caterhams. The car will be unveiled this autumn, with sales commencing before the end of the year.
Electric BMW on sale soon
BMW has provided full details of its new i3 electric car, unquestionably the most important development in the field since the introduction of the Nissan Leaf in 2010. The four-seat hatchback goes on sale in the UK this November at £30,680, a price than can be reduced by £5000 for as long as the Government's electric car grant pot retains funds. This pitches it squarely against the top-ofthe-range Nissan Leaf Tekna.
But while the Leaf offers a 109bhp electric motor in a car weighing more than 1500kg, the i3 provides 168bhp yet weighs less than 1200kg. Performance is therefore of an entirely different order, with 0-62mph taking 7.2sec compared to 11.9sec for the Nissan. The maximum potential range of its lithium-ion battery pack is similar to that of the Leaf, at 124 miles, which BMW reckons equates to 80-100 miles in normal driving. Those suffering from distance anxiety can always spend a further £2000 on the range-extender version of the i3, which incorporates a two-cylinder BMW motorcycle engine to act as an electric generator once the batteries have run dry. This extends the range to more than 200 miles and allows you to boast to your mates that you drive a car capable of 471mpg with emissions of just 13g/km.
Mercedes has joined Land Rover in announcing an automatic gearbox with no fewer than nine speeds. But while the ZF unit fitted to the Range Rover Evoque is intended for engines with transverse engines, the new home-grown Mercedes transmission will in time be rolled out across almost all its platforms. Currently it has been launched in just the E350 CD! saloon, where it provides a modest 1.9mpg economy improvement.