Monday, 31 October 2011
THE LATEST edition of the Life On Cars magazine is ready!
Packed with the latest motoring reviews, news and features, it's an edition with winter in mind, and there's plenty behind the snowy cover to keep you entertained as the nights draw in.
Enjoy the read and let us know what you think...
Friday, 28 October 2011
EAGLE-eyed readers might have already spotted that the Ferrari Enzo on this very blog is now a brand new Skoda.
That's because there's a new issue of the Life On Cars Magazine on the way, and this rather wintry cover is all I can offer as a bit of a sneak preview. The finished product should be ready to read in the next couple of days.
Hope you're looking forward to it...
The older editions, including the Ormskirk MotorFest preview edition, can still be read by clicking here.
Thursday, 27 October 2011
THERE was a cracking piece in The Champion a couple of weeks ago about a man who used to keep a lion in his back garden every night.
Admittedly he did work for Southport Zoo but he still must be one of the few prepared to put up with a hard-earned reputation as one of the world's most ferocious and powerful predators, in a world where most people would opt for a slightly tamer tabby as a pet. It's exactly the same scenario with the Vauxhall VXR8 I tested earlier this year. I absolutely loved the growl from its V8 engine and its leopard-like talent for sheer speed, but it's a beast I'd struggle to own. It really is using a nuclear warhead to crack a nut.
Vauxhall however realise this and have just the thing for speed freaks grounded in reality, in the sleek shape of the Insignia VXR. As nutcrackers go this is one I doubt you'll be dissappointed with; it really is one of the world's great ground coverers.
Take the VXR8 out for a spin and it feels as though it's constantly on the verge of exploding into a surge of shotgun acceleration, which is exciting when you're in the mood for it but I'd imagine would start to grate slightly on the Monday morning commute. The Insignia's 2.8 V6 is much better, being docile and quiet enough for everyday jobs but you always know that you've no less than 325bhp at your disposal, ready to deploy at the slightest twitch of the right foot. It's particularly handy on motorways, where it'll effortlessly cruise for miles at a time.
But where the range-topping Insignia really shines is when you hunker down into its bucket seats and set if off along a twisty country road, where its four wheel drive and the composure of its chassis really starts to shine. For such a big car it really is a delight to drive, and with plenty of room and gizmos insides it's unlikely your passengers are going to start complaining.
You might think the VXR's £36,000 is its biggest problem but in fact it's its styling; the Insignia is a finely styled saloon, but somehow I can't help thinking the VXR cosmetics make it look like it was made by Nike rather than Vauxhall. Park it up next to say, a Jag XF and it's knocked for six in terms of style and prestige.
But you would have said the same thing about the Lotus Carlton twenty years ago, a car that's gone onto become a classic on account of its ability to effortlessly devour any road it comes across in a way which puts a huge smile on your face.
The Insignia VXR follows in that noble tradition, which is why I'd have one over its cartoonish big brother any day.
Tuesday, 25 October 2011
LIFE ON CARS has been innundated this week with responses from readers who say they are being crippled by the soaring cost of car insurance.
Last week we reported on a Commons enquiry which has been set up to investigate the rising cost of premiums, particularly for younger drivers, and residents from across the region have got in touch to share their thoughts on the issue.
Maureen Gladhill reported difficulties in getting quotes for her two daughters, and said:
"I feel that it is onerous and extremely difficult to pass a driving test nowadays and yet the greedy insurers still penalise young drivers, I feel so sorry for our young people, hammered with extortionate tuition fees, no job prospects and hammered by the insurance industry, it is about time for a parliamentary enquiry.
"I expect the insurers will claim the amount of claims (fraudulent or otherwise) account for premium increases, but I know that the government has tightened up on no win no fee with the new insurance portal system, so come on."
Last week a Transport Select Committee was set up in Westminster to look at the cost of car insurance, armed with new research which suggests a whopping 96% of younger drivers feel they are being "priced off the road" due to high insurance premiums.
A reader from Maghull, who did not wish to be named, agreed with that view and said:
"I fear these insurance companies are seeing an easy target within the driving community not only with young drivers but all drivers in general.
"All in all its a complete rip off. Not only for being young, male, female the car you drive but also dependent where you live. You are discriminated for where you live which I also feel is totally unacceptable. It's a joke and although i dont agree with having no insurance and driving around, I can see why it's an option. The insurance companies need a strip tearing from them and told to drop their prices."
The car insurance industry responded to the Parliamentary enquiry by saying that the rise in claims from personal injury lawsuits and an increase in uninsured driving had helped to drive costs up.
Otto Thoresen, director general of the Association of British Insurers, said:
"Rising claims costs from personal injury claims, excessive legal costs, insurance fraud and uninsured driving, coupled with lower investment returns in recent years, have unfortunately led to rising motor insurance bills for many customers.
"In fact the motor insurance sector has not been profitable for the last sixteen years because the amount paid out in claims and expenses has been greater than that received in premiums."
Younger motorists have reported paying premiums which are hundreds - if not thousands - of pounds in order to get insured, which has led to worries being discussed at the committee that increasing numbers of motorists are resorting to driving with no insurance at all.
Sue Bruce was another parent who complained of crippling prices to insure her children, and told Life On Cars:
"I have paid £3,500 for my 18 year old son to be on the road in this Citroen C1 which incidentally is not much more than the car cost. I do appreciate that the insurance companies have to cover themselves for the small amount of young people that do drive erratic on the roads, but when my daughter passed her test the insurance was £1,900 which is a big difference.
"Maybe these insurance companies. could come up with some kind of scheme where they would accept the driver paying monthly then earning some kind of a no claims bonus month by month therefore making it more affordable for young drivers to get on the road."
Monday, 24 October 2011
IT'S nice to think that when people go onto West Lancashire Borough Council's website to sort out their council tax, they might well be granted with this wonderfully evocative image featuring my very own MGB GT.
I only discovered this poignant picture of MGs from years gone by the other day when I was checking a possible Champion story out but I'll let you into a little secret; I haven't actually driven the bumble B much since that sunny Bank Holiday weekend. In fact, it's been holed up in a garage since then, undergoing a series of subtle but hugely beneficial upgrades.
First off, it's been treated to a much newer and less holey tailgate, which should do wonders in preventing the small lake which lives in the boot appearing every time it rains. Until it's finished I've been limited to taking the MGB out on days when I know it isn't going to rain, which with it being Britain means I've taken it out twice in the past month. It's frustrating, but my luggage will thank me for it!
Another essential bit of kit Santa's brought early is a new fuel tank which - trust me - isn't as dull as it sounds. My biggest bugbear with the BGT is that thanks to having the original fuel tank it suffers with the same problem as every other fortysomething smoker; its lungs are filled with muck, so it coughs and splutters if you ask it go for a run. A new fuel tank means not only less time coughing and spluttering at the side of the road but should actually mean it'll be able to dump more fuel into its two enormous carburettors, more of the time. Which'll make it faster.
But what I'm really looking forward to is the new stereo I've just had fitted to it, which moves the MGB's in car entertainment from a very stodgy Pioneer radio job from the early Eighties straight through to the very latest MP3-ready, USB compatible, digitally futuristic job I could afford. Get this; it's a a 1972 car with a DVD player!
This immediately begs two questions.
Should a 40-year-old classic have such a defiantly modern stereo? Admittedly, I did agonise over whether to fit a retro stereo, but decided against it because a) they're expensive, b) life is too short for a shoddy Seventies eight track stereo and c) the old stereo wasn't the original anyway, so I figured fitting an even newer one wasn't about to dent its originality. I'm sure the purists will sneer at classic car shows, but that'll be twice a year. Enjoying the right accoustics, on the other hand, is an everyday delight.
Do I need a car stereo with an inbuilt DVD player? I've tried to kid everyone that it's to keep me entertained on camping trips but the answer's a tad simpler than that; I am male, and all men love needless gadgets, especially ones in MG-style retro packaging. If I had enough time and expertise I'd build the world's first WiFi-equipped MGB, brimmed with weapons grade technology and gadgets that'd give a Porsche 959 a run for its money.
Which the leaky tailgate would immediately ruin...
Thursday, 20 October 2011
TRAFFIC JAMS. You hate them just as much as I do, but it's where this clever hybrid hatchback from the world's biggest car company starts showing off.
Slip the hybrid version of Toyota's mid-sized hatch into its EV - or Electric Vehicle - mode and it suddenly becomes your very own Coalition Government, refusing to let you spend any money at all by frittering away precious fuel. Instead it sidles along in silence, determining not to restart its 1.8 litre engine unless you mash your foot to the floor. Like its pricier Prius sister, crawling through jams using absolutely no petrol at all is the Auris Hybrid's party trick.
Toyota practically invented the hybrid - the car which combines petrol with electric motors in the quest for eco-friendly motoring - over a decade ago with the original Prius, but I reckon the Auris is actually the better buy. It might not come with the Cameron Diaz celebrity endorsement its more iconic sibling gets but what you do get is a slightly more resolved package.
The Auris is, to my mind at least, not only better looking than the Prius but also a better drive, giving you more confidence once you leave the jams, stick it Power Mode and drive it like, well, like a car. No, it isn't going to make you the Jenson Button through the bends but thanks to its effortless auto box, fingertip light steering and a handy amount of grunt from its petrol-burning department it is startling easy to drive. Only the slightly fidgety ride and a lack of all-round visibility let the side down but otherwise I reckon it's got the Prius - an impressive car in its own right, don't forget - licked.
If your drive to work involves lots of twisty lanes then this probably isn't the car for you; it's too woolly and not communicative enough for cross-country work, where the petrol-powered traditionalists like Ford's Focus still rule the roost. If, on the other hand, your commute seems to be a never ending series of traffic jams, the Auris Hybrid is well worth a look.
Your wallet will thank you for it.
Tuesday, 18 October 2011
BMW's got back to doing what it does best after it unveiled the latest generation of its 3 Series saloon last weekend.
The Munich motor makers confirmed that the latest version of its compact executive car will start at £24,100 when it goes on sale next February, with a choice of four different engines available when it reaches the showrooms.
A spokesperson for the company said:
"The new BMW 3 Series Saloon is a car of contradictions: larger and more spacious than the model it replaces, but lighter; quicker in many cases, but more fuel-efficient; and more nimble and agile while even safer. There have been big steps forward in style, quality, comfort and specification for only a minimal price increase.
"A wider choice of trim levels and an extensive personalisation programme will allow 3 Series Saloon buyers to order virtually a bespoke car."
The 3 Series Saloon one of the BMW's biggest sellers, responsible for one-fifth of the company’s global sales.
Sunday, 16 October 2011
A RENAULT that's not even a car is set to arrive in the company's UK showrooms from spring next year.
The two-seater Twizy is described by the French firm as “an urban compact vehicle”, and uses an electric battery to power a narrow four-wheeler which blurs the lines between an electric car, a scooter and a quad bike.
But if that makes you think of mobility scooters used by the elderly, consider that it'll do 50mph and - thanks to its low weight - is capable of outdragging most conventional city cars away from the lights, while Renault are promising its nimbleness will make it great fun to drive.
Prices for the Twizy will start at £6,690, with monthly battery hire costing £40. For more information check out the Renault website at www.renault.co.uk
Friday, 14 October 2011
IT'S not often I'll upload the videos manufacturers make to plug their own models, but I thought I'd make an exception for this swoopy coupe.
Hyundai's got a bit of track record for injecting a touch of style into its sportier two door models, and the Velostar - which is technically a three door thanks to some clever engineering - carries it on for the firm in fine form.
So sit back, grab some popcorn and enjoy some lovely footage of what I reckon could be one of next year's big hits...
Wednesday, 12 October 2011
THE spaghetti bolognese came served with a question. Why don't I feature more Italian cars in this column?
Well, Mr Waiter at my favourite Italian restaurant, this one's for you. I'm as much a fan of Italy's cars as I am of its food. Which means I like them a lot!
I could be obvious and spend the next 300 words explaining the appeal of expensive exotics which all have a million horsepower and names ending with “i” but that'd be doing a disservice to all those wonderfully Italian cars you and I can actually afford, which help to make Britain's rain-lashed roads a slightly brighter place.
Take the Fiat 500, or specifically the glorious Abarth version I tested for Life On Cars. With its cheeky, slightly reto styling and its mini-Ferrari soundtrack it is the perfect embodiment of all that's good with Italy's automotive industry; maybe not as well rounded as its German, French or Japanese counterparts but somehow all the more engaging for it. If it's a city slicker, clearly Rome was the city its creators had in mind.
The traditional ripposte, of course, is that the cars coming off the production lines in Turin and Milan aren't as sturdy as the ones from Stuttgart and Wolfsburg, which when you look at how Fiat and Alfa do in the reliability surveys you can tell is at least partly true. But it's also true that one of the country's biggest successes isn't even built there - the aforementioned 500 is in fact screwed together in a Polish factory - and that last time I drove an Alfa Giulietta not one of its many components broke or stopped working in any way.
Besides, getting hung up about build quality would deny you what I reckon is one of the greatest car designs ever to come out of Italy, and I'm not talking about the Ferrari Dino, the Maserati Ghibli or the Lancia Stratos. They're all masterpieces but they're almost always consigned to museums and shows these days. The Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagon, on the other hand, is still making supermarket car parks prettier places to this day.
The 156 saloon is a stunner in its own right and no bad place to start, but the Sportwagon I think is a true design classic because it's the only estate I can think of which significantly improves the styling of the car it's based on.
Just don't mention that it's less - not more - spacious than the saloon and therefore useless as an estate. What's losing an argument when you're doing it with style?
Tuesday, 11 October 2011
A PARLIAMENTARY committee led by a Liverpool MP has come to the same conclusion most motorists already know; that car insurance is crippingly expensive for younger drivers.
This week the Transport Select Committee has reopened its inquiry into the cost of car insurance, armed with new research which suggests a whopping 96% of younger drivers feel they are being “priced off the road” due to high insurance premiums.
Liverpool Riverside MP Louise Ellman, the committee's chairperson, said:
“I am extremely concerned about these results, which show that young drivers think they are being priced off the road because of the high cost of motor insurance. It is shocking that so many young drivers are considering breaking the law – by driving without insurance or changing the details they provide to insurers – in order to get a cheaper premium.
"It's revealing that most young drivers are also unaware that many insurers receive referral fees in order to deal with claims they make. This highlights why the committee called for referral fees to be made more transparent in its report on the cost of motor insurance earlier this year."
However, insurers continue to charge younger drivers higher prices than their older counterparts, and point to high accident rates to justify them - Department for Transport statistics show that although people under 25 make up just 12% of those on the roads, they're involved in more than a quarter of the accidents.
Are you a younger driver being hit by the cost of insuring your car? Or do you think the accident statistics justify the prices? Share your thoughts by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday, 8 October 2011
NEVER, so the old saying goes, judge a book by its cover. Especially not if the book in question is in fact Fiat's 500.
The 500's stylish retro shape is surely the Courtney Cox of the car world - in automotive terms it's getting on a bit, but it seems to have defied the ageing process and doesn't look a day older than it did five years ago. Cutesy it might be, but dated it definitely isn't.
Stranger still is that Fiat have somehow managed to create entirely different cars underneath those pretty curves, because while the Abarth 500C looks strikingly similar to its small car sisters, it couldn't feel more different. While the TwinAir 500 came across as a nostalgic nod to the original 1957 Fiat 500 and a generation of Italian scooters thanks to its natty engine noise, the Abarth feels as though Fiat's tried to sqeeze an entire Ferrari underneath the 500's skin!
This is immediately obvious when you start it up, because - unlike the TwinAir - the Abarth's blessed with one of motoring's great engine notes, a rally car warble at low revs which builds up to a Pavarotti-esque bellow when you put your foot down. It's a note that comes courtesy of an engine very similar to the one Life On Cars tested in the Abarth Punto last year, only in the smaller 500 you can really make the most of its 160bhp.
The particular Abarth I tried also came fitted with the company's Essesse kit, which is a must because it provides not only more in the way of straight-line punch but also upgrades in the ride and handling department, which transform the 500 from being a slightly soft city slicker to something which really inspires your confidence. You can also opt for some very Italian colour schemes to finish it all off, but it's hardly the last word in subtlety and if it were my money I'd go for the metallic grey of the particular car I tested.
Is it worth the £16,000 asking price? That depends on how much space you want with your pace, because the likes of Citroen's DS3 will offer you a similarly fun drive but with plenty more room for your luggage and rear seat passengers. If, however, you want something with an endlessly engaging personality and sense of style than the Abarth will prove a characterful companion.
It might be completely different from the last Fiat 500 you tried, but it's still a great book behind its appealing cover.
Thursday, 6 October 2011
HOW many motorway drivers does it take to change a lightbulb?
Given the not-at-all defensive tone of most of the articles about proposals to revamp the motorway speed limit, I thought I'd wait a week for the dust to settle to write mine, and open it with a joke. The answer, of course, is that none of them should even be attempting it. Not when they're at the helm of a tonne of metal doing 70mph. Or 80mph, for that matter. There is nothing funny about getting motorway drivers to change a lightbulb. This is serious business.
My dad actually wrote a letter to his MP urging him to vote against any attempts to raise the motorway speed limit to 80mph, saying it was “ludicrous”. Lots of you - mainly the Tory party - argue it's high time to add another 10mph to the speed limit. Others, including every road safety group you care to think of, say it'll lead to more accidents and all end in tears.
For what it's worth I don't agree with sticking with 70mph - but I don't necessarily agree with raising it either.
The thing to remember is that the 70mph was instigated in 1965, when most motorists ventured onto these newfangled superhighways in Ford Anglias and Austin 1100s equipped with skinny tyres and brakes the size of milk bottle tops. It doesn't take Jeremy Clarkson to tell you that today's motors of the masses - Focus, Golf, Astra - will easily outrun, outbrake and outhandle their fortysomething ancestors, and they're crammed full of airbags, anti whiplash zones and crumple zones even if they don't. Getting less than five stars in the Euro NCAP crash tests is very bad form in 2011, and it's for this reason I reckon modern cars at least are more than equipped to handle an 80mph limit.
Unfortunately, their drivers aren't. To this day the basic driving test doesn't include any motorway driving, which is insane and almost certainly explains all the middle lane hoggers, the headlight flashers, the outside laners who insist on doing exactly 69.99mph and the ones who think it's fine to shoot out from a slip road into lane three in a single ignorant swoop. Weirdly, there seems to be a correlation between all these drivers and sales of BMW's X5.
So I'd happily back an 80mph limit as long as those expected to do it are forced to learn how to drive on motorways properly. I've said it before and I'll say it again; I honestly believe speed, if you're trained how to use it properly and responsibly, is harmless in the right conditions.
On the other hand, we could ban all BMW X5s from the entire motorway network. Problem solved!
Tuesday, 4 October 2011
NOBODY else at The Champion has written it yet so I thought I'd get the ball rolling - it's only 11 weeks ‘til Christmas!
Don't worry, I'm not going to ask you whether you think the Christmas rush arrives too early these days but I've put to readers of tomorrow's Champion an entirely different problem, which hits lots of car nuts at roughly the same time every year. ‘Tis the season to be asking.
Where do you stash your pride and joy over the winter?
If you own, say, a Honda Jazz you're probably going to be completely unmoved by the question, in which case you're more than welcome to flick forward a few pages and check out this week's sports news. Modern cars are built to cope with frost and ice and grit and all those other unbearably cold and corrosive things commonly found during winter, in which case you're not going to worry about leaving one on your driveway for the duration. Classic cars, though, are an entirely different rusty kettle of fish.
Leave anything made, say, by British Leyland out in the open for more than six months and it'll start rotting in places you wouldn't have thought rot was possible (and I know this from the joys of Mini ownership). If you own a car made before, ooh, the Eighties and don't want it to dissolve into an iron oxide heap before next spring, you'll be wanting somewhere warm and dry to keep it.
Luckily, I have a garage for my MG but there's plenty of people I know who don't or simply have too many old cars for the one lock up they own, which is where the headache begins. There are garages you can rent but they're usually one-off lock-ups, meaning it's difficult to keep the old cars you've accumulated in one, cheap and affordable space.
Nor am I calling for the sort of specialist storage sites you find advertised in the back of Classic and Sports Car, which are used largely by supercar owners who keep them wrapped in cotton wool for eye-wateringly expensive months at a time. If you own an old Ferrari this is all fine and dandy, but most of the enthusiasts I know don't and can't afford it.
No, what we need is somewhere that's basic and cheap but dry and secure, where you can store your classic car and know that it isn't rotting away in all weathers.
Who's with me?
Do you agree? Share your thoughts by sending an email to email@example.com or call 07581 343476.
Sunday, 2 October 2011
THE EXPERIMENT is over. Another of the Life Of Cars fleet has flown the nest!
Regular readers might recall that through most of last year I ran around in an original Mini, which was so comically unreliable that I sold it. With it being the ultra rare Mayfair Automatic, flogging it was my first mistake. Replacing it with another example of Longbridge's finest, I reckoned at the time, was my second.
Yet after finally selling it this weekend, I've come to a completely different conclusion. Two cars made in the same factory by the same people in roughly the same period of history couldn't be more different. If the Mini were a play, it'd be Blood Brothers.
My K-reg Sprite might not have been as sought after as my old Mayfair Automatic but it was everything the older car wasn't: fast, frugal, tight, confidence-inspiring and beautifully finished. Above all, it was one thing which I absolutely wasn't expecting to be after my months of mishaps in 2009 and 2010.
Dorothy, as I called her, might have been a little rough around the edges, she might have needed a bit of boot floor welding to get through and MOT and she didn't care much for heavy downpours, but not once did she let me down. She was also, thanks to a manual gearbox and a bigger engine, much more useable on motorways and on the tricky roads of the Lake District. She was - as I pointed out to the couple who've added her to their own fleet - a Mini you can really can use every day. As long as you look after her, of course.
The one thing both the Minis I've owned did have in common was the heart of every Mini's appeal; that it's ridiculously good fun to drive. I've driven the best pocket rockets Citroen, Renault, VW, Peugeot, Suzuki and even the makers of the modern MINI have to offer and none of them offer the smiles per mile a properly sorted classic Mini does. I have yet to get behind the wheel of a front wheel driver that's more fun.
Why then, did I get rid of it? Because Life On Cars is a broad church that revels in all things automotive, and there are so many other driving experiences I'd like to try. The MGB GT which got so many admiring looks at the Ormskirk MotorFest, for instance, isn't really finished yet. There's also all manner of old cars which keep getting my attention. One chap after my Mini even offered me a tidy MX-5 as a straight swap. I said no, but I was sorely tempted!
So I can end Mini ownership on an upbeat note, because I now know you can buy one that won't let you down. I don't reget selling it because it frees up the funds to get the MG up to scratch, but boy I'll miss it.