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Archive for October, 2011

Plugging Into Electric Cars

One thing that often gets raised as a problem when the issue of all-electric cars is discussed is the matter of “refuelling”.  It’s easy enough with hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius and the hybrid Ford Focus – the battery that provides the force needed to get the wheels turning is recharged by the engine when it’s running on petrol.  But what about all-electric cars?  The battery is always doing its thing and the motion of the car won’t charge it up again (if only it did!).

We all know how petrol-powered cars get refuelled.  We all know where our local gas stations are and many of them double as corner stores and takeaway food outlets.  In small towns, the petrol station often serves not just as the mechanic’s headquarters but also the post office and the general store.  But do these shops cater for electric cars?  Your local petrol station probably doesn’t have a place to plug in one of these.

The obvious thing to do is to plug the car in at home and recharge it in the same way that you would recharge your cellphone or camera.  So far, so good.  You’ll certainly notice the difference in your electricity bill, but this is only to be expected and you won’t be forking out at the petrol station.  But what about when you go on holiday or out of town on business?  Now where are you going to plug in to recharge?  Installing solar panels on the roof of your car so it can charge up as you go could be one option, especially in the more tropical and desert bits of Australia.  However, people do need to and want to drive at night and in bad weather, for one thing, and nobody’s taken a car covered with solar panels past the concept stage, at least so far.

This issue is one that does get considered by those in places of power who want to encourage electric cars as a way of decreasing dependence on fossil fuels (However, it must be remembered that the electricity plant has to be run on something, and if the plant is run on petrol, oil or gas, electric cars aren’t going to solve the problem of greenhouse gases and a non-renewable resource.  Electric plants powered by wind, water, the sun or nuclear energy (which has its own issues) don’t have this problem.)  In the United States, grants have been awarded to at least one organisation to develop the equivalent of a petrol station for electric cars: a plug-in station.

Richmond, in Virginia, USA, is one recipient of one of these grants.  The money will go towards working out how to build a charging station, as they are calling these facilities, and ultimately building them.  It will also go towards educating mechanics, most of whom got their training on your good old standard internal combustion engine and aren’t familiar with what’s under the hood of a purely electric car.  Things to be considered when designing a charging station will include how to make it straightforward to use for drivers, getting the station onto the grid, how not to cause brownouts if heaps of people charge up their cars, how to charge (in the payment sense) for the electricity and so forth.

This isn’t the first initiative taken regarding electric cars in Virginia.  One power company, in an effort to get more people adopting electric and hybrid vehicles, introduced a special charging rate for electricity for owners of electric cars, who paid less for their electricity if they wanted to charge up their cars overnight.

Volkswagen moving forward faster than ever

There are many new VW vehicles showing up on the road now and in the very near future for us all to aspire to. The all-new Beetle, the second generation Touareg and the convertible Golf returns with great style.

The new generation Beetle id brings a well needed masculinity and strength to the table. Coupled with sportiness, trademark interior styling and today’s technology, it is a winner. The Beetle’s engines are those of the award winning Golf to offer you the performance you have come to expect from VW. It is longer, wider and lower than its predecessor which gives it a purposeful stance on the road. VW has incorporated new front end styling and a meaty rear spoiler to add to its modern touches. The Australian specifications are not yet announced but it will be hitting Aussie shores in 2012.

The second generation Touareg is everything you could want in a modern SUV. It is roomy, fuel efficient and impressively light in the steering. On the road it is lower to the ground with a very large nearly athletic profile. It carries (in some engine choices) VW’s BlueMotion Technology and wonderful Nappa leather seats with splashes of ornamental wood and brushed alloy to keep the contemporary styling running throughout the VW model range. We suggest that you try the new V6 TDi Turbo-diesel. Its aim is to impress.

After a nine year absence the new convertible Golf has returned. VW is the leading manufacturer of convertibles in the world. In 1949 VW launched the first ‘cabriolet’ as the Beetle Cabriolet. It was a runaway success. It was followed by the Karmann Ghia (1955), Golf Cabriolet (1979), Golf Cab III (1993), Golf Cab IV (1998) and more recently the Eos (2007). Today we have the all new Beetle cab and the newest Golf Cabriolet.

The Golf Cabriolet features an electric folding soft –top roof (9 seconds start to finish), two-doors & four seats. The other great thing about the roof is that it does not take up the boot spaces like hard top roofs do. The Golf Cabriolet has a 250Ltr boot at all times. In a sneak peak it looks like a small Eos with a black fabric roof with the interior styling nearly identical.

After the recent Passat update, the all new Jetta and the Amarok, it seems there is still plenty to look at and look forward to in your local VW dealership!

New Nissans on the horizon

Nissan have announced the launch of four new models between April 2012 and March 2013; the new Micra platform ‘Almera’, the Leaf Electric Vehicle, Patrol SUV and the Tiida replacement into the Australian market. The Tiida replacement vehicle will either be known as the ‘Pulsar’ or the ‘Versa’. The brand Tiida failed to capture the Australian market with sales dropping a whopping 41% this year alone. We assume they will return to the Aussie loved Pulsar, but corporate decisions are sometimes not based on human reality. Go figure.

There may be some difficulty in brand recognition initially as the ‘Almera’ was the name for the European Export of the discontinued Pulsar, now they are moving it to the Micra replacement. Luckily here in Australia, we like our cars simply to sound like a ‘car’ and if they don’t, we simply don’t buy them. Let’s hope they spend enough money on the advertising to make us all ‘see the light’ of yet another branding change.

Nissan Australia has stated that the ‘Almera’ (the new Micra) will be the same platform but it will have four doors and a different body completely and different engines to choose from.

Nissan are hoping to join Mitsubishi and Toyota in the electric car game with the Leaf Electric. Not much has been said about it, but Nissan’s growth in the international market and its tremendously modern designers it will be something to see when it finally arrives. Let’s hope it is priced reasonably unlike its cousin, the iMiev from Mitusbishi.

Australians’ have always loved the Patrol and to convert it to a complete SUV is sheer genius. The Patrol name is synonymous with safety, ruggedness and reliability so it is sure to be a winner if it carries modern styling with all those basic features.

2012 is shaping up to be a great year of growth for Nissan; let’s hope the cars themselves are not a letdown like the Tiida and the Maxima.

Remember to contact the people at Private Fleet for a great deal on any new Nissan..or any other car for that matter!

Who’s the Oldest Driver Now?

It probably hasn’t caused much of a stir in the motoring world at large, but one of the world’s notable drivers has just died: Ellen Noy.  Ellen Noy wasn’t a racing driver or anything of that sort, but she was the holder of a very significant world record: she was the oldest living driver in the world, still pottering around the place without a blemish on her driving record and still fully licensed at the age of 105.

Ellen Noy was a New Zealander who learnt to drive in the little town of Kaiapoi just out of Christchurch where she was living (and driving) up until her death last week.  She learnt to drive back in the 1950s, taking her husband’s vehicle out at odd moments and in the weekends, although she didn’t get a proper license until 1965.  Obviously, they did things a little differently back then, or else she knew how do dodge the boys in blue (and it was just boys back then, for the most part) when she was learning.  She taught herself to drive, too – she just got in and had a go, rather like Bertha Benz, wife of the automotive pioneer.

Ellen Noy was notable for another reason: her driving record was completely spotless.  In all her years of driving, she never had a speeding ticket and never got done for driving over the limit, and she never had an accident, either.  She’d have seen a few changes over the years regarding regulations and safety – seatbelts weren’t compulsory when she began driving, and things like ABS brakes, crumple zones and ESP weren’t invented.  She was no speedster, but she liked to claim that she didn’t go about at a nervous crawl.  She went as fast as the speed limit let her and she had plenty of confidence when she drove.

It would be nice to say that Ellen was still driving the same car that she learned in back in the 1950s, but this wasn’t the case. Ellen Noy outlasted that car and her wheels of choice were attached to a 1993 model Toyota Starlet – one of the classic hatchbacks preferred by older drivers and single people with an eye to their wallets.  Starlets, like other small hatchbacks, are perfect for the sort of driving that Ellen Noy did: runs to the supermarket, weekly trips to church, social runs to play cards and croquet with friends, so her choice of vehicle isn’t really surprising.  Not that she would have been averse to a new car: when she got the news that she was the world’s oldest living driver, she wondered if she’d be able to get a new set of wheels out of it.

Ellen Noy didn’t hold her title of world’s oldest living driver for long, as she achieved that honour last July when the previous title holder died.  The previous holder was even older: Sheila Thomson of Scotland, who was aged 108.  It’s yet to be revealed who the new holder of the title is and how old they are.

RIP, Ellen Noy: drive on through those pearly gates and enjoy a spin on streets paved with gold.

Interbrand Ranks Toyota No.1 for 2011


In July 2011, Interbrand, the World’s biggest brand consultancy, ranked the Toyota brand as the number 1 most valuable and most green car manufacturer on the planet. Toyota was quickly followed by Mercedes Benz, BMW, Honda and VW. Audi, Hyundai, Porsche, Nissan and Ferrari made it into the top 100 companies worldwide. The details are here

The volatility of the 2011 market has lead Interbrand to believe that companies’ resilience to market fluctuations is the key to staying afloat. The market place is changing as is the face of business.

The fast paced growth of the classic European market and the Chinese demand for American Automobiles has been the primary link to recovery.

The highlight of the show has to have been the Nissan Motor group making it into the top 100 companies (90th worldwide and 9th in the automotive field). Nissan was able to regroup and restock its inventory faster than its Japanese competitors after the devastating earthquake in March. It has increased its brand value like everyone else – resilience.

The Korean’s are not to be sneezed at in this area of growth and prosperity, as they showed the highest market growth over all other car makers with an astonishing 19% growth in one year. The Hyundai brand is a juggernaut with extremely high quality automobiles at a reasonable price. In today’s market place value for money is a winner.

With both an internal crisis of diminishing quality control in 2010 and an external earthquake crisis in 2011 the company dug in and focused on safety and quality modifications for its 2011 models. Add to that the implementation of a new strategy to capitalise on its world-renowned green efforts, Toyota weathered the storm beautifully to come out on top.

In fact, Interbrand named Toyota its overall, “Best Global Green Brand” ahead of 3M and Siemens. In fact, car manufacturers came out very ‘green’ indeed by filling 7 of the top 20 positions in this ranking.

Dash Design and Ergonomics

The words ‘interior design’ are two words you’d associate with renovating or building new homes, however they are also linked to a car’s cabin area.  The interior of modern cars integrate sensational materials with new styles, new technology and superior comfort.  You may have come across the term ‘ergonomics’.  Ergonomics looks at how a person’s working environment fits around them.  Ergonomics associated with a driver of a vehicle will look at how the car’s switchgear, instruments, features, dash and driving equipment situate themselves comfortably within the driver’s reach.  These items also need to be easy to understand and simple to use.  Flagship models are where you would expect to find the best materials (usually leather), the best technology, greater levels of luxury features and usually the greatest comfort.  I’ve sought to look at a few of the latest flagship models on the market and rate them according to how their dash layout stacks up to being simple to use, nice to look at simple for the driver’s eyes to read.  The ratings are from 1 to 3.  A score of 3 means that the car’s cockpit and dash layout is excellent; it also means that the car’s cockpit and dash layout is easy to use and looks top notch.  A score of 2 means that the car does a fair job of getting it all sorted.  A score of 1 means that there is work to be done!

Alfa Romeo’s 159 flagship scores a 2.  The car’s dash has a unique appearance with some nice circular air vents. The buttons for various features on the central console are pleasant to look at and use.

Audi’s flagship, the A8, scores a 2.  The A8 has a smart looking dash with a very cool computer screen that flips up.  A little fiddly.

BMW’s 7 series scores a 3. The layout is smart and very comfortable to use.  BMW’s iDrive dial gives the luxurious 7 an uncluttered central console appearance making it simple and functional.  The layout is easy on the eye.

Citroen’s C6 scores a 2, with its very stylish dash leading the way.  Unfortunately the buttons are a bit fiddlier and require more concentration to use.  The C6 interior is lovely, however.

Ford Falcon scores a 3.  Smart, simple, clear switchgear and instrumentation look good and the bits and pieces are easy to use.

Holden’s Caprice scores a 2.  I found the dash a bit on the dull side.  However, the buttons were reasonably straightforward to use.  The Caprice leather seats are lovely.

Honda’s Legend scores a 2.  The Legend has a very beautiful dash design with excellent quality; however the layout is a bit  complicated on the eye.  Sumptuous materials and great seats give the Legend loads of comfort.  There would be others that would give it a 3.

Hyundai’s Grandeur scores a 2.  The dash has a simple and clean layout, but it has an overall bland appearance with the buttons being clustered.

Jaguar’s XJ scores a 3.  Unique styling looks superb, and the layout is simple enough when you get used to it.

Range Rover’s Vogue has an opulent interior that feels kingly.  The dash is a bit cluttered, while remaining relatively symmetric and sophisticated in most parts.

Slip into the Lexus LS, and the ergonomics are brilliant.  With a score of 3, the LS has a lot of buttons – but they were very well laid out and clear.  The dash looks good, too.

Mazda’s CX-9 was to score a 3.  Here is a nice balanced dash and cockpit that is smart, clear and logical.

Mercedes Benz S-Class is luxurious.  A score of 3 also meant that the dash was classy, simple, clear and uncluttered. The car is loaded with kit.

Mitsubishi’s Pajero Exceed scores a 2.  Nice tone and design, however the switchgear is a bit fiddly to use.

Nissan’s Maxima Ti scored a 2 – bordering on a 1 – is a bit fiddly to use.  Perhaps Nissan was trying too hard to be different, leading to cluttered switchgear – particularly around the computer screen.  Others are sure to score it differently.

Peugeot’s 4007 scores a 3. Smart, easy to use, modern facia technology looks the part.

Porsche Panamera scored 2. The reasonably well ordered centre console has way too many buttons.  This leads to a very cluttered appearance.

Renault gets it right with the Fluence.  The Fluence dash has a nice layout that is easy to use, easy to live with and unique.
The Fluence scores a 3.

Saab’s 9-5 has excellent ergonomics and scores a 3.  The driver of a 9-5 should feel very much in control of their surrounding cockpit.  It is simple enough to use – though there are a few buttons.  This is the car that makes the driver feel like they’re flying.  All the bits and pieces are clear, and everything around the driver is organised in a very clear ergonomic fashion.

Skoda’s Superb scores 2. Buttons and switchgear are a bit hard to read.  This lets down the car’s, otherwise, top build quality and nice materials.

Subaru’s Tribeca scores 2 – could be a 3 depending on taste.  To me, the dash looks a bit like it’s sagging in the middle. Otherwise, the dash looks stylish and is refreshingly different.  Switchgear and instrumentation is clear to read.

Toyota’s Aurion scores a 3 with the car’s smart simple layout.

Volkswagen’s Passat scores a 2 with its bland and fiddly interior.  Everything else is impeccable.

Volvo’s S80 is very sumptuous and scores a 3.  The nice layout is sophisticated but easy enough to use.

How Times Have Changed

In these times of political correctness and social acceptability, to say nothing of safety issues, it is sometimes amusing to reflect that it wasn’t always like this.

A case in point is a car ad that we came across recently. The car is a Czechoslovakian made Tatra 603 made 50 years ago. It has a heavy V8 lump of an engine mounted in the boot, yet still manages the most remarkable road-holding capabilities and, despite rolling down a mountainside, can still arrive at the bottom totally unscathed!

“Truth in Advertising” simply wasn’t a dictum then, so it still gives us a few minutes’ entertainmment and some wonderment looking at what they could get away with in this less restrictive advertising era.

The commercial is in two parts, both worth watching (if you have plenty of time to spare) so sit back and relax by clicking here

Ergonomics: The Science of Being Comfortable

You’re about to head home from work; you’ve had a long day at the office and you’re ready to put your feet up.  Sinking back into leather seats is a great feeling, even cloth seats are fine because what you really need is supportive, relaxing seats for the drive home through congested traffic.  Great seats and a comfortable driving position are important features for a great drive, but what can really add to the relaxed feel of driving is the car’s layout for the driver.

So what is ergonomics?  To some it might sound like a word associated with flying and aeroplanes.  Ergonomics does have links to an aeroplane’s cockpit, and so too can you use the word in association with the driver’s space inside a motor car.  Ergonomics is all about the study of designing equipment and devices that fit well to the human body, its movements and its cognitive abilities.

Well designed cars consider the ergonomics related to the driver.  Features like the steering wheel, indicators, switches for lights, fan and air-conditioning controls, audio unit switches, gear lever, central on-board computer controls, the alignment of the driver’s seat with the pedals, electric window switches and door handles should all be within easy reach of the driver.

The driving experience would be awful in a car that had switchgear and controls beyond the natural reach of the driver.  A car that offered bad driving ergonomics might also be considered as being less safe than a car with good driving ergonomics because the driver’s attention could get tied up with correcting the stereo’s volume over avoiding the oncoming car!  None of us would want to settle for second rate ergonomics these days.

Modern car designers do put a lot of thought into the area of ergonomics, however some cars are still better than others, and it would be advisable that you consider a car’s ergonomics carefully before purchasing a brand new set of wheels. This would avoid disappointment and dissatisfaction a month or two into your ownership period.

It’s worth being a kid again and spending time inside a car to get familiar with what button does what.  Car’s that are too complicated for their own good might have all the bells and whistles but be too complex to use on a day-to-day basis.  The new millennia BMW 7 Series was often criticised for having far too many buttons located on the central dash area.  You just about required a degree to make the luxury features work the way you wanted them to.  BMW listened to the complaints of the car’s ergonomics and have improved the newer 7 Series cars immensely.

Remember, a car doesn’t necessarily need to be flash in order to provide top ergonomics.  Even your trusty ten year old Toyota Corolla may have better ergonomics than the latest Mercedes Benz.  Sometimes good ergonomics just comes down to owner’s preference, however, more often than not, a car’s good ergonomics reliably satisfies drivers of all shapes and sizes all the time.  In the eighties and nineties, Saab was heralded as having the most ergonomically sound cars.  Saab knew this and continued to sell new models with similar ergonomics of older models.  As the years went by, of course, they were criticised for being unadventurous in the dashboard design.  But all it took was for drivers of these Saab cars to be behind the wheel for any lengthy period of time, then they would soon appreciate how relaxing, comfortable and easy to use they actually were.