Friday, 28 September 2007

Subaru Impreza - third generation

Time makes fools of us all. It’s an unfortunate but unavoidable fact that as we plough onwards into the ethereal mists of that which is yet to happen, the constant bouncing of atoms and microns from our taut and rosy skin gradually ebbs away our vigour and vitality. We turn into wrinkled, wizened husks of our former selves; ridiculed and derided by a disinterested society, a total loss of control over one’s bodily functions… face it, as the sand in your hourglass tumbles south, your jowls, cankles and bingo wings will inevitably follow.

Nothing to get too down about, of course. It’s just nature. Things age and things die, that’s just the way it goes. But where do we offset this inevitable decline? Why, in the things we create, of course! Our minds and our hands craft things of beauty – innovative designs, provocative forms, mouthwatering dreams. With a blank sheet and a pencil, there are no boundaries to that which we may conjure up.

So… how do we explain the new Subaru Impreza?

The first and second generations were obviously tough acts to follow. Bred on the rally stage and idolised by seafront pikeys and aging motorsport aficionados alike, the Impreza was fundamentally a cutthroat no-holds-barred technology race with Mitsubishi’s equally muscular Evo line. 150bhp per litre? Piffle. Check out my S-AWC and my active centre diff. Behold, my beefy Brembos. Tremble in the mighty presence of active yaw control.

The competition was fierce, the militant split between the yellow stars and the red diamonds was the most tangible social divide since Britpop. The constant stream of marginally upgraded editions from both camps – RB5, STi PPP, FQ-400, any other combination of random letters and numbers you can think of – kept appetites whetted, while the introduction of a facelifted model (or better yet, an entirely new one) sent followers and observers into a priapic frenzy.

In 2005 Mitsubishi showcased their Concept-X, a radical vision of the next generation of the Lancer bloodline. Too extreme? They confirmed the glistening extravaganza with 2007’s Prototype-X – effectively demonstrating just how serious the Lancer Evo X would be. Subaru would have to do something incredibly bold to retaliate.

Unfortunately, the Subaru execs were all in the pub at the time and missed the whole thing. While the world swooned at Mitsubishi’s golden child, some twats in Ota were discussing the profit margins of practical family hatchbacks. For shame.

The gen-3 Impreza will, of course, be a phenomenally clever and well-engineered car. It will be focused, balanced and tailored to the driving enthusiast. It will be successful in motorsport. It will be impressive on track. It will perform superbly as a daily driver. But this isn’t really the point… not any more.

The classic four-door silhouette that one would classically associate with the Impreza name was never what you would call pretty. It didn’t need to be – the point was to be aggressive, menacing, bullish, a little scary… what Subaru have done to the newbie is tantamount to vandalism. All the technology in the world can’t save a mumsy shopping hatch as dour and drab as this.

The word ‘Impreza’ in Polish means ‘event’ or ‘party’, and in a way it’s still appropriate to the car. After all, you could argue that entirely ruining a loved and respected machine by making it look like a Mynheer Rover is an event in terms of general media noteworthiness if nothing else. Just doesn’t look like a party car any more though, does it?

The really irritating thing about the gen-3 is the sheer number of people that must have been involved in the horrific act of mass sabotage. Countless design teams, committees, boards, focus groups – it’s a shame. A real shame. They took their blank sheet and deliberately created something ugly and aesthetically offensive. Time, it’s a tragedy to say, has taken its toll on the Scooby.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Classic - Fiat Uno Turbo

The human brain is an irrational and inexplicable thing. The series of neurones or nerve impulses that may lead you to absent-mindedly hum along to a James Blunt song on the radio (even though you know he’s a godawful Satanist from the very depths of mediocrity) are the same that may force you to scream blue murder at an elderly woman on the bus, simply because she’s done something as innocuous as dribble slightly or smell of stale urine. We are complex and unusual creatures, naturally inclined to follow instincts however illogical they may be.

The Fiat Uno Turbo represents the zenith of this abject lack of fundamental logic. There’s very little reason to really like it, yet it’s quite hard not to. Perhaps it’s the little grotbox’s tenacity, its very persistence in continuing to exist despite all of the reasons central to the laws of physics themselves that suggest otherwise. It’s an ugly quadrilateral cereal packet fashioned from wafer-thin KwikKorrode™ steel, powered by a dinky motor lifted from a Scalextric model with an ill-advised turbo strapped to the side, with the underpinnings of a Co-op shopping trolley and upholstered with lawn chairs wrapped in J-cloths. It’s the automotive equivalent of the Red Dwarf ‘triple fried-egg chilli chutney sandwich’ (series II episode III, fact fans!) – all of the ingredients are wrong… but it adds up to something worryingly satisfying.

Designed by Giugiaro’s ItalDesign, if you can believe it, the Uno won European Car of the Year in 1984 for its effective optimisation of interior space and admirable fuel economy. Yawn. In 1985 Fiat nailed a turbo to the 1400cc hamster-wheel and the fun started. Of course, with a mere 105bhp and handling that quickly switched from “If it’s this shuddery on the flat it must have been engineered to handle, no?” to “Shit, that chronic understeer suddenly found sufficient front-end grip to become lift-off oversteer… which way am I facing now?!” in the blink of an eye, it was totally eclipsed by the 205 GTi and the Renault 5 GT Turbo. Maybe that wasn’t the point, however. In both its earlier guise and the latterly improved ‘Turbo i.e.’ version (with a Garret T2 turbo mated to the superior 1300cc engine), it offered forced-induction thrills at a bargain basement price. The flimsy build quality and potential to be horribly and unexpectedly killed at any moment simply served to add to the adrenalin rush.

So, in theory at least, a sound buy for the discerning family man with a sniff of petrol in his veins. It was certainly cheap and the admirable heritage and racing credentials were all present and correct in Fiat’s past (assuming you could look past their various catastrophic errors; the Ritmo for one – a sort of Innocenti-with-Ford-Corsair-face thing). The pseudo-glory of being judged as the best car produced in all of Europe – seriously, how did that happen…? – meant that such a purchase could be justified to the missus. The intelligent and sensible interior ergonomics ensured that the little ‘uns could fit in the back and the boot could accommodate the shopping, assuming you were raising a litter of anorexic midgets. Practicality, heritage, that little whooshy noise when you put your foot down… and all for the price of a morning paper and ten Bensons. What could go wrong?

Well, it was a Fiat, meaning it had been engineered to last about forty-five minutes before oxidising into a crumbly heap on the driveway, and everyone you tried to wheeze past on the motorway would give you a sympathetic little smile as if to say “Aww, bless him, he’s trying. I’ll back off a bit so he’s not embarrassed in front of his kids”.

OK – so it’s not the fastest of the hot hatches of the era, or the most powerful. It’s not the best handling by any means. It’s certainly not the best in terms of build quality, or the best looking. It’s incredibly hard to find a good Uno Turbo now because they’ve all rusted to pieces. But there’s just… something. Something about them that makes them fun, a little cheeky, a quirky offbeat choice that has the potential to surprise and enliven. Why do I so admire this terrible car? I have absolutely no idea. It’s just one of those irrational, illogical things.

Test Drive - RenaultSport Mégane 230 F1 Team R26

This week SuckSqueezeBangBlow test-drove the new hot Mégane… and had tremendous difficulty giving the keys back.

Renault have, in recent years, made rather a respectable name for themselves in developing their everyday hatchbacks into giant-slaying lunatics; whereas Peugeot used to be the go-to guys in the eighties & nineties for punchy, sure-footed hot hatches (think 205 GTi, 306 Rallye, 106 GTi…) they’ve become a bit flaccid of late, Renault picking up the baton with wild enthusiasm. The Clio 16v was the progenitor of their pocket rocket lineage that passed through the 172, mid-engined V6, 182 and 182 Cup to the current 197, but thankfully the Gallic technobods deigned to work their magic on the Clio’s big brother as well.

Now, when the Mégane’s second incarnation first surfaced the reaction was somewhat bipolar. Fans of Renault’s innovative design strategies praised the radical new direction, eschewing the lines of its comparatively curvaceous predecessor for bold, stark angularity. There were a lot of detractors too. It had a fat arse.

Never one to miss a trick, the marketing people swooped on this and used the chunky bottom as an advertising tool; ‘shake it!’ they cried, almost convincingly. Bless ‘em, it worked brilliantly and sales were strong. It was, however, hard to see how the company might turn this lumpen form into a genuinely entertaining sports car.

Thankfully, Renault being Renault, a performance range-topper was always on the cards and the RenaultSport Mégane 225 was launched in 2004. A laudable and impressive machine, it received excellent reviews for its engine, performance and driveability, but was criticised for the torque steer that is unfortunately inevitable to a certain degree when you combine a front wheel drive layout with a barking mad amount of power. Again, the boffins had an answer and in 2006 the 230 F1 Team R26 reared its pointy head...

…and what a car it is. The 2-litre 16v turbocharged engine is, put simply, phenomenal. Renault claim a 0-60 time of 6.2 seconds, and the astonishing thing is that there’s virtually no turbo lag at all. You just point it towards the horizon, put your foot down and have a nervous second-thought about the etiquette of depositing one’s waste on the seat of a borrowed car. The fabulous new limited-slip differential saves your arms from being wrenched lock to lock as you could expect from the 225; alright, the 230 does give your forearms a bit of a workout but you have to expect that when you’re throwing so much power through the front wheels. It wouldn’t be any fun if it was easy, would it? Renault even stitched a rally style deadahead marker on the steering wheel to demonstrate just how central it can keep itself. Well, that’s possibly not the real reason, but it’s an entertaining game to play.

The superbly effective LSD does more than prevent snapped wristbones. The handling on this car is simply astounding. Thanks to the Mégane’s Cup chassis with its thicker anti-roll bars and race-bred suspension (some say it’s too harsh and abrasive for road use; these people are wet jessies) and God’s-own diff, there is no understeer from the car whatsoever. None at all. Not a sausage. Enter any corner at any speed and you can feel the 235-section tyres burying themselves into the tarmac in an eager and constantly flabbergasting effort to keep you on your chosen line. The driver’s seat becomes your best friend at this point, as the cornering witchcraft is criminally addictive. The nature of the physics-defying process urges you to corner ever faster in a potentially suicidal yet hypnotically unstoppable quest to find the grip limit, and it’s here where the buckets come into their own; the Recaros are an inspired addition, gripping you just where you need it and preventing the horrific embarrassment of sitting on your passenger’s lap through the twisties. That they have dedicated harness eyelets speaks volumes about this machine’s purpose.

Hiding behind the gorgeous 18” lightweight alloys – masterpieces in themselves; their anthracite colour means they’ll never look dirty – is a braking system that lesser hatches could only dream of. Developed by Brembo, the front features 6-piston callipers clamping 304mm drilled & vented discs, and the stopping power they provide is ludicrously impressive. The monstrous blood-red callipers bite into the discs as if they hate them, speed being effortlessly sheared off in whacking great chunks as your kidneys – which had previously been forced out of the back of the seat – fling themselves forward and bounce off the chunky leather steering wheel. It’ll do this all day too; there’s no fade to speak of, just cold hard efficiency.

The six-speed gearbox is an absolute peach, short-throw snicking from cog to cog with the intent and purposeful feel that flows throughout the car. There have been criticisms that it’s too easy to slip from 2nd to 5th which would be horrifying if true, but I didn’t find that to be the case at all – in fact the gearbox acts as a metaphor for the car as a whole: everything is perfectly judged and exactly where you need it. This car epitomises reliable, controllable, predictable yet constantly surprising performance. Priced at £19,570 (or a bargain £17,995 for the 56-plate example on demo miles that I drove), it’s a lot of car for the cash. The handling is unrivalled in its class, the linear power delivery provides thrust through a surprisingly wide rev band but, most importantly, it feels worth every penny as you storm past the 5000rpm mark; the lightly whistling turbo and the subtly burbling twin exhausts morph into an ecstatic cacophony of raucous, tinny, sharp-edged malice. It’s impossible to describe – I urge you to experience it for yourself.

Classic - Renault 5 GT Turbo

Recycling is, generally speaking, an irksome and tedious business. I mean come on, who really wants to pick through their own refuse (so to speak) piece by piece, separating into a vast array of categories ranging from non-plasticised cardboard to organophosphate-enriched polyester or whatever the hell else the council militantly force you to drag to the kerb every Tuesday morning? It defies sense, it’s just a way for time-rich lefties to pad out their days; seriously, just throw it into a hole in the ground and leave it there, it’ll probably be ok. Unless you want your neighbours to see you acting out the whole eco-charade, obviously, in which case you’ll probably need some marigolds and a look of tremendous self-satisfaction plastered over your smug face.

Nobody gave a tinker’s cuss about recycling back in the eighties. Red braces, electro, Porsche 911s, cocaine and glasnost, that’s all people were really bothered with. Oh, and small sporty hatchbacks, they were rather popular too. With naughty little scamps like the Golf GTI, the AX GT and the 205 GTi, there was a clear market for any manufacturer with a dinky hatch in their showrooms to dive into, and so it was that Renault brought their little Supercinq to the party. And yes, the young challenger was actually quite interested in recycling.

Of course, I’m not talking about recycling in terms of putting your carrot peelings into a dirty box in your garden or weaving your own poncho out of hemp; no, the GT Turbo likes to recycle its own exhaust fumes… because it’s got a diddy little turbocharger to play with. Without bogging down in the technicalities of turbine-fed forced induction, let’s just say that this is a Good Thing (capital G, capital T) – not the sort of behaviour to tickle Greenpeace’s funnybone, but screw them, they don’t know the first thing about ambient air compression or volumetric efficiency.

There had been hot 5s before, the most notable (and terrifying) being the absurd mid-engined Group 4-homologated 5 Turbo. The GT Turbo, however, was the first to be available to the public as a full-production model. Unsurprisingly, it sold like hot cakes; it was the hot hatch eighties, you could have put a Polaris missile in a Fiat Ritmo and it would have shifted significant units. Given the market and the budget, the turbocharged 5 was as good as you’d expect it to be - good, but not great. But it was French, so good was good enough.

Visually, Renault employed the simple trick that was keeping automotive design houses in free lunches and empty calendars all across Europe: bolt-on plastic arches, beefier alloys, beefier bumpers, job done. Don’t knock it though, it works incredibly effectively – park a GT Turbo next to a regular 5 and you’ll notice an aggressive and handsome improvement (ditto Uno Turbo vs Uno 45, 205 GTi vs 205 Junior etc, etc). So it had the looks and it had the beans… all it needed was a peachy handling setup and it would be a winner.

Ah, well. You can’t have everything.

The genius of the GT Turbo, though, was that it didn’t need to be that good – it just needed to be quick and cheap, and to stand out from the common shopping 5s, and it achieved all of these things with gusto. Never mind that the basic and agricultural little 1.4 litre overhead valve engine didn’t really lend itself that strongly to turbocharging, and that as a consequence you’d need a new head gasket pretty much every other week. Worry not that the ultraskinny steel bodywork was so thin that it all but let the wind pass through it. Ignore the fact that the interior felt like it had been Pritt-sticked together by handless lepers devoid of a basic understanding of plastics or interior architecture. None of these things matter. It’s a small, very light car and it’s got a turbo. What more do you honestly need?

It’s sad to say but you’ll have a real job finding a factory-standard GT Turbo these days, and if you do come across one on sale it’ll be at a silly price. The reason for this is simply over-exposure. There were once so many of them around that almost all of them have either been wrapped around trees or modified to absurd standards – see Ali G’s car for example, or anything tuned by Carisma. (The latter, incidentally, can tune your GTT to over 300bhp, which will probably make it very fast. Once. And then it’ll catch fire.)

My advice? Track down a nice Raider special edition – probably set you back about five grand – and just drive the bastard into the ground. Savour every ridiculous moment from the epic torque-steer when you set off to the chronic understeer when you reach your first corner… it’s not elegant, but it’s a whole heap of fun. But be quick – that wafer-thin metal will be very keen to start recycling itself…

Lamborghini Murcielago LP640

There’s a lot to be said for cowardice. Nobody ever died from refusing to freefall from a Cessna. Weigh up the statistics of those who’ve perished in battle against those who’ve been shot for not turning up – the results are heavily in favour of the guys cowering under the table.

Bravery, however, also has its merits. For one thing, it’s a fantastic way to impress the opposite sex – look at Murciélago, a particularly courageous bull whose formidable manliness (well, bull-liness) in the ring in 19th century Cordoba meant his life was spared. What happened to him? He mated with seventy cows.

Fitting, then, that Lamborghini’s 21st century bruiser should appropriate the moniker… just look at it. Behold the chiselled cheekbones, the trademark scissor doors, the exhaust you could fit your head in. The Murciélago is by no means shy.

Of course, the party piece is the sonorous V12 nestling snugly behind the cockpit. Lamborghini – whose humble beginnings stemmed from tractor manufacturing, let’s not forget – have not done a bad job with it. Its roots lying in the ’66 Miura (which everybody knows is the most beautiful car of all time, obviously), Lambo’s V12 was built pretty much out of spite. The apocryphal tale of Ferrucio Lamborghini setting up shop in deference to Enzo Ferrari after a personal dispute has little truth in it, but it’s a fact that Señor Ferrari had a certain distaste for having to manufacture road cars in the early days. This quirk allowed Lamborghini to sneak in the back door with a ferocious Bizzarini-designed quad-cam V12, the essence of which lives on in the Murciélago. It may produce 580bhp in modern 6.2 litre guise, but that’s not the most important thing; the sound it makes is phenomenal. Simply phenomenal. It’s like an enthused choir of angels being violated by a particularly courageous bull…

The Murciélago perfectly embodies the classic spirit of the supercar – it’s an event, pure and simple. Supercars need to have certain ingredients – a beefy huge-displacement engine, achingly beautiful and unmistakeable bodywork, a criminally alluring soundtrack; they make people stare. If you drive one down Oxford Street, everyone will watch you pass. Do the same on the M2 and nobody will, but only because you’re going too fast for them to see you.

The LP640 is a spectacular distillation of the marque. Like Porsche’s GT3 reworking of the 911, the Murciélago LP640 takes an already fruity formula and sprinkles on a little spice. Let the figures speak for themselves: 6.5 litres. 640bhp. 211mph. 0-60 in 3.4s. In these modern times of ready power and sledgehammer performance it’s easy to toss figures like these around, but just sit back and drink it in for a moment. Picture yourself swinging down the vertical door, cocooning yourself in sumptuous Italian leather, snicking the billet gearstick through the aluminium gate… and suddenly being several miles from where you started without really knowing how you got there because the scenery went all blurry. Kind of like that bit in Spaceballs where they go to ‘ludicrous speed’.

There’s all kinds of car porn strapped to the LP640. Some panels have been replaced by carbon fibre moulds. The constantly-variable torque-biasing four-wheel-drive system is bloody clever. To minimize lift, the reprofiled exhaust has been moulded into the diffuser. The cooling vents on the rear flanks open and close themselves. It’s got launch control. Launch control, in a road car…!

And all this for a bargain £190,000 – which could also buy you a studio flat in Southwark. I know which I’d have a better time in.

Friday, 21 September 2007

Audi RS6

The concept of horsepower is one that we take for granted. Like most measurements, there’s no real thought process behind any given figure that you hear, you just relate it to another figure. If you were visiting a friend and you were told that they lived twenty miles away, you wouldn’t perform a quick spot of mental arithmetic to determine how long it will take you to cover the distance at a certain time, at a certain average speed and so forth given the exact length of the journey – you’d just think ‘right, that’ll probably take me x amount of time’ and move on with your life. This simplicity of thought saves us from misleading ourselves. If somebody were to say to you ‘my Micra has 55bhp’ and you assumed that it was exactly as powerful as fifty-five horses, you will become confused. Horses are quite powerful aren’t they? Fifty-five of them must be monstrous. Wow. That’s loads of power. Isn’t it?

The term itself was coined by James Watt, and relates to some spurious formulae he devised over horses turning mill wheels. He basically surmised that a horse could revolve a 12-foot wheel with a force of 180lbs at a rate of 144 revolutions an hour. Therefore, 1 horsepower is equal to 33,000ft.lbf/min.

You know what? Who cares. That’s even more confusing. If you want a real world lesson in horsepower you need look no further than the new Audi RS6. It’ll tell you all you need to know.
Ever since Audi co-developed the RS2 with Porsche in 1994, their RennSport line has been a relentless string of stealthy weaponry. Audi, keen to crush the Teutonic horsepower wars that have raged for some years now, have lifted their RS line out of cultdom and into the mainstream. This is a good thing. Why let BMW’s M-branded behemoths and Mercedes’ AMG Goliaths hog all the limelight? With the latest RS6 the fight has been well and truly brought to their doorsteps.

Of course, one of its primary weapons is innocuousness. It’s a Q-car. To the untrained eye it could be just another load-lugger on the school run; it takes a little insider knowledge to pick out the significance of the RS badge, the brutal box arches that evoke the spirit of the original ur Quattro, the frying-pan sized carbon-ceramic brake discs – it’s like a bodybuilder in a tuxedo. Looks smart, yes, but there’s something distinctly menacing there…

…the menacing thing that’s lurking within the RS6 is, almost implausibly, a 5.2-litre twin-turbocharged V10. Yes, you heard. That sensible-ish saloon in the pictures has a twin-turbo V10. So, with this in mind, what is this car going to teach us about horsepower?

I’ll tell you. It’s that the bigger the number, the more we should be afraid. The new RS6 has 572bhp.

Five hundred and seventy-two.

That’s rather a lot isn’t it? To give it some perspective, the Ferrari F40 made do with 470bhp. Scary eh? It’s also interesting to note that Audi’s new R8, an uber-futuristic coupe aimed firmly at the Porsche 911, churns out ‘just’ 414bhp from its mid-mounted V8; obviously the cars aren’t directly comparable, but it does make you think. Both at around the £75k mark, the RS6 and the R8 are entirely different dynamic propositions, but they both take just 4.6 seconds to get to the sixty mph benchmark. However, you won’t be able to get those new Habitat shelves home in the R8…

Personally, I see no contest in it at all. I’d take the RS6 every time. It may seem like a hell of a lot of cash to shell out for a family estate car, but it’s important to remember that that’s not really what it is. It’s a brutal bitumen-bitchslapping dragster with an absurdly advanced four-wheel-drive chassis. It just happens to look like a family estate car.
Fundamentally, your £75k buys you one significant thing: supercar horsepower. In the pub with your mates on a Saturday night you can all feel smug in the knowledge that, short of someone rolling up in a Veyron, you’ve got the most horsepower in the room. And that’s very important.