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The first cut is the deepest!


I was meandering through the selection of bikes at Gordon’s showroom, deciding which bike is next. My eyes fell on a big chrome badge with the tag line “Live to Ride, Ride to Live” … I suddenly knew what my next ride was going to be.

In the same way a car enthusiast fantasises about driving a Ferrari for the first time, many bikers dream about their first experience on a Harley. It is not so much about the actual model but rather about the myth, at least from my point of view.

Once I experience a brand or even a model that is new to me, I normally spend time researching and delving into the heritage as well as the technological development to better appreciate and understand. My involvement in bikes has brought about a completely new set of challenges which have sparked a fresh impetus of enthusiasm in me and I must admit, I’m lovin’ it.

I had never looked beyond the image of Harley Davidson but the fact that I suddenly found myself with one of their machines in my garage – and apart from experien­cing it and ultimately having to write about it – led me straight to my desk where I typically lost myself in another world, the Harley world.

An amazing history starting way back in 1903 that simulates a rollercoaster ride, reaching breath­taking highs but also bellowing down to the pits of bankruptcy, only to bounce back up again to the present state of relative success.

The HOG legends, the riders, the image, Hells Angels, bandanas and tattoos are all things one automatically associates with this brand but at the same time the engines, the technologies, the developments and the uniqueness of the products… now you start to understand how I spend a good portion of my time!

Having absorbed as much information as possible, I can view things from a different perspective. Back at the garage, I take a closer look at the 2001 machine that was originally bought in the UK. It is an entry-level Harley, a member of the Sportster family and physically smaller than its siblings in the Touring, Softail, Dyna and VRSC families. The Sportster was originally conceived as a racing bike over 50 years ago and although considered to be a custom bike, it does not have a chopper styling.

With looks to die for, this nearly new model being tested was unsurprisingly “customised” by the previous owner… particularly the touches of chrome that are mandatory on any Harley.

The Sportster has a solid rear wheel and 21-inch spokes in front, cruise-height bars and forward set pegs. The seat height is relatively low and the minimalist saddle is barely adequate for the backside of the driver and reduced to an uncom­fortable perch for the passenger, a perfect excuse to ride solo.

Starting up is possibly the best part of the experience with the deep burbling of the engine developing into a ferocious growl on the twist of the right wrist, a trade mark of the brand. Clunking the gearbox into first gear, releasing the clutch and moving away slowly, it took some adjusting to the position of the pegs, and on driving off from a stationery position my feet occasionally ventured to the conventional position, only to find an alarming void.

The next thing one needs to get used to is the vibration. Being a pre-2004 model, the engine was still rigidly mounted directly on the frame with rubber engine mounts being introduced only on the more recent models. Conscious of the cause, the effect is eventual numbness of the hands and progressively of the backside. In addition, the position of the pegs does not allow you to transfer your weight to relieve your backside by changing position. Nor can you anticipate bumps in the road by shifting your weight onto your feet but have to sit there and let your back absorb the best that Maltese roads have to offer, not adequately buffed by the low and stiff rear suspension.

It is powered by the 1,199cc, 45 degree, V-Twin, air-cooled Evolution engine which is not the most inspiring in terms of record-breaking performance but is sufficient for carefree cruising.

This engine reversed the negative reputation that Harleys were acquiring by being extremely durable, reliable and well sealed for oil leaks. Handling is fine but it would seem that the ground clearance is quite low and could therefore result in the “grinding out” when bending aggressively.

Although not the most impressive bike I have ridden, it is still one that I probably enjoyed most. The character is unique; all the shortfalls work in unison to make riding it addictive. I found myself riding for hours, late into the night, irrespective of weariness and discomfort. Not a bike designed for long distances but possibly an ideal machine for cool Maltese Sunday cruising. Whatever the case, the Harley bug is sown and I look forward to experiencing different models from this brand.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on July 7, 2008

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Genetic engineering

PAQPAQ flies to Budapest in Hungary to drive BMW’s all new X6… both on the country’s not so smooth roads and on its renowned Hungaroring F1 track.

Have you ever wondered how those goldfish with big bulging eyes, a swollen belly and a tail too small to propel them to the surface to breathe came about? Did it ever cross your mind how we keep getting variants of albino rabbits with their eerie red eyes, pigs with extra rows of ribs to make the portions at Friday’s bigger and how carrots nowadays seem to be so perfect that you wonder whether they actually grew out of the soil?

I’m no scientist but I am sure there is somebody, possibly with a warped sense of humour, behind these modifications. Is the same thing happening to the motor vehicle as we knew it? Manufacturers keep morphing and cross breeding models as if they were preparing for the next edition of Transformers. What will happen if the Citroën C4 TV commercial becomes a reality?

In the midst of this turmoil, BMW are proposing a new model, the X6 which is also creating a new segment; that of the Sport Activity Coupé. Was the creation of this “new to the world” segment (although Ssangyong claim to have got there first), the reaction to an identified need in the market? As Maroon 5 put it, “I don’t think so”. I feel it is more of an internal strategic decision to create the model (and the segment) and hope that it will sell well enough to contribute to the company’s overall profitability, just as they did with the X5 and the SAV or premium Sport Activity Vehicle segment in 1999.

I’ve got my own views on how the X6 really came about. Somebody left the latest X5 in a garage lying too close for too long next to the 6 Series and after a close encounter of the sixth kind, the new model hatched.

The Sport Activity Coupé or SAC (nothing to do with Jesuit education) is a vehicle intended to combine a dynamic Coupé styling with the versatility of an SUV, sporty elegance offering cutting edge technology. To test this vehicle for the first time, European journalists were invited to drive it in Budapest where we covered around 250km on roads that made driving on Maltese roads seem smooth as silk and then onto the Hungarian F1 Hungaroring circuit to see what the latest, sportiest and most expensive member of the X family is truly capable of.

Styling wise, the X6 resembles both its parents, with an elegant and highly dynamic roofline taken from the 6 Series that gives the impression that the car is lunging forward, even when stationary.

The sexy side perspective’s lines and powerful concave and convex surfaces create effects of light and shadow that combine well with the X5’s muscular and flared wheel arches, outlining the standard 19 inch alloys. The front is very expressive, typically BMW with large kidney grills while from the rear,
the designers made sure that every graphic used makes the car look wider and bolder, transmitting an aura of outstanding supremacy on the road.

Inside the X6, BMW created an atmosphere of powerful elegance but at the same time transmitting the feel of a true sports car. The two individual seats at the back are virtually identical to the front ones in terms of comfort and support, with a permanent console replacing the centre seat offering more space to rear occupants. This however limits the X6 to being strictly a four-seater even though the transmission tunnel, that typically creates an inconvenience in rear-wheel-drive cars, in this case lies below the floorboard.

Sporty touches include a leather sports steering wheel with multi-function buttons and gearshift paddles featured as standard and the kneepads on the console for both driver and passenger. Luggage space is measured in golf bags and a total of four fit with the back seat in place, increasing drastically when this is pushed down.

The tailgate opens and closes at the touch of a button and can open to two height levels to avoid damage in height-restricted garages. Coupé styling per se generally impedes outward visibility and this is true even for the X6, despite the elevated driving position. An attempt to rectify the situation by resorting to larger rear-view mirrors helps but this does result in annoying levels of wind noise at sustained high speeds notwithstanding the model’s impressive drag coefficient of 0.33.

So far so good, but the real challenge lies with creating a heavyweight champion that can “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” (apologies to The Champ) and this is exactly what BMW set out to do with the new X6. Weighing in at 2.2 tons, even after extensive use of aluminium and plastics wherever possible to keep weight down, the technical challenge was to endow this sizeable vehicle with levels of performance, handling and dynamism to deliver the brand’s mandatory sheer driving pleasure.

A new engine range designed specifically for this genre of vehicle includes two diesels and two petrol versions, three of which have won ‘Engine of the Year’ awards, using twin turbo technology. The company has also committed itself to offer a hybrid version by 2009.

The most popular version, particularly in Malta will be the X6 xDrive30d driven by an in-line 6-cylinder diesel with turbocharger and third-generation common-rail direct fuel injection, 235bhp at 4,000rpm, 520Nm
of torque, 0–100km/h in 8 seconds and a top speed of 210km/h. Average fuel consumption is 8.2 litres/100km (34.4 mpg), CO2 emissions 217g/km.

The engine line-up also includes two other 6 cylinder engines, namely the xDrive35d and the xDrive35i, however the top of the range power unit is the newly developed V8 petrol engine with direct petrol injection. This is the world’s first 8-cylinder petrol engine with the turbo-chargers and catalytic converter housed within the V-section between the two rows of cylinders.

This innovative arrangement ensures uniquely compact dimensions and serves to reduce pressure losses on the intake and exhaust side. With a maximum output of 407bhp and 600Nm of torque, it is the most efficient engine in its class, outperforming EU5 emission standards, it maximises BMW’s Efficient Dynamics to combine maximum power and performance.

With this engine, the X6 lapped Nurburgring in 8 minutes and 35 seconds but you would appreciate that to reach these levels of performance, the car needs more than just a powerful engine. BMW are actually using the X6 to showcase the sophisticated tech­nology they have developed, starting off
with standard X-Drive, their permanent All Wheel Drive system.

In this way, the torque is distributed 60-40 for normal driving but will shift according to the driving conditions to ensure stability and control and the shift from front to rear and from left to right can be displayed on screen, incorporated in the head-up display. Other systems offered are Dynamic Performance Control, Active Steering, Adaptive Drive and electronic transmission, all of which help to make driving a seemingly outrageous machine seem like child’s play.

At the circuit, apart from driving the X6 at speed, we were given the opportunity to experience it on a skid-testing area with a surface similar to that of an ice-skating rink and with equipment that kicks the rear
wheels powerfully to one side to make you spin. The idea was to test the vehicle with the electronics switched on to see how these help you retain control of the vehicle and then try it with the electronics switched off.

While the various systems installed on the vehicle helped maintain control even in these extreme conditions, driving without them was as easy as trying to run on a wet floor with bars of soap attached to the bottom of your feet.

Rather than creating a dinosaur destined to join its predecessors in the
realms of extinction, the new X6 continues to highlight BMWs determination to put together a unique combination of styling, practicality and performance that will wow its, albeit limited, target market.

They insist on challenging the laws of physics with products that on one hand offer more power, but on the other are safer, more sensible in terms of handling and embrace Efficient Dynamics to help reduce consumption and emissions.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on June 2, 2008

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Red line district

Save 50,000 litres of water a year from your leaking plumbing fixtures; recycle 250 litres of plastic bottles and save enough energy to generate 45Kw; donate some litres of blood and save life; drink two litres of water daily; GET yourself a Litre Sport bike and forget about the righteous deeds towards Mother Nature; your respectable etiquette; those honourable mannerisms to family, friends and foe; that cool, calm and particular walk for gentlemen never run.

We ride three of Honda’s iconic bikes in a tête-à-tête between two generations of Fireblade, CBR954RR vs CBR1000RR and a wildcard Honda VTR1000. We see how newer generation litres give more value for power, much faster than fast and lighter than flight. Steve, Chris and Ryan come from different saddles of life. Steve rides a naked Suzi SV650. Ryan a Z1000 Kawa and Chris has a stableful of interesting machines to the likes of a suped-up Blackbird, an FZR1000 and the original HRC MS21 NSR.

Ryan’s blade

We all seem to have instantly chosen our “idyllic” date. I’m not sure at what point the Honda Fireblade transformed from absolute hooligan in 1992 to the very fast, but smoothly controllable 2007 model.

Without much hesitation I admit it’s a triumph of engineering to make a bike faster, more powerful and yet easier to ride, but in doing so Honda in the eyes of many destroyed its character. Nobody wants a bike that bites, no? Sure not, but why do people choose to keep Boa Constrictors as aquarium pets rather than a peaceful community of Kissing Gouramis?

Honda has gone back to basics by reinventing the original 1992 Blade and producing a bike that’s more track-focused and ready to challenge the likes of Suzuki’s GSX-R1000. The 2007 1000RR has a similar race focus of the CBR600RR. The way it handles and steers highlights a very important fact. Big bikes are getting smaller and lighter and the result is incomparable. Unit Pro-Link rear suspension, Dual Stage Fuel Injection System (DSFI) and the lengthy swing arm are introduced from the technologies of the RC211V MotoGP bike.

Cocking a leg over the 2007 Blade for the first time, it felt instantly comfortable. It feels smaller than the CBR954RR although just slightly heavier. Had I not looked up the stats I would have vouched it was the other way round. I found the 1000RR outstandingly comfortable, even for a six-footer like me. Coming from riding non faired bikes I admit that my wrists felt tired after a couple of hours of leaning forward, still I’m sure its something that will eventually fade through frequent spurts of ‘Blading’!

This bike’s meat is not just in its refined appearance. We dashed through the popular decent open roads with some long stretches that allowed me to appreciate how keen Honda has been to perfect its race technology. It is extremely easy to get lost in watching the needle closing on the red line. The power delivery is ultra smooth and immediate. The throttle is so responsive that you’re instantly into another dimension.

Eyes water as the needle reaches too much into the next corner where I dared myself to be as late as possible on the brake… the fun disguised red mist clouded over wisdom. I shut off my right hand and clutched a handful of front brake while the gearbox worked fluidly through my pressing downshifting… clean through in full control I’m awed at the deliberate quantity of biting power of the four-piston radial-mounted calipers against the dual full-floating 320mm front discs.

The steering setup offers a fantastic poise and control through the HESD rotary-type steering damper that electronically modulates steering damping based on road speed and acceleration. A concoction of ECU sense, solenoid control and oil-pressure relieving results in reduced damping force and lighter steering effort. At higher speeds, oil flow restriction increased damping force and adds stability. Brilliant!

The 2007 1000RR continues to be a Fireblade for the masses. Its very user friendly set-up yet sharp performance and intriguing styling gives it an exuberance that a few others behold. Would I ever own one? Now who said there’s a tap that needs fixing…?

Steve’s Red Line

A great number of sport bikers out there ride 600’s. It seems the logical choice for our small island. We haven’t got great distances to travel so commuting a Sixer should be more than enough to muck around from A to B (… to C to D to…) in a quick, fun manner, right? But there’s always 400cc more that lingers in your sublime thoughts as to what you’d do with them on a 1000cc format. The new(ish) trend to take your bike to Sicily and beyond may sound a fair excuse to some more disposable power. Should one plunge in?

Can mere mortals like us normal folk handle such powerful machines?
I myself am in such a dilemma. I’ve been riding my trusty Suzi from the day they emerged off the production line, back in 1999. I wonder whether the bigger machine would be too much to handle, which one should fit me best? The Suzuki TL1000 came to mind, but so many reviews against the bike’s rear damper and the fact they call it the widow maker put me off somewhat, and I’ve always secretly craved for a Honda.

“The new Fireblade represents total control”, that was what the Honda people were banging about at the time the 2004 954RR beauty came out. They didn’t want to build a bike for outright power to compete with Suzuki’s GSX-R1000 which had been king since 2001. For the moment, they decided not to tackle the competition on the stat sheets but instead build a machine they said is more accessible, more usable and consequently more fun to ride. Performance you can use. Total control. A fine theory and it’s easy to understand what Honda means.

This incarnation is fantastically easy to ride fast, slow or in between. When you want to put your head down and trash it with your mates you’re only giving 50 per cent effort to keep up. 130bhp at the back wheel and 168kg do make for a nimble, quick bike even by today’s standards. The drive from low revs is always strong, but not so brutal as to be off putting, before the high rev frenzy kicks in and races you to peak power.

Steering is quick and precise and the Blade seems to fall intuitively to turn without the need to force it down or heave it up. Nothing wrong with this bike’s brakes, think of stopping and you’re stationary. The feel is the best I’ve ever felt on any bike’s, building up your confidence to no end. It is a super bike, however it’s so civilised and easy to live with that there’s little to wonder upon why it sold like hotcakes. Honda kept their reputation of producing well put together, high performance bikes. Total control, it works for me.

The 2007 edition of the Fireblade looks awesome. It comes second in the looks department only to KTM’s RC8 in my opinion and is much better looking than the 2008 edition of the Fireblade with its stubby nose and short rear end. It’s great for the experienced but for now more than I can handle.

Second in line is the Firestorm. It’s a V-twin which sounds awesome especially when revved hard, but to me it was more of the same and didn’t fire my taste buds all that much. My overall winner is the 2004 Fireblade, it just felt so right. Being honest, I was the “thou” virgin here and to have kept up with my more experienced mates without feeling that I rode over my comfort zone is a testimony to this bike’s greatness. This is power for the masses and you’ll want to go on forever.

Chris’s Wild Card

Having ridden and owned throughout the years a very large number of super bikes (at present my stable includes an original Honda Racing Corporation MC21 NSR , a turbocharged Honda CBR 1100 Super Blackbird, a street-fighter-ized Yamaha FZR 1000 Genesis Ex-up and a 1973 Kawasaki H2 750 “widow maker”) I must say that I had already set my eyes on a particular bike of the trio… not because of its looks or styling, neither because of its technology, but because of the fun factor, reliability, background and practicality of the package it comes with.

The Firestorm was the oldest bike of the trio with only 108bhp, but who cares, 192kg again who cares… heavy and slow for today’s standards… the brakes?? Suspension?? I must be nuts having set my eyes on a nine-year old machine when there were the two CBR’s within reach!

The Firestorm has actually two “brothers”, the Varadero, a heavy weight endurance bike that looks like a tame dinosaur and shares the same engine as the Firestorm; detuned to 100bhp and five-gears instead of six, and the VTR 1000 SP1: the Firestorm’s Big Brotha’ boasting 130bhp in standard tune, digital dash, upside down forks, larger brakes, fuel injection and an optional HRC tuning package. The SP1 was later developed into the SP2, just 132bhp and enough torque to raise the front wheel right off the ground in fifth gear (I had actually ridden an SP1 in 2000 and the bike was incredible).

The throttle is light, engine a bit nervous in low revs, jam the throttle open and you can feel the front forks extending themselves in first, second and third gears, Though its heavier than the CBR’s, it feels as light and well balanced, the reason being its v-twin engine. Cornering is light and precise at both high and low speeds. I’m sure that a steering damper would be a good addition due to the bike’s eagerness to wheelie and the perfection (oh God, please help me!) of our roads.

Pity the braking is not well up to its handling. Suspension is just right for the Maltese roads and the riding position is very comfortable. Second-hand bikes are quite decent unless accident damaged. This particular one was in very good working order and, considering it’s a 1,000cc, it is very well priced on the market.

The Fireblade was first released way back in 1992 based on the concept “less is more”. Honda wanted to literally pull out a racing bike from the superbike scene, modify and develop it for road use, the Fireblades became exactly what Honda intended them to become, fast, light, user-friendly and very reliable. Honda made CBR’s in all capacities imaginable, from the 250cc four cylinder screamers to the more common CBR 400s, CBR 600s, CBR 900, the 954, the 2007 CBR 1000 and the CBR 1100 Blackbird and Super Blackbird.

The CBR’s loaned to us were beautiful examples of Hondas best. I’m sure that not everyone will agree with me regarding these bikes and also the Firestorm; this is my opinion, my feelings and facts that are important to me as a biker and speed freak. I could have produced graphs and figures that would have been universally approved but no… we will go one step further!

The 954 should be faster and lighter than the 1000; well that’s what the figures say… no way, the feeling is that the 1000 is much faster, it looks more beautiful to my eyes and that’s a fact, under the fuel tank lies a masterpiece of engineering, the fuelling is meticulously microprocessor-controlled as most modern super bikes in this class. The weight distribution is neutral in both bikes. The bikes have a racer feel (as they are in fact racers indeed) the acceleration is incredible, braking and traction are at the limit.

The power delivery of the 954 is smooth, the 1000 is smooth too, but at a certain point in the rev range, when the chemistry of the engine starts to do its thing, the adrenalin rush becomes instant.

The test day was a windy one. There was no need for the bikes to be thrashed to their limit. I must say that the limit is quite high; 0 to 62mph being well under three seconds and top speeds in excess of 290km/hr. It is a very well-known fact that these are bikes made to perform and there is no doubt about that.

Some speed freaks tend to say that if a bike does not perform well up a drag strip, the bike is not fast. These bikes are not meant to go fast in a straight line, they are not drag racers. They are meant to be fast and reliable round corners. Not Maltese roads either as they are too powerful for that! I have talked to people who say that these particular Hondas are slow for what they cost and that other makes go faster. Maybe the geometry of a drag racing bike is different from that of a track derived bike someday we might even deal with this issue.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on June 2, 2008

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So many bikes, so little time…

The Kymco scooter has temporarily taken a secondary role as I jump from saddle to saddle riding as many different bikes as possible, experiencing various engine configurations, body styles and genres. After a few weeks clocking up mileage on a Yamaha TDM 900, I received a call from Gordon’s Moto Dealers telling me that the bike had been sold, so I had to return it to the showroom in Valley Road; however this meant that I was onto my next ride. Well, I was sure I would miss the TDM because as you can see from the test ride that is available for viewing on www.paqpaq.tv, I liked it.

The replacement would therefore have to be something really special. It
is always exciting browsing through the vast selection of nearly new bikes of every brand, style and size that constantly rotate in the showroom. It reminds me of how I felt as a child when my parents took me to Hamleys in London for the first time.

My choice of bike is somewhat limited due to my height and I have had to relinquish some great bikes, namely a beautiful 1300cc Honda X4 which I absolutely loved but kept having to stop and stretch my legs to regain circulation as my knees were so tightly bent with my feet on the pegs. My eyes fell on a nearly new Suzuki GSX 1400 but I did feel a bit guilty, as this was the nicest machine of the lot. With his typical shy smile, and with more faith in my riding capabilities than I myself have, Gordon produced the keys and just told me, “Enjoy”.

Calling the GSX 1400 a muscle bike is an understatement, I much prefer the Incredible Hulk, the only difference being the colour. I consider it a rather subtle bike… not too loud, not too flashy, but ergonomically designed to offer the rider excellent comfort and total control. Size-wise, it is a tall riders dream. It can be adjusted down, which I feel is fairer to adjusting up, to accommodate a shorter stature but the seat is by far the most comfortable I have laid my backside upon.

Then once you press the ‘start’ button, chunkily click into first gear, gently release the clutch and twist the right wrist and you need to hold your breath, the sheer power is exhilarating. It is obviously not the fastest bike around and some racers, even Suzuki’s own Busa can probably run circles round it, but I was still fascinated by the smoothness of the four cylinder in line engine, my clear preference over a more nervous two cylinder any time, makes you feel as if you are driving an automatic.

You simply shift through the gears till you reach fifth and you can put your left hand and foot to sleep. The only problem I noticed so far, and I am not sure whether this is related to the engines being air-cooled, is that the beast does emit some heat around the shins. This would have gone down a treat had I been driving this bike on the Etna in sub-zero degrees in February,
but August in Malta might become somewhat uncom­fortable. I live in dread of the phone call informing me that this bike has also been sold but, looking at the bright side, a new consignment of bikes is due very shortly.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on June 2, 2008

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Cool roadster. Stunning coupé.


I hate it, I absolutely hate it. The minute I start warming up to a car and getting the best out of it, it is time to return it to the showroom, this has become the story of my life. The only consolation is that normally, within hours, I would be jumping into the driver’s seat of the next model to test drive and starting the process all over again. It does so happen, however, that occasionally, I do come across the occasional car that leaves a mark, sows a seed, lingers in my mind even after I’ve handed back the keys. A machine that seems to hit all the right buttons, that makes me feel like I could spend more and more time driving it, possibly spend money buying it.

The Mercedes SLK is one such car. This stems from the fact that it is a cool roadster doubling up as a stunning coupé, delivers awesome amounts of power to the rear wheels, handles brilliantly, is beautifully finished and offers an endless list of tempting options. What more can a man (or a woman for that matter) want?

I first drove the model that is today being face lifted in 2004 and – like the 185,000 owners who bought the second generation SLK, as well as the 335,000 who bought the previous edition – I immediately took a liking to the car.

The facelift, thankfully, only brought about minor cosmetic changes which include an F1 inspired facia incorporating chisel-designed bumpers that look subtly aggressive and now accommodate aero diffusers, darkened tail lenses, trapezoid exhausts, a discreet AMG spoiler and larger rear-view mirrors incorporating led indicators. The in-colour at the moment is white, which is actually being referred to as ‘the new black’, however I was blown away by the particular silver, new to the model, with which the SLK was decorated.

The test car had been ordered with the optional sports package meaning exclusive 18 inch, six double-spoke alloys to die for, the new three-spoke steering wheel and gear leaver are covered in leather and this, together with the rest of the interior, is finished with red top stitching. Black roof lining, red seatbelts and trim elements in carbon look make the new SLK look distinctive, adding to the luxury feel. I found the standard sound system lacking, particularly when driving at speed with the roof down so the Harman Kardon surround sound system and the media interface enabling the connectivity with an MP3 player and USB stick would
top my accessory shopping list.

The roof opens elegantly and effortlessly in 22 seconds impinging quite seriously, as these roofs normally do, on the luggage space. Access to the vehicle with the ceiling up would be, I presume, quite tight for a tall driver but I did not get to test this. The car was open when I picked it up at the showroom and it remained so throughout the entire test-drive.

I only operated the closing mechanism to get a couple of photos and a look at the nicely finished interior but I much preferred the unlimited headroom option. Seating is low and the driving position uncompromisingly sporty; great ergonomics put all the knobs and switches in just the right places and within easy reach of the driver and the multi-function steering wheel helps. I consider the SLK a comfortable two-seater with enough cubbyholes in which to store your keys, mobile phone, sunglasses, wallet, MP3 player, etc.

One option that was originally introduced on the previous model
is the Airscarf which diffuses warm air in the neck area to make open-air driving more comfortable in colder climates. This option would make sense here in Malta if – as happened with heated seats that can now also cool – the system can diffuse chilled air making top-down driving in hot weather literally cooler.

Safety is obviously a prime consideration, particularly in this type of vehicle, however Mercedes have developed possibly the most advanced active and passive systems that focus on avoiding an accident in the first place, however should this occur anyway, then passengers are afforded the highest levels of protection to avoid or at least minimise injury.

By far the most popular model is the SLK200 that I drove, equipped with a 1.8 litre supercharged, 4-cylinder in-line petrol engine developing a respectable 184bhp and 250Nm of torque. The five-speed automatic version accelerates from 0-100km/hr in 7.9 seconds with the manual version doing this in just 7.6 seconds, and reaches a top speed of 232 km/hr. Average consumption is quoted at a respectable 36 miles per gallon and emitting 182 grams of CO2 per kilometre.

Other versions that can be considered are the SLK280 with a 3 litre V6 engine developing 228bhp, the SLK350 at 301bhp and the ultimate SLK55 AMG, powered by a 5.5 litre V8 and producing 355bhp.

I was honestly impressed with the punch of this relatively small engine giving the car a genuinely sporty feel whilst attaining sensible consumption levels. The SLK is a pleasure to drive, following the steering with pinpoint precision through corners and offering plenty of grip and stability. Body control is brilliant, even at elevated speeds and although I noticed a slight tendency to understeer when taking a sharp corner at speed, the stability control is quick to intervene to keep the situation under control. This is probably due to the light set-up of the car that in turn contributes to a truly sporty driving experience.

The sport package also includes the sport suspension which lowers the car, making it more stable and improves adherence to the road, however this could cause some discomfort on the less even surfaces of some of our roads.
Transmission is near perfect via the five-speed automatic gearbox, an option I would not order the car without and the engine intonation as the car accelerates through the gears is music to the enthusiast ears.

The SLK has a number of valid rivals in the premium roadster segment namely the Z4, the Boxster, the Audi TT and the Alfa Spyder. On the other hand, it is endowed with a classy elegance combined with subtly aggressive looks and brilliant performance and handling, making it a truly valid contender.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on June 2, 2008

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The phantom returns

PAQPAQ recently visited the Rolls Royce factory in Goodwood, UK, to view the process required to produce the world’s most prestigious cars and to take a look at the factory extension that was needed to make space for a new model, codenamed RR4, which will be unveiled next year. Rolls Royce Director for Communications, Graham Biggs, spoke to TONIO DARMANIN.

In 1998 BMW took custody of potentially the most prestigious brand in the world and in 2003 the first Phantom was delivered. What actually took place during that period?

We had a very busy spell of four and a half years, a very short time to essentially start from scratch and create a new business, to design and develop a brand new car from scratch, find a location for a new factory, design, develop and build it and then commission it for production, recruit a whole workforce and train them, we had no staff so we had to recruit everyone who came here, train them to a standard where they can produce the very best car in the world and finally create a network of dealers around the world to serve our customers.

That was a huge amount of work to do over such a short period of time. It all happened and this was part of the agreement when we took over the Rolls Royce brand including a new car by January 2003 and we did on the stroke of midnight on 1 January 2003 we delivered the first Phantom to the first customer. There was a party here!

Business has been good and production figures are increasing.
Is this according to expectations?

We sold 1,010 cars last year. We were pleased with this since we recorded a sales increase of 25 per cent over the previous year. That is a huge growth and even though the overall numbers are small, our business model is set to work towards those numbers. It is a special car and every single one is tailor-made for the individual needs of our customers.

How flexible is Rolls Royce in tailoring each specific vehicle?

We have to be extremely flexible. Very few cars that go out of the factory doors are the same as any other car unless the customer specifically wants that. For example, if you consider paintwork, we have 25,000 different shades of paint for customers to choose from. Really, the only limitation is their imagination and customers come with all sorts of ideas and sit down with our designers and engineers to design a plan how to achieve that.

Traditionally, Rolls Royce never had a very wide range of models simultaneously but now we are looking at a period where the range is increasing. What does the present line-up include?

The number of models is increasing; we started with the Phantom, then launched an extended wheelbase model which gave more legroom in the back. More dramatically, last year, we unveiled and launched the Drophead Coupé the convertible two-door car and later this year we will launch the Phantom Coupé. So by the end of this year, we will have four Phantom models in the line-up.

An impressive 1,010 models sold last year. How were these split up by model?

About 25 per cent were the new Phantom Drophead. This is quite substantial when considering that we started from zero. We had a fantastic reaction to that car and have a huge waiting list of customers who have ordered one. If you order a Drophead today, you will have to wait till the end of 2009. We are trying to build as many cars as we can, the rest of the sales were Phantom four-door models.

There is quite a bit of activity here at the factory, not only in relation to the building of cars but also alterations and extensions to the factory itself. Seems space is being made for something new?

We are going through a stage of major development at the Goodwood plant and it is all about creating more capacity for a new model that we will bring to market at 2010 codenamed RR4. This will be a new model range that will sit alongside Phantom although slightly smaller still a very large and substantial car. It will be priced slightly lower than the Phantom. Just as the Drophead and now the Coupé are bringing new customers to the Rolls Royce brand, broadening the appeal, we know the RR4 will continue to do that. Rolls Royce will always remain a highly exclusive brand.

Talking about customers, is there a typical customer for this brand?

It is very hard to generalise our customers as they come from all walks of life. What they have in common is success; they were successful, they made money, and enjoy the lifestyle that money allows them to have and they like to surround themselves with the best things in life. Most often they are businessmen and entrepreneurs, but we also have film stars, sports stars, musicians, people from the entertainment business or celebrities. The majority of our customers are successful businessmen who have made their money usually in small to medium sized companies.

Recently it has been announced that your Chairman and CEO has been appointed to the BMW board. What effect will that have on your operation?

It is excellent for Ian Robertson and it is wonderful that there will be the first British person appointed to the BMW board. This is a reflection that Rolls Royce has been seen as an important and successful part of the BMW portfolio. Ian will remain Chairman of Rolls Royce so he will continue in his new role as sales and marketing head of the whole group while a new CEO will take over the day-to-day running of Rolls Royce.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on June 2, 2008

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To Palermo in a Tucson to test-drive the i10

Well, I must confess that when told that we would be driving up to Palermo to test drive the latest Hyundai i10, I wasn’t exactly over the moon. For starters, I have heard stories of getting stuck on the catamaran for hours on high seas and everyone around you being sick. Moreover, the infamous driving habits of the Sicilians was another source of concern.

Well at least we were driving up in a Hyundai Tucson, a spacious and comfortable ride, I must say. The crossing was in fact quick and within an hour and a half we disembarked in Sicily. The SUV was driven off the catamaran and we started the journey. We did get lost on the Sicilian side roads but once we got a grip of the route, we were well on the way.

The 2-litre diesel powering the vehicle provided decent acceleration for an enjoyable experience with 82.5kw at 4,000rpm and 245Nm of torque available between 1,800 to 2,500 rpm. The engine is relatively quiet and its flexible nature provided the driver with all the power required. During the 700km round journey, at times we were cruising at speeds of 170km an hour despite a full load of passengers and luggage. Being an SUV, the Tucson also manoeuvred pretty well around the busy roads of Palermo.

The interior is quite spacious and five adults can travel with relative comfort for quite a distance. The dashboard is well within the drivers’ view without having to distract his or her attention from the road for the essential information. The luggage space available is capable of accom­modating the equipment necessary for a television filming crew together and personal luggage.

An ideal vehicle for a family and very versatile, were my final thoughts following the trip, but anyway it was the i10’s turn now.

Hyundai chose the picturesque seaside town of Palermo for the international launch of the i10 and to be perfectly honest, I never had imagined that Sicily was so beautiful. My perception of Palermo was that of crime and disorder, but at most it can be described as chaotic, especially in the centre. Once out in the countryside, it improved considerably, apart from the food!

Even though the i10 forms part of the mini-segment, it provides a decent drive with a smooth and silent ride. In terms of performance, the i10 is powered by a 1.0-litre engine which covers 0 to 60 miles an hour in 15.2 seconds. Once up to speed, it moves on at a decent pace despite a low gearing of 20mph per 1,000rpm in fifth gear. The steering provides decent feedback and body roll is quite contained in the fast bends, despite the tallish build of the car.

The interior is accessed by the wide opening doors and inside passengers
have plenty of headroom and legroom especially in the back. It is decently trimmed with no bare metal or unsightly screwheads and equipment levels are on the generous side. Luggage capacity is a sensible 258 litres. The clincher, of course, is that, unlike all its competitors, the i10 comes with a five-year unlimited mileage warranty. And since this is backed by what is now the fifth biggest carmaker in the world, it’s a proper guarantee, not just a piece of paper.

There is no doubt that this useful little car is where a lot of buyers are going to have to put their money in years to come.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on May 5, 2008

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French finesse with a German feel

The days of the boring saloon are over as can be attested by the shrinking segment, primarily because the consumer is opting for MPVs, SUVs and Crossovers. This has forced car companies to up their game to attract potential customers’ attention once again to the saloon.

Citroen are fully aware that looks rank highly on the customers list of priorities when selecting a new car and have made tremendous effort in this department. They wanted to design a car that will appeal to today’s selective customer in a seductively French way. On the other hand, Citroen understood that it would be difficult to beat the Germans at the car-building game so they wanted to give the new C5, in their own words, “an unmistakably German feel”.

While the front styling is very French and very Citroen for that matter, with sweeping headlamps and the distinctive double Chevron grille, from the rear the C5 can easily be mistaken for an Audi or a BMW. Derived from the large Citroens of old and used recently in the C6, the concave rear window is another particular feature on the C5 that has now reverted back to being a saloon rather that a hatch-back.

Another crucial consideration for today’s customer is interior luxury and perceived quality. Here, Citroen ensured that driver and passengers feel they are travelling in first-class, creating an environment inside the vehicle that is stylish and elegant but at the same time of the highest quality and robust. Space is also essential and the new C5 offers this in abundance. As a relatively tall driver, I could adjust the seat and steering to find a near-perfect driving position with heaps of head, leg and shoulder room.

I could also transport a further four adult passengers in comfort with enough space for luggage in the voluminous boot. Some of the competitors, namely the Mondeo, offer a hatch-back saloon look-alike option which is not available so far in the C5 range. What should be shortly available in Malta is the Tourer which is equally stunning to look at but offers the additional space required when considering this type of vehicle.

The cockpit-style dashboard centred around the driver makes a nice change from the flat architecture ones with central dials often used by Citroen. I like the concept of the fixed-hub steering whereby the controls remain in a permanent position at the centre of the wheel, giving the driver easier access and avoiding the need to use the somewhat small and cluttered controls in the central console.

The main dials are also innovative with the needle travelling on the outer side of the dial leaving space in the centre for the digital display of information. Smoothness and sound insulation add to a pleasurable experience in the car and here the new C5 excels.

There are two types of suspension options to choose from, namely the Hyractive 3+ hydro pneumatic suspension that carries forward the tradition that this company produces cars with the most comfortable suspension possible. However tempting this option may be to confront Maltese roads, it will come at a price, but I also drove the car equipped with a normal spring suspension and can confirm that the ride quality is nonetheless excellent.

I had the opportunity of driving the various variants of the C5 in Lisbon over different surfaces varying from cobbled side streets to the magnificent highways in this region. I also ventured into some winding mountain roads on the outskirts of the city and was surprised at how composed, smooth and silent these new models are.

Analysing the technical specifications, the choice between the 1.8 petrol and the 1.6HDi diesel engines is not an easy one. The petrol is €1,500 cheaper, accelerates slightly faster and achieves a minimally superior top speed. On the other hand, the diesel offers substantially more pulling power, gives a claimed 50+ miles per gallon and emits far less CO2 per kilometre which could result in lower taxation once the new emissions based tax regime is introduced.

Whatever the eventual choice, both engines are well suited for the vehicle and do the job competently. Having experienced the 110bhp diesel engine for a year when I ran the Peugeot 407 on a long term test, and being familiar with its capabilities and performance, I would personally go for the diesel.

Albeit lacking feel and feedback, the steering is precise and the manual gearbox is sweet as candy, however I would still opt for the smoothness and comfort of the automatic gearbox. Loaded with standard equipment and with lots of options to choose from, the C5 can offer a serious alternative as a family car or an executive saloon. I remember being thoroughly impressed with the Citroen C6 when I drove it in the Champagne region some months ago and the influence and sharing of many components from the brand’s flagship model in the C5 can definitely be felt.

Two versions have been launched today in Malta and include the 1.8 petrol starting at €30,000 and the 1.6 HDi diesel starting at €31,500 making the C5 extremely affordable for the package on offer.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on May 5, 2008

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