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Reasons to Be Cheerful

 

Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT
Wires have reported that the 2012 version of the top-of-the-range Jeep is set to feature a 6.4 litre Hemi V8, 500 HP and an eight-speed gearbox. The current version is amazingly refined for an American SUV - so with tech figures like this this may be a Cayenne Turbo beater for a quantum of the price. It looks better than the Cayenne too.

 

Cadillac CTS Coupé
From a purely design-focused perspective Caddy's latest coupé is a further step away from its wool-died image as purveyor of ostentatious rides for fat American cats. It may look wrought in pixels but In the supercharged CTS V8 form it's an -all-American brute. See it in the steel and it may even attract you away from the German and Japanese competition.

 

Chevrolet Camaro SS
When you meet one of these you can't help but notice the Hasbro connection. Along with the Mustang this is probably the most authentic of the rebooted muscle Marys, but somehow the very American futurism encoded in its design really looks like it's about to transform into an Autobot and save the world. And that's why we like it.

 

Ford F150
The best selling truck in American history is in its current manifestation looks great. Ford even claim a dizzying 23 MPG on the highway! With the crew cab and the relatively low retail price it's a true alternative to those ubiquitous but dull Jap competitors. If you car about automotive steez and have heavy duty transport requirements, this might be a goer.

 

Tesla Roadster 2.5
Despite rumours of the company's financial troubles and how difficult it would be to live with, the Tesla company boldly created enough energy and debate on the viability of EVs to wake a world out of complacency. Press the boot for instant torque, hurtle into a corner with no engine noise and judge your braking - then tell us if this isn't a new driving experience to be championed.

Harley Davidson Soars

 

Rain. Lots of rain. At night. Soaked through, 50-odd miles from my destination and on a lonely road in the middle of bleak West Country moorland. My headlamp was pointing anywhere but at the road, mainly because it was off another bike and had been hastily lashed between the yokes with bungees, because three hours earlier the Harley-Davidson Sportster I was riding had vibrated its own bulb to pieces just as I’d left home. As road trips go, this was bad and I was proper fed up.

Then came the electric shocks...

That was over 20 years ago, but my first decent ride on a Harley-Davidson is still painfully fresh in my memory. It coloured the way I thought about all Harleys for more than a decade. OK, so I loved the look of some of the old models, and I still reckon that one of the most handsome engines ever made is a Knucklehead, like a motor turned inside out, all tubes and bosses and chunks of sculpted alloy. And of course having seen On Any Sunday I, like millions of others, couldn’t help being struck by the brutal beauty of a bucking, sliding XR750 flat tracker (below) in the hands of the majestic Mert Lawwill. But XR750s, even today, are rare beasts in Britain.

As for the stuff I rode though the ’90s – and I rode most of the then current models – well, it was like climbing onto a fairground ride in a provincial town. Waltzer-gaudy behemoths that shook the money from your pockets and wouldn’t stop when you felt sick and wanted to get off. Massive heavy things, under-powered and under-braked that made the dodgems feel like finely honed sports cars. Harley fans told me I didn’t get it. No I didn’t, and I didn’t want to either.

Then in 2002 something extraordinary happened. The Harley From Mars landed on Earth. The VRSCA V-Rod (above) dropped among us like a spaceship. Here was proof that the blokes in Milwaukee had not only heard of liquid cooling, overhead camshafts and effective braking, but had engineered it into one of their bikes. The V-Rod managed to mix contemporary with custom with tradition with performance. And it does perform. I took an early one out for a blast in 2001 and when I gave it a fistful and felt 115bhp through my low-slung backside I laughed out loud, tickled to be so surprised.


Then 2008 finally brought something that echoed Mert Lawwill’s XR750. In the XR1200 (above), Milwaukee has given us a Harley suited to roads with those pesky things called bends. The styling reflects the dirt oval’s most successful race bike and has helped to boost an already growing interest in all things flat track. It’s a bike that combines the rorty chug of the old-style air-cooled pushrod V- twin with a feel that’s sportier than any street Harley before it.

Oh Mr Davidson, you’re spoiling us.

So do I get Harleys now? Well, I suppose I do, but then there’s more to get these days. But also, and you might call this age, I do find something comforting about, in the case of almost the whole Harley-Davidson range, a relatively basic motorcycle shamelessly showcasing proven old technology. Living history, you might call it. But then so is Bruce Forsyth, though I know what I’d rather be riding.

Corvette Grand Sport Driven

Pics Dom Romney/Influx

//The Location//

There’s a strange sort of irony in picking up the latest Corvette Grand Sport from the centre of the Industrial revolution’s Eden. Venerable dealer Bauer Millet – who specialise in all sorts of Euro exotica as well as Americana – are situated underneath the arches, right in the heart of central Manchester.

The location is the quintessence of New Britain. Conference centres, swish boutiques and cafés now sit amid the dark Satanic mills, bridges, canals and institutional edifices that are the sweatshops of the digital age.

You'll still find folk wandering up and down these gentrified streets humming metaphorically the theme tune from Corrie. But Manchester feels more European than London these days – and there’s more quietly humming trams about than rumbling V8s.

On the day we drive the Corvette a pall of black smoke rises from somewhere in the city centre. More looting? I try a mental calculation as to whether fibreglass burns easily.


Video shot for Influx by Tom Dawson


//The Car//

The orginal, 1963 Corvette Grand Sport was the end result of a factory mission to compete and win at classic venues like Sebring and Le Mans – and to add another name to a roster of American victors headed up by Carrol Shelby.

But the project, set into motion by chief engineer Zora Duntov, hadn’t been sanctioned by the GM board and was Kiboshed – but not before a handful of lightweight machines with a 6.2 litre small block V8 and all-round disc brakes were produced. All five of the originals are still in existence, each worth millions apiece.

So while a huge amount of energy in the American motor industry is looking toward alternative futures, the current Corvette Grand Sport is an echo of the past that resonated with the best of contemporary tech. But it’s not just the name and the badge that echoes Corvette’s past glories. Genuine research and technology have gone into this flagship of Yankee pride.

There’s electronic launch control with the short throw six speed manual box; there’s variable-ratio steering, which allows a mix of sharp –turn-ins and straight-line stability; there’s a relatively unobtrusive electronic handling system that makes the best of available grip – and can of course be switched off easily when you want to cut loose. Corvettes, too, were among the first production cars to offer magnetic selective ride control that assesses road surface conditions on the move and adjusts damping accordingly.

Under the hood there’s the most powerful standard Corvette engine that has ever been produced – a 6.2 litre LS3 V8 which is a direct descendent of the small block engine that originally appeared in the 1963 version of the GS. There’s an array of track-derived features in this baby, including a high-lift cam, and a high flow intake manifold and cylinder heads. The result is a super-reliable 437 Horsepower package with 575 NM of torque. GM reckons there’s a whacking 100,000 miles between major services on these engines – but they don’t choose to highlight this claim on the Corvette. With this brand-within-a-brand the marketing is all about performance, heritage and experience.

//The Experience//
When you first encounter the Grand Sport you can feel that there’s something 'un-American' about it. Not that this is some subversive pinko o a car. The original from 1963 looked and felt as if it were aspiring to a kind of European aesthetic that Shelby and his Cobras downright ignored. On this car there’s something about the light clusters, the positioning of the cooling intakes and the low, road-hoovering stance that owes more to the drawings of Pininfarina and Bertone than the boxish brutalism of American muscle.

The type and the nomenclature obviously keep reminding you of the car’s all-American heritage, but it’s a refreshingly outward looking, East Coast sort of Americana.

This Corvette is, after all, a relative lightweight contender with a curb weight of a little over 1500KG (only 20KG heavier) Ferrari’s 458. This is mainly to do with that trademark composite shell – and driving over the cobbles of Manchester you can see its wings quivering with the effort.

We’re loving the short throw gearbox (and don’t believe that any ‘Vette should come with flappy paddles, which are available if you so desire). The limited enthusiastic driving we were able to do availed us of the right amount of oversteer and grunt through those huge rear wheels.

Bury your boot and it’s pleasantly torquey and easy to fishtail through the gears – but the package, especially when switched to the more sedate touring mode, makes the car usable, even dignified. Visibility with the top down feels surprisingly good and the clutch requires no monster thigh action.

In fact, the whole drive feels very user friendly with satisfying slush-box clunks and fluid engagements. The one annoyance is the relatively convoluted stopping and starting sequence, which requires you to select reverse before leaving the car – and to switch off the intrusion sensor you have to reach over to the glove box and flick a switch. Irritating when you’re in and out of the car as we were, but probably less so when involved in day-to-day use.

//The Verdict//
We’re impressed. The thing about Corvettes is that they represent the sort of Americana that has always looked to Europe for its aesthetic inspiration. If you’re after the sort of high-octane swagger and design brutalism that characterises muscle cars – the Corvette isn’t it. If however, you’re after something that harnesses the glory of big V8 engines and marries that with some impressive tech, then this may be your answer.


Thanks to Mitch @ Bauer Millett

Fisker Karma

The recession nearly killed the old Detroit, but it had been in decline for decades. Now a bunch of new Californian carmakers, technology companies and investors that think they can do things better: that they can build cars in America that are not only environmentally acceptable but desirable too.

America hasn’t made many of those in recent years.

Fisker – founded by former Aston Martin designer Henrik Fisker, whose new Karma extended-range electric vehicle we’ve just driven – is based in LA with AC Propulsion, which pioneered the electric drivetrains that underpin the Tesla and the Mini E.

Tesla is based in San Francisco, along with Better Place, which is building electric-car infrastructures around the world and pioneering new ways of paying for your motoring. The Silicon Valley venture capital firms like Kleiner Perkins and Draper Fisher Jurvetson that made their money with start-ups like Google are now putting their billions behind these new, clean-tech car companies, and some of the guys who founded those firms have put their own money in too.

 

So is California the new Detroit?

Will the next great automotive leaps come from these firms, and not the old-economy carmakers? And could one of them go supernova, Google-style, and become the next Toyota?

It’s easy to dismiss the idea when, until the launch of the Karma, only Tesla had actually put any cars on the road, and then only a couple of thousand £100,000 sports cars. But technology start-ups don’t follow normal growth patterns.

Henrik was getting ready to start building the Karma when the global financial crisis struck. But instead of wrecking his plans, it supercharged them. He had already designed the next Fisker, a smaller ER-EV codenamed Nina, available as a saloon, coupe and crossover and likely to cost around $40,000, or £35,000 when it comes to Europe.

He got a half-billion dollar low-cost loan from the Federal program designed to aid the ailing automotive industry, which has allowed him to get Nina ready for production way sooner than he could ever have hoped.

He was also able to buy a factory in Delaware shuttered by GM in the downturn in which he’ll build up to 100,000 Ninas each year. It cost him just $20m, instead of hundreds of millions, and he attracted nearly as much in grants for taking it on.

 

So along with Tesla, Fisker looks set to establish itself as one of only two successful new American car companies since the Second World War.

If Fisker succeeds, it won’t be despite the downturn, but because of it. But until now, he hadn’t built a single car. At a maximum of around 15,000 cars each year and with the manufacturing outsourced to Valmet in Finland, which also builds the Porsche Boxster, the Karma might seem a distraction compared to what Henrik plans next. But as he says, ‘this is our icon, our Porsche 911.’

It had better be good.

It is. To keep battery costs down, an extended-range electric vehicle has a smaller battery than a pure EV and the Karma will only travel around 50 miles after an overnight charge. But that’s enough for the daily needs of the vast majority of drivers.

After that, the Karma’s 2.0-litre, 260bhp turbocharged GM petrol engine cuts in, but it only acts as a generator, charging the battery and allowing you to drive as far as you like. But if your regular commute is fewer than 50 miles, or you can top-up with charge between trips, the petrol engine might never need to start.

It looks sensational, but you can see that for yourself.

YouTube Preview Image

It’s a four-door with supercar proportions; inside you sit low and snug and the view down the long hood is sensational. Hit the start button, then press ‘drive’ on the central console. A paddle behind the steering wheel selects either stealth mode in which propulsion is purely electric, or sports mode, in which the gas engine runs to maintain the battery’s charge. This allows you to choose when to use your electric range; you might want to save your tailpipe-emissions-free running for town. The paddle to the right of the wheel engages ‘hill’ mode, which offers two stronger levels of regenerative braking.

This becomes one of the most relaxing aspects of driving any type of EV; by anticipating, lifting off the throttle early and allowing the stronger ‘engine’ braking to do its work, you seldom have to shift your foot to the brake.

In Stealth mode the Karma is eerily refined; the noise and vibration of a regular engine are simply, oddly absent. It isn’t entirely silent though; there’s a little road noise from the huge tyres and you can occasionally hear the strange, sci-fi, metallic hum that’s being played to pedestrians to alert them to your presence.

Like other electric cars, the Karma delivers all its huge torque instantly, with a seamless, single-gear surge of acceleration; it has more than a standard Bugatti Veyron.

 

But at 2539kgs it’s a heavy car, and it only has one gear, so it can’t deliver supercar pace. Top speed is limited to 125mph but a 0-60 time of 5.9 seconds feels plenty brisk enough. As does every other aspect of its dynamic performance; the Karma’s steering, ride, handling and braking are all amazingly accomplished.

Henrik insisted on hydraulic power steering rather than the more efficient electric assistance more common in new cars in order to give better steering feel.

And there are a bunch of cool details you just won’t find on normal cars. The solar roof really stands out and is useful too, powering the air-con and audio and giving up to 200 miles of extra electric driving each year. The speakers that pipe the Karma’s synthesized soundtrack look like exhausts: a visual joke from Henrik. A glass panel in the centre console lets you see the lithium-ion battery built into the car’s ‘backbone’; concentrating the mass in the centre of the car improves handling. And a vegan trim package is an option.

Criticisms? The boot is tiny, the rear seats cramped and the noise of the petrol engine can be intrusive. Oh, and there’s the attention it gets. Even at a sedate pace through the centre of Milan, we got pulled over by a couple of motorcycle-mounted, car-enthusiast carabinieri. Pity stealth mode doesn’t make the Karma invisible.

The future of the US car industry?

The markets think these firms might be. In June 2010, Tesla became the first US carmaker since Ford in 1956 to go public, and it’s now valued at around $3bn on the strength of its plans to build 20,000 of its new Model S each year from a former Toyota plant in ‘Frisco, starting next year.

Henrik is busy retooling his factory for the Nina. This is real; it’s happening, and he and won’t discuss an IPO which means it probably isn’t far off. Most importantly his Karma feels like the future to drive, and it has the looks and the quality and the technological appeal to be that rare thing; a desirable contemporary American car.