Friday, 29 February 2008

Classic - Dodge Challenger

The Japanese motor industry serves as a comprehensive reflection of Nippon commerce as a whole; constantly evolving, endlessly precise and bursting at the seams with potential. A strong illustration of this is the furious battle that has been raging between the Subaru Impreza and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo for, ooh, at least three hundred years now, each incarnation festooned with more advanced technology, impenetrable acronyms, blistering supercar-rivalling acceleration - cars that can embarrass most on the track or the rally stage yet behave impeccably around town if required, sipping their 97ron as frugally as oil-burners. There’s not a thing under the bonnet that doesn’t pull its weight, each individual component optimised to extract every last iota of grunt from the screaming, rev-happy plant.

The American motor industry, conversely, has approached development from a rather different angle. Nailed together in Detroit by big sweaty fuckers with a Bud in one hand and a 7lb lump hammer in the other, efficiency and frugality were dirty words: the industry lived and died by the phrase ‘there’s no substitute for cubes’… and why not? A tank of petrol in Motown will set you back less than a buffalo burger and chilli fries and there’s nothing – nothing – more macho than a big, lazy V8. Given that American towns are planned with set-squares and there isn’t a single discernable corner on the whole continent, they’ve also never needed to bother with anything more advanced than live axles and leaf springs. This keeps things nice and simple. The phenomenal muscle cars of the sixties and seventies are the epitome of simple everyman brute force, their influence still strongly visible in the Corvettes and Mustangs of the 21st century. These are machines from an age of staggering affluence, where every kid on every block had a brand new car designed specifically to get them down the Main Street quarter-mile quicker than anybody else.

A beautiful embodiment of this brutal genre is the 1970 Dodge Challenger. Menacing eyes, slinky hips, dirty great nostrils in the bonnet and a 426 Hemi ready to shake the loose change out of the pockets of passers-by as it ripped two ruffled streaks in the tarmac meant that it was the only logical choice for Kowalski’s epic journey in the classic Vanishing Point. This film, a sort of four-wheeled Easy Rider, was based around the premise of driving from Denver to San Francisco in fifteen hours; this was great news for parent company Chrysler, whose outgoing Challenger was shown to be horizon-warpingly fast, versatile enough to bounce across the desert without anything significant falling off (questionable, that) and reliable enough to pull off such a journey at an average of around eighty-five miles per hour. Come on, it was seventies Hollywood, people believed it. It’s interesting to note that the car destroyed at the end of the film isn’t actually a Challenger but a ’67 Chevrolet Camaro – a cheeky sideswipe at Chevy, perhaps…?

The Hemi Challenger is considered by many as the archetypal Mopar (a term used for Chrysler’s auto parts and service arm), the Hemi itself being the venomous icing on a very meaty cake. So-named for it’s hemispherical combustion chambers, the 426ci equates to a substantial 7-litre displacement in new-fangled Eurometrics which is frankly a little bit frightening but, again, petrol prices really weren’t an issue in ‘70s America, and if they wanted to build a goddamn fire-snortin’ goliath of an engine then no commie son’bitch was gonna get in the way of all that power.

A muscle car, of course, wouldn’t be anywhere without ostentatiousness. The sheer brute force, the mighty torque and the suspicious handling characteristics needed to be enveloped in total wackiness to ensure that the driver stood out from the other kids at the drive-thru, and in this arena the Challenger was king. Available in colours like Plum Crazy, SubLime Green, Go-Mango and Top Banana, the acres of chrome and the cheeky little touches – front indicators that looked like dimples, bullet mirrors that, trust me, are beyond useless but look so cool – add up to the ultimate muscle package. There are so many spectacular cars that came from Detroit in this period that they’re impossible to count (Plymouth Superbird, Chevrolet Camaro Z/28, Boss 302 Mustang, Pontiac GTO; the full list is a day’s work in itself), but the Challenger was arguably the meanest and most purposeful of them all. It’s illogical, wasteful, basic, uncooperative… and perfect. Expect to pay £40,000 for a good one – roughly what you’d pay for a Mitsubishi Evo MR FQ-400, but the extra kudos comes for free.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Classic - Vauxhall Astra GTE mkI

Car designers, for the most part, are artisans. Practical considerations are fed to them from corporate marketing focus groups, and around this framework they form elegant, swooping shapes, cutting-edge swirls, melodies of curves. From a ’66 Miura to a ’99 206, you can see the love of design and sheer joy of the craft that has gone into the creation of a radical and mould-breaking new shape. Like all artists, the desire for immortality is at the forefront; to create something unique and memorable that will resonate through the ages, latterly to be called upon as a fine example of beautiful thinking. (I am, of course, excluding the designers of the FSO Polonez from this sweeping generalisation. But you get the point.)

The obsession with striking curves and liquid crescents is a timeless and enduring one, but it hasn’t always been this way. Oh no. They didn’t do this in the eighties. The tools of the trade back then were a big chunky marker pen, a set square, and… well, that’s all. If you try this method for yourself, you’ll notice that every time you put pen to paper, you end up with the Opel Kadett (or, as we know it, the mkI Vauxhall Astra). This is not to say that the design language of the era was in any way inferior, of course – merely that the overriding boxiness meant that most cars of the early eighties needed to be approached with caution, lest one snagged one’s pullover on the pointy angular corners.

The Astra was something of a landmark for Vauxhall, being the first front wheel drive car produced by the marque. This was the way the tide was turning at that time, with Ford controversially switching to the FWD format for their radical mkIII Escort and a brace of other small family hatchbacks offering cheap competition in the market. There was also a fresh new genre to tap into: the hot hatch.

Volkswagen had the Golf GTI. Ford had the Escort XR3. Fiat had the Strada Abarth. It was clear that Vauxhall would never excel in this market with the old Opel OHV engine, so they took the top-of-the-range 1800cc version of their new family of engines (aluminium head, hydraulic lifters, reasonably advanced in its day), replaced the carburettor with a fuel-injection system and tarted the Astra up a bit. An airdam here, a pointy sideskirt there, and the GTE was born.

It wasn’t a massive seller, but then it was up against some pretty stiff competition; Ford enthusiasts are loyal folk, Volkswagen’s new baby was astonishingly accomplished and a couple of short years after the GTE’s launch came the mother of all hot hatches, the Peugeot 205 GTi. However, this all adds to the cachet of the GTE now – when’s the last time you saw one on the road? Probably a long time ago, I should imagine, but if you have seen one recently then I bet it was in amazing condition, right? The fanbase, as with any niche classic, is fanatical to the point of obsession.

Equipped with everything an eighties boy racer could wish for, it offered an attractive offbeat proposition. Heavily-bolstered Recaro seats hugged you in as you gripped the meaty three-spoke steering wheel, the newly developed gas shocks offering taut handling as the eager little engine barked through the surprisingly sonorous exhaust. And of course, like all plastic body addenda of the age, the razor-edged bodykit was specifically designed to cause maximum damage to any foolhardy pedestrians that may wander into your path.

It wasn’t the most refined of the hot hatches, or the best-handling, or the fastest, or even the cheapest. Still, just look at it… there’s oodles of retro cool there, and it has the promise of good times and mischief in spades. With good useable examples popping up for well under two grand, just imagine the old-school eighties fun you could be having in a GTE this summer - and don’t forget that the Calibra turbo engine slips in there pretty easily…

So it’s not a riot of sculptured elegance in the traditional sense, but it would be a very different beast if it was. It may not quite have the presence to make you dive out of the way if it’s bearing down on your mirrors, but at least it’ll raise a wistful and nostalgic smile. For the dedicated few at least, it’s earned its place in the pantheon of strong design.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione

Italians know how to have a good time. Not in a raucous ‘life and soul of the party’ kind of a way, but in that their whole philosophy and outlook is fundamentally both relaxed and focused. They live 'la dolce vita', the sweet life, and this is enormously admirable. Why charge through your days in a state of perpetual stress and agitation when you can simply relax, enjoy yourself, spend some time with friends and family, cherish the very act of existing? You only get to try it once, after all.

The core of this satisfying and fulfilling way of life, inevitably, is to enjoy the best of everything to the fullest extent possible. Shun fast food and savour a tender, juicy sirloin or a bowl of fresh linguine with a gloriously robust Negroamaro. Wear a well cut double-breasted suit every day. Help your mother tend the family olive grove. Read the works of Alighieri on the Ferrovia Circumetnea. And, of course, keep a glorious Italian thoroughbred machina in the garage for those early morning Alpine blasts.

It is for this reason that so many fabulous cars have emerged from Italian coachbuilders over the years; sumptuously elegant yet ferociously potent icons such as the Lamborghini Miura, Ferrari 250GTO, Maserati Ghibli, Lancia Fulvia… a grand tradition of heartstoppingly alluring automobiles with rorty, sonorous engines and passion dripping from every vent and louvre.

Alfa Romeo have always endeavoured to encapsulate this ethos of fine living. Whilst their cars are almost deliberately badly made to add verve and character to the ownership experience, they are never less than devastatingly striking in appearance (as long as we forget the shocking Arna); from the chromed inlet pipes of the 166 to the flared arches of the widebody 155, the wraparound screen of the SS Ghia to the cheeky stance of the GT Junior, an Alfa is always a riot of curious detail.

…and just look what they’re up to this time. Behold, what was by far and away the most jaw-dropping car to emerge in 2007: the 8C Competizione. Standing near to it for too long is genuinely dangerous; your eyes become overwhelmed by insatiable lust, they pucker and wrinkle through dryness as you find yourself unable to blink for minutes on end. Every nanometre screams taut purpose and sensuous invitation in equal measure, the silhouette offering both futuristic styling cues and elements that evoke the race-bred Mille Miglia-dominating Competiziones that precede it. It is, without the merest hint of exaggeration, one of the most beautiful cars in existence.

Oh, but it’s not just about the looks. Sure, you could sell your television, park it in your lounge and just look at it in the evenings (which, let’s be honest, would never get dull), but that would be a great disservice to the masterpiece that lurks beneath that swooping carbon-fibre bonnet. There’s a howler of a V8 under there – and not just any V8. Derived from the latest-generation Ferrari/Maserati family, it’s a 4.7 litre work of art assembled by secret Alfisti within Ferrari’s walls. Now that is special. It snarls out a faintly arousing 450bhp – enough to give your embarrassed 911-owning neighbour the jitters – and will happily knock on the door of 190mph. 60mph? It’ll hurl itself there in just 4.2 seconds.

The fact that it’s happened at all is somewhat incongruous. Yes, Alfa have an almost unparalleled competition history, but it takes a lot of grit for a manufacturer of runaround hatchbacks and luxobarges, no matter how stylish, to offer a £110,000 supercar to the marketplace. It works in their favour that this is basically a showcase (or, for the more gossip-inclined, a homologation special), limited as it is to just 500 units, with a further 500 Spyders forthcoming. A guarantee of exclusivity then – just 41 of them are headed for UK customers… although for real, genuine uniqueness, move to New Zealand and buy theirs. They were only allowed to have one.

La dolce vita, then, in the purest form. It’s based on a Maserati platform, has a Ferrari-built engine, and the achingly attractive lines of the Alfas of yore. There are very few of them about, and you’d be hard pressed to find a single sane person who doesn’t absolutely adore it. Still, £110,000…? Sod it, you only live once.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Nissan GT-R

My friends and I have a generationally-unique affliction whereby the thumb knuckles click and are sinewy beyond their years. This condition is known as ‘PlayStation Thumb’ and, in my case at least, is chiefly attributable to the Gran Turismo series. When the game was first launched in Europe back in ‘98 it changed my life irrevocably. Whereas racing games had previously involved unachievable track cars or bizarre fictional machines, suddenly I was able to race a Mazda MX-5 or a Peugeot 206, or indeed anything else I might be able to spot in Sainsbury’s car park. It was a revelation.

There were certain cars that came to define the game, and subsequently to define the aspirations of a petrolhead generation. Suddenly everybody on the school bus could list the principal differences between an R32 Skyline GT-S and an R32 Skyline GT-R; we all knew the bhp/weight ratio of an AE86 Corolla (and you weren’t worth talking to if you didn’t have a white one in your garage); even the stupidest kids could competently adjust the yaw control on an Evo VI. A wealth of knowledge swamped us as if from nowhere.

It’s a Japanese game, so it’s inevitable that there would be a strong bias toward Japanese cars. It was kind of hard to escape the feeling that in the early days the programmers were trying to tip the results, nationally speaking, in their favour – none of the British or American cars could go around corners at all (fair point for the latter, you might say), and it just wasn’t possible to tune a Beemer or a Merc up to the absurdly stratospheric power levels of the behemoths from the east. This was symbolic of a Nippon obsession with efficient and superior tuning which, it seems, has led to a race between car designers and video game designers to see who can stay in the techie lead.

This over-engineered competitiveness is showcased perfectly in the Nissan GT-R. The new car is a Skyline in all but name – the bloodline can be traced back to the Prince Skyline of 1957, with the moniker only being dropped on the 50th anniversary year. It is a Skyline though, let’s be honest; you can see the evolution of the quad tail-lights, the techfest chassis, the fact that it’s slotting into the gaping hole in the lineup left by the Skyline’s absence…

…this time, however, Nissan have pulled out the big guns. Before, the tactic was to take their mainstream family saloon, bolt in a bombproof and perpetually tuneable turbo’d straight-six and glue a couple of million megs of RAM to the chassis. Which worked brilliantly. Now though, it seems that somebody at Nissan HQ has cottoned onto the idea that maybe supercar-chasing is the order of the day.

You can be a badge-snob if you wish, but the interesting truth about the GT-R is that it’s got one or two 911 drivers more than a little worried. You see, this thing has been developed from the ground up to lap the Nürburgring faster than a Porsche 911 Turbo, yet also provide a serene enough environment for normal conversation at over 180mph. And it’ll get to 60mph in a tenth of a second less than the Turbo. Oh, and it’s half the price… The Stuttgartites aren’t just worried, they’re pissed off.

Let’s look at the technology for a moment. It has the ATTESSA ET-S all-wheel-drive system that delivers rear-drive thrills until you need the benefits of 4WD under cornering or, er, driving across ploughed fields. Flicking a paddle-shifter will see you swapping cogs in two-tenths of a second, which is pretty swift. The cylinders are plasma-coated to improve cooling and increase efficiency. Vehicle Dynamic Control looks after torque-biasing and yaw angles and other clever stuff to stop you stuffing into a tree like a tit. The telemetry screen offers g-meters, lap timers, pressure graphs… it’s a very long list of electrickery. Basically, this car is far cleverer than you are.

Enough time has passed between the launch of the original GT platform and the present day that the designers of the GT-R were almost certainly raised on a diet of virtual Imprezas and NS-Xs; nowadays they get to play with the real thing but the principal is the same. Upgrade everything, make it faster. Simple. The GT-R is a true gamer’s car. It’ll never share the kudos of the 911 that so neatly dissolves in its crosshairs, but that’s definitely the point. If you’re a Porsche person, you’ll buy a Porsche and are pretty unlikely to be tempted over to the Nissan side (gosh, what would the neighbours think?), but Skylines appeal to a different mindset entirely – drivers of everything from FTOs to Type-R Integras will be giving you a thumbs-up.

And it’ll be a wonky, disjointed thumb too.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Caparo T1

“Subtlety,” a great man once said, “is the art of saying what you think and getting out of the way before it is understood”. Now, subtlety has a lot going for it, both in terms of how to get a point across without appearing cocky and how to convey a deeper message under the guise of comparative superficiality. Subtlety is superb for ridiculing stupid people without them realising, and is more than simply a matter of tact.

On the face of it, the Caparo T1 is not exactly an exercise in the ways of the subtle, any more than it is a diesel locomotive or a punnet of raspberries. Of course it isn’t, it looks like a bloody rollerskate with great big praying mantis elbows and a glass bubble dome like R2-D2. It screams purpose as much as it cries ‘look at me, I’ve got cash to fritter’. However, there is an inherent sense of subtlety that comes with it. How so? Well, it has a unique hook, a cheeky little secret.

This car, you see, has a simply breathtaking power-to-weight ratio. That may sound like the kind of statement that would surface a few hours into a CAMRA convention from a chunky beardo in a tweed jacket, but it’s more interesting than you’d think. There’s nothing clandestine about that, of course, but the T1 also enjoys the benefits of being lumped in with an overlooked and commonly disregarded class of vehicle: the trackday special.

OK, so you can road register the Caparo and drive it to Ikea at the weekend if you so wish (although you’ll look a right berk trying to strap your Billy bookcase to that brittle rear wing), but let’s face it, nobody’s going to. Like much of its brethren – Radical SR8, Ariel Atom, Light Car Company Rocket, Grinnall Scorpion IV, Lotus 2-Eleven, Ultima GTR – it won’t be used for taking the kids to school, principally because they’d have to strap on the rollerblades and hang on to the back. These cars are playthings for the kind of people who have the time and money to spend their weekends nailing round circuits as quickly and smokily as possible.

Going back to that epic power-to-weight issue, let’s begin at the beginning. The Caparo – originally designed as the Freestream concept a few years ago – weighs in at 470 kg. That really isn’t very much. Compared to a 1600kg BMW M3, for example, it’s positively anorexic. Unfair comparison? OK, put it next to a Mini. An original, real Mini, obviously, not the new German estate-agent spec thing. They tipped the scales at about 650kg. You see where we’re going with this?

It gets better. Unlike Lotus, whose philosophy is that the engine needs simply to be tractable rather than powerful if you have low weight, Caparo have spent the entire development process with a mammoth engine in mind. All that time spent paring back the excesses, shaving away nanometres of carbon-fibre, and what do they stick in the middle? A 575bhp 3.5-litre V8. For crying out loud.

So, that equates to 1,045bhp per tonne. Which is a lot. To put that in an interesting context, the Bugatti Veyron has 529bhp per tonne. There’s a great big yawning chasm between the two of them, and the performance figures are just absurd. The Caparo T1 will hit 60mph in 2.5 seconds, and will go on to 100mph in 5. It will do 0-100-0mph in comfortably under ten seconds. Can you imagine? The forces acting on your body must be enough to blast the contents of your stomach out of your ears – an unfortunate thing to happen when you’re surrounded by glass and you’re driving a big plastic grasshopper.

Of course, there are many other clever and notable things that make the T1 really rather special. We could happily chew the fat ad infinitum over the six-speed sequential gearbox, inboard remote-reservoir dampers, multi-function data-logging system, launch control, the dry-sump, the brake bias box and the aluminium honeycomb chassis… but it keeps coming back to that magical figure: 1,045bhp/tonne. The new benchmark for playboy lunacy.

Is it a subtle car? Well, yes and no. If you saw one on a track and didn’t know what you were looking at, you could be forgiven for thinking of it as a sort of sanitized Formula 3 racer. In real terms, though, it’s about as subtle as jamming a steak knife into your leg and trying to cauterise the wound with a grapefruit. And I think that’s the effect they were going for.