cars

Why one ruined Metro made your car safer

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NORMALLY saving lives involves noble things like vaccinations, charity fundraising and the Heimlich Manouvere. But you wouldn’t think deliberately destroying a Metro would have the same effect.

20 years ago that’s exactly what happened, when some chaps with clipboards and clever cameras gave one (well, a Rover 100 if we’re being picky) a 30mph introduction to a concrete block. Not for a laugh, but in the interests of scientific research. What they discovered sent shockwaves through the car industry.

The car wreckers in question belonged to an organisation called Euro NCAP, which has just celebrated its 20th birthday. Their mission was to mark as many new cars as possible with independent safety ratings, and they gave the poor Metro a miserable one star out of five. The resultant drop in sales meant Rover dropped it altogether a few months later, and ever since Euro NCAP’s findings have been taken very seriously indeed.

The results kept coming. 1990s Volvos weren’t as indestructible as pub wisdom had long dictated. The original Ford Focus wasn’t as good at protecting pedestrians as the Escort that preceded it. The old Chrysler Voyager was a deathtrap, and the G-Wiz electric car might have as well have been made out of cardboard after its appalling crash test performance. Even today Euro NCAP is still unafraid of ruffling the car industry’s feathers, giving Ford’s latest Mustang a dismal two stars when five is increasingly the norm.

But your car’s almost certainly safer as a result. Ever since Renault picked up the first five star rating for its Laguna back in 2001 – and paraded it on every TV, magazine and newspaper ad it could as a result – manufacturers have engaged in a sort of safety arms race to ensure they’re top dog. 

Multiple airbags, ABS, autonomous braking, whiplash-responsive headrests and cleverly designed crumple zones are no longer novel additions to car brochures. They’re everyday motoring addenda, and anyone who doesn’t offer them is shown up in the test results as cheapskates who aren’t that bothered about customer safety.

It’s impossible to calculate how many lives Euro NCAP’s boffins have saved by forcing car companies to smarten up to avoid embarrassing crash test results, but it’s fair to say you stand a much better chance of surviving a 30mph shunt in a new Clio (a five star car) than you would in its 1997 equivalent (just two stars).

So it’s worth thinking about Euro NCAP’s experts next time you go out for a spin. They’ve genuinely moved motoring on – and all it took was one utterly ruined Metro.

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The police have some great car tech. It’s time for the rest of us to catch up

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I’M SURE I’ll read this in 2027 and be acutely embarrassed but I’ll say it anyway; today’s technology is amazing. I’ve no doubt Champion readers of the future will look back at right now and sneer at our primitive Trump Age inventions, but I’ll happily defend them.

Last Sunday I was at a car show at Brooklands, more than four hours’ drive away in deepest Surrey. Yet by the powers vested in my smartphone I was able to snap an Austin Seven being driven in anger, and a few seconds later you could see it in all its hi-res, technicolour glory on Facebook. A few hours later my pocket-sized miracle worker was able to harness the might of 31 satellites in space to seamlessly guide me around the M25’s traffic jams. Oh, and you can ring people on it on as well.

Yet in this seemingly enlightened age you can still be asked to produce good old-fashioned bits of paper if you’re pulled over by the police and need to prove you have insurance or an MoT. Yet – and you probably won’t be the slightest bit surprised to learn this – record numbers of drivers simply don’t carry them around with them. 

The police have their own system to check on this – it’s called Automatic Number Plate Recognition, or ANPR for short. I’ve seen it in action and it’s brilliant. Even when they’re driving past another car at 50mph it can read your plate and in an instant deduce whether you’re a wrong ‘un or not, and whether you’re likely to appear in an upcoming episode of Traffic Cops.

But I reckon it’s time we, the ordinary motorists, caught up. We’ve already worked out how to do away with paper tax discs and paper driving licences, but surely it’s time to look at how we can do away with the other bits of paper that inevitably end up clogging up a box file in your study too? If we can manage paperless bank statements and paperless gas bills then doing the same – and securely – for registration documents, insurance documents and MoT certificates can’t be that tricky.

Surely giving your friendly constable chum a single card to swipe through on their system – or even a smartphone with a bit of electronically-generated code – would save plenty of trees and avoid the need to pop to a police station with said documents within seven days. Certainly it’d avoid the situation of record numbers of drivers not having their details to hand, for sure.

I can only hope in some sort of Skunk Works in deepest Swansea that the DVLA’s brightest minds are already working on just such a thing. Then they – like my future self of 2027 – can look back on this primitive age of paper-dependent motoring and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Pre-registered cars? I can think of worse things…

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YOU’D be forgiven for thinking it’s worse than Donald Trump and Katie Hopkins getting together and having children, or finding out someone in the Government’s got their initials wrong and put the boss of BHS in charge of the NHS.

But pre-registered cars – despite being described by at least one of my one of my colleagues as a sort of automotive incest, because it involves the car industry effectively selling cars to itself – aren’t quite the malevolent motors some of the newspapers have made them out to be over the past few days.

In layman’s terms they’re cars that dealerships buy from the manufacturers, often at a hefty discount, and then sold on to you and me later on. In effect it means the first owners of these cars are the showroom themselves, and while it’s a handy way of bumping up the sales figures the net result to you and me are what are effectively brand new cars with sizeable discounts slapped on. How’s that a bad thing?

What I’d be more worried about is a used car scam that’s hitting the radar of trading standards organisations in other parts of the country, and it’s something to definitely watch out for next time you’re looking for a bargain. It has the two key ingredients of anything involving a bit of trickery – something that seems a bit too good to be true and people who are gullible or greedy enough to take advantage of it.

Here’s how it works. You’re online scouring the ads for a secondhand gem and you spot a car that looks like a great deal that isn’t going to hang around – but in all the pictures the registration plate’s been blanked out. You ring the seller to ask for the number, he happily obliges, and when you check it out the car in question has a backstory that checks out.

On that basis you stump up the readies, but it turns out the car you’ve bought is rather less savoury than the one you’d been saving up for. It’s the same make and model, of course, but the registration number’s completely different. The moral of the story is never to buy a car – especially a suspiciously cheap one – without seeing it first.

Pre-registered cars aren’t terribly sporting when it comes to car showrooms competing to have the best sales figures, but they are at least an entirely legal way of saving a few quid on a car. The sort of thing the trading standards experts are warning about is fraud. I know which I’d rather have.

A car to compare the Lynk and Co 01 to? That’d be the Daewoo

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THE OTHER day I drove a car that was 112-years-old. It was vaguely terrifying because it threatened to break your wrists every time you yanked its starter handle, the pedals made no sense and even at 15mph you never really had a sense of whether you’d arrive at your destination safely.

So it’s no bad thing that more than a century cars have evolved to the point where they’re roughly the same. Pass your test in a Ka and a Koenigsnegg shouldn’t prove too alien, because it’ll still have pedals that work in the same way and you know that the red triangle will always operate the hazards if things go wrong. It’ll have a key, and chances are you’ll buy it from a shiny building full of lots of other cars and a man with a neat suit over a cup of coffee.

But a new car company being launched by a Chinese conglomerate reckons it’s about to rewrite the rulebook. Not just any old outfit, either; you might not have heard of Geely Auto Group but it owns an up ‘n’ coming Swedish carmaker called Volvo. Apparently they do estates and safety tests rather well.

But Geely’s new kid on the block isn’t some Scandinavian load-lugger with a penchant for airbags (although it does share some bits with Volvo’s new XC40). It’s called the Lynk and Co 01, and it’ll be followed in time by the 02, the 03 and so on. What this new company lacks in imaginative names it replaces with ideas straight out of Dragons’ Den. You’ll only be able to buy it digitally for starters, and where most cars have a key this has an app that allows anyone you entrust with it to start it with their smartphone.

That sound you can hear right now is people on the internet oohing excitedly at the idea of cars no longer needing keys and being shared like messages on Facebook – but we’ve been here before. Geely’s already trying the technology out on Volvo’s more upmarket models, but they come with decades of hard-earned reputation of being safe, solidly built and – in the case of the 850 T5 – fun to drive. They’re good for being cars, not gimmicks.

It’s only fair to reserve final judgement until we discover Lynk and Co’s first model is brilliant to drive and utterly dependable, but the last manufacturer to try and break the UK with only one fantastic-sounding idea up its sleeve was Daewoo two decades ago. It took about five minutes for everyone to realise that revolution in car buying was yesterday’s Vauxhall Astra reheated in the microwave, and it all ended in tears. Same goes for the Saturns, the Edsels and DeLoreans of this world.

I really hope that I’m wrong and the Lynk and Co 01 is a decent product, but there’s a reason why all cars nowadays are roughly the same.

Driverless cars will make motoring more fun, not less

Audi has already proved with this driverless TT you can have zero effort and motoring fun in the same carTHERE’S something ironic about a motoring-friendly monarch announcing a bid to back driverless cars.

Her Majesty loves driving so much that for years she had a Rover P5B parked nearby just for her personal use (and don’t forget, she’s a trained mechanic). Yet it was the Queen’s Speech last week that the Government used to signal it was going to be doing more to make driverless cars a reality, partly by encouraging British firms to make them work properly and partly by insisting that we should all be able to get insurance cover for them.

Which you’d think would leave me a little uneasy.

I – as anyone who’s read Life On Cars over the past seven years might have gathered by now – love driving. I love it so much that I’ll end a stressful day at the office by hopping into an MX-5 and doing 15 miles for no good reason other than it being enjoyable. I love jumping into different cars and delving into the different facets of what they do, and discovering whether they’re better at making big distances disappear or making corners a thing to be reveled in. I’ll go the long way around simply because there’s a nice road somewhere in the Peak District, and wind down my window in the Mersey Tunnel if I’m in something with a memorable exhaust note. Enjoying driving is what great cars are all about.

But driverless cars get my support, and it only takes a return trip to Oxfordshire to explain why.

On a working day with an appointment in Abingdon I spent four of my eight hours doing just one thing; driving. It wasn’t the sort of driving I crave, but a dull, monotonous slog on congested bits of the M40. Not since I watched the Star Wars: The Phantom Menace have I clocked up the hours I’ve lost from my life. Time I could’ve spent tapping up articles on my laptop or dreaming up new and creative ways to banish Katie Hopkins from Britain forever were spent looking at the back of stationary Nissan Qashqais.

Driverless cars will give us all those wasted hours back. As long as David Cameron enshrines our right to safely enjoy the B4391 on a sunny Sunday afternoon then I’ll happily back any car that lets me sit in the back with a laptop and a pint while it does all the hard work.

I suspect even Her Majesty would probably approve – she can finally sack the chauffeur!

All cars should be limited to 70mph? Nonsense, and here’s why

The Mitsubishi Evo VIII is more than fast enough to get you into trouble..jpgALL CARS – from the Dacia Sandero to McLaren’s new 570GT – should be limited to a top whack of 90mph. Not my opinion, nor that of some Whitehall bureaucrat, but the man who got me into cars in the first place.

You’d like my dad. He’s not, contrary to popular rumour in the motoring world, the John Simister whose prose you’ll find running through the pages of Evo, Autocar and Practical Classics. But he is a petrolhead who loves an old Land Rover and would happily scour an autojumble looking for bits to keep it going.
Yet he put it to me only the other day that it’s pointless any of today’s cars being able to do more than 70mph. Perhaps, after a lot of persuading, he conceded they might have to crack 90mph in some one-in-a-million emergency situation, but no more than that. Not one measly mile an hour. Cars capable of that should be verboten.

Which is, of course, nonsense, and all you need to prove it is a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo VIII FQ-300. It’s exactly the sort of car that appeals solely to speed freaks; the name might make it sound like your office’s next air conditioning system but it knocks out 300bhp and can hit 60mph in under five seconds. It also looks like a boring Japanese saloon and has an interior with more grey than a wet Monday morning in Manchester, so you’re definitely buying it for performance rather than its ability to impress pedestrians.

A mate of mine’s got one, and frequently reminds me it can hit 157mph. Impressive, but suggesting he’ll actually do that on the Formby bypass is a bit like suggesting I’ll go chopping down trees in the Formby pine woods if I buy a top-of-the-range chainsaw.

You can break the law with just about anything if you think creatively enough – but that doesn’t mean we should ban pillows, golf clubs or copies of Coldplay’s more recent albums. The Bugatti Chiron is only as illegal as the squishy bit of mush driving it, and to suggest otherwise is to take a dangerous step into the world of banning things because we might do something with them.

Sorry Dad, but my vote’s with the FQ-300 and appreciating cars for what they’re capable of, not what they’re limited to. Providing they’re driven at no more than 69.9mph, of course…