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See it soon at Apple’s Eye

by TONIO DARMANIN

Having ridden a good number of bikes from the BMW range, I was interested in trying one of their smaller machines from the G series consisting of the G650 Xmoto, Xcountry and Xchallenge models. I had noticed a spanking new red and black Xmoto in the showroom and without delay, arrangements were made to take it out for the weekend.

With these smaller bikes from BMW, there are a number of things one needs to come to terms with. First of all, we are dealing with a 650cc single cylinder liquid-cooled engine designed by BMW that gives you a completely different riding experience from any of the other bikes the company produces. The three models are built on a steel bridge tubular frame chassis, they are chain driven and present a relatively high riding position.

The Xmoto is intended for street use, however it provides a dirtbike feeling and has an off-road driving position. The seat is narrow and the cushioning thin with sharp edges, so it does get a bit uncomfortable on long runs. However, the rider is free to slide forward and back at leisure without the traditional obstacle of the fuel tank which is located under the seat and not in front of it. This also lowers the bike’s centre of gravity. The riding position is upright and at 35.4 inches, it is perfect for a tall driver with a great view of the road ahead but the seat is also adjustable downwards to accommodate those under six feet tall.

The engine thumps smooth for a single cylinder, and quite a big one at that. It develops a respectable 53hp and produces a reasonable amount of torque. I was actually impressed with the throttle response and the lack of ‘knocking’ this type of engine often produces. Acceleration is decent and gearing well suited for frisky street riding.

The Xmoto is easy to manoeuvre through traffic and extremely capable at taking tight turns. The four-piston Brembo callipers pressing on 320mm discs with steel-braded brake lines sounds capable enough, however the model under test was fitted with an optional ABS system which makes breaking excellent. With 9.6 inches of travel on the single adjustable rear shock and 9.4 inches on the front inverted fork, you’re provided with a comfortable ride although you do get some dive in front when braking hard.

I got a real kick out of the Xmoto and consider it a brilliant daily runner, with a smooth engine, fantastic braking and a perfect ride on our imperfect roads. Easy to handle, agile and fast enough.

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

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It just Getz better

by TONIO DARMANIN

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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The beauty is also a beast

by TONIO DARMANIN

In the January issue, I reviewed the Honda VTX 1800 and, while admittedly this bike really impressed me, it had been a difficult decision in Gordon’s showroom to choose this above the Harley V Rod. On the other hand, Gordon’s reassuring smile that it was simply a matter of deciding which to ride first, made me return the VTX 1800 with a mixture of reluctance and great anticipation.

This whole biking adventure is developing nicely and, in a relatively short period of time, I have experienced a very wide range of different bikes and scooters, have made many numerous new friends and am really taking to the biker lifestyle.

One of the most common questions I get asked, apart from which my favourite car is, relates to my favourite bike. As with cars, I do go through the process so well described in the Maltese language “tara wahda u tinsa l-ohra” or in my case “issuq wahda u tinsa l-ohra”, however certain models do remain well impressed in my memory.

One such model was the Sportster, possibly more for the fact that this was my first Harley experience than for its impressive attributes, but impress me it did.

Many purists do not consider the V Rod to be a real Harley since it constitutes a complete break with tradition. It sports a water-cooled engine designed by Porsche, it is smooth, well constructed, it enjoys a futuristic designed and is very, very fast. This ‘shock’ creation came into existence in 2001 as the VRSC or V-Twin Racing Street Custom with an engine-based on the VR1000 super bike racing unit and aimed to compete against the muscle bike.

The V Rod is potentially one of the best looking bikes ever. Long, low and distinctively menacing, with a cruiser styling accentuated by the front fork protruding at 38% and holding in place a solid disc wheel matched with a similar one at the rear. The bike I rode was not an ordinary model but a special anniversary 2003 edition celebrating 100 years of Harley David­son building legendary motorcycles, charac­terised by an anodised aluminium finish and distinctive Harley insignia.

What I don’t like is the louvred air-intake between the tank and the headlamp that looks more like a cheap cheese grater than anything else. In true Harley tradition, the previous owner responsible for the 1,400km on the clock, before I got my hands on it that is, also put his personal touches to the machine including a Stage 1 tuning kit complete with Screamin’ Eagle exhaust.

“This ‘shock’ creation came into existence in 2001 as the VRSC or V-Twin Racing Street Custom with an engine-based on the VR1000 super bike racing unit and aimed to compete against the muscle bike”

The V-Twin, DOHC water-cooled, fuel injected Revolution engine is the one found in the original version of the V Rod manufactured between 2002 and 2006. The 1,130cc unit deve­lops an uncharacteristic 105bhp taking the Rod to a maximum speed of 135mph with tons of torque and a beautiful balance of power. It shifts between being a slow speed and laid back cruiser to a relentlessly powerful beast at the twist of the throttle.

Big bikes remain somewhat intimidating when one straddles them for the first time, but a few minutes on the V Rod were enough to make riding it an easy and pleasurable experience. Suspension is comfortable until one hits one of the deeper potholes that our roads invariably throw at us from time to time. Brembo breaking is brilliant and handling is fine but I would personally have wider handle bars fitted if I had to buy the bike, something I am seriously tempted to do.

To film the V Rod for the Paqpaq TV show, I met up with an old friend on his FatBoy on a bright Sunday morning and once we were done at the Vittoriosa Waterfront, we cruised up to Apple’s Eye where the bike attracted the admiration of one and all, not only Harley enthusiasts but also of those who normally prefer Japanese precision and performance to the American legend, proving that this model is managing to achieve what it was originally intended to do.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on February 9, 2009

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The Harley buster?

by TONIO DARMANIN

I had not been over to Gordon’s showroom for some time as the Christmas period was quite hectic and I had to content myself with buzzing around on my Vespa, riding more for convenience than for pleasure. So when I opened my diary and spotted the first commitment-free Sunday morning, I made my way to the Valley Road ‘Mecca’ in search of something thrilling… I was in desperate need of a serious biking ‘fix’.

The showroom was nicely full, with an unusual bias on larger bikes forming part of the last consignment to be registered under the old system before the crazy new taxation on bikes over 800cc came into effect on 1st January this year. I was looking for a big, powerful cruiser with which I could spend the early hours of Sunday morning riding away the pressure and stress that life invariably piles onto you, to eventually meet the group of like-minded bikers at Cirkewwa and Apple’s Eye where we exchange intimate secrets on our two-wheeled lovers and try to solve the problems of the world over a coffee.

The choice was difficult. Instinctively, I was attracted to an immaculate Harley V-Rod but ultimately I opted for the meaner, wilder and less common VTX 1800. The praises of this bike had been sung no end by my friend Edwin Bonello who has been riding the only other 1800 known to me for some three years and the prospect of experiencing this bike thrilled me, even before I actually started it up.

This amazing cruiser was first introduced in 2002 and, at the time, it had the largest displacement V-Twin production engine on the market with four inch pistons making them the widest fitted in any vehicle, car or bike. The massive engine fills every inch of space between the tank and the lower frame and growls menacingly to life when you start it from the rather oddly located ignition behind the rider’s left leg.

The styling is long, low and muscular and Honda managed to create a bike with equal doses of power, beauty and grace. A uniquely- styled headlamp, a sleek tank and a beautifully cut rear mudguard give the bike looks to die for, distorted only by the sissy bar which remained in place only because I knew that, sooner or later, I would sadly have to return the bike.

The power is impressive but the torque is awesome, delivered to the wide rear wheel via a shaft with smoothness unlike any V-twin I had previously ridden. A twist of the right wrist sends the bike lunging forward with the panache of a cruiser but with the wickedness of a racing bike. Reserves of power are at the rider’s disposal on any gear, from any speed. Although the model I tested did not come with ABS, it was fitted with a unique braking system whereby the hand brake activates two thirds of the front pistons, while the foot brake operates all the rear pistons as well as one third of the front ones making braking balanced and efficient.

The seat is amongst the most comfortable I have come across and this is matched with good suspension… contributing to a great ride. The driving position is brilliant. An interesting experience for me was the sensation of my feet being gently lifted off the forward pegs as my trouser legs filled up with wind when accelerating rapidly. The long, low stance of the bike reduces ground clearance substantially so one has to be careful with certain ramps and might have some difficulty, for example, getting the bike onto a jack.

Although obviously not the most fuel-efficient bike, the VTX 1800’s fuel con­sumption is reasonably contained at around 40 miles per gallon giving it an autonomy of around 200 miles. This is particularly imp­ortant if (or should I say when!!) one starts planning an overseas trip with this bike because it is only here that one can truly appreciate its full potential.

I can only confirm whether this American-built powerful cruiser from Honda is a Harley beater once I have spent some time riding the V-Rod that Gordon has in the showroom, something I need to do soon before it finds its rightful owner. In the meantime, I must confess that the VTX1800 is one of the finest and most exhilarating bikes I have ridden to date as well as one of the better looking ones… so for the Harley to beat it, it is going to be difficult.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on January 19, 2009

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Move over James, I’m driving

by TONIO DARMANIN

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

By TONIO DARMANIN

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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Truly unstoppable!

by TONIO DARMANIN

Yet another breathtaking adventure! Riding one of the greatest new bikes available on the market today and doing so in one of the best biking destinations. To my knowledge, not many bikers have actually ridden in the UK. Some have rented bikes in London and went off on a tour and few others have actually ridden all the way to the UK from Malta but the effort, time and stamina needed makes this an option restricted to the truly adventurous.

I have a special relationship with this model as the R 1150 GS was my first “big” bike just after getting my bike licence and still ride it on a regular basis. It was also my first bike review for the TV show and therefore marks an important milestone for Paqpaq. Having become quite familiar with this truly successful machine from BMW, I have been longing to test the completely new model.

The bike for this test was made available by Vines, the BMW Motorrad dealer in Guilford, London, and my destination was Stratford-upon-Avon. Even in the middle of summer, if you are going to ride in the UK you will have to seriously consider your clothing. Obviously, safety is of primary importance so a good quality full-face helmet, protective jacket and pants, riding boots and gloves are essential.

Apart from this, the chances of rain are rather high and therefore a set of waterproofs are also advisable. The laws of probability being what they are, half way through the three hundred mile trip it did start to drizzle and eventually rained heavily. However, being well prepared, this only added to the challenge and excitement. Rain also highlights the situation with the condition of our roads in comparison with those found in most European countries.

The water that hits the highway seems to disappear and the adherence of the tyres to the road surface remains perfect, even in heavy rain – I wish I could say the same of the roads in Malta.

This bike is described by BMW as a Travel Enduro and was popularised by Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman, through their incredible voyages using the Adventure version of this bike, to the extent that it became the best selling motorcycle over 1,000cc. This is not the brand’s best touring option, the R 1200 LT is the Rolls Royce of touring bikes, but it is hardly practical for anything else, while on the other hand, the acclaimed (Henry’s Bike) is a fantastic long-distance bike and at the same time is also versatile, agile and particularly fast making it possibly the best sport-tourer available.

It is therefore difficult to identify the typical customer for this bike, obviously it is perfect for the adventurer who intends riding half-way around the world on back-tracks but how many bikers would be realistically planning to do this? The way I see it, it is a bit like the situation with luxury off-road vehicles such as the Range Rover sport, the Audi Q7 and BMW’s own X5 all of which are extremely capable off-road vehicles but non of them actually ever leave the tarmac and are used mainly to ferry children to and from school. In the same way, the R 1200 GS will rarely venture into the wilderness but will generally be used as a fun bike for weekend riding and the occasional overland venture.

It definitely has the looks. Massive, aggressive and dominant, combined with the fact that the horizontally opposed boxer engine protrudes noticeably from either side of the bike, it actually looks daunting to someone considering riding it for the first time. In reality, the bike has a relatively low centre of gravity making it stable, well-balanced and surprisingly easy to handle. The engine is now tuned to 105bhp and increased punch and power are more than evident.

The previous models were criticised for their gearboxes which many considered clunky and often caused a bit of a struggle when shifting. This has been solved because BMW have fitted a brilliant new 6-speed box offering improved smoothness for precise shifting and more dynamic transmission ratios. I noticed that once you exceed 5,000 revs, something which the M25 does allow even though one has to be particularly vigilant due to the ever growing number of speed cameras, the engine offers that additional trust which comes in handy, particularly when overtaking. The ABS braking system provides the necessary reassurance that the bike will stop as and when required with the added benefit the wheels will not lock with less chance of skidding.

As is happening with all its motor vehicles, BMW is at the forefront of technological innovation even when it comes to bikes. The technology on this bike is mind-boggling in terms of sophistication but so user-friendly that even I could handle it first go. Basically you have a computer on board and through one switch on the handle-bar, the rider makes certain selections. The optional Electronic Suspension Adjustment, as it is referred to, requires input as to whether there is going to be a solo rider, if there is a pillion and if the bike is going to be loaded with luggage.

The system distinguishes between on- or off-road journeys and also allows the rider to select between Sport, Normal or Comfort riding. All this information is then used by the system to adjust the suspension of the bike to achieve optimum performance, comfort and safety.

A truly great all-rounder that lent itself to different landscapes I came across on this first, but by no means last, biking trip to the UK. The R1200GS has the looks, talent and robustness to give you the confidence to venture.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on September 1, 2008

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Ain’t she Swede!

by TONIO DARMANIN

Saab is one of those brands that I always enjoy discussing. The Scandinavian way of thinking has always assured that vehicles originally designed and built with the exigencies of a nation with particular climatic and geographic conditions in mind will be different. The emphasis on safety and reliability resulted in a string of models that, although lacking in the aesthetic department, gained a reputation for robustness, dependability and for offering the highest levels of security to those travelling inside. They were also pioneers in the use of turbo technology and applied the knowledge they gained as airplane manufacturers to excel in aerodynamics and performance.

When General Motors took over the brand, they obviously had to rationalise production by matching models across the group to gain the necessary economies of scale, however they were smart enough to retain the basic values that the Saab brand represented. Hence, the new 2008 93 Convertible I test drove does share, for example, its chassis with, amongst others, the Opel Vectra, however it does present a structural and styling independence that is immediately identifiable. Far from the odd shapes of Saabs of old, the new range of models distinguish themselves for their strong, sporty presence, and in the case of the 93 Convertible, both with the roof up or down.

White is possibly the most fashionable colour at this point in time to the extent that it is being referred to as “the new black”. The Saab in this colour looks amazing and the unlikely combination with a beige roof actually matches perfectly. The butch impression you get as you approach the car, with the front drawing a resemblance to the Aero X, is enhanced once you open the door and sit inside it. The driving position is excellent and the seating position is near perfect, whilst the 93 also offers adequate room for three other adults. Ergonomically, instruments are clustered sensibly inside the “cockpit” and within easy reach of the driver. It oozes luxury and uncompromising quality and I felt safely cocooned even with the hood down, a different sensation from any other convertible.

Given the background of the typical market for this car, one might question the validity of offering a convertible in the product line-up, the North-European climate being what it is. What Saab has done is to build a vehicle that, once the roof is up, feels exactly like a fixed-top coupè and the insulation, including that for sound, makes this a car that is enjoyable in any circumstance, and in any season.

On the other hand, the car is aimed at an international market and whether it will be driven to the North Cape in winter or up to Paradise Bay in August, it is versatile enough to offer the limit in driving pleasure in either case. It would likely be a next progression to consider evolving to a retractable hard top but on the other hand, being Saab, they might not bother.

The 93 under test was a Vector model equipped with the 2.0 turbo petrol engine developing 210bhp and generating 300Nm of torque between 2,500 to 4,000 revs. The same block is used for two lower-powered configurations, namely 150bhp and 175bhp, but this particular specification ensures the best balance between sporty performance and contained economy and emissions. The car pulls away beautifully with a respectable 0-60 time of just over 8 seconds for the 6 speed manual version.

Shifting is precise and smooth, although I personally would probably opt for the 5-speed automatic box. Steering is precise but reacts, as expected, to the mix of forces between traction and change of direction, as does any front wheel drive car. Suspension is particularly comfortable, not too soft, but once you get used to driving it, you will realise that you do not need to come to a dead stop in front of the slightest obstacle and even our infamous sleeping policemen do not manage to make the ride unduly uncomfortable.

Additionally, the 93 range has available what Saab refers to as ‘ReAxs’, whereby all four wheels help in the steering, a bit like the effect on a skateboard, making road holding truly exceptional.

The car is loaded with all the refinements to make driving it easy and comfortable. It is a pleasure to drive and it not only looks strong and safe but feels it too, and more importantly, it is truly a reliable and particularly secure car. Saab’s “real life” safety research helps them develop technologies that help them build vehicles that are safer than most, particularly comforting when one is looking at a convertible.

A final consideration is that of perceived value. The vehicle creates an aura of exclusivity, not being a car that is commonly seen on our roads, and with the styling and design of this new model, I was surprised to find that the pricing is much more accessible than I imagined.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on September 1, 2008

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A Gixxer for the wrong reason

In my quest to experience as many different types of bikes as possible, I knew that sooner or later I would have to confront one breed of bike that posed a particular challenge – the 1-litre Sport Bike.

There were a number of options including the Honda CBR1000R, the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R and the Yamaha R1, all of which were available but my choice fell on the 2008 Gixxer, the Suzuki GSX-R100 (K8).

Exactly why I made this choice is still unclear, possibly because I had such a good experience riding the GSX1400, but walking towards the bike was the closest I will ever feel to a cowboy about to mount a wild buck in an attempt to break it in.

This was not the most powerful bike I had ridden in terms of cc but peaking at 160bhp, developing 110Nm of torque, a red line set at 12,000, accelerating from 0-100km/hr in just 3 seconds, covering a quarter mile in 10.3 seconds and reaching a maximum speed of 182 mph, it was surely the most ferocious. As if this was not enough, this specific bike had been fitted with a power commander set to give it even better straight line acceleration and had the standard titanium exhaust replaced by an Akrapovic after-market unit.

The design is influenced by its bigger sibling, the Hayabusa, and comes with LED tail lights, and a trapezoid shaped radiator as seen on works race bikes intended to make cooling more efficient. Front and rear suspension are fully adjustable and rebound dampers help to improve handling whilst a secondary balancer shaft works at reducing vibration.

The use of radial mounted 4 pot callipers gripping 12 inch discs brought weight down by 2,300g without effecting efficiency and a single piston presses on an 8.7 inch disc at the rear. A standard slipper clutch helps avoid wheel hopping under heavy braking and aggressive down shifting does not result in he rear wheel blocking.

The 32 bit ECU has been configured to offer the rider three distinct mappings that can be selected from a switch on the handle bar. In fact, one can choose from standard, sport and wet mode and the bike will adjust according to the particular driving conditions. An electronically controlled steering damper stiffens as the bike accelerates, making it more controllable at high speeds.

This model first appeared in 2001 and has undergone constant development to make it faster and lighter, whilst improving its handling. Initially, the power is overwhelming but one soon realises what near-perfect throttle response the machine is endowed with, making you the master of your own destiny. Weighing in at a mere 170kg, handling is particularly easy.

Describing the driving position as sporty is an understatement and is not what I would voluntarily spend many hours in. I did not find the seat particularly comfortable either, but I knew this was going to be the case from the outset, before I even mounted it. I must admit that I am not of the sport bike kind. I appreciate the performance and capabilities of the GSX-R1000 and look forward to riding its rivals to be able to compare.

However, when it comes to personal preferences, I do not consider this type of bike as ideal for Malta. The state of the roads, the attitude of other road users and the insane power the bike disposes of add up to a lethal concoction. I would personally opt for a more tranquil, serene and comfortable ride.

This article was first published on Times of Malta on August 4, 2008

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