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Drop-top gorgeous

The Audi TT Roadster has been a contender in the convertible segment for some time. How does the updated version get on? Jack Evans finds out

The TT has been mainstay of the Audi range for some time now, delivering rock-solid German build quality in a good-looking and compact package. It’s recently been refreshed, updating its looks both inside and out, and refining the way it drives.

It’s still available with a range of petrol engines (though now with more power on offer than before), and it can be specified as either a hard-top coupe or, like we have here, the soft-top roadster version.

This is a subtle refresh of the third-generation TT we first saw on our roads back in 2014. However, some key changes have been made throughout the car; the interior has been given new seats, while the exterior gets a variety of new design touches to help it remain fresh.

The cabin still benefits from Audi’s virtual cockpit infotainment system (the TT was the first production model to feature this tech when it was first released), but it doesn’t feel outdated – in fact, it continues to add to the overall appeal of the car.

One of the biggest changes to the TT was the removal of a 1.8-litre engine on base cars in favour of a larger, more powerful 2.0-litre four-cylinder unit. Entry-level ‘40’ cars produce 192bhp, while ‘45’ versions push out 242bhp. Opt for the range-topping TT S version and you’ll find 302bhp under the bonnet.

Here, power is sent to all four wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox. A manual is available, albeit only on the lower-powered TT models. Getting from 0-60mph takes 5.3 seconds, and flat-out the TT will do 155mph. Efficiency-wise, Audi claims that the TT 45 will return up to 34.4mpg combined and emit 164g/km CO2. All cars in the TT range now get a particulate filter, too.

The TT has historically returned a brisk, if not overtly rewarding, driving experience – and it’s the same story with this latest one. The engine provides plenty of shove, and the seven-speed gearbox shifts smoothly when in full auto and accurately after being switched to manual mode too – it can be a touch dim-witted when moving away from a dead stop, however.

There’s plenty of accuracy to the steering, and though the ride on the 19-inch alloy wheels is quite sharp, it means there’s little in the way of body roll. Plus, thanks to the quattro all-wheel-drive system, the TT remains unflappable in the wet, and stable and composed in the dry. It may not be the most involving of experiences, but it’s assured and predictable at all times.

“Audi has beefed-up the amount of standard equipment available on base models”

The TT remains a looker. Sharp lines and a compact, almost square layout mean that it fits well on UK roads, while the twin pipes at the rear and electric rear spoiler do give it a little added drama. S-Line models like our test car are helped even further thanks to the inclusion of a rear diffuser and a full-length front splitter.

The Roadster version even looks good with the roof raised — an area which can sometimes detract from the overall look of soft-top cars. Speaking of the roof, it can be raised or lowered in around 10 seconds, at speeds of up to 31mph. Once closed, it does a decent job of isolating road noise – though, of course, it isn’t a refined as the hardtop.

The cabin of the TT is largely focused around the driver; all of the main displays are located where the traditional dials would be as part of the car’s Virtual Cockpit system. It does mean that the interior of the Audi feels a little bit sparse, but you can’t fault the quality of it. The buttons which do remain have a solid, tactile feel to them and the aluminium-fringed air vents are classy both in terms of looks and operation.

The sports seats are heated (a handy feature for when the roof is down) and our test car came with heated blowers just below the headrests – again, a welcome touch on cooler days when you want to recline the roof.

Audi has beefed-up the amount of standard equipment available on base models, with features such as cruise control and Xenon headlights now included on entry-level Sport-spec cars. However, our S-Line test car benefitted from additions such as 19-inch forged alloy wheels, full LED headlights and ‘Super’ sport seats fitted as standard. The Audi TT remains a reliable, well-made and reasonably punchy sports car. It may not be able to offer the same driver involvement as rivals, but that’s not to say it’s devoid of fun.

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Stunning sizzler

Stunning looks, perfect balance and awesome performance make the Mercedes-Benz AMG GT S one of the best sports cars ever, says Tonio Darmanin

The GT is the second sports car developed entirely in-house by Mercedes-AMG. It has everything you would expect from an authentic Mercedes-AMG sports car – from the characteristic styling and thoroughbred motorsport technology to the optimum weight distribution.

The Mercedes-Benz AMG GT S embodies sportiness and emotion as an expression of sensual purity. The long bonnet with its pronounced power domes, the greenhouse which has been moved far back, the large wheels and broad tail end make up the distinctive looks. The trimmed cabin results in muscular shoulders – the hallmark Mercedes “Coke bottle” shape – which lends the car its extremely powerful stance.

The combination of aluminium spaceframe, V8 biturbo engine with dry sump lubrication, seven-speed dual clutch transmission in transaxle configuration at the rear axle, locking differential, sports suspension with aluminium double-wishbone suspension and the low kerb weight of 1,540kg delivers racetrack performance.

The concept with front mid-engine and transmission in transaxle configuration makes for a beneficial weight distribution of 47 to 53 per cent between the front and rear axle. In conjunction with the vehicle’s low centre of gravity this translates into extremely agile handling and permits high cornering speeds.

The centrepiece of the AMG GT S, the awesome 4.0-litre V8 biturbo, responds instantly with extreme power right from low revs and delivers outstanding performance. Top figures such as 3.8 seconds from zero to 100 km/h and a top speed of 310 km/h, combined with the outstanding driving dynamics will undoubtedly translate into extremely fast laps on the racetrack.

The engine is produced in Affalterbach according to the “one man, one engine” principle. In the AMG engine shop, highly qualified fitters assemble the engines by hand according to the strictest quality standards – as confirmed by the AMG engine plate bearing the engine technician’s signature.

At the same time, the two-seater is a straightforward, comfortable and reliable companion for everyday motoring thanks to its practical tailgate, easily accessible luggage compartment, high level of comfort on long journeys and the extensive range of Mercedes-Benz Intelligent Drive assistance systems.

The interior design also embodies maximum emotion and sensual purity. Radically low, sporty proportions create a unique sense of spaciousness. Clearly drawn components and their authentic materials underscore the dynamic character and create instant excitement: anyone opening the door discovers an exciting interplay between the deep, sloping dashboard and a dominant, arched high centre console, a design which evokes emotions and impresses with its perfection.

Outstanding precision and a superior quality feel thanks to the finest materials with superb workmanship are also apparent on the sports seats, the performance steering wheel and the instrument cluster.

The GT S is fitted as standard with an electronically controlled rear-axle locking differential, which is likewise integrated into the compact transmission housing. The electronic function provides even more sensitive, faster control than the mechanical solution, thus pushing the limits of handling dynamics even further. It not only further improves the traction of the driven wheels, but also increases the cornering speeds at the limits. The system operates with a variable locking effect in acceleration and overrun mode, and is perfectly tuned to the various driving conditions and road surface friction coefficients.

The AMG Dynamic Plus package further augments dynamism and agility. It is available exclusively for the GT S and includes dynamic engine and transmission mounts. The engine and transmission mounts assume an important function in the case of a transaxle design: soft mounts improve comfort since they provide more effective decoupling of noise and vibration. Handling and agility benefit, however, from an overall stiffer mount set-up. Mercedes-AMG resolves these conflicting objectives using dynamic mounts, which adjust their stiffness continuously and instantly to the respective driving conditions and handling.

“A design which evokes emotions and impresses with its perfection”

A specific engine application in the dynamic select race drive mode and in the manual transmission mode makes the GT S even more dynamic

Mercedes-AMG has gone for an intelligent material mix on the body of the GT S. Chassis including greenhouse and body are made of light alloy, the boot lid of steel and the front deck of magnesium. This extremely light element at the front reduces the inertia ahead of the front axle, thus improving the vehicle’s agility. Over 90 per cent of the weight-optimised spaceframe is made of aluminium components.

The bodyshell weighs 231kg– a benchmark figure in the sports car segment. There were three key objectives during the design and development of the bodyshell structure: optimum strength, low centre of gravity and low weight. The high bending and torsional strength of the entire design enables extreme linear and transverse forces from the powertrain and suspension to be absorbed and transferred. Unwanted flexibility is thus reduced, with the vehicle responding rigidly and directly. As a result, the driver experiences a car with maximum dynamism that responds with excellent precision. The aluminium spaceframe also provides the basis for outstanding passive safety.

The Mercedes-AMG GT S Edition 1 stands out with a hefty fixed rear spoiler. The spoiler is the most eye-catching aspect of the “aero” kit, which also includes an expanded front air splitter, extensions for the rocker panels and front wheel-arches and black trim on the side sill panels.

The GT S Edition 1 is capped with a carbon fibre roof, two-tone, ten-spoke alloy wheels, Nappa leather seats and Dinamica AMG fabric with red stitching. The AMG Night package comes with various shiny black accents, including two pairs of exhaust tips. The fixed spoiler and all the rest are exclusive to the Edition 1. That said, the other GT S units can be outfitted with red seat belts and an AMG Performance steering wheel swathed in the same Dinamica fabric found on the Edition 1 units. 

The stunning looks, the perfect balance, the awesome performance and the aura of refinement all contribute to making the AMG GTS Edition 1 one of my favourite sports cars, ever.

Video: Paqpaq

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Hybrid hero

The new Toyota RAV4 promises to be a massive improvement over its predecessor. Tom Wiltshire headed to Barcelona to find out

Two big buzzwords dominate the latest Toyota RAV4. The first is SUV – a segment the brand was an early adopter of with the original RAV4 back in 1994, and one that, by its own admission, it’s now lagging behind in.

The second is hybrid. So confident is Toyota in its hybrid powertrains that you won’t be able to specify the RAV4 with anything but in the UK. Can it really be blamed, with the anti-diesel rhetoric still at the forefront of buyers’ minds?

However, there’s more than just a powertrain that makes up this new RAV4. It’s in fact been the recipient of a serious rebirth, aimed at making it a true alternative to the most popular petrol and diesel SUVs in driving dynamics, interior ambiance and cost of ownership.

There’s a whole new chassis architecture under the skin of the RAV4. The platform, catchily named TNGA-K is the same that underpins the Lexus ES as well as the Toyota Camry and Avalon in the US. It’s heavily related to the GA-C version which sits under the skin of the Prius, C-HR and Lexus UX, too.

That brings with it an all-new body covered in cuts and slashes – a distinctive if divisive styling language – as well as a seriously improved interior inspired by the C-HR.

The previous RAV4 offered a petrol engine, two diesels and a hybrid model. For this generation though, it’s hybrid or the highway.

It takes the form of a 2.5-litre petrol engine running the super-efficient Atkinson cycle, mated to an electric motor. It’s paired with, inevitably, a CVT gearbox, and can offer front- or four-wheel drive via a second motor on the rear axle.

Power output is an impressive 215bhp for front-wheel drive models or 219bhp for four-wheel drive cars. That actually equates to pretty rapid acceleration for both – the latter can crack 60mph from rest in under eight seconds, the former just over. You’d need to opt for a pricey 2.0-litre TDI 190 version of the Volkswagen Tiguan to match that, and put up with higher emissions to boot.

Where all that work pays dividends is in the running costs and specifically CO2 emissions. The RAV4 emits just 102g/km in its cleanest form – supermini-rivalling levels of emissions. Crucially, it’s a massive 18g/km undercut from its main competitor, the Honda CR-V Hybrid. That’s good news for company car drivers. Fuel economy is diesel-like too, at around a claimed 50mpg.

Saying this handles like a thoroughly well-sorted compact crossover is less faint praise than it appears, and is certainly something we couldn’t have said about the RAV4’s predecessor. It’s all down to that new platform – TNGA makes the RAV4 57 per cent stiffer than its predecessor, but wider and lower, with fatter tyres and shorter overhangs. It also increases ground clearance for a little extra off-road prowess.

Toyota RAV4. Photos: PA Media

We tested the all-wheel drive RAV4 on a short off-road course, more challenging than anything most owners will put it through. It should be able to cope perfectly well with the occasional muddy lane or steep driveway.

As for on-road handling? It’s up there with some of its best competitors. The RAV4 handles directly, without too much body roll. Decent grip levels and a late-acting ESP system actually make it quite fun in the corners.

“It’s up there with some of its best competitors”

Previous RAV4s could be criticised for looking a little bland, but Toyota’s ensured the same criticism can’t be levelled at this model. It’s immediately recognisable, with polygonal styling leading to distinctive cuts and slashes across its bodywork.

Round the front, the wide, downturned grille and prominent nostrils give the RAV4 one heck of a snout. The rear is relatively generic, though inoffensive.

Toyota reckons 60 per cent of drivers will opt for one of two top-spec trims, which bring projector LED headlights, 18-inch alloy wheels and – in the case of the Dynamic trim – optional two-tone paint finishes. These go a long way to smartening the RAV4 up.

The interior of the RAV4 is a really mixed bag. Some aspects really are below par – the infotainment, for one, which is dated and completely lacks the sort of smartphone connectivity that we’ve come to expect from new models. Materials too aren’t quite there. It’s ergonomically very good, however, with comfortable seats, bags of adjustability for the driver and chunky, easy-to-find buttons and dials.

Space is a strong point, too. The rear seats are really commodious, and a six-foot passenger can happily stretch out behind a driver of a similar size. With 580-litres on offer, the boot’s not half bad either – 83 litres up on the CR-V hybrid.

All models come with the brand’s Safety Sense 2 pack – bringing adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, autonomous emergency braking and traffic sign assist. There’s also auto lights and wipers, LED headlights, 17-inch alloy wheels and an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system.

Step up to Design grade and the wheels are upgraded to 18-inches, navigation is added to the infotainment system and you also net keyless entry and a power tailgate. Range-topping duties are shared between luxurious Excel and ‘sporty’ Dynamic – both gain projector headlights, power adjustable and heated front seats and blind-spot monitoring, but Dynamic models feature gloss black trim and optional bi-tone metallic paint. There’s an awful lot to like about this new RAV4 – it drives well, is spacious and comfortable inside and, provided you don’t push it too hard, has the potential to be a superbly relaxed and very efficient cruiser. And there’s no arguing with the efficiency figures – achieving such low CO2 is seriously impressive.

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American muscle

Paqpaq editor, TONIO DARMANIN, muscles up to the latest American offering from Ford – the Mustang.

On April 17, 2009, the world celebrated – albeit not in the most festive of periods – the 45th anniversary of Ford’s longest running nameplate, the Mustang. The project was strongly supported by Lee Iacocca, who was subsequently appointed president of the Ford Motor Company.

Possibly the most successful American sports car ever, it instigated the Pony car segment which required cars to have a sporty and attractive styling, offer an extensive option list and a wide range of engines including seriously powerful versions with the possibility of tuning and, most importantly, they had to be affordable.

The 1964 (and a ½!) Mustang did all this and was an instant hit, registering 22,000 orders on the first day of its launch at the World Fair in New York and going on to sell 417,000 units in the first year and one million cars by the second. The original price was incredibly low at US$2,368 and a guy in Texas reputedly slept in the car within the showroom until his cheque was cleared to ensure that his car was not sold to somebody else.

Three principal models included the convertible, the hard top and the fastback and driven by the tag line ‘a steed for every need’ gave the customer a choice of 11 power trains including the legendary Boss 302, 375, 429 and the Mach 1. In 1965, Carroll Shelby collaborated with Ford to launch on the market the GT 350 featuring a 306bhp V8 engine.

The first generation Mustang lasted until 1974. However, with the three subsequent versions produced by Ford between this time and 2005, the company seems to have tried to do everything possible to kill this car, one uglier than the other and with power and handling not worthy of a Mustang.

All this changed dramatically four years ago, when Ford launched the fifth generation Mustang echoing the styling of the 1960’s fastback in a successful attempt at retro-futurism, going back to the basic principles that made the original Mustang such a success and using these to create a car geared for the future.

This latest version of the Mustang epitomises the pure American muscle car. It retains important classic design cues including a long hood and short rear deck, a menacing shark-like nose and aggressive rake, the C-scoops at the side are so typical, but also other details such as the three element tail lamps and the galloping horse badge in the centre of the grille.

Engine-wise, the customer has two options: the standard V6, 4 litre power train producing 210bhp, or alternatively the GT version, fitted with a V8, 4.6 litre aluminium unit cranking out 300bhp. This latter engine was the one fitted on the Mustang under test, tuned to add a further 50bhp, providing tremen­dous acceleration and impressively relentless torque at any speed. The test car was also fitted with an optional five-speed auto­matic transmission of aggressive disposi­tion with smooth, rapid up-shifts but a typically sluggish kickdown.

I was impressed with the handling and how, although using a live-axle chassis, Ford still managed to build a car that is sharp and agile, riding relatively hard but, at the same time, offering decent levels of comfort. The mandatory burnout, possible only with the stability button switched off, brings back memories of follies experienced many decades ago in the original classic of which the new Mustang, I must say, is a modern but genuine interpretation.

The only area of disappointment is the interior of the car. In an effort to keep it true to the original, and to keep costs low, the interior does not compare with that of competing European models. Ford retained some trademark features such as the three-spoke steering and the T-bar automatic shifter, but the ergonomics and the styling are too retro and too spartan for my liking. Extras include a top end Shaker Audio sound system which, in my view, is superfluous since I spent every second in the car enjoying the hoarse gurgle emitted by the engine that increases in pitch with speed and turns into a tremen­dous shriek once you hit the 4,000 rev limit.

The car I drove is no ordinary Mustang. Typical of this model, even today various companies specialise in tuning and modifying these vehicles and the car driven is the result of a serious conversion by Ultimate Auto Sports Inc. of the US. The changes to this ES2 Special Edition include a custom Mustang front nose with lower fog and PIAA driving lights, custom hood, custom rear spoiler, custom upper and lower side scoops, fully functional side exit exhaust with Magnaflow stainless steel mufflers, a 20” wheel and tyre package, lowered springs, and the striking dual stripes. All this gives a striking, possibly menacing, look to the car turning it into a unique show car but does render it that bit too low for comfortable driving on local roads.

Ford deserves the credit for having recreated a true American muscle car and have to admit that I enjoyed every minute of this test-drive.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on May 4, 2009

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Altogether now!

As a journalist and more importantly as an enthusiast, many times I assume that everyone is like me and has this inherent passion for cars. In reality, however, the majority of motorists regard their car simply as a tool… a means of getting from A to B comfortably, safely and ideally economically too. The new Suzuki Alto is one such car. By TONIO DARMANIN

In the past, this basic need was satisfied by what the Italians refer to as the Utilitaria and the original Fiat 500 and subsequently the Panda come to mind, although at this stage the emphasis was more on getting from A to B rather than doing so comfortably or safely.

Today, the cars in this segment – referred to as super-minis – compete to be the smallest and the cheapest, but have also come a long way in terms of design, technological deve­lopment, safety, internal space and comfort, economy, environmental friendliness and compete most of all in offering the consumer the best value for money. Suzuki is no newcomer in this segment and has been offering this entry-level model to European customers for over 30 years. Judging by the number of Altos one comes across whilst driving on our roads, it is obvious that the car is a firm favourite even here in Malta.

This is the type of car that is aimed at satisfying a wide and varied list of target markets albeit with relatively similar needs. Ranging from a novice or student who has just got his or her licence to a retired person, those looking for a smaller runabout for daily errands to companies who have reps continually out on the road, families requiring a second smaller car for ‘taxi’ purposes, to others with restricted parking space in their garage on out on the road… the list is endless.

Looks are possibly the most important consideration when choosing a new car and Suzuki, having recognised this, presented a new model that is relatively compact at 3.5 metres, cute, attractive and gives the impression that it is bigger that it actually is. The wind tunnel was used extensively at the design stage to ensure optimum aerodynamics, reducing drag and ultimately consumption. It is a fact that this car is more popular with female consumers and the new Alto offers a vibrant range of colours, some of which have this segment clearly in mind.

It is compact on the outside but makes optimum use of the space inside to offer comfortable seating for the driver and front passenger and with adequate room at the rear for a further two adults. Luggage space is decent for the size of car and one can obviously play around with rear seating configurations depending on the amount of stuff that would need to be shifted around. Good quality plastics and upholstery materials make for a pleasant environment inside the car and an effective air-conditioning unit ensures all-round comfort.

The forte of the new Alto is however the one litre, three-cylinder engine which should return an average of 62mpg and only emits 103g of CO2 per kilometre. Relatively smooth and silent, it gives the car a nippy disposition and provides a respectable performance subject to the obvious limitations of an engine this size. Gear exchange is smooth enough and the suspension, which is on the soft side, offers a comfortable ride. Steering is responsive and direct and the car feels absolutely manoeuv­rable, especially due to its tiny turning circle.

Safety is a serious concern, especially in smaller cars, but Suzuki have ensured that the Alto is designed on a crushable structure utilising an energy dispersing frame to best protect occupants. The car is also fitted with four airbags as a standard feature.

The utility car is becoming more and more sophisticated and the customer’s expectations are also continually evolving. The car buyer today is spoilt for choice and the manufacturer has to go that extra mile to attract attention and possibly a sale. In this regard, I feel the Suzuki Alto offers the right ingredients to build on the local success it has enjoyed so far, and it is actually much more than simply a means of getting from A to B.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on May 4, 2009

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First class travel

Paqpaq editor, TONIO DARMANIN, jets off to Spain for the launch of the new and much-awaited Mercedes E Class.

I keyed in the following thoughts on my Mac while flying back home from Madrid via Frankfurt. The journey started with the alarm going off at 3.15 a.m. to make it in time for my first flight at 6am.

I checked-in electronically and selected an aisle seat with what seemed to be some extra legroom. As I walked along the aisle of the plane through First, Business and Club Class towards my humble abode in Economy, the seating got progressively smaller and tighter. It seems such a waste to have half of the plane fitted with enormous, sofa-style seats (most of which remain empty), whilst hundreds of passengers are squashed like the proverbial sardines into the remaining half of the plane.

I settled down into my seat and duly emptied the ‘goodies’ that I normally surround myself with during flights… namely my Black­berry (which I normally switch off at the point where the hostess is threatening to take it away from me), a pile of magazines (generally of the motoring, biking and gadgetry variations), a notepad, a pen and the brochures from my latest test-drive. There was only one passenger at the other end of the row so the middle seat was free… Club Class facilities at economy class prices, or so I thought.

For a few interminable minutes, I hoped that nobody would actually claim this vacant seat. But luck would have it that at the very last minute, a couple composed of a bald ex-boxer and his well-accessorised blonde consort turned up and one of them inevitably ended up having to sit next to me for the entire trip. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the blonde!

My ‘neighbour’ for the next couple of hours duly dumped himself, leather jacket and all, into the middle seat… legs wide open! I sat miserably with all my ‘goodies’ piled up on my lap. Due to the limited space available, I regretfully refused breakfast. Needless to say, he sawed away at his chicken breast with his plastic knife, constantly digging his elbows into my ribs in the process. I ended up leaning out into the aisle, getting rammed by every trolley that passed my way.

Much to my delight, he finally fell asleep and I was able to bring my Mac out to do some writing… using only my right hand to avoid moving too much and waking him up. Every time he changed his sleeping position, I quickly minimised the document lest he’d realise that I was writing about him! Indeed, all this was in sharp contrast to the immense sense of comfort and luxury that I had just experienced during my weekend in Spain, courtesy of Mercedes.

The Mercedes E Class is a completely new car and it’s the brand’s most important model for the year, having been around for more than six decades ever since its launch in 1947. Since then, it’s been the vehicle of choice for over 12 million customers. It comes at a crucial time for the company and in one of the hardest periods for the industry, so the fact that over 40,000 units were ordered prior to its launch undoubtedly augurs well.
Performance remains an important consideration, so much so that upon arrival, for my first drive from the airport to the hotel, I opted for the 5.5 litre V8 version, simply to get it out of my system.

Here, one must factor in the harsh realities of today’s driving situation with more restrictive and effective speed control systems relentlessly invading European roads. At one stage, I came across traffic signs displaying the speed that I was actually travelling at in real time, next to the speed limit in that particular zone – a stark reminder that ‘big brother’ is constantly watching. So rather than focus on acceleration and top speed, I decided to savour the luxury, comfort and reassurance that the new E Class has to offer, attributes for which Mercedes sets standards in the premium sedan segment.

I hadn’t been to this part of Spain for some time, so I planned a 200km round trip from Madrid to re-visit Segovia, typified by its spectacular aqueduct bridge, and the impeccably kept medieval fortified city of Avila, two of my favourite destinations in this country.

The E Class looks powerful and dynamic, brim­ming with personality but not overly aggressive. It retains the 3-box ‘pontoon’ configuration, as well as the 4-headlamp face. However, they have managed to streamline the car even further and achieve an unprecedented drag coefficient of only 0.25. Mercedes believes that a relaxed driver is a safe driver and therefore spares no expense in creating an excellent environment inside their vehicles.

The seating position is infinitely adjustable to accommo­date the driver, and the new model has gained more internal space resulting in added shoulder, head and leg room. The E Class offers a perfect combination of styling and functionality where the look and feel of the controls and materials reflect the premium status of the vehicle, but are also easy and practical to use.

Talking about quality, every effort had been made to eradicate gremlins of the past and Mercedes have put over 36 million test kilometres on the new E Class, making it the most tested passenger car ever, in an effort to achieve outstanding levels. The car has also undergone over 150 real life crash tests to ensure that everything does exactly what it says on the brochure.

The power plants that are most relevant to the local market will undoubtedly be the E200, E220 and the E250, all of which are based on a 2.2 litre, 4-cylinder diesel engine. These new Euro 5 compliant units produce higher output but consume and emit less CO2 than the ones they replace. The 250 CDi, for instance, develops 204bhp, an incredible 500Nm of torque, emits only 139g/km of CO2 and gives an average of 44 miles per gallon (or 5.3 litres to 100km).

However, the highlight of this new model must certainly be the array of innovative technological features that are available – all aimed at enhancing the driving experience and comfort, and offering unprecedented levels of safety. I was impressed by the operational simplicity of these features. Indeed, one does not need to be a technological wizard to use them. The car will sound an alarm and suggest you stop for a coffee and a rest when it senses that you are dozing off and it will warn you and actually brake if you are about to collide, drastically reducing the magnitude of the impact as well as the possibility of injury.

The new E Class projects a aura of style and sophistication. It is jam-packed with gadgetry and it carries its occupants in absolute comfort and safety. If only I had opted to drive all the way home!

This article was first published on Times of Malta on April 6, 2009

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It just Getz better


I have followed the recent transformation of the Hyundai brand with interest. They have always built vehicles that, although largely uninspiring to drive and somewhat bare and basic, they were practical, economical and will go on forever without a hitch. These are also generally decently priced. Judging by the number of Accent, Getz and Atos models on our roads, it is evident that, locally, this formula worked well and the brand is renovating its product range to make things even better.

In 2007, I was invited to drive a new model from Hyundai in Vienna. The i30, which I initially assumed was to replace the Accent, actually created e completely new segment for this company, fitting nicely between the Accent and the Getz and reinforcing the brand’s already strong position in the small and medium sized market. The biggest innovation brought about by the i30 and the creation of the ‘i’ range was that this Korean manufacturer had now started designing, and in some cases actually building, these vehicles in Europe… specifically directed towards European consumers. In fact, the new generation of vehicles is designed by the Hyundai European team based in Germany and the i30 is built in a state-of-the-art facility in the Czech Republic.

This new model, which shares its underpinnings with the Kia Cee’d, introduced a more contemporary design language with a styling many claim resembles that of the BMW 1 Series. However, design was not the only thing to change and, whilst building on the existing model strengths, Hyundai set out to improve those areas in which it was previously weak – serious upgrades in suspension and handling, a modernised interior with lots of standard kit and many ‘big car’ options to choose from like leather interior, sat nav and Bluetooth connectivity. Offering decent interior space and a high level of safety, the i30 turns out to be a car that is desirable and actually fun to drive. It comes in a 5-door hatchback, as well as a wagon version. To reinforce the brands reputation for reliability, it also comes with a full 5-year warranty.

In 2008, I was invited to Palermo to drive the model with which Hyundai was going to replace the immensely popular Atos, the new i10. This marked another important strategic step in Hyundai’s plans for the European market, offering one of the smallest and best priced models to compete in what is essentially the biggest and most important segment in this market. The list of potential customers for this car is endless, starting from students and first time buyers looking for a small, trendy, economical and reliable vehicle, to pensioners who no longer need a big family car. It includes families who require a second car to ferry the kids around and run errands and those who have limited parking space, in their garage or otherwise.

Hyundai was already well positioned in this segment with the Atos and faced the daunting task of replacing a successful model. The main benefits of the outgoing, entry-level vehicle were the balance between the small exterior dimensions and generous interior space, and the economy factor in terms of consumption and maintenance, all at a very affordable price. The i10 managed to built on these strengths, adding a dose of styling and interior comfort, an improved ride and superior handling, increased levels of safety, engines with better performance, lower emissions and delivering more miles per gallon.

The difference in price more than justifies opting for the 1.2 rather than the 1.1 litre engine, improving the pulling power but at the same time retaining the same levels of economy and emissions. This, combined with Hyundai’s reputation for building cars that are impressively reliable, is sure to continue worrying the numerous competitors in this segment.

The latest addition to the ‘i’ range is now also in Malta. The i20 will be replacing the Getz and completes the trio of small cars designed in Europe for Europe by the Korean manufacturer. The local market has already shown a very keen interest in the new incarnation and orders are flowing in steadily. But what is it that is making this car so popular locally?

The excellent use of interior space has actually improved since the i20 is slightly longer and wider than the Getz, while the interior has been upgraded using superior plastics and more a stylish design. Even the basic models are well accessorised with air-conditioning, central locking, CD with MP3 player and a height adjustable driver’s seat all as standard features. An interesting range of economical engines emitting low levels of CO2 while delivering increased output across the range are available. Customers can choose between a 1.2 (77bhp) or 1.4 (98bhp) petrol engine, or a 1.4 diesel with two power outputs, 74bhp or 89bhp.

Safety in the i20 has been given top priority and has won the car a prestigious award by Belgian journalists in this regard. ABS and six airbags are standard across the range whilst ESP is an affordable and strongly recommended optional extra available on every model.

As with the other two models in the new range from Hyundai, the biggest advancement in the i20 is its improved ease and comfort when driving it. Steering, gear exchange, suspension and road holding have all been taken to new levels and the car is now as good looking as it is fun to drive.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on March 2, 2009

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Move over James, I’m driving


If I were the President of the Republic or the Prime Minister, I would have a serious problem. With an official car like the BMW 7 Series, I would not be able to resist sitting idle in the back, however luxurious and comfortable this is, and I would probably sack the driver as I would want to drive the car myself.

In fact, BMW claim that 50 per cent of their customers in this segment actually drive the vehicle themselves while the other half are driven around by their chauffeur. This means that the company has to make the same special effort for the rear passenger as it does for the driver, so much so that there is a full set iDrive controls for the four zone automatic air-condition, multi-channel audio system with DAB double tuner, DVD system, phone and satellite navigation at the back. BMW also offers optional internet connectivity via the carputer which understandably is available only at the rear since although fast internet connectivity is fine, reading your e-mails while driving at 200km/hr might not be such a good idea.

The armchair-style seating for the rear passengers includes all the adjustments and reclining functions with optional active seat ventilation and massage programmes and big LCD screens fitted on the back of the two front seats.

This was my first visit to Dresden, the capital of Saxony, less than an hour by plane from Munich. Razed to the ground in the Second World War but rebuilt to its original splendour to rank as one of the most beautiful baroque cities in Europe, Dresden created the perfect setting for the launch of one of the finest automobiles in the world. The route chosen for us to experience the latest 7 Series and formulate our first impressions took us through the Erzgebirge Region covering 330km of beautiful country roads and consistently breathtaking scenery.

We are looking at the fifth generation of this luxurious, elegant yet sporty limousine since the series started in 1977, even though BMW have been present in the luxury performance class for over 70 years. The 7 Series is the flagship of the brand and its showcase for innovation and cutting-edge technology whereby everything new is initially presented to the public through this model and will eventually cascade down through the rest of the range. It also embodies BMW’s commitment to build cars that respect the environment through lowered emissions and controlled consumption but still offering luxury and dynamic performance ensuring sheer driving pleasure on each and every one of its models.

The 7 Series looks impressive. It presents a harmonious blend of elegance and sportiness, having the presence necessary to impress in any circumstances yet with a subtle muscularity that gives a clear indication of the sportiness and dynamism that lies beneath. This feeling is carried over inside the car where an environment of luxury and comfort fuses with ergonomics, styling, materials, functionality and positioning that takes this vehicle to a different level.

The car is big and needs serious power to perform even discretely, so a straight six 3.0 litre twin turbo petrol engine on the 740i and a 4.4 litre twin turbo V8 for the 750i are obvious options.

What is surprising, however, is the combination of performance, dynamism and economy that BMW managed to get out of their newly developed straight six, 3.0 litre common rail turbo diesel engine developing 245bhp and 540Nm of torque. With this engine, the 7 Series accelerates to 100km/hr in just 7.2 seconds and achieves a maximum speed of 254km/hr.

At the other end of the spectrum, this new engine emits 192 grams of CO2 per kilometre and with a consumption of 7.2 litres per 100 kilometres, being nearly 40 miles per gallon, it is the most efficient car in this segment. This was achieved by applying the principles of Efficient Dynamics to this model including, Brake Energy Regeneration, on-demand control of ancillary units, lightweight technology optimised aerodynamics and electronically controlled air flap management.

The 7 Series is packed solid with driver assistance tools such as cruise control with ‘Stop and Go’, lane departure and lane change warnings, head-up display, side view as well as back-up cameras and the new Night Vision which can actually identify persons in the dark before the lights show them up. It also offers Integral Active Steering where both axels are utilised to turn the car and the Dynamic Driving Control function where one can select between a Comfort, Normal and Sport set-up.

Driving the 7 Series is impressive as it handles so well you actually forget you are driving a vehicle of these proportions. I spent most of the time trying out all the technology which the test car was invariably fitted with and what always surprises me with BMW is that however futuristic the technology might seem, it is always perfectly functional and so easy to use. A six speed automatic gearbox is standard on all models and shifting is smooth and seamless.

On the highway, I did notice some wind noise as the speed increased but other than that, it is difficult to fault this car in any way.

The prospects of my becoming the President of the Republic or the Prime Minister for that matter are rather slim, but I might try to convince one of them is to employ me as their driver.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on November 10, 2008

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The heat is on


In anticipation that the SUV market, which has grown consistently for the past 10 years and has gradually nibbled away at the mid-sized segment, will start to subside under the increase pressure from governments to curb the use of gas-guzzling polluters and the ever-increasing cost of fuel, the competition in the estate segment is unprecedented.

As if proof that competition is healthy was needed, the effort that each brand is making to try and out-do its competitors and distinguish its product is resulting in the creation of innovations from which only the consumer stands to gain. The effort that is being made in terms of styling, comfort, quality, safety, technology can be seen in every new model that hits the market. However, the greatest effort being made is in relation to driving pleasure. This segment has been plagued for many years with absolutely boring models, cars aimed at the fleet markets and manufacturers adopting the attitude of “pile them high, sell them cheap”.

However, if this segment is going to win back some of the lost ground from the more exciting SUV competition, it needs to get its act in order and create vehicles that appeal emotionally, not just rationally. Cars that look striking, offer all the creature comforts and are generally perceived as high quality with up-market internal quality and comfort and reflecting the status of the owner. So much so that Citroen are actually promoting the new C5 as a French car, which it is, but with German build quality, simply because German cars are perceived to be superior.

From an aesthetic point of view, I feel Citroen have done a great job. The latest C5 is distinctive and at first glance, looks more like a premium brand vehicle in the league of Audi and BMW. The effort the brand has traditionally made on its flagship model, the C6, has been inherited by the C5 and I have a feeling that eventually the bigger model will be dropped, placing the C5 at the top of the pile.

Another indication of the desire for the brands to tear away from the perceptions of the past is the way in which they change the way they refer to certain models. The terms ‘station wagon’ and the ‘estate’ are completely passé and the days where the saloon version was simply squared off at the rear to give additional storage space are finished. Today, we speak about sport wagons or, as is the case with Citroen, the Tourer. Locally, the mentality still has not fully embraced the concept of the sports-tourer, however if we eventually follow the trends in Europe, this type of model is set to become more popular. Abroad, couples with young children or living a lifestyle where they have hobbies or pastimes requiring the transportation of bulky stuff generally opt for this version as their preferred means of transport.

Citroen have managed to make a seemingly large vehicle look good. Despite the substantial loading space, however, to the dismay of the Minister of Finance, the car is not any longer than the saloon version, therefore no additional taxation due to the length of the vehicle can be levied and Citroen engines are particularly clean with low emissions.

A serious effort has been also made on the inside of the car where one can choose from a vast selection of different materials and finishes with particularly supportive front seats and enough space for three adults to sit comfortably in the back. The unique fixed hub arrangement for the steering is obviously used in this model with a vast array of functions operated from the fixed central unit of the steering. On a negative note, I did not like the way in which the rear seat folds down.

An interesting range of engines are available but it will be interesting to see how petrol and diesel engines are going to be treated under the new tax regime before one can make a choice. The gearbox is smooth and having to choose between the two different suspension systems available, I would opt for the basic which is more than adequate. The C5 kicks off with a decent basic price tag but there is a long list of goodies that will raise the price accordingly.

I feel the C5 represents a quantum leap in terms of quality, styling and materials used over the previous model. It offers the versatility and comfort one would expect without losing the looks, and the size and weight do not negatively affect the driving dynamics of the car. The Tourer is a worthy contender in a segment that is becoming ever more competitive and where we are bound to experience interesting developments in the near future.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on October 6, 2008

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