Musings on new cars

Posted on April 11th, 2004 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

One of the problems with changing new car fashions is that the goal posts keep getting moved. Hey, that’s a problem? Well it is when the judgements being made within certain categories start being applied universally.

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Take the massive move to SUVs. (Years ago they used to be called four-wheel drives, but when all-wheel drive was applied to cars as diverse as Subaru, Audi and Jaguar, ‘four wheel drive’ no longer had any off-road connotations.) People had started to drive off-road style SUVs in normal day-to-day urban activities (God knows why – I have never understood any logical reasons for doing so), and so expected better NVH, better handling, better fuel economy from these vehicles. Manufacturers responded with ‘soft-roaders’ – SUVs designed not for the Sahara but for shopping.

And so now we have cars like the Lexus RX330 and the Honda MDX that pay only lip service to ground clearance and off-road prowess but make damn sure that they have leather and CD and electric everything.

Since the vast majority of drivers never venture off-road (think about it: ‘off-road’ means that there is no road!), it doesn’t concern me that the off-road prowess of these soft-roader SUVs is limited. But what I think is being lost in the praise being heaped on these new cars is that many punters may not realise that it’s praise only within that class of car.

Compared with any decent normal car, these vehicles still:

  • Handle miserably, with their low grip tyres and high centre of mass
  • Steer poorly, mostly due to the high profile tyres
  • With their large mass and poor aerodynamic drag, have high fuel consumption
  • And with their high floors, are cramped inside, especially in luggage space

Sure, these points are generalisations – and I haven’t driven a Porsche Cayenne – but to a greater of lesser extent, each applies to every vehicle in this class.

The Honda MDX? Eye-watering understeer. The Lexus RX330 – feels great but the stability control has been set to intrude extremely early. Even one of my favourites, the Nissan X-Trail, has relatively low outright grip (although a good handling balance).

Steering? Get behind the wheel of any of them to suddenly realise how going back to high profile tyres makes for steering that around centre is vague and slow.

Fuel consumption? Hell, the mid-size vehicles in this class are doing well to get real-world consumption of less than 15 litres/100km and even the small ones still get way worse consumption that an equivalent conventional car.

Load space? Don’t look at what appears to be available: instead actually put your suitcases and bags and other luggage inside and fill it up to the window line… then take it all out and put it into a conventional hatchback. Wow, what a surprise – it all fits, doesn’t it?!

DON’Tcompare in class (“Weeellll, that’s pretty good consumption for a 2-tonne off-road truck, isn’t it?”) because that’s setting the precept before analysing the reason for going down that path. Instead compare your actual vehicle requirements against the range of cars available. Yes, there are some justifiable reasons for going with an SUV – towing a boat, clambering over that rugged track that leads to your favourite fishing spot. Because snow doesn’t fall in this part of the world, I don’t really know, but I imagine that if you have to negotiate snowy roads before the plough comes through, an SUV with four wheel drive and good ground clearance might be needed.

But realistically, in nearly all cases, a softroader SUV has no advantages – and distinct and major disadvantages – over a conventional car…

For decades the Japanese were damned with faint praise – they were the imitators, rather than the initiators.

Cars like the seminal Datsun 1600 were very obviously based on Euro designs – the BMW 1600 even had the same name, let alone an awfully similar engine, size, and suspension. The first Lexus LS400 had generic BMW/Mercedes styling and had been developed with a very close eye being cast over those products. The Mazda MX5 (Miata) drew upon the lessons of British sports cars, while the Mazda rotary was based on the designs of Felix Wankel. (But like all generalisations, these points are often wrong in the detail. Mazda succeeded with the rotary where all other car manufacturers had failed – and most of ‘em had licenses for the design.)

But recently these ideas have been stirred anew.

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The Alfa Romeo 156 has been out a few years now – we tested it back in September 1999 New Car Test – Alfa Romeo 156 TwinSpark. A small/mid-size sedan, it married a sweet and torquey 114kW 2-litre four-cylinder with an excellent front-wheel drive chassis. (Now it has 121kW courtesy of its direct injection engine.) It weighed 1285kg, cost AUD$46,950, and did the 0-100 km/h sprint in about 10 seconds.

At the end of the test we summarised: “If you’re after sheer straightline grunt, the 156 (at least in 2 litre form) is not the car for you. But if you have a need for four doors and a boot and enjoy the subtleties of driving a sophisticated, brilliantly-handling Euro package, put the 156 on your shortlist. Its ability to put corners behind you with poise and ease is simply breathtaking.”

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And now we have the Honda Accord Euro New Car Test – Honda Accord Euro. It’s a very similar size to the Alfa 156, has very similar styling (especially from the rear three-quarters), at 1395kg weighs 100kg more – but has 2.4 litres and 140kW. The Euro Accord also drives brilliantly, has a 6-speed manual trans – and costs just AUD$34,250. So the Accord is faster, much cheaper, very similar in its cornering abilities, is a similar size….

In our test we said:

“The handling is excellent. The Euro comes with stability control as standard … [and] the stability control is subtle and progressive, and comes into action only at high cornering levels. Nearly everyone will leave it switched on all of the time – which is just how it should be. But if you’d like to be able to throttle-steer the car, press the stability control ‘off’ button and enjoy a beautifully-balanced car.”

“In short,” we said, “from the sophistication of its specification to the way it drives, the Honda is the new standard setter in this class.”

Indeed – and I wonder how closely Honda engineers looked at the 156 when designing the Euro Accord?

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