Friday, 28 March 2008

Classic - Mitsubishi Starion

Linguistic misunderstandings are hilarious. This is true without exception; if you’ve visited you’ll know what I mean – any English speaking holidaymaker will have a rather more perilous journey in Japan if they’re unaware of the likelihood of ordering a 'salad of tofu and steaming cock' or being instructed by an advert to 'feel new, feel moist'. This linguistic hoopla works in both directions of course; there are no specific statistics on the number of people in the UK with oriental tattoos that actually read 'I slept with my cat' or 'death to the English', but I’m sure the numbers are significant.

Giant international conglomerates are by no means immune to this kind of wonky translation. The story behind the etymology of the Mitsubishi Starion is purely speculative and apocryphal, but I prefer to present it as fact because it’s more fun that way (and can’t prove it either way, so let’s just accept it). The story goes that the suits at Mitsubishi wanted a strong, powerful name for their new coupe, one that would evoke similar imagery to Ford’s Mustang or their own Colt. So they decided upon Stallion… and Japanese phonetics did the rest.

Alright, it’s probably cobblers, but let us not forget that this is the same company that named one of their models Pajero - which, as we’re all aware, is a Spanish term for a person who excessively masturbates. And anyway, they wouldn’t be the only company to let a silly name slip through the net. How about the Fiat Punto? Talk to a Mexican man about his punto and see how many teeth you walk away with.

To be fair to the Starion, the name is a tiny and insignificant element of the whole. It could have been named the Mitsubishi NunRapist and it wouldn’t make an iota of difference. It’s a wonderful and shamefully underacknowledged car – it’s the Japanese Capri. And flippant as that may sound, it’s every inch as good as that comparison suggests.

The credentials speak for themselves: at launch, it was pitched as a rival to the Toyota Supra, the Nissan 300ZX Turbo and the Porsche 924 Turbo. Combining Mitsubishi’s expertise in building very strong engines with their penchant for nailing a cocking great turbo to their cars and winding up the boost just to see what would happen, the 2000cc mill had the beans to match the brawn that the pumped-up wheelarches (on later widebody models) threatened. The revised car ended up with a turbocharged 2.6, but it was strangled by a restrictive manifold, too-mild cams and nannying engine management – purists plump for the balls-out 2-litre. It’s a more pure (and, frankly, terrifying) experience, and you can pick up a minter for two-and-a-half grand. That’s a lot of bang for your buck.

Interestingly, the Starion came close to being homologated for Group B rallying before the series was cancelled due to numerous damaging/fatal incidents. In a sense, this means that it can call the Ford RS200 a stablemate, and there’s not many cars that can say that. The Starion may not quite be remembered as ‘too fast to race’ - as the shortlived RS200 was - but it was at least too fast to make any bloody sense. This is what’s so loveable about the Japanese auto industry; each new sports model on the market seems to be following a European design template until some backroom nutjob gets distracted, hijacks the project and whacks an insane motor under the bonnet – just to see what happens. If only all companies were run that way.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Test Drive - Renault Megane CC

Upon hearing the name ‘Venus de Milo’, what immediately springs to your mind? The statue’s discovery in 1820 on the Aegean island of Milos, perhaps? The story of the mismatched plinth that incorrectly dated it to the time of Praxiteles? No, it’s the fact that she doesn’t have any arms. I’d wager that if Venus had a full set of limbs and were to be lined up with a selection of other Greek statues of the classical age, most people would have a job picking her out. The imperfections, unforeseen during the gestatory design phase, are frequently the things that become definitive. Look at the Leaning Tower of Pisa; a beautiful building, certainly, but it wouldn’t be as famous if it wasn’t a bit wonky. The drummer from Def Leppard is another example – mediocre sticksman loses arm; subsequently becomes celebrated for soldiering on. Or how about Mary, Queen of Scots? Tragic life, yes, but all the more memorable for that unfortunate beheading business.

I’ve had a couple of cars that follow this pattern. One was a ’93 mkII Vauxhall Astra convertible, the other a ’90 mkIV Ford Escort XR3i cabriolet. (I’m not trying to imply that these are beautiful cars [or, indeed, accomplished drummers], simply that they’ve had a little accident that means they’re notable for a significant inferiority.) You see, neither of these cars was originally designed to be a drop-top – the manufacturers simply took their bog standard hatchbacks, lopped the roofs off and marketed them as sporty/fun/summery things. This led to all sorts of problems. Sure, at the age of 21 I was ecstatic to be able to pull up at the traffic lights, decapitate the motor at the flick of a switch and cruise off with the wind flowing through my chestnut mane, but the pleasure was horribly fleeting. You see, a roof is quite an important part of a car, and hacking it off destroys any torsional rigidity that could be enjoyed in the original tin top. Imagine you’re holding an empty Utterly Butterly tub – you grab either end and twist it across the diagonal axes that run from corner to corner. Now remove the lid and do it again. Worrying, eh? Everything gets dangerously floppy.

Fortunately for the 21-year-old in all of us, Renault have an entire laboratory of folk whose sole job it is to play with empty cartons of greasy butter substitute. They flex and they manhandle, they glue on some structural cross-bracing and they twist again, like they did last summer. The fruits of this research have been poured wholesale into the chassis of the Mégane CC… because, folks, this is not just a bog standard hatchback that’s had its pillars severed by a garlic-tinged angle grinder. Oh no. This thing is clever. This was designed to be roofless from the off.

It’s mostly Mégane - it has the same face, the same engines and running gear, the same interiors; it’s just longer. And the handsome roof, seemingly made entirely of glass, can fold itself into the boot, of course.

Somewhat unexpectedly, it’s a joy to drive. Naturally there’s important posing to be done – the physics of how the car lowers its windows, opens the boot the wrong way, folds the roof into it and calmly closes itself (as if it knows it’s being naughty and is trying to act natural) is genuinely impressive to watch, and all at the touch of one button – but this is no boulevard cruiser. Find yourself a bumpy French country lane, point it at the horizon and shout ‘Fetch!’, you’ll see what I mean. It’s implausibly rigid.

The most significant bugbear of an open-top car is scuttle shake. This is basically the physical manifestation of all of that torsional rigidity you’ve lost, where you find the car shimmying and dancing like bound Chinese feet on hot coals. It’s a feeling, an unpleasant awareness, of how much of the car is missing. Triumph Spitfires suffer horribly with it, as do ragtop Saab 900s, Peugeot 205s, Jaguar XJ-Ss and countless others. In the Mégane Coupé-Cabriolet, however, it’s almost entirely absent. With Renault’s saucy 136bhp 2.0 16-valver under the bonnet with an expertly-judged six-speeder hanging off the back of it, this is a very good thing.

It would be easy to endlessly wax lyrical about the positive attributes of the CC – the firm yet supple ride, the near-German level of build quality, the fabulous gearbox, the eager acceleration, the brutal brakes – but none of that will be of much interest to the average CC buyer. It’s pretty, it’s really bloody good at everything it’s supposed to do, and it carries an air of exclusivity that belies the surprisingly competitive pricing… an added benefit of which is that if you pull up alongside an SLK, the Merc driver will secretly be very envious that nobody seems to hate you.

All in all, it’s a brilliant car. But can you imagine what it would be like if the RenaultSport development team got hold of it? Mixing the panache of the CC with the purposeful suspension, LSD and turbo’d engine of the Mégane 230 F1 Team R26 would be the perfect combination of style and substance. Still, the parts are interchangeable… you could always build one yourself. The admirably stiff shell would certainly take the abuse.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Classic - Chevrolet Corvair

The history of mankind is built on a foundation of relentless innovation. The me-first culture of plucking new and crazy ideas out of the ether is what encourages humanity into a competitive struggle with our contemporaries, with differing levels of ferocity depending on the otherworldliness of the concept. Look at Leonardo da Vinci – he came up with the idea of the helicopter in the late fifteenth century. Stupid idea, obviously, as he had no access to aviation fuel and presumably only a basic understanding of antitorque and yaw control. Still, at least he was trying. Thomas Edison, he was quite bright too. Not only did he invent the light bulb (which has come in pretty handy over the years) but he thought up over a thousand other things in his vast mindtank that were damn smart: pneumatic stencil-pens, carbon-telephones, fruit preservers, electric railway turntables… one of the few men who truly deserves the word ‘genius’. And of course, let’s not forget those humble cavemen – if they hadn’t thought of rubbing sticks together to make fire and then smashing rocks into rough circles, SuckSqueezeBangBlow would be rather less interesting.

Inevitably, innovation will always breed imitators. Whilst this generally leads along the linear path of evolution through development, it can also draw into the rather more sinister and dangerous area of the copycat. Let’s look at the example of the air-cooled rear-engined car (but of course). The Volkswagen Beetle is a classic example of a fresh new idea: bold yet logical and efficient in its packaging and design, revolutionary enough to seduce everyone’s favourite genocidal fascist into rolling it out across an entire nation (didn’t really take off under his watch – he had some other agenda…) and sufficiently successful for its designer, Ferdinand Porsche, to evolve it into the 356 and subsequently the 911, the roots of which are directly traceable back to Hitler’s little baby.

The Americans didn’t like this one bit. Being the biggest-selling import in the US, the Beetle had Detroit spitting feathers. ‘You want a rear-engined car with an air-cooled boxer?’, they spat, ‘Fine, we’ll build one.’ Fuelling significant design and marketing decisions with malice and rage is, obviously, a mistake. The Corvair was…well, let’s say it could have been better.

You see, the Beetle was a dumpy little hatchback (ok, saloon technically, but only in the way that a Mini is) with the engine quite near the rear axle line. Potentially tricky handling at the very limit, yes, but not generally outside of the control of the average driver. The Corvair was built in Detroit, which means it was massive. The flat-six sat so far out of the back of the car that any corner could lead you into a terrifying and possibly terminal spin. Little wonder that Ralph Nader felt compelled to write a book largely focused on the car entitled ‘Unsafe at any speed’. (This didn’t help sales towards the end, as you can imagine.)

It wasn’t a terrible car, and initially it enjoyed rather impressive sales – over its ten-year production run, an average of 200,000 units drove off the forecourts every year. It was named Motor Trend magazine’s car of the year for 1960, and at launch managed to survive a 24-hour continuous testing session at the Riverside International Raceway. Well, the one that didn’t roll over managed to survive it anyway.
It wasn’t that safe to be inside, though. Aside from the obvious fact that it seemed to have some kind of malicious disdain for the driver and it really loved bouncing backwards into ravines, it wasn’t totally advisable even to breathe in once you were installed in the vinyl and Bakelite interior. Exhaust gaskets – as with all cars – can fail. It’s just what they do, they can’t last forever. In the Corvair these gaskets were housed inside the heater box, meaning that failure would lead to the cabin filling with carbon monoxide. Not ideal. In addition to this, oil from the poorly-constructed pushrod tubes could also contaminate the air system. So, if it doesn’t run you off the road for having the sheer nerve to attempt to negotiate a corner, then it’ll try to choke you to death instead. What a bastard.

Quite pretty though, isn’t it? Like most of the cars that came out of Detroit in the sixties, it’s rife with fiddly little details and expanses of chrome that indicate the high-rolling lifestyle (or perception thereof) of the intended buyers. And anyway, everyone loves a bit of danger. Sure, the Corvair will probably kill you in the most horrible way, but your final moments would look pretty damn good.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Test Drive - Fiat 500 Sport

The pursuit of nostalgia can create a complicated and unsettling balancing act – an attempt to emulate an icon can lead to celebration or derision depending on quality of execution and public receptiveness. Look at the new Mini, for example – there’s no questioning the colossal respect and esteem in which the original Mini is held, yet BMW’s gamble in building a lardier 21st century iteration was generally met with applause. Variations on the brand remain a minefield, however. The remake of The Italian Job? Shocking how they pissed over the memory of the original. The new Mini Clubman? Well, it’s just shite isn’t it? (On that note, they gave it the wrong name too. The Clubman was the snub-nosed Mini, you berks; the estate was called Traveller or Countryman. But I digress.) So, if you get it right, you get it right. If you get it wrong, you shall be pilloried henceforth until the sun boils away to dust… and even then the cockroaches won’t touch the Clubman with a shitty stick.

With this in mind, launching a new Fiat 500 had the potential to be rather a risky venture. As beloved as the old Mini, the original Cinquecento was the cheeky, affordable baby that mobilised a nation and now has an enormously fanatical following across the globe. Any insult to its heritage from a chunky modern hatch would go down very badly indeed.

Fiat aren’t stupid, of course, and knew that they couldn’t merely copy the old format verbatim and place it in a next-century context. Very few people would buy a new city runabout with a rear-mounted vertical twin, for a start. What they did do was along the same lines as BMW’s tactics; they made a smallish (but, comparatively speaking, actually pretty large) city car, then formed a classic-looking shape to wrap it in, incorporating the primary styling cues of the forefather. And it’s actually come out rather well.

SuckSqueezeBangBlow drove the 1.4 16v Sport model, sharing its 100hp engine with the celebrated hot Panda. Whilst many argue that the Panda is the more capable car to make full use of this engine – as well as also being slightly cheaper – that isn’t really capturing the spirit of the enterprise. Until Fiat decide to put a proper engine in the 500 (the 150bhp 1.9 from the Bravo springs to mind), it’s best not to view it in any sort of particularly sporting context. This isn’t to say it’s not a giggle to drive. The engine is more than pokey enough to allow you to hustle it convincingly around town – that is, once you’ve got over the initial feeling of helplessness when you put your foot down and nothing happens for a second or two (rather like driving a turbo-diesel for the first time), although the ‘Sport’ button does slightly improve throttle response – and the handling is impressively competent; body-roll is minimal and the damping is pleasingly firm without being crashy.

Spec-wise, the 500 Sport is reasonably well equipped, the pièce de resistance being the sublime 16in multispoke alloys that nicely fill the arches and set the wheel-on-each-corner stance off superbly. You also get a six-speed manual ‘box, aircon, a decent stereo and a panoramic glass roof. It’s quite a pleasant place to sit, despite the peculiar driving position giving you the faintly unerring sensation that you’re actually sitting on the car rather than in it and - for the time being at least - it’s a car to satisfy your inner extrovert. It could just be that the 500 is still a rare sight on the roads in early 2008, but every second pedestrian from Fulham to Tooting was either stopping in their tracks to observe its passing or elbowing an accomplice in the ribs to point it out. All nourishment for the ego.

Unfortunately, you can tell that it’s been built to a price. The body-coloured plastic moulding of the dash has a wonderfully retro feel to it and echoes that of the original Cinq’, but it doesn’t bode well for the longevity of the materials that a car with a mere 800-odd miles on the clock is already collecting noticeable dust and dirt around the bezels and switchgear, and the lettering to the right of the instrument binnacle could have been stencilled on by a child with a Crayola. There was a noticeable rattle coming from somewhere in the offside rear – Christ knows where – and the brakes, although strong and progressive, feel ridiculously over-servo’ed. Still, what do you expect for ten grand?

The 500’s trump card is its overarching charm. The combination of cutesiness and cheapness will undoubtedly ensure strong sales, whilst the Italian heritage should ensure that it’ll have enough cachet not to be pigeon-holed as a girl’s car. It looks cool, it’s fun to drive, and it’s not overly expensive. What more could you want?

Well, some decent performance would be nice. But hey, the Abarth SS is just around the corner…