iDentity Crisis

29 01 2010

Allow me to digress from cars for a while, because this week something else has enveloped the attention of the populace.

And here it is.  The moment technology fans the world over have been perching on the edge of their faux-leather office chairs in anticipation of.  And it was with bated breath I watched the keynote speech myself, refusing to believe the hype.

As everyone in the circle of tech knows, Steve Jobs is the undisputed master of pre-sentations (as the Americans would say) and his verbal prelude to the secret new device was no exception in building palpable tension and intrigue.  This was slated as the third way, the middle ground between the rapidly-establishing markets of smartphones and laptops.  And here’s where my problem lies.

Parallels can be drawn with the automotive world at this point, because basically what Apple is hoping to achieve is to carve a new niche, albeit one that has existed for well over 10 years.  Mercedes has been dreaming up new segments of the market for years, with varied success: the CLS being the genesis of the saloon/coupé trend now popular with numerous manufacturers; the R-Class being the genesis of nothing at all.  Because it is a fifty-thousand pound potato.

As with every Apple product, the ingenuity is not with the existence of the product itself, but the way in which it delivers the goods, and how the user experience is redefined for ease of use, intuitive interfaces and most of all, style.  The iPad certainly seems to deliver on these fronts.  No other ‘tablet’ has the inherent desirability of the iPad, its tactility and aesthetic loveliness rivalled only by the other fruit in Apple’s basket.  But we expected that, didn’t we?  No-one who has been awake for the past decade or so would have any reservations about the design of a new piece of Cupertino kit.

Apple iPad

It will change your life. Somehow.

It is however a fourth prerequisite of a trail-blazer which presents the most immediate problems for the iPad: ability.  You see, the problem with bridging the gap between two established products is one of compromise.  It must bring together the very best elements of each, while simultaneously curtailing any inherent shortfalls of what is basically a fence-sitter.  The iPad cannot perform the most obligatory functions of a mobile phone (er, to make calls?), and due to its form factor must also forego the more demanding tasks of a full-blown computer, even one as technically limited as a laptop.  For example, it seemingly cannot multitask, a failing often voiced but equally overlooked about its smaller, older sibling, the iPhone.  But we can forgive the iPhone this; it is after all ‘just a phone’.  But a device which claims to break new ground by bringing together the very slickest elements of both sectors needs more punch.

This morning I watched yet another eulogy of Apple’s new sprog, in which the reviewer claimed that Apple’s biggest USP, and the feature which marks the iPad out as revolutionary, was the addition of a physical keyboard.  Now don’t get me wrong, this optional extra certainly has its uses, but to proclaim that a device’s single best asset is an admission that the included keyboard isn’t applicable for all situations is like selling someone a new car and then offering a bus pass on the options list.  Just in case.

The beautifully-designed carrying case (also a chargeable extra) doesn’t have the storage to hold this keyboard, nor the ugly adapter cables needed to complete iPad’s technical armoury.  This again is an oversight, and one which will certainly cause frustration among the early adopters.

It is of course very easy for me to sit here and blackball Apple’s attempted paragon of tablet worthiness, but I do so out of disappointment, mainly because it’s a product for which I have no practical need.  And that’s exactly the point of this niche-market game: to create a need; to generate such desire as to convince people like me to part with my hard-earned for something I had no idea I actually needed until it was presented to me.

It goes without saying that the iPad will be a huge success regardless of its technical shortcomings, and this in itself must have marketeers across the globe snapping their pencils in frustration.  Not only can this once left-field computer manufacturer cause the world to generate its own zenith of hype around a mere rumour, but even in the cold light of a seemingly sub-standard product they will continue to reap success based on the strength of their brand.  Money, it appears, grows on Apple trees.


Christmas Filth

23 12 2009

Today was a day of frustration and venomous traffic-ridden anger. For the first time since records began, I actually completed all Christmas shopping with time to spare, and therefore woke up this morning with a strange feeling of festive limbo. Call me glutton for punishment, but for some reason I decided to embark upon an entirely pointless trip to get my car washed.

As any keen car washer knows, steel skies is the best environment under which to lavish attention on your vehicle, that tangible weather which threatens to rain any second but thus far has resisted. The bucket can be cold enough to not soften the paint and the water won’t dry in blinding sun, necessitating arduous chamois action. Alas, it’s late December in pre-Pennine Cheshire, so of course it is blowing a combination of rain so heavy it actually inflicts harm, and snow so brown it could well be nuclear fallout. This seemed the most appropriate climate to wash my filthy car, which was once a vibrant pearlescent yellow and now shares its hue with Coleman’s finest French mustard.

When I lived in Northampton, finding someone to wash your car was as easy as finding syphilis in a student bedsit. The choice was immense. You could take the cheap option, where an army of indeterminable origin would descend upon your car with sponges they found in a gutter and scratch all your paint off, thus making it clean. Or you could take out a small loan and hire a Professional Valet Service, where freshly-oiled virgins would buff the bodywork with a never-ending supply of kittens. The same cannot be said of Cheshire. In my admittedly limited expedition this afternoon, I encountered not a single valet service, at either end of the economic scale, and in doing so further sullied my car’s gorgeous colour.

So my journey continued fruitlessly, through the ridiculous Christmas traffic, with my level of anger rising exponentially with every mile I crawled. It was mayhem out there. Drivers were jumping lights, squeezing into spaces barely larger than a fart and shouting at every other vehicle on the road. Trucks were straddling lanes, berating impatient half-wits for disobeying the very British queue. Children and the infirm were thrown from the back seats of MPVs into the roadside to quell their nauseating screams. And there I was, clutch-foot in agony, with all my Christmas presents back at home, safe in the knowledge that this was one of the most stupid decisions I’d made in quite a while. The worst thing is that tomorrow is Christmas Eve, meaning I have to find another way to waste the time otherwise spent running around the Trafford Centre on fire.

The Intimacy of Contact

9 12 2009

I was watching Wall-E the other day, which ranks very high on my list of Favourite Films Of All Time.  The reason I enjoy it so much is quite tricky to pin down, because when you attempt to explain the premise to anyone they invariably think that it’s a 2-hour cartoon with no dialogue and a tree-hugging message.  There’s very little I hate more than a film with a message, normally because these messages patronise the audience, hoping they’ll re-evaluate their consumptive and wasteful existence and buy a Toyota Pious.

This particular viewing of Wall-E left me with a slightly different provocation for thought.  Without ruining the film for those of you who haven’t yet seen it (I implore you, it’s streets ahead of whatever preconception you already have), humankind has evolved into amorphous blobs, unable to mobilise under their own power because machines will do it for them.  Quite amusing on film, entirely possible in real life.  But my beef is not with the march of the machines, scaremongering you all into vigilante Sarah Connorism.  I’m a huge fan of science fiction, and the closer to plausible reality the better.  Someone once told me that every piece of kit aboard the Starship Enterprise could, hypothetically, be made.  He was however the type of person who owns a t-shirt claiming that there are 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary and those who do not.  So I resisted the invitation to watch Star Trek and carried on building Lego.

Cars are a perfect manifestation of the advancement of technology, and their development continues at an alarming rate in the bid to become quieter, more efficient and safer.  And it’s this ‘safer’ bit that I struggle with sometimes.  Until now the car has been a device which relies upon human input to operate.  That’s why the word ‘driving’ was appropriate, suggesting a requirement from the organic bit behind the wheel.  Unfortunately, the English language doesn’t stipulate whether the thing doing the driving was organic or not.  Alas, we now have night-vision, adaptive cruise control, automatic lane-departure warning systems which will actually turn the steering wheel, and so on.  Volvo, the automotive prophylactic, have set a target that by 2020, no-one should be killed or critically injured in one of their cars.  A very noble and bold claim, and having witnessed close-up Volvo’s commitment to safety it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they succeed.  The thing is, will they, and others striving for similar targets, achieve this by simply removing the driver’s remit?  People make erratic decisions a computer would not.  In fact the erraticism is irrelevant: computers don’t make decisions.  They blindly follow instructions, guided only by the breadth of their programming, and can only facilitate conditions they are familiar with.

Land Rover’s quite brilliant Terrain Response system allows you to choose between snow, rocks, snow, sand, mud, soil, earth and snow.  But there is no setting for driving over the feet of people in a bus queue.  Or kittens.  The driver therefore must either choose the ‘best-fit’ from the car’s wealth of driver aids or, heaven forbid, use common sense and adjust their inputs on the wheel and pedals according to the feedback through…the wheel and pedals.  Which then begs the question, what if you can’t feel what’s going on underneath you?  Let me put it this way: you wouldn’t attempt to run on an ice rink.  You delicately ease your feet down with the trepidation of Bambi’s brittle-boned cousin.  And if you fall, you don’t phone Reebok and demand compensation, because that would be ridiculous.

Unless you are classified as terminally stupid, you would be able to feel the slip of a tyre on a wet road.  You are aware of crosswinds battering your slab-sided Berlingo Multispace into the neighbouring lane.  You are probably even aware of the shifting polar of inertia, although maybe on a subconscious level.  But whether you have the necessary skill to counter such a thing is a different case entirely, and that’s assuming you’ve got the reactions of a banker threatened with bonus tax.  Essentially we as human beings aren’t to be trusted.  Give us enough rope etc.

But other industries have faced similar decisions, two notable examples being planes and trains, so it makes sense that automobiles should follow.  Airbus pioneered their controversial Fly By Wire technology in the 1980s, which introduced an electronic barrier between pilot and plane.  The idea basically centres around reading the various data fed from the control surfaces, and can adjust every parameter accordingly.  The pilot was effectively relinquished of physical control over the aircraft, and instead makes executive decisions such as ‘pull up’ or ‘turn left’.  The plane then calculates whether it is safe to follow these instructions, and if so, carries out the command.  This barrier between brain and plane seems perfectly logical, although Airbus had to engineer a ‘force-feedback’ system, giving the pilot something to do and stopping him from putting his feet up and reading John Grisham.  Fly By Wire had its teething problems, a demonstration flight ending in disaster after the pilot demanded a sharp incline deemed impossible by the system.  The plane reduced the incline angle to avoid stalling, and crashed into trees beyond the runway.

The Moorgate tube crash of 1975 showed similar shortfalls in human ability, when a train failed to stop and ran into the walling at the end of Moorgate station.  As a direct result of the tragic accident, the so-called Moorgate Control system was introduced to automatically stop any train travelling more than 10mph if another is present in the upcoming station, or if the station is at the end of the line.

It is horrendously dismissive of me to lament the advent of such life-saving technology, and the reasons these systems exist is understandable and indispensable.  But driving a car is now such a regular and perfunctory task, it rarely summons the attention it deserves.  This I believe is the crux of the whole argument.  If text-messaging, applying make-up or trying to remember the name of the drummer in The Stones are more important than assessing the conditions and controlling our cars accordingly, then maybe we should have our powers removed.  So why in God’s name do we demand that our cars ‘cushion’ us from the vital signs of an impending accident and allow us to bask in uninterrupted comfort?  They only serve to numb our sensory interfaces.  I say give us more feedback; let us feel the wheels slipping, let us hear the tyres break traction, maybe even amplify it somehow.  If every time you drove on a slippery surface the sound of Janet Street Porter being scraped down a blackboard filled the car, it might just stop us thinking driving is easy.  The actor Paul Fix once proclaimed that “The only reason some people get lost in ‘thought’ is because it’s unfamiliar territory”.  Quite right.

Suzuki Ignis Sport – The Story Begins…

5 10 2009

The Japanese car industry enjoys a pretty good reputation on the whole.  In some ways they have become the Channel 4 of the automotive world, initially offering numb facsimiles of European cars, which turned out to be rather better screwed together than the originals.  During the 1980s Japan became progressively more adventurous, putting down the Sketch-a-Graph and replacing it with an Etch-a-Sketch.  Boxy but brilliant superminis started zipping around our towns, spawning some remarkably rewarding sports variants.  For example, Daihatsu’s meek little Charade spent a night alone in a big forest, returning with the whites of its eyes showing, t-shirt covered in blood and a maniacal cackle in the form of the GTti.  This tiny blown triple held the claim of the first production car to breach 100bhp per litre, and was the fastest 1-litre car in production for a short while.  This was aided of course by being made of metal so thin you could receive new panels by fax.  Probably.

Which brings me rather neatly onto the bright white ’04 Suzuki Ignis Sport a good friend of mine has just bought.  Historically a fan of compact power, this is the latest in a long line of frothy-mouthed Japanese toys to grace his driveway.  His plan is to tweak and hone it into a road-rally car, certified for use in private auto club rallies.  My plan is much cheaper: to write about the Ignis’ progress, and how each modification changes the feel of the car.  Think of this as Entry 001 in an ongoing series…

Suzuki Ignis Sport

Suzuki Ignis Sport

I must admit I was sceptical at first.  I’ve always thought of the Ignis as slightly ungainly, a supermini with the faintest whiff of 4×4 styling.  The tall profile and chunky flared arches do little to quash that theory, but in the metal it’s much more resolved than it looks on camera.  The Ignis is utilitarian in its appearance, with a lofty ride height and even an all-wheel-drive variant.  This was a supermini you could throw across a field if required.  Visually the Sport adds beefier bumpers, side skirts, a roof spoiler and a set of white 15” ten-spoke alloys (replaced by the previous owner with some aftermarket six-spokes).

The addition of the Sport to the Ignis range in 2003 was a direct result of Suzuki’s entry into the Junior World Rally Championship (JWRC).  Typically for a small Japanese hot hatch, the engine and drivetrain were the most fettled areas of the whole car.  A derivative of the engines used in the Super 1600 JWRC cars, the 1.5 litre VVT engine boasts 107bhp at 6400rpm, whilst peak torque of 103lb ft is punched out at 4100rpm, endowing the Sport with considerable mid-range shove.  At town speeds this extra muscle barely shows itself, but give the Sport a little provocation and hold the gear towards the 7000rpm redline and the rewards come thick and fast.  This particular car has had some fairly serious modification, namely the removal of every non-essential piece of interior trim (and a couple of more annoying ones like the sun visors), and the installation of a suspiciously simple roll-cage welded to the rear wheelarches.  The immediate and understandable effect of this brutal diet is considerable noise in the cabin, where every tarmac imperfection is translated through the bodywork, manifesting itself as an alarming metallic resonance.  The flip-side is an immersive experience, surrounding the driver with tactile and very vocal feedback from each corner of the car.

Suzuki Ignis Sport

Suzuki Ignis Sport

Turn off the big, sweeping A-roads and the Ignis Sport starts to show some darker sides to its character.  The ride quality is quite poor, allowing far too much disturbance through the wheel, and larger bumps tend to catch out the dampers, causing the car to skip and bounce across uneven surfaces.  The direct result is a lack of confidence in what is otherwise a very well-sorted car.  Steering is direct and quick, if a little devoid of feel, and would benefit from more weight.  Speaking of weight, the centre of mass for the Sport is 50mm lower than the standard Ignis, belying the car’s inherent height and allowing for some enthusiastic cornering, as long as the road is smooth.  Understeer is forever waiting to pounce, but is easily abated by lifting the throttle slightly, and mechanical grip is sufficient to plant your foot early and let the rack unwind in your fingertips.

The Ignis is a characterful, chubby and intriguing car.  Most UK drivers won’t have even heard of it, and the bland styling of the basic car helps to maintain this anonymity.  The Sport adds a rich vein of motorsport knowledge from the best small-engine tuning nation on Earth, and despite a few niggles with composure and comfort, manages to surprise and delight with delicate road-holding and an engine with enough fizz to genuinely feel fast.  It’s not quite a pocket-rocket, but it’ll certainly put a huge smile on your face.

Stars and Cars

24 09 2009

Several years ago I remember seeing a Billy Connolly sketch about a time when he discovered the fickle and delusional origins of astrology.  He told a typically wonderful rendition of meeting a date one evening, a journalist at a local paper, only for her to shatter his preconceptions of the ‘stars’ by revealing that they weren’t in fact based on the alignment of the planets, but more the necessity to fill some column inches by whomever had the time to invent it.  This may come as no surprise to many of you.  The fact that even ephemeral gossip magazines have a resident ‘astrologer’ should raise the first alarm bells, seeing as such magazines are the literary equivalent of the white congealed grease you get on the base of a cheap pork pie.

Astrology is the art of specific ambiguity: saying something so vague that people will actually start to think it not only relates to them, but in someway predicts huge events in the coming days or weeks.  “Next week you will meet someone, and together you will do something, and you will have memories of this.”  Quite right, actually.  This morning I had to open the front door to stop our postman from stripping the skin from his arms in our letterbox.  Only his arms were still in the letterbox when I opened the door, so we had an awkward moment where he was bent over as if trapped in some modern suburban stocks.  We exchanged nervous laughter, and I pulled the package from the inside of the door.  I then closed the door, to leave him to disentangle himself without me watching.  So there you go, the prediction was correct.  And it’s only Tuesday.

I digress.  There’s a popular theory which goes something like this: a person’s car is a reflection of his of her inner self.  Clichéd and overused it may be, but does it hold a nugget of truth?  Well, depending on how you choose to view blasé social commentary (this story, it seems, is not without a sense of irony), the point could be argued both ways.  Much like the convergence of Jupiter and Venus can only mean that your boyfriend thinks your new haircut makes you look like Pat Sharpe; driving around in an MX-5 can only mean you are the person who cuts the hair so badly in the first place.  But wait, I drove an MX-5 a few years ago and loved it.  The usual comments of its transparent steering and perfect balance were confirmed.  And I am hopeless at cutting hair, and would happily prove this statement to anyone willing to volunteer.  Did I actually buy an MX-5?  No, but that’s because I bought a Honda S2000, which is the same kind of concept but turned up a few notches.  I like engines, and the one in an MX-5 is, though amply sufficient, about as interesting as tomato soup.

Another way to look at the MX-5 debate is to see it as a defiance of social stereotypes.  People will assume you like small dogs in bags and you buy cucumber for your face (incidentally, why not make a handbag out of a small dog, and see if it presents Paris Hilton with a moral dilemma?).  I always smile when I see such a car driven by a large balding chap with a tattoo on his arm, not because of these associations, but because he had the balls to buy the car he wanted in spite of them. I prefer to think of MX-5 owners as those who enjoy the mechanical simplicity of the machine, who see a car as an uncomplicated relationship between man and road.  That’s the anthropological ‘man’ by the way, not the sexist one.

So do stereotypes influence our cars?  Of course they do.  But some people buy a car in a bid to perpetuate these notions, whilst others seek to contravene them by sticking two fingers up at what others think.  Both of these determiners will be rewarded by the people they socialise with.  I drive a bright yellow soft-top which makes lots of noise and looks pretty.  Or, depending on who I’m talking to, I drive a screaming 150mph roadster with the best four-cylinder petrol engine ever made, and a habit for flicking its owners into a tree.  To say I don’t care what others think is utter rubbish, everyone cares a little bit, but I know who I’d rather have a conversation with.

Extremely Goodwood…

14 07 2009

Last weekend saw the total and unmolested manifestation of my automotive desires.  Every fibre of my body wanted this event to be as good as I’d already decided it should be.  And it was.

The Festival Of Speed is one of those events my friends and I hurriedly and sincerely earmark, even to the extent of Putting It On Our Phone Calendars.  But as a group we are, shall we say, disorganised.  So the very fact that two of us managed to scrape our collective brains together and actually buy some tickets is quite an achievement.

The weekend began with an early morning blast in my S2000 down an empty M1, where we were joined by a convoy of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Porsches, headed up by none other than the hypercar top trump – the Bugatti Veyron.  First time seeing one on the road, probably the last, and watching the driver mash his foot into the deep-pile redefines the parameters of ‘fast’.  Not a bad start to the weekend really, possibly only trumped by arriving inside Megan Fox.

Everything about the FoS has been clearly designed by a person with petrol coursing through their veins.  Not a battery.  They think briefly about the massive amounts of traffic descending upon a village not much bigger than a ten-pound note, but think long and hard about whether Porsche should provide not one 917, but enough to fill a small grid.  The ‘shuttle buses’ are beautifully clean tractors, rustically dragging people to their next glass of Pimms.  Lord March willingly lets some builders destroy his front garden, only to erect a magnificent (but very temporary) statue.  The likes of Sebastian Loeb, Walter Röhrl and Stirling Moss arrive, and thrash the wingnuts off some fast cars.

And there’s so much detail in its execution.  There is literally a car or bike for every fan, from Morgan V-Twin to Zonda R, via some of the most evocative motoring bloodlines in history.  Now, being new to Goodwood, maybe we just picked a particularly coincidental year, but everyone seemed to be celebrating a birthday or anniversary of some description: Mini’s 50th; 75 years since the arrival of ‘Silver Arrows’; 40 years since Matra’s ascendance to Formula 1; 25 years of Prodrive; the 50th anniversary of the Daytona Speedway; 40 years of Frank Williams; Bugatti’s 100th year…  The list goes on.  For me, one of the main sources of appeal was Audi’s centenary, which brought with it not only the majestic and terrifyingly proportioned Auto Union racers of the 1930s, but also my second opportunity to come face to face with a Sport Quattro S1.  I’d first seen a lesser iteration of this brute earlier this year at Loton Park hillclimb, the inaugural event of the Top 12 Run-Off calendar.  But seeing a dream car is like seeing a celebrity in the flesh (one you wouldn’t be ashamed to admit to): after the initial rush of recognition you viciously scan every inch, almost verifying its reality by trying to spot tiny clues that it too suffers flaws.  This in itself is a wonderfully rewarding task with true motorsport cars, because they’ve lived a life of dedicated servitude to the track, often left with battle scars and misaligned panels.  Of course the need to ensure panel gaps are millimetrically perfect like a production car is only as strong as the function it provides, so exhausts rub valances, wheel arches bear black scuffs and Stirling Moss’ 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR has two dirty great exhaust stains down its flanks.  True perfection has to be imperfect, as a Gallagher once whined.  Quite.

A surprise lot in the Audi fleet was the 1989 IMSA Audi 90 quattro GTO.  This was, without doubt, one of the most visually and aurally shocking cars of the entire weekend.  The very definition of the term ‘wideboy’, with circumferentially-vented deep-dish wheels and an exhaust cannon firing out flames in front of the passenger door, this 720bhp menace captured everyone’s attention with its shameless 80s flares and bizarre transmission whine on the overrun.  Joined by its equally certifiable big brother, the 200 Trans-Am, the line-up of competitive Audis took some beating.

Unfortunately for Audi, that’s exactly what it got, in the form of Porsche’s iconic 917.  Seeing a 917 in the metal is pretty special by any standard, but Porsche brought along eight of them.  Many superlatives and half a roll of film later, we eagerly gazed as each incarnation (sadly minus the Pink Pig) thundered up the hill.  For a fan of motorsport from any era, this ranks about as high as it gets.  Even a McLaren F1 and Chris Evans’ controversial but still utterly gorgeous white F40 paled into relative insignificance.

Goodwood’s great at surprises.  An unassuming Toyota Celica clinched 6th in the Top Timed Run, driven by Fensport’s Adrian Smith.  Needless to say that this was no ordinary Celica, it had the running gear from a previous-generation GT-4 and enough horsepower to melt rock, but nestled beneath an entirely normal silhouette.  I love big wings and splitters, fierce Venturi tunnels and exposed engines amidships, but there’s something very warming about a dark horse. It was Bruce Lee in a beige cardigan, or a shot of absinthe in a Countdown mug.


So, after poring over Seb Loeb in his C4 WRC, the spectacular Ferrari 250GTO Breadvan at full chat, a brace of decorated Formula One machines, three Veyrons, a Citroen BX Group B rally car, Jaguar’s Silk Cut-liveried XJ-8/9, a Ford RS200 and Jesse James’ deafening 900bhp ‘Trophy Truck’, we left Goodwood wondering what on earth we hadn’t seen.  As my FoS compatriot Ash pointed out, the RS200 was a static display car, and we’d very much like a Brabham BT46B Fan Car please.  So I suppose we’ll just have to go next year…


9 11 2008

There we have it.  First post.  I’m positively swelling with pride.  Top Gear is about to start so I’ll keep it short and sweet, suffice to say I’m going to start to use this space to publish my many ramblings about cars and the car industry, with a few random musings along the way.  Thank you for taking 30 seconds out of your day to read this.  Rest assured, more is coming.