Friday, 27 June 2008

Test Drive - Ford Cortina 1600GT

It’s a sad fact of life that people don’t have a lot of respect for Essex. Whether they believe the white stiletto stereotypes and tales of macho bravado and congenital idiocy or they just find the accent easy to mimic, folk generally overlook such delights as Southend Pier, Epping Forest, Maldon (home of Captain Britain, comic book fans), Waltham Abbey, Audley End House and Hedingham Castle in favour of perpetuating the increasingly less hilarious stories of filthy slags picking up Ben Sherman-clad chavs in Basildon and taking them for a quickie at the ‘secret’ nuclear bunker in Kelvedon Hatch. It’s a shame.

One Essex myth is true, however: at least half the population were conceived in the back of a Ford Cortina. And this is a good thing. Essex is the home of Ford in the UK, and there’s a lot of local pride inherent in the classic Ford scene. Everyone has Ian Dury-esque memories of the Cortina from some point in their personal history – they were cheap, spacious and fun, so most people have had one at one time or another. The back seat is, of course, generous and accommodating…

They’re pretty entertaining to drive too. In the case of this particular model – a mkII 1600GT of 1970 vintage, no less – you get the engaging combination of an exciting driving experience and a thorough workout. The non-adjustable non-inertia reel seatbelts do little to hold you in place on the slippy uncontoured vinyl seats, while the steering box (no rack and pinion here) provides, er, unique steering feel with a dead inch or so in the straightahead and weirdly uncommunicative responses at any other angle. The resulting lack of support and stimulus means significant concentration is necessary at all times to stop you looking a tit. It’s a hoot.

Whilst Ford knew what they were doing in 1970, years of subsequent experience allow the development of certain improvements and modifications to the car. Add to this the impressive extent to which part sharing is possible across the Ford range and the long history of backstreet tuners getting big power and big smiles on little budgets and you have a vast army of enthusiasts with an encyclopaedic knowledge of just how to make your old skool Ford better. Take the suspension, for example. CLH 324H has lowered springs on uprated shocks at the front, a thicker anti-roll bar and the suspension setup from a mkII Escort RS2000 at the rear. This results in an aggressive stance, a reasonably compliant ride and impressive cornering abilities the like of which would have staggered the Dagenham boys 40-odd years ago. Who needs big money tuning?

The engine is a 1600cc crossflow (sourced for the princely sum of £250 from a local classic Ford specialist) and features a mild cam, 32/36 Weber carb, four-branch manifold and straight-through exhaust. Nothing too complex or pricey there, yet the improvements over the standard crossflow are tangible and immediately obvious; throttle response is rather more urgent than, say, a modern 1600cc Fiesta (not an incredible claim but hey, four decades is a long time for technology to evolve) and coupled with the short-ratio gearbox from the Lotus Cortina, your quick wrist-flicking is rewarded by brisk acceleration with a gratifying chirrup from the rear tyres in second and third. (Of course, the short gearing means that motorways are a miserable nightmare and anything above 70mph leaves the little bones in your ears tinkling one by one to the carpet. Ah well. Stick to the twisty country lanes.)

There’s a certain degree of snobbery in the retro car community, with a lot of people feeling that there are two distinct areas to operate within; the restorers of cars to their original condition, and the custom modifiers. Either keep it standard and polish it on Sunday or wang a V8 in it, basically. However, there’s much to be said for the art of period tuning – a concept that is gaining increasing respect in the community – and this Cortina is a case in point. With the exception of the wheels (15” Ultralites imported from Australia, incidentally) and the cheekily modern RS badge (from an Audi), everything on the car could have been bought either from Ford themselves or from your local tuner at the time. The results speak for themselves. It’s pretty frugal and can be quiet and sensible around town, but the Jekyll & Hyde cam means that spirited driving will result in throaty barks from the exhaust, plenty of steering from the rear and general oversteery sideways tomfoolery, and some lovely touring car style pops from the tailpipe on the overrun.

There’s no electrical assistance with anything whatsoever. Steering means wrenching the wheel firmly with both arms, braking involves stamping the middle pedal into the bulkhead and hoping, for air conditioning you just wind the window down. This is simple motoring, and all the better for it. For all the Cortina’s lack of precision and feedback, it’s still infinitely more involving and satisfying than any of its modern counterparts. Imagine lapping the N├╝rburgring in this, then doing it again in a Focus ST. Sure, the latter will be several minutes faster, but the 1600GT will have you grinning like a loon and finishing with a genuine sense of achievement. It’s the polar opposite of clinical. It’s great fun. It’s sexy. It’s menacing. It makes a brilliant noise. And if you play your cards right, Sharon will climb in the back with you.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Toyota Prius

Some people have tremendous difficulty admitting when they’re wrong. We’ve all been in a situation where we’ve committed ourselves to an action or opinion and realised mid-flow that we’ve made a grave and embarrassing error, but generally a sense of logic and a few coarse strands of strong moral fibre allow us to make a dignified u-turn. Not all people are able to do this; imagine how galling it must have been for Hitler, hauling his troops across Poland and chanting to himself ‘don’t panic Addy, this’ll definitely end well’. Jade Goodie making poppadom jokes to an Indian actress. Bush stealing oil. The Ssangyong Korando. The continuing re-employment of Ant & Dec. Donald Trump’s haircut. People need to learn that it’s OK to admit to having made a bad decision – in the long run it’s far better to chalk it up to experience and move on than to persist with the error in the hope that people will mistake your belligerence for wisdom.

This is what all Toyota Prius drivers feel like. They believed the hype, they bought into the propaganda, they have sizeable ostrich egg on their faces. In the back of their minds is a troubling issue, growing from a niggling doubt to an unpleasant fist-sized tumour of regret that what they initially believed to be an environmental solution is actually just a huge and misguided mistake.

Studies have shown that on a lifetime scale (going from the point at which the car never existed, passing through the tooling and production of the car, its entire projected lifespan and its subsequent disposal) you might as well get yourself a Range Rover Sport and have yourself a bit of fun. How can this be so, you ask, when Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio insist on continually banging on about how it’s The Answer?

Let’s look at the batteries for a start. The Prius, you see, waves its green flag around on the basis that it’s a hybrid: it has a petrol engine for general driving and a couple of electric motors that cut in at low-speed or stop/start driving, as well as taking care of regenerative braking, powering the continuously variable transmission and so forth. In fairness, it’s a bloody clever system. But it’s not green. Sure, not having the engine running all the time will logically lower the emissions by whatever amount isn’t being produced when the engine would otherwise be on (if you see what I mean) and the electric motors aiding the petrol engine’s accelerative power lead it to be more efficient, but the real story is behind the scenes. Like I say, let’s take a peek at the batteries.

The nickel that is used in Prius batteries is mined in Sudbury, Ontario. The area surrounding this mining and smelting facility is occasionally used by NASA for testing their lunar rovers, as the nickel extraction process and the subsequent sulphur dioxide smokestack has turned the locality into the one place on earth that most resembles the surface of the moon. Toyota buys around 1000 tons of nickel from here each year, which is shipped all the way to Wales for refining. Then it gets shipped to China to be turned into nickel foam. Then it’s shipped to the battery plant in Japan. All told, the journey amounts to about 10,000 miles – and that’s just one part of the car. Factor in the distance involved in transporting your shiny new Prius to London and much of the piety of your purchase is lost. The carbon footprint is gargantuan.

The Sunday Times proved in a head-to-head test that the BMW 520d was significantly more efficient and economical than the Prius on a drive from London to Geneva. Evo showed it to be far inferior to the Fiat Panda 100hp in a similar test, and Auto Express ranked it a lowly tenth position in their fuel efficiency testing, showing it to be around 8mpg less efficient than the Citro├źn C4 HDi. Add to this the fact that the uninspiring styling could have come from the ham-fisted crayoning of a three year old, blind pedestrians have no chance of hearing it coming, the traction control system is rubbish and can’t cope with anything beyond light drizzle, and the unavoidable truth that every single person who’s bought one is an insufferable cunt, there really is no logical reason to have a Prius in your life. For an astonishing £22,000 you will have to live not only with the knowledge that you’ve made a bad decision, but also with the constant judgement of every other motorist. They won’t just think you’re a twat. They’ll know it.

For approximately half the price of a Prius, for example, you could get yourself a Suzuki Swift Sport. Your fuel economy will be better (much, much lighter car for a start, with no heavy nickel batteries to cart around), you’ll be having way more fun, petrolheads in the know will applaud your decision to buy a surprisingly competent underdog and, if your ecoguilt is still strong, you could spend the remaining £10k-odd on planting a forest or sponsoring a donkey sanctuary or something. Oh, and you won’t hate yourself. It’s win-win.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Ferrari California

According to archaeological evidence, man has inhabited Italy for 200,000 years. (Unless you’re an elbow-patched God-bothering Jesus muncher, in which case you’ll think it’s rather less than that.) It is a very long time, but of course in those early days they were just banging rocks against slightly larger rocks and daubing impressionist-style representations of their pet mammoths on the foothills of the Graian Alps. Until, that is, one fur-clad monobrow stumbled across the notion of assisted perambulation after he accidentally chipped all the pointy bits from his favourite alabaster square – this changed mankind’s lifestyle, liberty and aspirations exponentially.

After this, nothing interesting really happened for a while (the Villanovans made some nice pottery, the Etruscans painted pretty portraits of each other, the Romans raced around in chariots and set lions on their slaves), until in 1957 the Ferrari 250GT California Spyder appeared in a puff of lusty mischief and everyone suddenly twigged what the whole endeavour of civilisation had been leading up to. It was a sublime machine – gorgeous coachwork, sumptuous trim, a potent 3-litre V12 under the bonnet and impressively fleet of foot due to a very low kerb weight. It embodied the spirit of effectively combining luxury and efficiency of the ancient Romans – more along the lines of the racing of chariots than the whole setting lions on one another thing, obviously – and proved to be a massive success for Ferrari. With such heritage and fondness of memory it was inevitable that our Modenese chums would resurrect the ‘California’ moniker sooner or later.

…and lo, it is so. Don’t worry, this is no cynical marketing exercise like the New Beetle or the Mustang II; we can maintain the faith we have in Ferrari’s relentless pursuit of excellence. Despite rather a lot of misguided and frankly baffling media criticism, the new California is a genuinely exciting prospect.

This might sound like an obvious remark; surely, you’re thinking, any new Ferrari is an exciting prospect? Of course you’re right, but there are a few intriguing tricks to the new baby that push levels of mental engagement higher than most: for one thing, it’s the first Ferrari to have a front-mounted V8. You see, the bigwigs have been listening to their customers, some of whom have been saying that the F430 is rather too compromised as a day-to-day car. Astounding as the mid-engined monster is, it seems that certain people would like to be able to fit a few shopping bags where the engine is. (Each to their own… I’d take the mid-engined format every time, but then I’m only saying that because I can’t afford to actually get involved in these decisions.) So, they like the power, they prefer that particular size, they enjoy the overall experience… simple fix, just throw the engine in the front. Easy. It’ll be less hardcore by definition – mid-engined layout, obviously, offers optimised weight distribution and thus assists grip, traction, controllability, swiftness of adjustment etc – but it’s by no means a slouch. You can’t argue with 454 Italian horses and a 0-62mph time comfortably below four seconds.

It’s also the first Ferrari to have a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. The absence of the trademark metal H-gate may make the old-school prancing horse aficionados choke on their linguine but come on, we grew to love paddle-shift even though that seemed sick and wrong to begin with. Brand heritage is everything to Ferrari, but it’s essential not to overlook evolution. Besides, it’s not just everyday Volkswagens that use semi-auto dual-clutch transmissions… if it’s good enough for the Veyron, it can’t be half bad.

Oh yes, and there’s another exciting first for the marque. The California has a folding steel roof. That’s right – until now the old guard of the supercar elite have eschewed the weight, bulk and mechanical complexity of the format in favour of the more traditional canvas tent affair, but it does make sense for this particular model. If the consumer wants a Ferrari as a useable daily driver with somewhere to put the shopping, they’re likely to also be rather keen on having a sealed roof unit with a heated rear screen and nowhere for the air to whistle in when the top’s up. Makes sense. And although the California, as with its forefather, is aimed squarely at the US market, you just know that the bendy tin-top will do them all kinds of favours over here. After all, the UK buys more convertibles per capita than anywhere in the world. Although nobody’s quite sure why.

Don’t let all the chatter about usability and suchlike lead you to think that the California is in any way a ‘soft’ Ferrari. 0-62mph below four seconds is epic. It has carbon brakes as standard, the all-aluminium construction makes it light and stiff, the traction control system is lifted directly from the 599GTB – this is truly a force to be reckoned with. Ignore the cynics, the arrogant folk who love to criticise for criticism’s sake. This is, quite simply, a fabulous car; achingly gorgeous, dripping in heritage yet bang up-to-date, fast enough to peel the skin from your face and deposit it down the back of your t-shirt… the petrolheads from Modena have done it again. A modern classic and a future icon – it’s what they do best.