F1: A dramatic end to a strange season!


Those of us who thought the last races of the year would be boring after Lewis made everything clear early November, well, we were wrong. Very wrong. Combining the drama we could have done without (Grosjean), the excitement with the oh so tragic end (Russell) and the final (well, almost) confirmation of drivers and teams for next season, this is probably the most dramatic season end in many years. But let’s start from the beginning, after my last F1 update that I posted early November and that you can read here.

Some very scary moments in Bahrain – look at what remains of the back of the car…

Starting with what we could all have done without is obviously Grosjean’s terrible crash in the first of two Bahrain races two weeks ago. Honestly I think many of us thought anything like this was impossible in modern F1, but at the same time it was also great to see how all the protective measures implemented worked wonderfully – with exception of the barrier that cut his car in half and caused the fire… Among recent safety equipment is the halo that wasn’t really acclaimed when it came. Now, Grosjean said himself that without it he would have been dead. You could add that had everything the drivers wear, from feet to head, been done in another material than Nomex, which withstands 800 degrees C for up to 35 seconds, he would also not be alive, or at least badly burnt, given it took him 28 seconds to get out of the fire… It’s unbelievable that he made it basically without being hurt. We won’t see Grosjean in F1 next year and it’s great it all ended on a dramatic but in the end positive note.

In the week after the first Bahrain race, we then learnt that Lewis had tested positive for Covid and that Mercedes would replace him with George Russell (Williams) for the second Bahrain race. I described George as the big British hope for when the day Lewis retires in my previous F1 post (link same as above), but hope is one thing. The reality is that so far he has never scored a point in F1, in the improving-but-still-too-slow Williams car. Oh how things were to change over the weekend….

If Bottas thought it would be easier racing Russell than Hamilton, he was wrong…

First, Russell set the fastest time in the free training on Friday, which he followed up with qualifying second to Bottas on the grid on Saturday. In the race he then passed Bottas in the first corner and led the race without any problems for the coming 60 or so laps (out of 87), until Mercedes (yes, Mercedes!) manages to screw up a pit stop so badly that he had to come in for a second one, and then for a third one after a puncture. After the first pit stop he was quickly back in the lead. After the second he was back in fifth, but needed only 2-3 laps to for second place (this included overtaking Bottas in a way that didn’t make the Finn look particularly good), After the third stop he came out 15th and by now, even the very calm George was swearing over the intercom. With six laps left, and did however still manage to finish 8th. It goes without saying that he was devastated, but also that anyone who saw the race realized that this was certainly not the end of it for George. Should Lewis not re-sign with Mercedes, which he still hasn’t confirmed, I’m willing to bet a face mask that Mercedes arranges for George’s contract with Williams to be cancelled. If not, he is a very likely successor to Lewis the day the 36-year old quits, which may well be after an 8th title in 2021.

It wasn’t to be this time, but I don’t think this is the last we’ll see of Russell in the Merc dress!

With Russell having the roller-coaster of his life that he could have done without, the one positive thing was that it allowed Sergio Perez to claim his first F1 victory, and few have been more well-deserved. Perez incredibly still doesn’t have a seat confirmed for next year, and how Aston Martin (as the team will be called next season) could put Sebastian Vettel before Perez beats me, but I’ve written enough of that before.

Most of the drivers are by now confirmed for next season, and the most notable is of course that Mick Schumacher will take one of the two Haas seats. Mick is Michael’s son, he looks like a perfect mix of his father and his uncle Ralph, and he didn’t get here just on having a famous name (although that never hurts). He won the FIA F3 European Championship in 2018 and the Formula 2 Championship in 2020 and has so far accumulated three wins in 11 podiums. There will obviously be huge pressure on the 21-year old Mick and everyone will always and constantly compare him to his father, and you can only hope he’s able to handle it. He will certainly also have to answer questions around the current state of his father of which we know very little, certainly not a good sign.

Ferrari has a a very excciting line-up with Sainz Jr next to Leclerc – as long as the car starts performing again….

Next to Grosjean, Kevin Magnussen is the other noteworthy driver who won’t be returning next year, going over the pond to race in the US IMSA Sports Car Series. After Daniel Ricciardo’s decision to move to McLaren, Renault (which will be called Alpine next year) looks forward to the F1 return of Fernando Alonso which promises to be interesting. And McLaren could be a better move than expected for Ricciardo given the team just signed a GBP 185m deal with American sports group MSP Sports Capital, who clearly have their eyes set on race wins next year. Again, it would be a great shame not seeing Sergio Perez in 2021, and late November Perez said he will take a sabbatical unless he’s offered the second Red Bull seat next to Verstappen. If you ask me that’s a very clear choice given Albon seen over the last two years has been a huge disappointment. He’s picked up somewhat in the last three races after Christian Horner gave him an ultimatum, but he’s still miles away from Max Verstappen. Perez on the other hand has consistently delivered over and above what anyone expected and to me is clearly the better driver. Unfortunately I don’t think anyone plans to ask me, so we’ll see what happens in the coming weeks.

And so the strangest season in memory came to an end this afternoon in Abu Dhabi. Lewis was back, meaning Russell was back in the back of the field in his Williams. Lewis said he didn’t feel 100% which was probably true given he “only” qualified in third and finished the very undramatic race in the same place, after Bottas in second and Max Verstappen in first. Max had started on pole for the first time this season and this was his second win. He is by now a clear number 2 behind Lewis and will most probably be an even bigger threat to the latter in 2021!

Lewis is still in front, but the margin is getting smaller!

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The stunning Swede!

Arguably many beauties have come out of Sweden over the years, but next year the Volvo P1800, hands down the most beautiful Volvo in history if you ask me, will celebrate its 60th birthday. Let’s therefore wind back the clock to the early 60’s and have a closer look at what is not only a good-looking but arguably also one of the most robust oldtimers you can buy. And in the ES shooting brake shape, an even more beautiful and practical one!

An early “English” car – the design didn’t change much through the years!

The P1800 planning at Volvo in Gothenburg started in 1957. Volvo was in full expansion and its management and especially CEO Gunnar Engellau wanted something that would be an eye-catcher both in showrooms and at auto salons. Volvo had already given the sports car segment a try a few years earlier with the roadster P1900, modelled on the Chevy Corvette, but that had proven to be an utter failure with only 67 cars produced. That did however not change Volvo’s enthusiasm for the idea of a sports car, and the design mandate for what was this time going to be a coupé was given to the Italian design firm Frua – where, as became known much later, the 25-year old Swedish design trainee Pelle Petterson was responsible for it… Swedish readers of the blog will know that the same Petterson then went on to become a famous sailor and boat designer.

Launched in 1961, the P1800 was thus an international project form the start. Planned in Sweden, designed in Italy (by a Swede), premiered at the car show in Brussels in 1961, and initially built by Jensen Motors in the UK, as the strong demand Volvo enjoyed meant there was no free production capacity in Sweden. Volvo was lucky to get away with that, as the first 6.000 P1800 built in the UK suffered from massive quality issues. From 1963 onwards production was relocated to Sweden, however the bodywork was still handled in Scotland until 1969. The UK build years 1961-1963 can be seen in the model name “P1800” as the cars subsequently built in Sweden were called “P1800S” (S for Sweden). The injection version from 1971 was referred to as the “P1800E”.

A later, 1967 car in the popular “off-white” colour

The P1800 saw very few modifications through the years. Design-wise the body was left untouched with only minor modifications to turning lights, chrome applications etc. A testament to a good design from the start! In fact the design was deemed so good that the P1800 was chosen as Simon Templar’s (Roger Moore) car in the British cult TV-series “The Saint” that aired through the 60’s. To be honest though, the producers had first asked Jaguar, but when they declined their attention turned to the P1800, which certainly didn’t hurt the popularity of the car.

If the body stayed the same until the end in 1973, the engines did evolve, however moderately. All P1800 derived their engines from the P121 Amazon, with the first British-built cars having the Volvo B18 engine with 100 hp (later 108 hp and 115 hp in the Swedish-built ones). From 1971 the cars had the B20 engine with 135hp. Not only the engine but also most other parts under the body were derived from the Amazon, no doubt one of the most solid creations that has ever been built and pretty much in a league of its own at the time. But whilst solid is good, was the P1800 any fun to drive?

Probably a renovated interior, but with original parts and seats

Well, the honest answer is that compared to some other sports cars at the time, the P1800 was a rather heavy-footed companion. The solidity no doubt came at the expense of the thrill of driving, and there were certainly more fun cars, roadsters and others, if that rather than the looks was the priority. Today it’s of course a different story. You don’t really buy a 60-year old car to drive it on two wheels through the corners and the solidity is probably of bigger appeal, as are the four disc brakes on cars from 1969. The car has aged very well and few oldtimers turn as many heads as the P1800, but one that does is its own sibling – the P1800 ES.

With an E for Estate added to the name, the ES was only produced during the two last production years 1972-1973. Aggressive US emission rules combined with the first oil crisis together contributed to the ES not seeing the interest it deserved, as this was an early version of what we would today call a shooting break. The whole concept was new at the time and looked upon a bit more critically than today, and the car earned many nicknames in different countries, not always very flattering. In the German-speaking part of Europe it went by the slightly morbid “Schneewitchensarg” (Snow White’s coffin), in Sweden it was called the fish car… Beneath the body work, the ES was exactly the same as as the last version of the “normal” P1800 with the 135 hp B20 engine.

The ES didn’t – and still doesn’t – look like any other car!

Finding a P1800 today is becoming tricky and also expensive, even more so the ES, and you may not have the luxury of choosing between model years. That’s however less important given how similar the cars are. If presented with a choice, the first, second and third priority is to check everything, really everything, for rust, which was a big issue at the time. Next, you probably want to avoid the early English cars unless we’re talking about a complete renovation. Finally, you would want to find a late car with the B20 engine and disc brakes all around. If the P1800 ES is your thing, then there’s really only one version to choose from, but in terms of ES colours, my preferred one is not the most common gold but rather the oh so cool 70’s orange one as pictured below! Expect to pay at least EUR 25′-30′ for a decent P1800 today, and probably an extra EUR 10′ for an ES in the same shape. If you’re thinking of renovating then do make sure you know where to find the necessary parts before signing the contract, as some have become increasingly hard to come by.

Perfect colour with the optional roof rack – the practical oldtimer!

So there we are – a Swedish beauty from the 60’s that if treated well will run for a very long time (there’s reportedly a P1800 out there with more than 4 million kms on the counter, still with the first engine!), that is solid as an ox and easy to maintain, and that will turn heads more than most – what more could you possibly wish for?

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What to consider when buying your dream car

When I sold my Triumph TR4 this autumn after ten years and re-invested the money in my deal-of-the-century BMW 650i, quite a few people came to me both questioning my choice, but also asking for tips of things to think about when buying the dream car with a big D. Based on my experience over the years, I therefore decided to put together a few points in this regard that make up this week’s post.

My choice of switching from an oldtimer to a modern car, as mentioned in my previous post that you can read here, was basically a practical consideration based on how little I was using the TR4, that fact that I neither have unlimited space nor an unlimited budget, and a realization that our needs have changed. This is not to say you shouldn’t realize your oldtimer dream, but whether it’s an oldtimer or a modern car you’re dreaming about, there are some basic things to bear in mind.

Age is just a number – or is it?

The car’s age is obviously an indirect function of what your dream car is, but the point here is just to think about the implications the age will have on your ability to use it. To come back to my TR4, the longest trip I did in ten years was with my wife to Lausanne and back, around 600 kms. It was a great trip without any issues, but when we came back home I wasn’t really longing to go any further and I left the car standing for 3 weeks.  If you’re more hardcore or more passionate this will sound ridiculous, but at least for some of us it’s relevant and something you should consider before deciding.

…when life was more hardcore than today…

Other aspects of old vs newer include some of the things we are so used to in modern cars that we don’t even think about them. Take for example the isolation of the convertible top – there is a very big difference between a 50-year old car and a new one in this regard. Connectivity is another one of those things – if you love connecting your phone, remember that Bluetooth is a recent invention. And remember that speaker systems have evolved. Unless you want to listen to the engine all the time, make sure you’re happy with the sound, because drilling holes in the door panels of your new companion is perhaps not what you dream about.

The art of lobbying

The dream car your mind is set on is not necessarily the dream of your partner or other family members, and this is where some convincing and lobbying comes into play. Believe me, that’s a far better way to go than to start by buying the car and putting your partner before a fait accompli. I’ve tried and it’s nothing I would recommend.  I’ll never forget the day we returned from holidays and whilst I brought in the luggage, my wife listened to the answering machine where a car dealer I had just made a deal with but not yet told her about called to confirm it. Somehow, I hadn’t found the right moment… She eventually came around, but I won’t try that again. Your family doesn’t need to be as enthusiastic as you, but it’s good if they’re in on the project and don’t hate your dream car – you risk becoming very lonely otherwise. Furthermore, if it’s a two-seater, that obviously means any children have to stay home. If it’s a convertible, it won’t necessarily be very comfortable in the back seat with the hood off. And so on.

The thrill of maintaining

All cars break down. To a certain extent this can be avoided by going through all the checks at the time of buying, but stuff happens. It probably happens more with oldtimers than with modern cars, but there’s more stuff that can break in modern cars, so all things considered, it may well come out the same. Also, if you believe like I did that oldtimer mechanics are good-hearted guys in it for the passion and not for the money, think again…

Many oldtimer garages still look the same, but prices have gone up…

Whether old or new, there is obviously a cost associated with your dream vehicle, and that cost will depend heavily on both the car’s age, its condition and its complexity. Looking at oldtimers, my TR4 was a relatively safe bet given it was a no-frills car with a four-cylinder engine originating from a tractor (it sounded great but revving wasn’t its thing…). A 12-cylinder E-type or an Aston Martin V8 are a completely different story, as friends of mine have experienced over the last years. I’ve now replaced my TR4 with a modern, 8-cylinder double-turbo 650i and when the guarantee expires, I’m potentially up for much heftier bills than with the TR4, but I like to think that at least I’m aware of it. You should be so as well, and you should set a projected budget aside. If you’re insecure, speak to a specialized garage or a car club who will be able to guide you. Please remember this. I know a frightening number of intelligent people who somehow managed to forget all about it until the day the bill is delivered…

Is depreciaton a friend or foe?

With the exception of a small number of collectible cars that gain in value from day one, as a rule of thumb nothing depreciates as quickly and heavily as luxury cars and as a general rule, the more they cost as new, the more they will loose. After a period of typically 6-10 years, values then stabilize at a fraction of the initial price, and this is when it gets interesting. Allow me to take my 650i as an example. 6 years ago when it was new it cost CHF 175’ with options. 50.000 kms later I paid CHF 36’. That’s a nice little depreciation of 80% or if you prefer, 2.8 CHF per km. Even if Elon gets his way, the whole world turns electric in five years and my resale value goes to zero, I’ll never be close to that depreciation. Also, and this was important to me, a great advantage of buying a heavily depreciated luxury car is that it was built at the time to cost CHF 175’, not CHF 36’ or anything in between. That shows in every single detail, and it’s a very nice feeling.

If this is you’re thing, depreciation runs in the 100.000’s the first years…

That’s one side of the coin, but there is of course also a reason for the heavy depreciation, and that’s the maintenance cost. Having said that, I’m a very strong believer in the market being very far from perfect in this regard, meaning that if you do your research, you can to a certain extent “beat” it. As a rule of thumb, never ever be in a hurry. There are of course situations where it’s warranted to act quickly but generally, there will always be good cars around. Take your time, do your checks, look into the history, speak to experts, call the car club etc. The more you know, the more likely you are to buy the right car, and the better prepared you’ll be.

When I set eyes on a 6-series, it was these type of considerations that led me to opt for the updated 450 hp V8 rather than the pre-2013 408 hp version. The extra power was nice but above all, a bit of research showed that the previous engine had a history of engine failures that can become very expensive. This was not at all reflected in market prices however. I knew which options were important to me, and also that I wanted a fully serviced one-owner car. When that car in the right colour scheme then appeared back in August, I was able to act quickly. Of course things can still happen and I certainly don’t want to sound like a know-it-all in this regard, but I’d like to think that knowledge and some experience have at least lowered the risk.

NEVER go for “almost” right

Finally, perhaps the most important point of all. Coming back to the point of not being in a hurry, never – ever – go for the car that almost has it all. If you want a manual 996, don’t buy the Tiptronic thinking you’ll get used to it, wait for the right one to come around – it will. Don’t buy a blue car if you want a black because it’s almost as nice and after all it was cheaper. You risk thinking about it every time you walk up to the car. If you dream of the 8-cylinder, don’t by the 6-cylinder version. And so on. If you’re realizing a childhood dream, you want reality to be as close to that dream as possible an “almost” won’t cut it. When the right car comes along, you’ll be glad you waited!

So there we go. Not by any means a complete guide, but hopefully a few points that can help guide you in your quest for the dream car! Good luck!

The most exciting sports car launches in 2021!

This strange year is slowly coming to an end, and I think we can all agree that it hasn’t been the best start to a new decade one could imagine. But whereas back in March we thought the world was coming to an end, it luckily didn’t turn out to be the catastrophic year for the economy many predicted. Still, here in Switzerland for example, new car sales are so far down around 27% compared to 2019, so I think that from many aspects, things can only improve in 2021, starting with getting a certain virus under control. Based on recent news there seems to be good hope for that and in that spirit, let’s have a look at some of the most exciting sports cars coming out next year for your real or dream drives!

That electrification is here to stay is something you become acutely aware of when looking at next year’s sports car launches. From a supercar perspective 2021 is definitely an electric year with the below selection including two full EV’s, one hybrid and only one good old combustion engine. We’ll see in a year’s time when doing the same exercise if there are any interesting petrol cars left at all!

Polestar 1

All colours can be had in matte as well

Starting in the middle of the drivetrain options and on the cheaper end, the Polestar 1 may be a model year 2020 but it won’t hit the roads until next year so we’ll include it here, also given how awaited and acclaimed it is. Polestar is obviously Volvo’s sports car brand, built not in Sweden but in China, and whereas the Polestar 2 is more of a Tesla Model 3 competitor, the Polestar 1 at an indicative entry price of around EUR 160.000 is intended to compete with the big boys in the coupé/GT segment.

The 2+2 coupé is built on a shortened version of the S90 platform, stiffened with lots of carbon, and its looks seem to have convinced every single motor journalist out there. I saw a prototype in Geneva two years ago and wasn’t fully convinced, but the design has grown on me from all angles except the back which I still think looks clumsy and very reminiscent of the S90. This obviously begs the question whether the car is only a Volvo in disguise, and the answer isn’t crystal clear.

The Polestar 1 proudly exhibits its power cables in the luggage compartment!

From a drivetrain perspective, it’s pretty impressive. Polestar combines Volvo’s petrol 4-cylinder driving the front wheels, assisted by a 68 hp electrical starter motor, with two additional electrical motors driving the back wheels and adding a further 232 hp. Total power output is around 600 hp and obviously goes beyond anything Volvo has ever produced. From an interior perspective it looks like a Volvo, with only small modifications to a top-of-the-line V90 or XC90. That’s one of the best interiors out there in the SUV or family hatchback segment, but I think it may struggle in comparison with some luxury GT’s that Polestar likes to mention as competitors.

No, it’s not your XC90, it’s the new Polestar 1

In tests the Polestar has been said to drive well in a rather stiff, GT kind of way, and the combination of petrol and electrical engines is said to work seamlessly. It seems to roar quite nicely (artificially or course). but the attraction obviously doesn’t come from the four-cylinder but rather the power combination. It can also be driven in strict electrical mode and then has a range of up to 150 kms, far more than most other hybrids. Polestar says it will only build 1500 of the 1 which are all spoken for. That type of exclusivity has never hurt any car!

Tesla Roadster

It’s doubtful how many of today’s buyers of Tesla’s Model 3, S or X know that the company’s first electrical car back in 2008 was a 2-seat roadster, based on the Lotus Elise chassis and built until 2012. That’s less than 10 years ago (pretty impressive for a company today valued at USD 400bn), and the Roadster was actually the first serial produced car with a lithium-Ion battery system. Fast forward to today, and Tesla is now working on the Roadster 2 and says it will be introduced in 2021. Knowing Tesla, that could of course just as well be in 2022, or 2023.

The prototype picture of the new Roadster

The new Roadster was unveiled already in 2017 and much of what we know still dates from then, notably talk of a 1.9-seconds time to 100 km/h, a quarter-mile time below 9 seconds and a top speed beyond 300 km/h. That obviously puts the four wheel drive roadster (electrical engines both up front and in the back ) in real supercar territory and from that angle, the current price assumption of USD 200′ (in the US), sounds rather reasonable. Again, those who live will see.

It’s been said the Roadster will have a removable glass roof

Tesla have also said that the Roadster will have a 200 KwH battery pack giving the car a range of up to 620 miles, and they’ve mumbled something about a new revolutionary battery technology. We’ll see about that but clearly the range and the performance numbers given above are mutually exclusive.

That’s about all we know. We can assume the interior to be a minimalistic story built around giant screens and can probably also assume that the back seats given the roof line won’t be very spacious. For the rest, hopefully next year will give us if not the car, then at least more details!

Maserati MC20

To my mind there’s only one interesting petrol sports car set to launch next year, but it’s one that can be expected to have a lot of fans. The MC20 (Maserati Corse 20) is supposed to start a new era for the Italian constructor (and obviously the car should had been launched in 2020 with that name, but hey, that’s a detail) and looking at what we’ve seen and know so far, they look to be off to a good start!

The front grill is the only thing resembling the last generation

Around 4.7 metres long and 1.2m high (with the additional height over a Lambo or Ferrari said to be intended to provide enough space for larger drivers with a helmet!), the body is sleek to the point of looking almost too discrete, were it not for the scissor doors. It is however a high-tech structure developed together with Dallara that is supposed to generate 100 kg downforce at 240 km/h. The engine is a newly developed six-cylinder putting out a total of 630 hp and 730 Nm and given the MC20 weighs in at under 1.500 kgs, the power to weight ratio is pretty good. The talk is of 3 seconds to 100 km/h, under 9 to 200 km/h and a top speed of 325 km/h.

The MC20 is a high-tech structure through and through, with an active suspension system that is supposed to be able to read the road, an interior combining carbon, alcantara and leather, and Maserati’s new infotainment system, that by the sounds of it brings the brand to the same level as other manufacturers in the same segment, which hasn’t really been the case so far.

The colour lining can be varied if blue isn’t your thing

A base price of EUR 210.000 has been mentioned when the MC20 starts off next year in coupé form. Until 2022 a convertible will be added, and there is also talk of – you guessed it – a fully electrical version in the same year.

Lotus Evija

Saving the best and most spectacular for last, 2021 is also the year when the Lotus Evija should see the light, and this is really something out of the ordinary. Lotus’s new supercar is a fully electric monster putting out almost 2000 hp (1972 to be exact), whilst still as a true Lotus managing to keep the weight down to around 1.650 kgs (yep, I know, but we’re talking an EV here). Handling and the typical Lotus agility is said to be preserved notably by the battery pack being situated in the middle of the car, right behind the driver.

The Evija has also been delayed several times, including because of Covid, but deliveries to the lucky owners who have transferred the GBP 2m needed are said to start from next summer. Exactly what the interior will look like and even how the car will behave with the full power output is still not known, tests so far have been on restricted prototypes, so there is still a lot of mystery around the whole thing.

What we do know however is how the Evija puts the 1972 hp to work through its four engines. Obviously you can’t just let this level of power loose on the poor wheels, so the Evija’s concept is rather to unleash as much power at any time as the drivetrain can take. So from standing in first gear that may be 300 hp, increasing to 600 hp in 3rd gear, then 900 hp in fifth and so on. The car has five drive-modes, from Range (max 1000 hp, 800 Nm) over City, Tour and Sport to Track with the full output of close to 2000 hp and 1700 Nm). With all the bells and whistles turned on, the performance numbers are nothing short of spectacular.

You’d better hold on firmly to that square steering wheel!

The Evija is said to do 0-100 km/h in 3 seconds, which isn’t that spectacular and more than a second slower than a Tesla Roadster! But then all hell (a very silent hell) breaks loose as power builds and it does the following 100 km/h in another 3 seconds, i.e. 0–200 km/h in 6 seconds. That’s on par with a Chiron Sport. And then it does the same trick again to 300 km/h, for which a Chiron needs more than twice as long. In other words we’re talking a 0-300 km/h time of less than 10 seconds, which is bloody terrifying on paper, but apparently not in reality. There’s no howling double-turbo V12 here, just the discreet, swirling noise of electric power.

Whether we like it or not, that sounds like something we’ll have to get used to, even in the supercar segment!

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The striking 205 GTI!

If last week was all about the technological future of our cars, this week we’ll make a trip back in time and explore less of the thrill of technology, and more of the thrill of driving in its purest sense. We’ll do so by looking a bit closer at an absolute legend among hot hatches: the Peugeot 205 GTI.

A brilliant design that has aged very well!

Back in 1990-1991, when the 205 was still riding high although it had alaredy been on the market for seven years, a good friend of mine had parents kind enough to offer him a brand new 205 1.9 GTI when he got his driver’s license. I remember when he showed it to me the first time, it was black and shiny with those lovely 15″ rims and the half-leather interior, and man was I jealous. Not that there was anything wrong with my parents, but the blue Golf from -75 they got me didn’t really do the trick in comparison. As it turned out though, the Golf lived far longer than the 205. You see, my friend was in love with a beautiful girl, who also had just got her license, and kind as he was (and still is), lent her the car over a weekend. If memory serves me right, she didn’t drive more than a few hundred meters before crashing it so completely that it never came back. Luckily nothing happened to her, but the two of them broke off shortly thereafter, unclear why…

Except teaching us to be careful with whom we lend our beloved cars to, the story also highlights another fact which contributed to the 205’s early demise in the above case, namely that it’s a light car with correspondingly thin and light parts. It weighed in at less than 900 kgs and as I’ve written about previously on this blog, a low weight is the best recipe for good handling and speed – but not a good one if you plan to crash.

Anyway let’s go back to the beginning, which for the 205 means the year 1983 when the GTI started off in parallel to the regular 205, initially with a 1.6 litre engine developing first 105 and later 115 hp. In 1986 the engine size was increased to 1.9 litres with more torque and between 120-130 hp depending on version. The debate still goes on among enthusiasts as to which version was the best, some claiming the 1.6 is more playful whilst others talk of more speed and torque in the 1.9 litre. I’ve only driven the 1.9 and I’ll just note that the extra power means 1.5 seconds less to a 100 (at 7.6 seconds), quite beneficial since the car is still as playful as you would expect an 80’s hot hatch to be.

The 15″ wheels were large at the time and reserved for the 1.9 GTI

The 205 was an instant success in France, and the GTI version was a success pretty much all over Europe. In France its main competitor was the Renault 5 which didn’t have the poise of the 205, and internationally it was the Golf GTI Mk2, which was somewhat roomier and probably the better car, but which design-wise was a step back as compared to both the 205 and the Golf GTI Mk1. The 205 was a stunner in comparison and if you ask me it remains so today. I think it’s still one of the best hot hatch designs ever produced and if you look at the complicated forms hatches tend to come in today, certainly one of the cleanest!

It didn’t hurt the success of the 205 GTI, that lasted for 10 years, that a car by the same name but with few parts in common was very successful both in Group B and the Paris-Dakar rally. The 205 T16 / T16 Evo 2 was a mid-engine super car with up to 500 hp, competing with the Lancia Delta Evo and the Audi Sport Quattro, that I wrote about not long ago (click here if you missed it). The 200 homologation cars have mostly gone the same way as my friend’s car and finding one today is very hard and very expensive.

Looks roughly like a 205 and shoots flames out the back – that’s good marketing!

That the “normal” 205 is a real feather-weight becomes clear as soon as you open the (extremely light) door, sit down and look at the likewise very thin and basic plastic dashboard. Not much here to distinguish the GTI from a regular 205, but the comfy, good-looking seats along with the red carpeting remove any doubts as to which version you’re in, and both look sensational. Visibility is tremendous even by 80’s standards and the car is roomier than you think, both in front and back.

Taking it for a short drive, the first thing you note is how much the body moves and how soft the suspension is compared to modern hot hatches. This doesn’t mean it doesn’t stick to the road – it very much does so, but this was how hatches were built at the time and the longer suspension travel means that it’s actually overall more comfortable than a modern hatch. Naturally a new 206 GTI, Civic Type R or any other modern hot hatch is faster, but the 205 still provides a level of speed and fun which is right up there, especially since speed itself is relative and tends to be rather limited in most places you would use a hatch today. The car is playful, both steering and gearbox are fully ok, and the four pot has just the level and type of sound you wish for. It actually felt exactly as fun as it did 30 years ago, before disaster hit the car I drove at the time in the form of a pretty girl.

The dashboard could be any 205 but the seats and colors make the difference!

Finding a 205 GTI isn’t difficult, finding one in good condition a bit more so. Firstly most cars have really been used, and who wouldn’t? This means that may will have 150.000-200.000 kms on the clock which isn’t the end of the world as long as they have been maintained well. A good car will today cost you at least EUR 15.000, a perfect one with much less kms considerably more. Running costs won’t be much to worry about and the downside risk is very limited, as especially well kept cars get increasingly rare.

So why would you? Well, except for the looks and sweet memories from younger days, which in themselves are great arguments, there are other pretty rational reasons for looking at a 205 if a hot hatch is your thing. Assuming you will use it as most people, meaning on short city drives and spells of country roads rather than for long motorway trips, then things such as sound isolation and lack of top end power become much less important and having a small practical but very cool car with great visibility more so! You don’t need giant, Type R-styled wings in the city and you don’t need park assistance systems to park a 205 as long as you can still turn your neck. And whereas a modern hot hatch costs you three times as much to buy, the pleasure you’ll derive by taking the slightly longer way home along that twisty country road won’t be much different!

Digital driving!

When you write about cars every week and spend a fair amount of time in between thinking about them (which is certainly my case, and given you’re a reader of this blog, may also be yours), it’s sometimes easy to forget the somewhat bigger picture and general trends in the automobile industry. Right now, that bigger picture is changing quite a bit in a variety of ways that will hopefully make our beloved cars better going forward. This week we’ll be looking at some of the major areas of development in this regard and take the two cars that got me thinking about this as examples.

On one hand that’s the grand daddy of luxury limousines in its newest iteration: the Mercedes S-class. It can already be ordered and will be seen on our streets soon. Under a relatively conservatively-styled body, this is a car that takes the luxury automobile concept to a whole new level in terms of technology, as we’ll see further below.

Small exterior changes, quite a revolution underneath

Vastly different to the S-class is the new, all-electric Hummer EV. That’s right, an electric Hummer truck, set to come to market late in 2021. Obviously the truck segment (or pick-ups as we like to call them in Europe) isn’t a big thing on this side of the Atlantic, but it’s the largest market segment in the US where over 3 million new trucks were sold in 2019. None of those were obviously electric, and at present electric cars have less than a 2% overall market share in the US, but that’s precisely what makes it interesting.

Coming to market in 2021, the first electrical truck will be a Hummer!

The Hummer EV along with Tesla’s Cybertruck and other electrical trucks in planning both from Ford and smaller, relatively unknown brands, bring electrification to the largest car segment in the US. Trucks are not much of a thrill to drive today, but when the Hummer and Cybertruck hit us with their more than 1000 hp and 3 seconds to 100 km/h, that is set to improve dramatically. A truck is not without advantages, notably the space for gear they offer, their towing ability etc. That also means there’s lots of room for battery packs, and the Hummer is said to have a range of 350 miles, the Cybertruck of around 500 miles. I could go on, but you get the message. If electrification is to take off in the US anytime soon, this is the segment where it could well happen. And since many truck drivers still think only golf carts can be electric, it’s significant that it’s Hummer, the most macho brand of them all, that leads the way.

The interior is apparently fully vegan, the roof can be removed and stored in the frunk.

Moving beyond the increasingly electrified engines, let’s have a look at what the new S-class offers in terms of both interior comfort and technology. Starting with the dashboard, it has the same screen-based interior as we’re increasingly seeing in many cars and where Tesla is no longer very special in this regard. Gauge clusters are long gone and the S-class now has a 3-dimensional screen, meaning you see your instruments “in depth”. Mercedes also deals with the fingerprint problem with a new voice command system said to be so good that you practically don’t need to touch anything to access most functions. This is clearly something that will come in other cars before long. It’s probably a good thing, but it supposes you’re willing to have a dialogue with your car. Oh, and I almost forgot: the new Burmester 3-D sound system reflects bass tones through movements in your seat. That’s perhaps not something we’ll see in a Skoda Octavia next year…

Less than 10 years ago, this is very far from what an S-class would look like…

Next to the increasingly communicative interior there are nowadays cameras all around, and no doubt they will continue to make inroads into the whole driving experience in the coming years. There’s the practical usage which allows us to replace our rear-view mirrors (both centre and door-mounted) with an always fully visible camera picture. There’s the cameras inside the car that recognize you and automatically sets the car to your profile, as the new S-class does. There’s of course the cameras assisting navigation with augmented reality, meaning you can basically drive looking at the screen in front of you rather than out the window, and that if you still manage to get lost, you should probably consider the train instead. There’s various other features such as 3-D screens and augmented reality head-up displays, both featured in the S-class, and there’s of course the surround cameras which let you admire your car from outside whilst sitting in it. The Hummer EV takes that concept even further with cameras under the car to assist the off-road driving. So cameras all over, enhancing both the comfort and the safety. Some of them will become mandatory, others will remain more nice to have, but we will definitely see even more of them.

The main difficulty will probably be keeping an eye on it all…

Linked to cameras and safety are also the constantly evolving self-driving and self-parking systems. Increasingly these now reach a level where car technology is ahead of legislation in a number of markets and the full self-driving features of cars like the S-class, Teslas and others may not be used in full. There’s still a big question mark around when that will be the case, also since anything other than European harmonization in this regard would be very hard to manage. Be careful what you wish for though as there is a serious danger that when the legislator catches up, that’s also when big brother will take full control of your car – and speed.

The last and to me quite surprising new development worth mentioning is one that has come with increasingly advanced suspension technologies. Many will have seen the “dancing GLE” by now, which thanks to its independent wheels and active suspension can perform a dance with each wheel moving independently. More relevant is no doubt that these systems also give SUV’s and trucks like the Hummer vastly increased terrain capabilities by allowing for individual control of each wheel.

With increasingly congested cities, a few degrees make a big difference!

Interestingly, this theme of 4-wheel steering is also picked up by the S-class, which allows a rear axle steering angle of up to 10 degrees against the front wheels up to a speed of 60 km/h, and above it steering in the same direction as the front wheels such as to increase stability. Mercedes claims this notably cuts a car’s turning circle by on average 2 metres and gives the new S-class a smaller circle than a regular A-class. Some of you may remember the 90’s Honda Prelude that introduced 4WS in a mass-produced car. The concept never took off then, and it was obviously a far less advanced technology than what we have today. This time it could be a different story, especially in the segments of bigger sedans, hatchbacks and SUV’s.

So there we are: increasingly electrified and camera-equipped cars that we interact with differently, probably also verbally, and that almost unassisted take us first where we want to go, and then also into that tight parking space. The electrification trend runs in parallel to this and will in increasingly be seen in trucks and other cars, both as full EV’s like the Hummer but also as various hybrid systems, of which the S-class features some. It’s amazing to see how quickly technology has developed in just the last 5-10 years, and it’s fascinating to think of where we may be in another 10!

The Wright brothers patented the first flying car in 1841 – perhaps the time has come?

F1 update: Lewis the Legend!

With four races left to go after today’s, it’s time to do a quick pit stop and look at what we’ve seen and can still expect to see in this year’s F1 season.

To start with the most deserving, a week ago Lewis Hamilton became truly legendary in beating Michael Schumacher’s record of F1 race wins. After today, Lewis now totals an incredible 93 wins, 9 of which so far this season. He also equals Schumacher’s record for the most wins with the same team (72), and today’s Hamilton-Bottas double means Mercedes clinched their 7th constructor world title. Lewis is Formula 1’s uncontested number 1, obviously helped by driving the car that is still relatively far ahead of the competition.

It’s good to be the king!

If Lewis is already the de facto world champion, it’s far more contested who will finish second and third – and who won’t. Valtteri Bottas is probably the ideal second driver with Mercedes eyes. He’s loyal to the team and occasionally manages to challenge Lewis, and so far this year has won two races. The question is however rather if what Max Verstappen (Red Bull) and Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) manage to achieve in inferior cars isn’t more impressive. Even though Ferrari is improving and Charles’s results is the only thing that may save Mattia Binotto’s job as team head, they are still far from Mercedes and Charles’s driving is the only thing making Ferrari look slightly better than the mid-field teams. Max on the other hand does a very good job of scoring podium finishes, including one race win this year, and is still in competition with Valtteri for second place in the championship. Red Bull and Max is also the only constellation that occasionally has managed to challenge Mercedes this season.

A good summary of Ferrari’s season so far…

Charles and Max’s relative success also make it very clear that driving skills still count and that it’s not all about the car. The last two races in Portugal and Italy were a good illustration of how far behind Leclerc Sebastian Vettel currently is, in spite of Ferrari confirming both drive identical cars. Seb had officially doubted this but also admitted that Charles is currently in another league. There is probably little hope of things improving before Seb leaves Ferrari for Racing Point / Aston Martin at the end of the season, and you have to wonder whether Racing Point don’t ask themselves whether switching Perez for Vettel was a wise move. I guess time will tell.

There’s equally little hope of Alex Albon retaining his seat in Red Bull. His oddds improved slightly last week when Pierre Gasly confirmed he’s staying with Red Bull’s little brother Alpha Tauri next year. This beats me as Alpha Tauri is Red Bull’s farm team and Pierre’s stellar performance this season with notably one race win stands in stark contrast to Albon’s total lack of results. Today in Italy, Albon then put what is probably the last nail in his coffin himself, when after a mediocre race he completely messed up the restart after the safety car phase with 7 laps to go, managing to lose the car and end up last. Before Portugal, team boss Christian Horner last had given Albon two races to start performing. The fact that he couldn’t and hasn’t been able to all season most probably means we’ll see another second driver at Red Bull next year.

“How the hell can Max be so fast??”

Behind Mercedes and the best half of Red Bull and Ferrari, the mid field is as competitive as ever with Racing Point, McLaren, Renault and Alpha Tauri all very close, and even Alfa Romeo Racing (ex Sauber) managing to pick up points here and there. Although he’s leaving at the end of the season, Daniel Ricciardo certainly doesn’t lack motivation and looks to be finishing his short spell with the Renault team in style, something that may have been really important when Renault decided to stay committed to F1. The team won’t have much time to regret Ricciardo though, as they will instead need to focus on Fernando Alonso returning to the team he won his two world titles with . With an improving car, it will be very interesting to see what an experienced driver like Alonso will be able to achieve.

Will Alonso be able to recreate the magic?

At the back of the field the most interesting is certainly the discussions around Williams, its new owners (the US investment company Dorilton), and whether George Russell will stay on as driver (apparently Nicolas Latifi has enough financial backing to be certain of his seat). Russell has done a fantastic season given what could be expected, notably reaching qualifying P2 on eight occasions (I know, but we’re talking about Williams here!) and also refers to the fact that he has a contract covering 2021. Then again so did Sergio Perez at Racing Point and that didn’t stop the team from firing him and hire Vettel instead. Perez is still looking for a new seat, and it’s not impossible that he kicks Russell out of Williams. Or maybe Perez could be the one replacing Albon at Red Bull?

The UK seems to have a promising successor to Lewis!

As for Haas, last years’ rock’n’roll team notably thanks to the Netflix documentary “Formula 1 – drive to survive” (watch it if you haven’t!) and the charismatic team boss Günther Steiner with his unique version of German English, it’s been a sad season. The team is nowhere to be seen and not even Steiner’s swearing seem to help anymore. Magnussen and Grosjean are both leaving the team next season, Gene Haas is however said to be committed to another season, so Haas will line up two new drivers in 2021. The rumours have it that one of those may be Michael Schumacher’s son Nic… It also means that both Magnussen and Grosjean could be competing for that second seat at Red Bull, both bringing as much experience as Perez.

With four races to go after today there’s thus still some excitement left, however rather off the track given we already know that Lewis will with very high certainty clinch his well-deserved seventh driver’s title soon, with a new record in the number of race wins! Just a small point though – Lewis doesn’t have a contract for next year, which is slightly strange given how late in the season we are. Most probably he’ll re-sign with Mercedes in the coming weeks, because he wouldn’t be retiring now that he’s beaten most records, would he?

Four is more than two!

quattro (always with a lower-case “q” ). It’s difficult to find a word that has meant more to a carmaker than quattro to Audi. But the quattro concept goes beyond Audi and was to re-define the car world from the early 80’s until four-wheel drive became a common feature in all types of cars. So with the days getting shorter and the roads more slippery, and the original Audi quattro (Ur-quattro, as the Germans would say) celebrating its 40th birthday this year, let’s have a closer look at it, its brilliance as a rally car, and also at the genius of the late legend Ferdinand Piëch, without whom the quattro wouldn’t have happened.

The Audi quattro was truly innovative at the time, including the boxed arches!

To get some perspective we have to wind the clock back to the late 70’s. This wasn’t a very exciting period in the car world in general, and four-wheel drive was at the time something you only found in traditional utility cars like Land Rovers and G-wagons. In Ingolstadt, a bunch of talented Audi engineers under the leadership of Ferdinand Piëch had however started thinking about the possibilities of using four-wheel drive in normal passenger cars, thanks to a room-saving, innovative new differential system.

In parallel there was also talk in the rally world of allowing four-wheel drive on rally cars, which until then had been forbidden. As the visionary he was, Piëch saw the opportunity of developing a new, four-wheel drive sports car and enter it in the world rally championship such as to provide a unique marketing window. This was the first true example of what would become Audi’s long-lived slogan “Vorsprung durch Technik” (something like “head start through technology”). The quattro was introduced at the Geneva Motor Show in 1980 and given the rally rules had been re-written in 1979 to allow for four-wheel drive, the timing was perfect.

Not the most pleasant man – but Ferdinand Piëch was both an amazing engineer and marketeer!

Given the Audi quattro was a new concept when it was introduced, Audi weren’t really sure of the demand and modestly estimated it at a few hundred cars. They would be wrong by about 11.000, which was the total number of original Audi quattro’s built between 1980 and 1991! Using the Audi 80 chassis, the quattro also inherited the five-cylinder engine that had so far powered the Audi 100 and 200 (with turbo in the latter). The engine was an engineering tour de force in itself, born out of the need for a smoother engine than a four-cylinder, but in Audi’s case with too little room to fit a front-mounted, longitudinal six-cylinder engine, given the gearbox was placed right behind the engine.

The solution was one of the first mass-produced five-cylinder engines that would come to define Audi over many years almost as much as the quattro concept, and that was said to combine the smoothness of a six-cylinder with the fuel consumption of a four-pot. The first part is true, and it can be added that it does so with a very distinctive sound. The part on the fuel consumption is very much dependent on the driver… In the quattro, the turbo-boosted engine produced 200 hp in the 10-valve version until 1988, which was increased to 220 hp in the 20-valve version for the last three production years.

The radiator had to be placed to the right of the engine, with the turbo to the left.

When you look at the quattro today, the “Vorsprung durch Technik” motto (sorry, sticking to the German version as the translation doesn’t sound as good…) quickly comes to mind. Not that the car is ugly, but it’s certainly not a design masterpiece (then again, neither was the Lancia Delta, the Renault Turbo 2 or other somewhat similar cars from the period). It does however look very purposeful, notably with the the lovely boxed arches that many years later would also come on cars like the Lancia Delta but were very much a first in the early 80’s. They also helped distinguish the quattro from the “standard”, 136 hp Audi Coupé. The interior has that lovely 80’s feel of hard plastic but offers lots of room for four and their luggage, meaning the quattro is a real all-rounder.

The single headlights came in 1982, only early cars have four separate headlights.

When you get behind the wheel, as in most 80’s cars you’re struck not only by the cheap plastic but also by the large windows and the excellent visibility. 200 hp is of course not a lot today, but then again the quattro weighed in at just under 1300 kgs and the turbo character means the car feels rather quick even by today’s standards, helped by an excellent, tight gearbox and, by 80’s standards, precise steering. It also feels solid, obviously not like a modern Audi but more so than many other cars from the period. It’s let down slightly by the breaks that feel soft and not very confidence-inspiring. All in all though, this is a car you can live very well with, knowing that as soon as a twisty back road opens up, the car is ready and will not let you down.

The 80’s won’t be remembered for the interior quality….

As was so often the case, Ferdinand Piëch had been right about entering Audi in the world rally championship and in the early 80’s the quattro became a true rally legend with a total of 23 race wins and four world championships until 1986, thanks to legendary drivers such as Hannu Mikkola, Stig Blomquist, Michèle Mouton and of course Walter Röhrl. However, once other brands caught up, the quattro was soon a victim of the less-then-ideal weight distribution that five-cylinder engine pushed all the way to the front of the car caused. Audi stood no chance against the mid-engine competition from 1986 and onwards, but that’s a different story.

The quattro was far more successful than he Sport quattro in rallyes

Interestingly, afraid that the “standard” quattro would be too big and heavy for the new Group B class, Audi presented the Sport Quattro in 1983, a 32 cm shortened group B car of which 164 homologation cars were built for road usage. However the Sport quattro was said to be more difficult to handle and never became as successful on the rally scene as the “standard” quattro. At around 200.000 DM the road version of the Sport quattro was Germany’s most expensive car in 1983, twice as expensive as a 911 Turbo. Today, Sport quattros don’t change owners very often but when they do, it’s at around EUR 500.000.

32 cm less overall length gave the Sport strange proportions, but it remained a very capable rally car!

Should you wish to make the original quattro yours, the good news is that you can take off a zero of the Sport quattro price, as good “standard” quattros trade at around EUR 50.000 today. The 20 valve version from 1989 and onwards cost more but are hardly worth it. Ten years ago both could be had for less than half, but even today a good car, meaning one with a known history and a “tight” driving feel still remains a stable investment – and how could it be different, after all it’s an Audi!

PS. In a class that existed only between 1982 and 1986, the group B rally cars were some of the wildest and most powerful in history. Click the link below for a reminder of what it was like deep down in the Finnish forests, when a 550 hp Sport quattro flew by: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cDRkHXMHqFo

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When the going gets tough…

This week we’ll explore three truly unique cars. Unique in the number of years they’ve been built. Unique in being able to take you practically anywhere cars can be imagined to go. They could also be claimed to be uniquely basic, and actually uniquely bad for many quite normal driving conditions. And for two of them, they’re also uniquely cheap. But finally, and perhaps most importantly, I would claim they’re unique in having a soul and a cult factor that only very few automobiles ever reach, an that really has nothing to do with the budget.

We’ll start by going to Tuscany where we enjoyed a few days off a couple of weeks ago, notably visiting friends that have a house down there. As so many houses in the Chianti region it’s a bit isolated and lies at the end of an unpaved road, that can at best be described as rather rudimentary. Slightly more than 2 metres wide, with a hill on one side and relatively little on the other, and in addition it had been raining quite a lot the days before we came down. Luckily it wasn’t my “new” 650 we had taken for the trip but rather the family XC90, so I was quite relaxed about the whole thing – until I first realized that the car was almost as wide as the road, and then the wheels started spinning. You see, our modern, fancy SUV’s are technically more than capable of mastering far more than a muddy road, but not with the low profile tires they’re typically equipped with. They’re also quite simply too big for many off-road situations, not to speak of all the nicely painted body parts that could be damaged in the process. Eventually we made it both there and back, and no, I’m not going to claim it was very dramatic, but it gave me reason to think about the 4×4-driving aspect of the thrill of driving, and cars really adapted for a bit rougher conditions.

If it gets too muddy, just switch the tires!

If you look around in Tuscany the car you see more than any other is the good old first generation Fiat Panda, many in the higher-riding 4×4 version. This is obviously not a coincidence. Next to switchable all-wheel drive, some other features that make up a good terrain cars include a short wheel base, short overhangs and good clearance. That’s the Panda 4×4 for you, adding the further advantage of a low weight of only 850 kg, meaning it doesn’t need a massive engine (and that’s good since the power output is around 50 hp). This makes it a perfect car in a hilly region with many narrow roads such as Chianti. Somehow there’s always enough room for a Panda!

Not much that can break here!

The first generation Panda was built for all of 23 years between 1980 and 2003, with two minor facelifts, although emission regulations prevented it from being sold in Europe after 1996. The four-wheel drive version came in 1983 and was built by Puch in Austria. Its interior (very similar to the standard Panda) redefines the word basic, with hard plastic, exposed metal and chairs that look like they’ve been stolen from a camping site. But who cares? Definitely not the people down in Chianti, and not those of us taken aback by the charm of the capable little fellow, something the modern Panda will never get close to. In addition this is really a car on a budget, as EUR 3.000-4.000 will get you plenty of Panda (and no, you don’t need a mint condition car for the usage you should be planning for it), and insurance, tax and fuel consumption will all be so low you’ll hardly notice them. If you can, try to get one with the large canvas sunroof!

Change of scenery: In the early 90’s I spent a couple of years in Moscow, in the transition between the old Soviet Union and the new Russia (that at the time, many hoped would turn out differently than it did…). If you were a real high-flyer in the Soviet era, one of the cool cars to be had was the Lada Niva. The car never really made it in the West, deservedly so as the general quality was extremely poor, but boy was it a capable off-road car. Again, much the same concept: it’s larger than a Panda but still a small car with a short wheel base, low weight, and even more capable, bigger tires. Built since 1976, the Niva (or 4×4 as it’s called today) is still being manufactured and is practically unchanged since the beginning – that’s enough to give it a huge cult factor, and also makes it the car still in production that has been so the longest, since production of the true record holder, the Land Rover Defender, ceased in 2016.

70’s Niva commercial – happy faces all around!

I had a few interesting rides in different Nivas during my time in the wild East, most often with the omnipresent smell of petrol competing with the vodka smell in the driver’s breath. Comfort-wise it’s a catastrophy with uncomfortable seats, terrible suspension, a useless heating system (big problem in the Russian winter!) and the list goes on. But when you turn off the road towards a muddy hill or a forest track, everything changes. Permanent all-wheel drive and switchable differential lock, along with the short wheelbase and low gears make it practically unstoppable. The model year isn’t important since not much has happened anyway, and 3.000-4.000 EUR is plenty of budget in Niva land.

A high-tech Soviet interior

Speaking of the Defender, you can of course not write about long serving cult 4×4’s with true soul without mentioning it, although budget-wise, it puts us in another league. The Defender has a strange appeal across generations: when my son was about five and I took him to the Zurich auto show, the “Africa car” was the only one he was interested in, and when a few years later I borrowed one over a weekend from a friend, pretty much the last thing I was expecting was my wife to say “this is a pretty cool car”. But the Defender is as unique as it is bad in terms of comfort, seating position, noise level etc.

No other car appeals as much to your cave man instincts…

So much has been said and written of it over the many decades it was built (from 1948 to 2016, and I doubt that’s a record the Niva will break!), that not much is left, and there’s not enough room here to go through all the different models. The Defender is a hugely capable terrain car, especially in the 90″ body given the shorter wheelbase, which also looks cooler. They model year is not very important and a car with little terrain usage is obviously to be preferred. Surprisingly enough there’s quite a lot of these, since be it in London or Zurich or elsewhere, for some strange reason this is a car that competes with 911’s as preferred commuting vehicle…

Around EUR 20.000 is where the Defender fun starts, with modern versions or those equipped with high-duty features or camping tents going up to far, far more, making it one of the cars with the least/best depreciation. It’s also been claimed to be the most environmentally-friendly, as no other car averages as many life years as the Defender!

Thie above original Defender from the James Bond “Spectre” movie is currently for sale in Switzerland – for CHF 85.000. Details on request.

So there you go: a charming Italian, a crude Russian and a posh Englishman. All of them a heap of driving fun in their right element, be it in Chianti, Russia or the Scottish highland, and useless in pretty much all other conditions. Why would you buy one unless your house is at the end of a muddy road? Maybe your dream house will one day be just that, and knowing it can easily be handled with the right vehicle puts yo in a better position for the price negotiation. Or maybe, just for the feeling of knowing that if you had to cross the jungle, you could!

The gentleman’s GT

Two weeks ago I wrote about Lotus, based on my friend Erik’s experience (if you missed it, you can read it here). Today we’ll look closer at a car that weighs more than any two Lotuses in combination and is thus very from the lightweight motto, but on the other hand offers one of the best combinations of power and comfort that can be had in the world, and where very nice pre-owned cars can today be had for less than a family hatchback: the Bentley Continental GT.

Before going into the history and details, let that sink in a bit. We’re talking about a Bentley, one of those brands with a special magic to the name. Not as exclusive, but also not as old-fashion as a Rolls. Not as extravagant (by a few miles) as a Lambo or a Ferrari. A Bentley is, and has always been, the gentleman’s sports car, and a car where a combination of power and comfort has always taken centre stage. Given the bargain prices the first generation of Continental GT’s are today trading at, let’s look a bit closer at whether that makes it something for which you should find space in your garage sooner rather than later.

The Continental GT saw the light of day in 2004 and was the first car to be developed under VW’s ownership of Bentley. Evil tongues would claim it’s an Audi or even a VW Phaeton on steroids, given these are cars with which the Crewe-built GT shared essential parts like the chassis, the 6-speed gearbox, the air suspension and the engine, although in the Continental, two turbos bring the power to 560 hp in the base version. To me that would be missing the point though. In our modern era, brands such as Bentley can’t survive without some reliance on larger brands, and these to my mind do not take anything away from the attractiveness of the package – if anything they add to it, given higher reliability than older Bentleys used to offer. Another feature the Continental GT shares with its VW siblings is the standard four-wheel drive that on one hand helps get the power onto the tarmac, but also make the car more than just a summer GT – should you want it to.

The double-turbo W12 was the only engine option for the first generation of the Continental GT, built until 2011, that we’ll focus on here. In 2007 a 35 kg lighter Speed version was however added and a couple of years later Bentley brought a Supersports version with 630 hp and as much as 120 kgs less weight, achieved notably by removing the back seats. And of course, from 2006 on there was a convertible version alongside the GT. The second generation, built from 2011, saw a decent face-lift and added the “budget” 4-litre V8 version to the line-up. Finally the heavily reworked third generation came out last year, but that’s another story.

The first generation Continental GT is an impressive car, and one that has aged very gracefully. As so often, the lines of the coupé are more harmonious than those of the convertible, and you needn’t do more than open the door to realize that this is something truly special. The interior oozes of a British gentleman’s club, you’ll look in vain for plastic parts (except, admittedly, for some rather cheap looking buttons on the centre console around the antiquated satnav, and on the steering wheel), every piece that looks like metal is just that, and the number of cows that had to leave the green pastures to be reborn as a Continental GT interior would make even meat-lovers blush. Bentley has always offered a multitude of interior colour combinations, and these are finished to the last detail. If the interior is, say tan, then every little piece of it will be finished in tan – including the seat belts and their holders.

The engine comes to life in a very different way than other cars of comparable power output, that is to say very discreetly. The steering is very light, and although improving a bit at speed, this is not a car where you really feel the road, which is also to say that the air suspension is sublime, as is the general noise level. If not earlier, it’s clear by now why this is a car weighing in at around 2400 kgs. Having said that, the GT handles better than could be expected and lets you forget some of that weight. Power is plentiful in any gear, the engine has a very pleasant bass tone when it’s pushed, something the car doesn’t mind, although not inviting it either. The 90-litre tank will mean you’ll have to stretch your legs and refill every 500 kms, something safety experts will tell you you should do anyway – arguably though, those experts have never travelled in a Continental GT.

It’s easy to see why the Continental GT looks like an interesting option. Next to the comfort and surprisingly good driving experience, the massive depreciation to something like 1/5 of the price as new, combined with the fact that the first owner quite often was an older gentleman not really into track days, clearly speak for the GT. The fact that the car is built around a VW and Audi engine and chassis is also rather positive, although it doesn’t mean that you can take it to your local VW repair shop – they wouldn’t know what to do with it. That brings us to the only real downside with the car, being the massive servicing costs. I won’t go into any detail but assuming they’re on Ferrari level is a good start.

Some owners’ illimited budgets means good bargains can be had on “exotic” colours…

When I was a little boy back in… well, a while ago, I remember my father telling me there was no official power output number for Rolls-Royces more than to say it was sufficient. Another similar tall tale is around the cost and maintenance of RR’s and Bentleys, saying that if you need to ask, you can’t afford it. If you can afford it though, a nice pre-owned Continental GT should make you a very happy person. Maintenance history (and budget!) is key, elderly pre-owners are to be preferred, and the somewhat more powerful and more focused GT Speed is slightly better than the ordinary GT. You’ll be able to find both from 2008-2009 for around EUR 40.000-50.000, adding EUR 5.000-10.000 should you prefer a convertible. The fact that early ’04 and ’05 cars don’t trade much lower indicates prices are bottoming out. Given more than 66.000 GT’s have been built so far (more than any Bentley in history), this is not to say prices will start to rise tomorrow, but I also remember learning something else in my youth, and that was not to wait until tomorrow to enjoy something that can be enjoyed today. In the context of the Continental GT, that feels like very good advice!

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A pit stop in Maranello!

This week the pictures will do most of the talking as we’re currently enjoying the last warm days of the year in lovely Tuscany. On the way here though, we did make a pit stop in Maranello and spent a few hours at the Ferrari museum, where you can admire a large amount of mostly red Ferrari beauties from different time periods and read up on your Ferrari knowledge.

Should you be in the region a visit is highly recommended, but be aware there is also a second museum a few kilometres away in Modena. I haven’t been there but have understood it’s smaller and more focused on the life of Enzo Ferrari than the cars (and especially the racing cars, which is the focus in Maranello). You can also buy combined tickets for both museums, but be aware that in Covid times, all tickets must be bought online in advance.

At the end of your visit you have the opportunity to try out your own skills in one of three F1 driving simulators. The feeling of slipping into the very tight space and gripping the wheel is a special one, simulator or not, and at least I didn’t feel the urge to be in the real thing. There is however also the opportunity to test drive various “standard” Ferraris both on nearby streets and the nearby Fiorano track, from various providers in immediate vicinity to the museum. Should you want to try that, make sure you have enough reserve on your card both for the rental itself, and for the carabinieri who could be seen in large numbers on surrounding roads…

In one of the “non-race” rooms, the Enzo sits next to a LaFerrari – difficult choice!
Ferrari’s long Le Mans tradition also receives the attention it deserves.
The F1 room well illustrates the increasing complexity of especially the aerodynamics on the F1 cars through the decades
Indeed – Forza Seb & Charles for the end of the last season together!

3 x Lotus in 1 week!

This week will be all about Colin Chapman’s lovely, lightweight cars from Hethel and his motto “adding power makes you faster on the straights. Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere”. We are of course talking about Lotus and more precisely about a nice selection of one Elise and two Exiges. You see, writing interesting pieces on this blog every week isn’t always easy, and finding time for great test drives even less. The blessing then comes in the form of other petrol head friends who are kind enough to share their experiences!

This week I’d therefore like to thank my friend Erik, a fellow Swede and car enthusiast who currently studies here in Zurich, and who over the previous two weekends had the pleasure of driving two different Exiges and an Elise. Before going into his very interesting experience though, a few words on the two models for those less familiar with the Lotus line-up.

One happy Swede!

The Lotus Elise saw the light of day in 1995 and has since been built in three series: the S1 until 2000, the S2 until 2010 and the S3 ever since. An untrained eye would be forgiven for not immediately seeing the difference between them, although the S1 is a bit more frog-like than the others. The Elise has always been about a maximum of driving pleasure for a minimum of weight, and things normal in other cars like carpets, A/C etc. are not standard in the Elise world. It’s notably famous for its aluminium chassis, weighing only around 65 kgs! With engines delivering between 136-220 hp (Cup and other special versions being more powerful) and a total car weight of only 800-1000 kgs depending on version, power output has never been an issue, although the engine character can still be, as we’ll see further below.

The Elise S2

The Lotus Exige was developed with the Elise as basis, originally as a race car but unlike the Elise as a hatchback. It was intended to be a more mature car than the Elise and other differences include a sportier body with wider fenders and track, allowing for larger wheels, and larger front and rear spoilers. Launched in 2000, the S1 was only built during two years and the story of the Exige really starts with the S2 in 2004, built with the same 192 hp Toyota engine as the Elise as basis. The S3, where deliveries were delayed a couple of years and only started in 2013 after Lotus had survived yet another financial crisis, was a heavily modified car with a new chassis and importantly, a 3.5 litre, V6 compressor engine developing 350 hp. As with the Elise, the Exige was also built as Lotus’s own “Cup” and other more powerful versions.

The Exige S2

Coming back to my friend Erik’s experience, the first car he got to test was an Exige S2 from 2005 with the 192 hp, 1.8 litre Toyota engine. Being young and agile he got into the car without too much difficulty, something that shouldn’t be underestimated for the somewhat elder among us. Once inside though, there is enough room for both young and old. The unassisted steering is surprisingly light at low speed and the radio is better left turned off, given the sound is nowhere near where it should be – it’s far better to listen to the engine instead! With the soft roof off, my friend took off towards some nice alpine roads, earning some sympathetic looks from cyclists on the way (which I can tell you isn’t always the case!), a good testament to the friendly design of the little car.

This is of course the kind of roads the car is made for, and the description of it as a go-cart on steroids nails it pretty well. The chassis is extremely well balanced, the steering, gradually heavier as the speed increases, is among the most precise in the industry, and the grip, even without any form of electronical helps, is tremendous. The gearbox is less precise than it could be, something that has often been commented on, and although 192 hp for a ton of car sounds plentiful on paper, the engine does require a lot of revs to come into its full right around the 6.000 mark, which is of course a bit limiting in daily usage.

The definition of a minimalistic interior!

In terms of quality, the Toyota-built engine is however the least of your worries. The fact that the car is quite loud and that you hear squeaks an scrambling from various parts is so to say part of the package, as is the limited comfort. The passenger seat can’t be moved at all, the driver seat to a limited extent. The cabin is obviously reduced to a minimum, true to the lightweight philosophy, so if you’re looking for anything but a driver-focused experience, look elsewhere.

Second in line in my friend’s Lotus weekend was the car he would later describe as hands down the most fun car he’s ever driven – an Exige 350 Sport (S3) from 2016. The difference to the 11 years older S2 Exige was in his words striking. As noted above, the S3 was heavily re-worked and is a much more refined car, the scrambling parts are gone, thereby leaving more room for the wonderful engine sound. There is a constant mix of gurgling, pops and bangs going on from the rear part of the car, enough to put a big smile on any petrol head’s face.

An even happier Swede!

The S3 Exige is around 200 kgs heavier than the S2 and also rides on wider tires, both contributing to the (still unassisted) steering being very heavy at low speeds. It’s also very communicative, as motor journalists love to put it. “Feeling” the road is obviously an important feature of any true sports car, but one should be aware that this also means feeling every single imperfection of the road every time you take it out, and also experiencing the occasional sideways jump, as a tire catches a track in the road (I should probably add here that roads are pretty good in Switzerland…).

The 350 hp the compressor engine puts out gives the S3 a phenomenal acceleration. This is combined with very confidence-inspiring breaks, much more so than on the older car. The gearbox is still not the best on the market but it does excel in the way it looks – very similar to a Pagani Huayra or Spyker c8!

Finally a week later when his adrenaline had returned to normal levels, Erik also drove an Elise SC RGB from 2011. RGB stands for Roger Becker, a phenomenal chassis engineer that spent 44 years of his life working for Lotus before retiring in 2010. When he did, Lotus developed special editions of both the Elise and Exige with Roger’s choice of options as a tribute. The RGB Elise has the 1.8 litre engine, however with the S3 front. The car in question had additionally been worked on a bit such as to put out an extra 20 hp, bringing it to a total of 240 hp.

As you may suspect, Erik’s experience of the Elise falls between the two Exiges. The car is much more responsive than the older Exige without compressor, although not as manoeuvreable at lower speeds. The driving experience is very similar to the later Exige, however with a fair amount of squeaks and scrambling, so quality-wise more on the level of the older Exige.

The Elise Roger Becker Edition

If I allow myself to summarize Erik’s experiences with my own an those of other friends, it’s clear that any Lotus (and I would include the Evora in that, although Lotus fans tend to see it as a GT car) is among the purest and best driving experiences you will find, and a great proof that from a driving perspective, low weight is more important than high power. At the same time, the lightweight concept makes it quite a raw experience that only comes fully into its own right on a race track and country or mountain roads, provided you know there are no cameras around. The Exige is more mature than the Elise and arguably the better car, although an Elise with the right engine is of course highly enjoyable and the difference shouldn’t be overstated (again, if you’re looking for comfort, look elsewhere). The 192 hp of the base engine may be enough on paper, but the high revs it requires means the compressor engines are a much better proposition. Finally, quality: it is what it is, and as Lotus owners know, its mostly not a problem free experience. That being said, the list of things that can break is shorter than in most other cars, the engine is usually not one of them, and servicing costs as well as tax treatment in most countries are quite low.

If an Elise or an Exige sounds like the thing for you, as you would suspect the price points of the above cars differ quite a lot. A 10-year old basic, 192 hp S2 Exige is yours for around EUR 30-35.000, whereas the a 10 years younger, S3 350 hp version will set you back from EUR 50.000 and upwards. There are few RGB Elises around, but otherwise a 10-year old basic S2 192 hp one will cost you around EUR 20.000 and you’ll need to add around 10.000 for the more powerful ones. In other words these cars hold their value really well, which combined with low ownership costs make them a more attractive proposition than most other great “driver’s” cars.

For a company that has had more lives than a cat, it’s nice to see that Lotus’s future now looks to be somewhat secured. Next to the bonkers, GBP 1.7m, 2.000 hp electrical Evija, Lotus has an ambitious agenda of new cars in different segments over the coming years, with notably an all new model for 2021. Fingers crossed that they get there, because from a pure driving experience perspective, the world would be a much poorer place without Lotus!

The £1.7m, 2000 hp, all electric Evija

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Goodbye TR4, hello BMW!

This has been a big week for me as a long thought-about change in my modest car stable finally happened. I’ve been thinking of replacing my Triumph TR4 that’s been with me for close to ten years (and thereby by far the car I’ve owned the longest!) since it didn’t really fit the bill any longer and spent far too much time in the garage.

Thanks for everything old chap!

In my post about oldtimers guaranteed to increase in value (see here if you missed it), I made the point of thinking through the purchase well in terms of how much you will be able to use the car, as you otherwise risk ending up in my situation. I wouldn’t claim that I thought through the purchase along those lines ten years ago, but it’s also true that needs change and in my specific case, this has meant the kids now being grown up and my wife and being in the phase of life where we can drive down to Tuscany or southern France over a long weekend. You don’t do that in a TR4 from -65.

They may look good but you don’t want to spend 100’s of kilometres in them…

It took a while to find a buyer, but I finally sold the Triumph at a reasonable price which was around 20% more than what I paid for it ten years ago. In parallel, the brief for what was to replace it was beginning to take shape. I imagined a GT car that could seat four but was really made for two, preferably a convertible, modern enough for the weekend escapes mentioned above, with enough power and sound to put a smile on my face and with enough luggage space to handle the surprising number of things my better half thinks are necessary for a few days.

I thought long and hard about both a 996 Turbo and a 997.2 4S, but they neither transport four, nor have enough luggage space. I met a perfect gentleman with a perfect XJS V12, but again, the back seats don’t work and there was a risk I would always have been about nervous about that V12. A few other, classic candidates were also considered but then it got complicated, also because of the increase in value many classics or future classics have seen these last years. So maybe it was think about something newer, something where the second-hand value is a true disaster, and the value for money is truly spectacular. I guess it also gives some credibility to what we write on this blog to know that we follow our recommendations… (see here). Anyway, that’s how yesterday a BMW 650i convertible ended up in my garage!

A big Bavarian just moved in!

My new car has had one owner since new in 2013 and over the 57.000 kms he has driven it, he must have spent at least as much time cleaning, polishing and speaking kindly to it, because the car is truly in mint condition. Importantly, being a 2013 model, it has the improved V8, double-turbo 450 hp engine, which hasn’t had the problems that were quite common with the previous 408 hp version. As mentioned in my post I’ve always liked the design, which i think is truly beautiful both with the top and without it, and i liked the color combination (the so called citrin black, which is a softer, brown-black color, with the white interior) and the equipment which is quite complete. Rounding it off were good summer and winter tires on alloy wheels and a one-year complete warranty. And for all this, I paid exactly 20% of the price new price of CHF 180.000 in 2013, or if you will, a couple of thousand more than I got for my TR4.

Those are seats I look forward to spending time in!

That’s how I left the classic car scene for now, but honestly I don’t see it as very dramatic. I will always have a heart for beautiful automobiles but as long as both time and space are limited, it’s about that brief and usability. And to be perfectly frank, something else is worth considering as well: things were not better before, which also includes cars, and for the kind of usage we plan, it actually feels quite re-comforting to have a modern car. Yeah, I know, I’ve grown old…

The 650 is not a future classic and not a car that will increase in value (although the downside at that starting point and with free maintenance until 2023 is rather limited!), but it’s a great car that perfectly fits our current needs and can of course be used as my summer daily driver. The first 70-80 kms have been great. Being too big and too heavy, the 650 is not a sports car, yet it sticks to the road in a very capable way, with just enough of the V8 bass tones coming through on acceleration. The kids had enough room in the back seat with minor adjustments to my ideal driving position, and luggage space is sufficient. So far I love it and really look forward to a couple of those trips a bit later this autumn!

Vettel stays in F1

As was announced on Thursday, Sebastian Vettel has signed with Racing Point / Aston Martin (the team will be renamed next year) and will replace Sergio Perez as second (first?) driver alongside Lance Stroll in 2021. Vettel thus grabbed the last straw available to stay in F1 in a somewhat competitive team and proved this blog writer wrong. In my defence though, this wasn’t really an opening since Perez had a contract for 2021 and beyond, and had received no signals indicating the team wouldn’t respect it until he got a call from Lawrence Stroll on Wednesday…

You have to believe that Seb is still motivated and has the fire to go to a team that through Stroll has plenty of money and will no doubt be more entrepreneurial and open to Vettel’s inputs than Ferrari was in the last years. As for their chances, I still believe they are a couple of years away from more than occasionally climbing the podium, but I’d welcome Vettel proving me wrong again. It would certainly be nice to see him end is career on a podium rather than next to the track!

When you’re wrong I’ve learned to double down, so here goes: if things don’t turn around at Ferrari until the end of the season, I think Mattia Binotto will not return as team principal in 2021. There you go – let’s see if he proves me wrong as well…

Mid-season F1 update

With half of the strangest Formula 1 season in memory being completed, it’s time for a short update on where things stand. The strangeness obviously comes from the fact that all races are run without audience and that every driver has apparently been threatened with both this and that unless he puts on a mask the second he steps out of his car. I have no problem with masks, but given everyone in the F1 circus is tested on a regular basis, couldn’t they let the guys breathe some fresh air for a few seconds first?

Not sure this is advisable mask usage…

In terms of racing, the more things stay the same, the more they change. What is unchanged is obviously the Mercedes dominance, and within the team, Hamilton’s dominance over Bottas. Mercedes has won six of the seven races so far this season (the exception being the UK GP which Verstappen won) and of the six, Hamilton has won five. The team seems to be in good harmony and it’s very difficult to see another outcome than Mercedes clinching both the driver and constructor titles this year.

Bottas will have to fight for his second place in the rankings though, being threatened by Verstappen and Red Bull, the clear runner-up behind Mercedes. Verstappen has been on five podiums this year, three times as second and twice as third. The second Red Bull driver Alex Albon is nowhere to be seen, and half-way into the season when he was supposed to start delivering, he has been very far from doing so until now. Red Bull and Christian Horner aren’t really known for their patience, so the question is how long Albon has unless things start to happen soon.

A fairly typical race order this season

The team missing from every podium but two this year (Leclerc finishing second in the first race in Austria, and third in the UK) is obviously Ferrari, which increasingly looks like a team in complete disarray. Next to Vettel’s more or less consistent underperformance, Leclerc is now also dropping back, with the latest race in Spa being a complete low point. Vettel and Leclerc finished 12th and 13th after Vettel proved unable to overtake Räikkönen (Alfa Romeo Racing) in the last laps… Ferrari has lost the speed and if that wasn’t enough, team spirits seem to be at an all-time low. A nice example was when during the last race in Spa, Leclerc enquired about the pit strategy over the intercom and was told “we’ll explain it to you later”. Team principal Mattia Binotto is trying to buy himself some time by talking of until 2024 before the team recovers, but I’ll eat a face mask if Binotto is still team principal in 2024 if things don’t improve before then.

Not a happy bunch this year – but where are the masks?!?

On the positive side, it’s interesting to see how some of the middle-of-the-field teams are making progress, none more than McLaren and Lando Norris who so far this season is clearly ahead of the more experienced Carlos Sainz Jr., having so far scored as many points as Charles Leclerc. As we know Sainz is switching seats with Daniel Ricciardo at Renault at the end of the season, so again, motivation may play a role here. Renault is also clearly improving, as is Racing Point and especially Lance Stroll who has really started to deliver. No doubt that makes majority owner and Lance’s father Lawrence Stroll happy, and it also bodes well for the team’s rebirth under the name Aston Martin next season.

In the back of the field, the biggest news is no doubt that the Williams saga is coming to an end after 40 years. The team has been sold to the US private equity firm Dorilton Capital for GBP 136m and Frank William’s daughter Claire will step down as team principal after the Italian GP this weekend. It’s unclear who will take over her role or what the new owners will bring, or even if they retain the Williams name. After 40 years the Williams era comes to an end, and we should all remember the team in happier days!

With Williams (here in 2012, Frank to the right), F1 looses a legendary name!

Finally, Sebastian Vettel still doesn’t have a seat for next season and it looks increasingly probable that he will leave F1. The only possible remaining option that is being rumoured is Vettel joining Racing Point/Aston Martin, but speaking against that is obviously the fact that with Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll, the team has already signed up two drivers. I for one also doubt that Vettel would be motivated enough to join a team that although making progress, is still most probably a few years away from any podiums.

Update after Monza:

By the time you read this the Italian GP at Monza has taken place over the weekend and was to become the most dramatic one this season,with the most unexpected result. Having said that, nothing in the outcome changes the general assessment above. For the first time this year no Mercedes was on the podium, Hamilton having been penalized by a 10-second start and stop penalty that cost him the race, and Bottas being caught in traffic after a bad start, again proving the difficulty in overtaking at Monza. Both Ferraris crashed out in the first half of the race, having both qualified outside the top ten (and Vettel not even making it to Q2). Pierre Gasly in the AlphaTauri won his first F1 race ever, a great revenge for the talented Gasly who lost his seat at Red Bull to a certain Alex Albon and was degraded to AlphaTauri (previously Toro Rosso). Albon in the far superior Red Bull this time finished 15th, and Verstappen didn’t finish the race. Christian Horner has had better weekends and just maybe starts regretting letting Gasly go – as he should.

Pierre Gasly’s first, but probably not last F1 victory!

L’unica Cinquecento!

I saw a Lancia Y10 the other day, which doesn’t happen very often. Arguably it’s not something a person not contaminated with the very sticky automobile virus would notice or find interesting. To those of us that are heavily infected, there are however few cars that aren’t of some interest, and the Y10 is a bit quirky in the sense that it was the first real (although a bit halfhearted) attempt to build a luxurious, small city car, with its alcantara or leather-dressed seats and dashboard.

Let’s just say they spent more time on the interior design…

Speaking of virus, there is another one out there that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. I wrote back in May (see here) that I thought Covid would lead to a comeback of the car as preferred means of safe transportation, which has definitely been the case both during the summer and as business now resumes. Given the congestion of major cities that is now back after the empty streets in summer and after that, during the lock downs, I wonder if the trend will continue towards more comfortable small cars for short, mostly work-related transport? These would most probably be electric (which arguably would have been the logical route for electrical cars to take in the first place). You’ll tell me that’s nothing new and mention cars like the the BMW i3, the Zoé or other small hybrids. I’m however thinking of on one hand far more comfortable and a bit luxurious creations, and on the other even smaller cars, towards that 3-metre segment the Y10 represented.

Aston Martin did actually try with the Cygnet, but at another, wrong time.

Time will tell but whilst thinking of small cars, this week we’ll pay tribute to a legendary Italian creation that over 2.5 metres meant a lot not only for Italy, but actually for all of Europe: the original Fiat 500!

The 500, or Cinquecento in Italian, was launched in 1957 and thus in the same period as the Citroën DS that I wrote about a few weeks ago (see here). Much like in France, life was looking up in Italy and the post-war, economic boom was in full swing. Fiat was convinced there would be strong demand for a small, cheap car that everyone could afford. There was also a bit of urgency since the preceding Fiat 500 Topolino was by now a 20-year old, pre-war model.

In 1957, the sun was shining on Italy again!

Dante Giacosa was given the mission of designing the Cinquecento, and what a success his design proved to be! Over a total length of only 2.5 metres, the 500 still managed to accommodate four people (at least 1950-sized ones…) and through its limited size it was immensely practical on the small cobble streets of Italian villages. Having said that, the very first Cinquecentos were actually very basic two-seater cars with a 480 cc, 2-cylinder, rear-mounted, air-cooled engine developing a massive 13 hp. Derived from the Topolino, it gave the car a top speed of 85 km/h. The two-seat configuration did however not produce the sales numbers Fiat had expected, and the initial version was replaced by a four-seated car with an updated engine and all of 15 hp(!) the same year. This new Normale version was to become the basis for various models all the way through 1975, i.e. for almost 20 years.

The original interior wasn’t a source of much confusion!

Among these special versions, the Sport with 21.5hp built from 1958 to 1960 should be mentioned, as should the 10 cm longer Giardiniera estate, built from 1960 to 1968. Other modifications to the 500 through the years included more power, but were otherwise mostly cosmetic and equipment-related. An important but for many, sad development was the replacement of the rear-hinged, “suicide” doors by conventional doors in 1968. Rumour has it that the replacement was frowned upon by mostly men, as the traditional doors didn’t offer the same view of women’s legs as these got in and out of the car…

An estate with the standard canvas roof and rear-hinged, “suicide” doors

Various performance versions were designed with the 500 as basis, and the ones coming out of the (in modern language) tuning shop Abarth are the most well-known ones. This is especially true for the Abarth 695 SS, launched in 1966 and distinguishable by various stripes and Abarth logos, its flared arches and perhaps most notably, the fact that it’s best driven with the (rear) engine hood open for additional cooling. Various improvements to the engine almost doubled the power output over the standard car to 38 hp and the top speed to 140 km/h, accompanied by a sound that would make you think there’s a zero missing both in the hp number and speed! The SS was built until 1971 and very few remain today.

Chess-board roof , red stripes and open hood – signs of a true Abarth!

Seeing a 500 these days actually happen more often than seeing an Y10, and it’s definitely a sight (and sound!) that always puts a small on your face. The air-cooled tone is unmistakable, how sympathetic the car looks impresses as much as how small it is, and quite often, the shape of a somewhat larger driver in 2020 than in the 60’s looks a bit comical, with the side window rolled down as much for fresh air as for additional room. And should you be lucky enough to see an Abarth, you will know long before you actually see it as the sound precedes it!

The Cinquecento’s importance cannot be overstated as without being technologically advanced in any way, it’s the car that put Italy on wheels, that I bet our Italian readers have driven or been riding in many times, and that actually was a success in many other European countries, with versions built also by other manufacturers, notably Puch in Austria. When it was replaced by the 126 in 1975, that also meant a more conventional car age would start. Rear-mounted engines had notably been popular in the late 1950’s but now increasingly moved up front.

“No thanks, we’ll take the boat instead…”

A new mini car in the age of Covid would most probably never attain the legendary status of the original 500, but the 500 should definitely be a source of inspiration. My son is very much of the same opinion and when he gets his driving license next year, he has the idea of finding a cheap 500 and converting it to electrical drive. Maybe he’s on to something, but I would still go for the original, air-cooled version, notably for the sound. Both him and I should hurry up though, as values for 500’s are on the rise. Today you can expect to pay at least EUR 15.000 for a nice example, with early models with rear-hinged doors and of course Abarth cars being sold for as much as EUR 45-50.000. That’s indeed a lot but then again, there is no better proof that there is indeed a good substitute for cubic inches!

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Classic cars as investments

In the last ten years, interest rates in the developed world have been close to nil across the board, and you need to look no further for an explanation to why various kinds of real assets have seen steep increases in price. Cars are definitely part of that group, although it’s unfortunately not the family Volvo that has become a good investment, but rather classic cars and selected sports cars.

Irrespective of the statement above, the Volvo 240 has actually started to appreciate in value…

If you read this blog, chances are you also read other car blogs or follow some car Youtube channels (perhaps even one or several on my favourite list that you can see here). You don’t need to look far to find someone that describes a classic car such as the Jaguar XJ-S that I wrote about last week (see here) as “a good investment” or something that will “most definitely increase in value”. Personally my stomach turns at such unsubstantiated, general statements, but let’s look into whether there’s any truth to them.

In 2015 we launched the new sub-section “The Thrill of Owning” on this blog. We did so seeing the price evolution many enthusiast cars were starting to take, and I wrote about some cars I believed (without guarantee!) would increase in value over the coming years, adding an economic upside to the ownership experience. The first 5 cars I picked were the Lancia Delta Evo, the Honda NSX, the BMW Z4M, the Porsche 996 and the Ferrari 550. Looking back now five years later, it’s clear that had you bought an NSX, a Delta or a 550 in 2015 that you would sell today, you would get substantially more than you initially paid – the first two have basically doubled in price. For the Z4 and the 996, the evolution has been less steep but still in the right direction. Buying and selling is one thing though. Owning is another that should not be forgotten.

An Evo has basically doubled in value in five years, but is far from cheap to own.

Since close to ten years I’m the owner of a Triumph TR4 from 1965, a car that has brought me great joy and that I’ve been extremely lucky with. It hasn’t left me standing a single time and has generally been close to as problem free as a classic car can be. Nevertheless, and even if I haven’t driven thousands of kilometres per year, it still needs regular servicing and old parts will wear out and need replacing. Also, not to forget on a classic car is that the engine will typically need more adjustments than a modern one. In ten years I have thus had it thoroughly serviced and revised three times, redone the breaks once, and replaced more regular wear and tear parts such as the battery, tires etc. in between. A rough estimate is that the car has cost me around EUR 12-13.000 in servicing and parts costs over my years of ownership. To that should be added tax, registration, garage etc., but given how different those costs are depending on your circumstances and country, we’ll leave them aside for this exercise. You shouldn’t though, when you budget your ownership!

My TR4 is living proof that not all English cars fall to pieces!

Had I instead bought that Delta Evo in 2015 my costs would most probably not have been lower, as the Deltas are known as cars needing lots of love an attention. That said, the economic upside would definitely have been higher. On a higher level for the 550 as well, at least with the right car. The bullet-proof NSX may have been cheaper to own, had I been lucky. But again, all this will depend on the particular car you buy, its history, condition – and luck. This is why a statement such as something “definitely increasing in value” is quite simply not true. Firstly, it’s very difficult to say which models will increase in value (although if you know your stuff, I agree you can have a pretty good idea). Secondly, it’s all about the condition of the individual car.

Has my Triumph been a good investment? Price-wise it’s worth around CHF 10.000 (30%) more today than I bought it for, thus covering a fair part of my running costs. In my particular case living in Switzerland where owning and running an oldtimer is cheap, I’ve nevertheless had to rent a garage for the ten years I’ve had it and I’ve certainly not covered the costs for that. It should also be noted that a TR4 is quite a basic oldtimer, with an extremely robust, 4-cylinder engine. Friends of mine who own E-Types, Aston Martin V8’s and other, more advanced cars, will give you a number considerably higher than mine, even though most of them are more capable in a garage than I am and thus do a lot themselves.

The original V8 Vantage – a beauty when it works, a nightmare when it doesn’t…

That’s the economic side of it. On the emotional side, there is no doubt that it’s been a good investment and has brought me much joy and great memories. And that is really the point of all this. Don’t buy a classic car purely as an investment, but also as something to love, drive and enjoy! There will never be any guarantee that an XJS or any other car will be worth more 5 years from now and if you buy the wrong car, you will most certainly not make any money. Arguably it will also reduce the pleasure of ownership, but if this is the car you’ve been dreaming of since you were young, believe me, you will forgive a lot!

Unlike a painting, a car is made for driving. Be thorough in your checks, but also buy with your heart in the sense of loving what you buy, enjoying it, and not to be forgotten, knowing that you will be able to use whatever your dream car is on a regular basis. Good luck!

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The irresistible big cat!

If last week was all about Italianità in all its simplicity with the lovely Alfa Romeo Spider (if you missed the post you can find it here), this week we’ll turn things around a bit and talk about an undisputed future classic, but also a car that complicates things quite a bit in comparison, and replaces pasta al dente under the Tuscan sun with rainy skies, tweet jackets and lush, green country roads: The Jaguar XJ-S (or as it was written in the last years of production, the XJS).

Long time readers of this blog may remember that I wrote a piece about the XJS back in 2016 (read it here), however that was more around its mechanical 12-cylinder engine than the car itself. Given that and also that quite interestingly, and in stark contrast to many other future classics, not much has happened on the price front in the last four years, I felt a fuller description of this true icon of English car manufacturing was called for. Still to this day, the XJS remains something of a bargain – at least in purchase price. That will most probably change in the future.

The XJS was launched in 1975 and produced all the way through 1996, in three distinct series. For a combination of factors, it was far from a resounding success at launch. Firstly, although recognized as rather good-looking, it did succeed the E-Type, one of the greatest designs of all time, which wasn’t to its favor. Secondly it was also a bit misunderstood, as Jaguar never intended the XJS to be a replacement of the E-Type. Instead they were aiming to produce a GT car, comparable to the later Mercedes CL or similar. In that they succeeded, but it took a while for the market to recognize it. Thirdly Jaguar ran into stupid difficulties in some markets such as Germany, where the buttresses behind the windows were deemed to restrict the rear view, and German authorities refused to grant the XJ-S type approval, meaning individual owners had to obtain individual road approvals for their cars – not something that boosted sales numbers… Finally, although there were other 12-cylinder cars in the market at the time, the XJS launched in the wake of the oil crisis and as you will suspect, fuel consumption has never been its strong point…

The rear buttresses (the triangular shapes on the sides of the boot) caused major issues for German clients

So after a difficult launch, the first series was built between 1975-1981 in around 15.000 units and was only available with the 5.3 litre, V12 engine. In the first year the manual gearbox from the E-Type was actually available as an alternative, but that was soon scrapped for the 3-speed, automatic box. The engine developed around 270 hp and made the XJ-S comparable to other V12 cars from Ferrari and Lamborghini at the time.

The second series ran for 10 years until 1991, and now a number of things happened. Next to the coupe, in 1983 a targa convertible was introduced, based on speculation at the time that the US would ban full convertibles for fear of roll-over accidents. That luckily never happened, and Jaguar subsequently replaced the targa with a full convertible in 1988, which contrary to the former became a great success. That of course makes the targa a rare and quite interesting find today, since no more than 5.000 cars were produced in total.

A targa convertible currently for sale in Switzerland

In 1983, the 12-cylinder was also complemented with a 3.6 litre straight six engine that was only available with a manual transmission until 1987. It produced around 230 hp as compared to the 265 hp of the V12, obviously with considerably less torque but also less fuel consumption. Importantly, in 1987 the much outdated, 3-speed automatic was replaced by a more modern, 4-speed ZF one.

By the time of the third series that started in 1991 and ran until the end of production in 1996, Jaguar had been taken over by Ford and was part of Ford’s so-called Premier Auto Group. A number of changes were done to the XJS, both in terms of design (front and rear bumbers and lights, slight changes to the windows and famous buttresses etc.) and engines. The 5.3 litre V12 was increased to 6 litres and around 300 hp, and the straight six was replaced by a 4 litre version.

Irrespective of engine choice, the beautiful interior remains the same

Irrespective of age, there are few cars that have the same level of road presence as an XJS in a very British, understated way, very far from the screaming lines of a Lamborghini. By today’s standard it’s also a much smaller-looking car than it was initially, and its smooth lines obviously only add to the attraction. Driving it is a very similar experience. The 300 hp of the final V12 version that I’ve had the pleasure of trying are enough to make the cat roar should it have to, and steering and body roll are actually much better controlled than could be expected. Where the XJS excels still to this day is however in the smooth gliding department. It’s a comfortable cruiser, very quiet even by modern standards, and with a giant booth that will easily accommodate luggage for two. That’s also to say that the rear seats in the coupe and some convertible versions (the other ones being strict two-seaters) are not meant for humans with legs.

Whether to opt for the most common, 5.3 litre V12 version or rather one of the straight sixes is obviously a decision that can have quite wide-ranging, economic implications. There is no doubt that the V12 is the engine that suits the car best, but you could also argue that the straight six has enough power and is obviously much cheaper to own. Whichever engine you go for, a complete service history is critical – do not take any chances here! The 6-litre V12 from the Ford era has a better reputation for reliability than the previous 5-3 litre version, although both engines are actually quite solid if serviced correctly.

The convertible is generally not more expensive than the coupe

Coming back to the price mentioned initially, a good XJS can still be had for EUR 15.000-20.000, with top cars rarely going beyond EUR 30.000. That’s probably the cheapest V12 you can buy and gives the car a clear upward potential price-wise. As I will come back to in next week’s post however, one reason for the low prices is as so often the far higher running costs, where the V12 is a prime example. But as long as you’re aware of that and find the right car, there are very few cars that provide a similar experience. I would recommend a post-1987 car such as to benefit from the 4-speed automatic box, and if you like the styling of the third series and want a V12, then preferably a post-1991 car. The (full) convertible is the ultimate glider, but the lines come through better in the coupe. It’s really a matter of choice as the convertibles are not more expensive than the coupes. Finally, the targa convertible is the hardest to find but should be most interesting from a value preservation perspective, even though it’s also the most expensive model today.

Find the right car, put on your tweet jacket, make sure there’s fuel in the tank and double-check whether you did start the engine, given how silent it is – silent enough for your passenger to hear you whistling “Rule Britannia” as you set out on your roadtrip!

Italianità at its best!

We spent a wonderful week in northern Italy in late July, something I warmly recommend to anyone having some unplanned vacation time left this year. Enjoying the beauty of cities like Venice, Bologna and Florence without the crowds is a fantastic experience, and as long as we return to some kind of normality before hotels and restaurants go bust, my impression is also that the local population in a tourist hot spot like Venice enjoy the “break”. So go if you can and enjoy the quality of life and the beauty of the country, you won’t regret it!

If you do so, what you shouldn’t expect is however coming back with lots of pictures of old Fiat 500’s or some vintage models from nearby Maranello or Sant’Agata. At least in northern Italy the automotive scene has moved on and become as bor… dominated by the large, mostly German brands (preferably in grey or black) as in other countries. For us, it took until the last day with only a few kilometres left to the Swiss border until we spotted a beautiful example of a true legend of Italian car manufacturing, and with a total production time of 28 years, likewise the modern car with the longest production I can think of: the Alfa Romeo Spider.

A Spider Series 1 from 1966, the first year of production.

The Spider saw the light in 1966 as a two-seated roadster with rear-wheel drive. Launched at the Geneva Motor Show the same year, it was a direct successor to the Giulia Spider and was in its first version produced until 1969 with a 109 hp, 1.6 litre, twin cam four-cylinder engine. From the beginning the car was equipped with a five-speed gearbox and disc brakes on all four wheels, something that was far from being the case on all cars at the time, even more expensive ones. Speaking of price, a new Spider was at the time around the same as a Jaguar E-Type, something that is definitely no longer the case!

Only the first series enjoyed the beautiful, rounded rear

In 1968 a slightly larger, 1750cc engine replaced the 1.6 litre in the version called the 1750 Spider Veloce, and a smaller, 1300 cc engine developing 88 hp was introduced in the Spider 1300 Junior. The smaller engine was replaced by a larger, 1600 cc four-pot in 1977, while the 1750 engine was increased to 2 litres in 1971. Whilst being further improved through the years with its power increasing to 128 hp at most, the two engines would equip the Spider until the end of production in 1993.

The Series 2 from the 70’s, the shape that basically stayed the same until 1993.

In spite of continued refinements through the years, you could still argue that the main differences between the four series are mostly cosmetic. From the lean lines of the first two series, over the spoiler-and-skirts third series of the 80’s to the surprisingly clean-looking, last series, the Spider evolved with time and managed to keep a classic look, never getting too old. To me, the first and last series are the best looking ones.

The fourth series, produced between 1990-1993..

The Spider was a light car, but even with a kerb weight of at most 1100 kg in the fourth series, it’s clear that 128 hp doesn’t make it a race car. Then again, that was never the intention. The Spider is a cruiser from the mechanical car age, with no driving aids but with lots of road presence. The first thing everyone will notice next to the large, wooden steering wheel that equips most cars, is the gear lever that is basically mounted on the dashboard in an angle that you do however get used to pretty quickly. The chassis does not excel in rigidity to put it mildly, meaning a squeak here and there will always mix with the nice sound from the four-pot. Taken together, you will never wish for more power but rather quickly settle in to the cruising-type of drive the Spider was built for, and excels at!

The only car with the gear lever on the dashboard!

When production ended in 1993, a total of 124.000 Spiders had been produced, of which a fair number have survived until today. Prices have started to move upwards, especially for the first series where nice cars now cost from EUR 40.000. My guess is that especially the later series that today can still be had for EUR 20.000 or even less for nice examples, still have further to go. Also, unlike something like the E-Type, a Spider with its uncomplicated mechanics is cheap to maintain, making it something of an ideal classic for country roads in Tuscany or elsewhere, but wherever you are, always with enough Italianità!

When AMG means business

AMG. One of the most famous abbreviations in motorsport, and obviously to Mercedes what the M cars are to BMW. The three letters stand for the first letters in the two founders’ names, Aufrecht & Melcher, with the addition of the G for Großaspach, the German town where Mr. Aufrecht was born and where AMG was founded in 1967 as a tuner of Mercedes cars.

The firm moved to Affalterbach in the 70’s and following an increasingly close collaboration with Mercedes-Benz over the years, Mercedes became AMG’s majority shareholder in 1999. No doubt the addition of AMG has greatly helped improve Mercedes’s image, but that has however come at a price, namely an inflation not far from Venezuela’s in terms of how AMG badges are applied to all product lines and most cars in the Mercedes line-up. For obvious reasons that’s not to everyone’s taste. Fortunately though, there is a very good remedy, one that will celebrate its 15-year anniversary next year: the AMG Black Series cars.

It was the newly created performance studio of AMG that in 2006 set out to start producing very limited numbers of more focused versions of some cars in the existing Mercedes line-up, under the name Black Series. The cars were thoroughly re-worked, including performance increases but also chassis changes and improvements to suspension systems (typically adjustable) and brakes. Weight reduction was also high on the list, notably by an extensive use of carbon fibre. What wasn’t reduced was the price, as Black Series cars were typically at least 40% more expensive than regular AMG models. 5 different Black Series models have been built so far that I’ve summarized below.

SLK AMG 55 Black Series

Launched in 2006, the SLK started the Black Series range and early on made clear that a Black Series is not a convertible, as it was changed to having a fixed (carbon) roof. Power was up 40 hp to 400 hp, weight was reduced around 50 kg to around 1500 kg, suspension was stiffened, the chassis was widened and brakes were re-enforced. Around 120 SLK 55 Black Series were built all in all, the smallest production number of all Black Series cars so far.

CLK 63 AMG Black Series

The CLK followed a year later and became the first car to use the well-known 6.2 litre V8 engine that has equipped three of the five models so far, here developing 500 hp. The track was much wider than on the standard car, meaning both the body and tires increased as well. No doubt the Black Series took some inspiration from the DTM version of the CLK at the time. 700 CLK Black Series were built until 2008.

SL 65 AMG Black Series

The monstrous SL 65 Black Series followed in 2008 and was actually built by the independent race engineering firm HWA Engineering in collaboration with AMG. The SL 65 has an extravagant design were basically only the doors were retained from the original car. Like the SLK, it also got a fixed roof. It’s also the only car in the Black Series line-up to use the 6-litre V12, here developing 670 hp. 350 cars were built all in all.

C63 AMG Coupé Black Series

Less spectacular but arguably more efficient was the C63 Coupé launched in 2011. The 6.2 litre V8 was back, now developing 507 hp, the track was widened, the suspension was reworked, and if the changes weren’t enough, further track packages could be added on top. 800 C 63 Black Series were built in total, the most of any Black Series so far.

SLS AMG Black Series

Finally the SLS AMG Black Series was launched in 2013. The 6.2 litre V8 now delivered 631 hp and weight was down by around 70 kg compared to the standard version, mostly through extensive usage of carbon fibre. Only 350 of the SLS Black Series were built and although it’s not easy to add to the drama of the standard SLS, the Black Series does a good job of trying!

Black Series cars are no weekend cruisers but rather the most track-focused cars in the AMG line-up. The earlier cars were a bit hampered by having to resort to the standard AMG automatic transmission with no manual version available. The double-clutch box introduced on the SLS in 2013 solves the issue, but I can’t help thinking that a stick shift would have been a nice alternative on the early cars.

A Black Series car would be an alternative to the more hard core versions of other Porsches, Ferraris or Lambos. Thanks to the very limited production numbers they hold their value well, and in some cases such as the SLS, prices have risen quite steeply since new. The SLK 55, CLK 63 and C 63 are the cheaper cars, with the SLK 55 starting at just under EUR 100.000 and the CLK and C 63 between EUR 100.000 and EUR 150.000. The SL 65 starts at around EUR 250.000 with the SLS coming in between EUR 500.000 – EUR 700.000.

There is a lot of activity at the AMG performance studio right now, as it’s become official that the AMG GT Coupé will be the next and sixth Black Series model. The car has just been presented and Shmee, one of the Youtubers I follow (as mentioned in my post a few weeks ago that you can read here), just did a very detailed walk through of the new car, so I’ll let him do the honours – enjoy!