Citroen C4 Review | August 22, 2012

Nowadays we might wonder why Citroën use the advertising slogan ‘Créative Technologie’. They seem to largely produce safe, respectable people carriers (Picassos of various sorts) and fun little zip arounds (the DS3), but hardly cars that are ‘créative’. There was a time when the manufacturer used to be at the forefront of car technologie. The current C4 may not have the space-age stylings of earlier Citroëns, but for a small family car it is a pleasant ride.

The C4 has been around since 2004 while Mark II was launched in 2010. There are three trims available: the VTR starting at £13,995, the VTR+ starting at £16,695 and the Exclusive starting at £18,095. In addition to the C4 Hatchback, Citroën make it as a five-seater Picasso MPV and a seven-seater Grand Picasso MPV. There are also a serious load of engines to choose from, the petrol 1.4, 1.6 and 1.6 Turbo, then there are four diesel engines: 1.6, 1.6 16v and 1.6 16v with stop-start, there is also a 2.0 16v. Quite a lot to choose from then, especially when you throw manual and automatic as well.

One of the qualities that Citroëns are renowned for is the comfort of their ride. This still applies to the C4 mark II. The car glides, it’s like the thing is stuck to the road with a large magnet rather than wheels. Speed bumps get sucked up, pot holes are ignored and it transforms the patchwork of filled-in gas and electricity repairs that makes for most British city roads into something pristine and smooth. The car is well insulated too and gives you a pleasant feeling of sitting on a comfortable, silent moveable couch rather than heading down the motorway. So, if you’re after something sporty, then the C4 is probably not what you’re after. If you’re after reliability however, this might be for you. The C4 was rated above average in the 2012 car customer satisfaction survey taken by American market research company J.D. Power. Then, for those who are after a clean, green model the C4 e-HDi 110 Airdream EGS6 VTR+ has emissions of just 98g/KM, which is amongst the lowest for the small family car class.

Possibly the main evidence of the old Citroën technological magic is in the safety features – the car has blind-spot monitoring, cornering lights and a speed limiter with five memory settings. Possibly best of all though is the eTouch system, a button you press if you’ve broken down that will call the emergency services. It won a Euro NCAP Advanced Award from the European New Car Assessment Programme. In fact, the car won five stars from Euro NCAP for its safety features.

Now the car might not look quite as futuristic as the legendary Citroën DS, but they do try to give a few (slightly gimmicky) technological features in addition to the eTouch. You can change the colour of the lights on the dashboard from white to blue and set your favourite warning sounds. The Exclusive, ie the top-of-the-range model, has lumbar massager on the front seats. So, Citroën are doing their bit to keep their cars somewhat in the vein of their earlier more cutting-edge models, but basically what the C4 offers is a solid vehicle that runs well.

Honda Civic – Overpriced and Underpowered? | July 17, 2012

The Honda Civic in days of yore was a bit of a joke. Literally. In Quentin Tarantino’s cult movie Pulp Fiction, Bruce Willis’s wise-cracking prizefighter Butch Coolidge drives a 1980 model. It was such a uncool car being driven by an action hero who usually zoomed around in Porches that made the scenario so funny. Tarantino then went on to make the heroine of his movie Jackie Brown also drive the same white Civic (which had been sitting in the prop department lot somewhere in LA), and one also crops up in Kill Bill too. It is no surprise then that Tarantino himself used to drive a silver Honda Civic before he hit the big time. The car has actually been around since the early 70s: the first generation civic was sold in 1973. Along the way it has changed size and grown from being a supermini into a small family car. Anyway, back to the present day Civic, which could no longer be used for comic effect.

There are four Civic trims, the SE, ES, EX and the EX GT. There are also three engines available: the 1.4-litre and 1.8-litre petrol, and a 2.2-litre diesel engine. By most accounts the 1.8 petrol engine is the best as the 1.4 doesn’t quite have the necessary kick, and the diesel engine is powerful, but rather expensive at £26,850. For those who can wait, there will be a 1.6 diesel engine version coming out later this year (2012). This will be a good investment as it will be exempt from vehicle tax (and London Congestion Charge) because it will emit less than 100g/km of CO2.

The ninth generation of Civic came out in 2011 and has benefited from Honda withdrawing from Formula 1 in 2008. This allowed the team working on road cars to borrow some of the R&D skills and facilities from the F1 team. One of the main outcomes of this has been that the car has slightly changed it’s shape due to the skills of the Honda aerodynamicists and their wind tunnel magic. This has reduced the aerodynamic lift and improved stability. Thankfully they’ve managed to do this without increasing drag. The suspension is now liquid filled rather than solid rubber. This all means the car handles both the ease of motorways and complexities of corners well. There are those however who draw attention to the car’s steering which can feel too light.

Anyone buying a Honda knows that they will be getting a reliable vehicle and this one should prove to be no exception. The security measures are strong: there are six airbags and energy absorbing front mounts. The standard model is already fitted with climate control, a USB socket and even alloy wheels. All models have a gigantic boot and plenty of leg space for the tall people amongst us. Of course the car has the standard Honda three-year / 90,000-mile warranty, and if you want you can splash out to get a six-year unlimited mileage warranty. Somehow it seems unlikely that this Civic will be featuring in any Quentin Tarantino movies. It’s not quite sporty enough to make it into a chase sequence, but is so much better than the early 80s version that it will never have the ironic value that that model had. A nice enough motorway cruiser, but could be a bit cheaper.

Now in order to drive a BMW M5 at a track day, you need to have a certain amount of driving skill. More than that, you need a hefty dose of confidence. This is because this bad boy is no ordinary vehicle; it is a herd of wildebeest and a howling whirlwind in automotive form. The F10 M5 released in 2010 offers unparalleled power and control, but you have to know what you’re doing in order to make the most of it.

So, it was with some trepidation that I climbed behind the wheel of a silver M5. Having arrived in a car considerably less powerful (lets say it it is capacious and reliable, but not necessarily sporty), the first thing you notice about this car is that it slightly confounds expectations. It is much larger inside than you would expect for such a meaty car. The moment you step over the shiny metal plate stamped with the M5 logo into the car’s interior you know you have left something behind. Not your car keys hopefully, but the humdrum of everyday life and the sensible, but affordable and not very exciting cars we tend to drive to get to work. The sound is also something special, or rather the lack of sound. It is as if a pin has been dropped moments earlier – a silver pin at that – and after it finished tinkling, the subsequent silence is just that bit richer than normal.

Turning the engine on reveals the V8 engines in all their bass-ed up glory. They make the sort of phat sound that wouldn’t go amiss if sampled for a room-shuddering dub reggae track. And so to drive. Like most people in the UK I don’t drive an automatic, but I was a little relieved to have the responsibility of changing the seven gears and potentially messing up the clutch taken away from me. Well, there are two more gears than I’m used to. This 552bhp, 4.4 litre monster is the most powerful production car that BMW have ever produced. Of course I didn’t want to end up like man who recently totalled his Pagani Zonda in Hertfordshire and ended up dead. Remembering the seatbelt was one measure I could take that Mr Baranos didn’t.

Still, from the get go it becomes clear that the M5 has bags of oomph that is just waiting to be released. The lovely bassy growl promises much. The car has three settings for settings for the gearbox, throttle, suspension and steering: comfort, sport and extra-sport. I thought I’d be sensible and work my way up. Set to ‘comfort’ the car felt like it would take you all the way to Istanbul without too much heartache, but it was when I switched on the sport settings that the car started to feel a little more concentration was needed. Still, not too much brow furrowing, as although the car is powerful, it’s power is nicely wrapped up in a comfortable, safe package. Perhaps this is because it is a V8 rather than V10, or perhaps it’s all the other tweaks that BMW have given the vehicle, but all feels rather too controlled. Taking the corners was distinctly manageable, although the acceleration was a world away from everyday driving.

Handing the car back at the end of my session was not the easiest thing I have done. It’s very easy to make yourself at home in a vehicle like that – it’s surprisingly easy how little time it takes to get used to comfort and power on that scale. ‘To the BMW M5 Manor Born’, as they might say. The only quibble might be that it feels a little less raw and urgent than a car with that amount power has a right to feel. It felt a bit like going to a very rowdy concert and sitting in a company box – you can see the energy of the mosh-pit, and hear it to an extent too, but at the same time it feels a little remote. Having said that, all in all, a fantastic experience.

Bringing the Astra back home | March 12, 2012

The Astra has a lot going for it, but it is often thought of as standing in the shadows of its slightly more popular rivals produced by Ford, the Escort until 2000 and the Focus since then. Still, let’s not forget that it may come second, but it is a very respectable second.

The Astra is currently being built at Opel’s Ruesselsheim plant in the Rhein-Main region of Germany, but in May, 2012 it was announced that production of the car would move to Ellesmere Port in Cheshire in 2013. This will raise the spirits of the 2,100 workers in the Cheshire plant, and even give some hope to the region as an estimated 700 new workers will be hired when the production of Astra goes on line.

The Vauxhall Astra has come a long way since 1979 when it was first released. Then my granny had an orange Mark 1 in the 80s that seemed to gain a few extra dents each time she turned up to see us. The car did get her and her huge Old English Sheepdog around the place, but you could never call it a particularly sexy vehicle. But then high style is not what the Astra offers – it is unfussy reliability that we look for in the Astra and that is largely what we get. It is not the fourth most popular British car ever sold for no reason.

Prices for the Astra range between £19,895 and £24,095, which is what you would expect for a car of this sort. This puts it squarely in the middle of the price range of the small family car bracket, below the upper extremities of the BMW 1 Series, but starting a bit higher than the Skoda Octavia.

So, what is it that the Astra offers? It depends on what model you mean of course, but generally the car drives well. Those cunning Vauxhall engineers have weighted the steering with just enough balance to put your mind at rest. Depending on the model, you have a variety of suspension options to choose from.

The GTC coupé is the sporty model that sits 1.5cm closer to the road and an extra 10cm wheelbase, it also uses HiPer Strut front suspension to give it a manoeuvrable but controlled feel. For drivers who want to choose between different suspension settings, the FlexRide adaptive suspension allows them to choose between standard, tour and sport settings. You may not exactly be a thrill merchant, but anyone who is going to buy a coupé will want an engine that is a bit more powerful that average. The engine specs range from 1.4-litre petrol (120 & 140bhp) to a 1.6-litre petrol, and there’s also the 1.7- (110 and 130bhp) and 2.0-litre diesels. Let us not forget the monster 280bhp VXR version that the Top Gear lot gave 8/10. A nice handling, sporty number indeed.

The trusty hatchback is probably the best-known model of the Astra. It certainly has a pleasing sleek look, but there are those who say that the engine doesn’t quite have the power needed for a car with its ambitions. It has six airbags and is sturdy, which makes it popular with families. And for those who want more space, there is the Sport Tourer – the estate version. The Astra estate (ahem, the Sport Tourer) has consistently outsold the Ford Focus estate. The 1,364cc turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine version has a max speed of 125 miles per hour and does 0-60mph in 9.5 seconds. Reliability is the by-word, but that is what its rival offers too, so it is probably the quality that most purchasers of this vehicle will be looking for.

All-in-all the Astra has managed to consistently provide a good solid car and if you are looking for something more than merely solid, the GTC can give you a few thrills too.

Having a Fiesta in the latest Ford | January 7, 2012

The Ford Fiesta seems to have been around since the beginning of time. There’s probably good reason for that – Ford came up with a supermini gem when they devised this car. Actually it was in  1976 that the Ford Fiesta Mark 1 was first shown at the Le Mans 24-hour race that summer. It took another half a year before the car managed to make it to these shores. The first models were sold here in January, 1977.

Not only are Fiestas zippy, they are also safe. Jeremy Clarkson bought one this January for his 17-year-old daughter Emily. He admitted that although he’s always loved speed, when it came to choosing a car for the apple of his eye, safety was his priority. He wrote in an article for the BBC’s Top Gear magazine that he wanted to buy her “a car with 2,000 airbags. I wanted a bouncy castle with wipers!” Come to think of it, a bouncy castle with wipers sounds like just the sort of thing that the Top Gear crew would love to put together.

So, what makes the Fiesta the sort of car that a car guru like Clarkson part with his cash for? According to What Car? magazine, the quality that the current model scores highest for is its handling. There is a standard model and the Zetec S, ie sporty version, the basic model has speed-sensitive steering while the sporty one has less power assistance. Either way, the car is a dream to handle. To get an idea of this, check out the video of Clarkson being chased by a black corvette driven by ‘baddies’ on YouTube, whom he unsurprisingly outsmarts.

The car is also nice and quiet which is good for a supermini, a class of car that can be rather noisy when you hit the motorway. In these straitened economic times it is always important to consider fuel economy. As you might expect from a small car like this, it doesn’t gobble fuel. For the more green-minded among us, Ford have produced a version of the car they call Econetic which has a very low CO2 emission of 98g/km this means your car will fall into vehicle tax Band A and be exempt from any charges.

Then of course there is the matter of safety that Mr Clarkson was so keen on for his daughter. It may not quite have 2,000 airbags, but it does have five of them, including one for the driver’s knees and head-protecting curtain airbags and thorax-protecting side airbags. Electronic stability control reduces the likelihood of skidding, which has to be good for drivers that have only just passed their driving test. If young Emily is frequenting the hipper, but possibly slightly wilder parts of town, the car has a Passive Anti-Theft System (PATS) immobiliser, that requires a uniquely-coded key to start the engine.

Then let us not forget that the Fiesta is built in Germany, by Germans, and if there is anything that marks a car out as well made, it is German engineering. Ford Germany’s Cologne plant has been producing Fiestas since 1976 and has produced more than six million of them. There have been more than 13 million produced globally, which puts the car just outside the Top 10 of all time biggest selling cars according to 24/7 Wall Street, a business news website. Number 10 is the Chevy Impala which has sold 14 million globally, the Impala however has almost 10 years on the Fiesta, as it was first sold in 1958.

The car has recently expanded into the Asian and American markets, having previously been largely a European model. In 2010 Ford’s Cuautitlàn Mexican plant started producing the car, as well as their plants in Nanjing, China and Rayong, Thailand. So it looks like the Fiesta will be working it’s way up the world’s best selling car lists, as well as keeping Emily Clarkson safe.