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The Jaguar XE clings to the road and va-va-vooms past bends

Clingy” is not a word that one would readily associate with any kind of car review, unless one brought along an insecure girlfriend for the drive; but “clingy” is the word that springs to mind as the Jaguar XE I sit in spears through tight turns in a picturesque mountain pass in Western Cape, South Africa.

To say that we are cooking would be to underquote things somewhat; we are not cooking, we are boiling. The Jag is having its little neck wrung, and it is responding with barely a squeal.

The clinginess comes from the 245-section wheels and their endless grip, not the overbearing antics of a lover suffering from low self-esteem; though, to be honest, low self-esteem is what I will most probably contract before I get back home as I try to calculate how many more columns I will have to write before I can afford this car.

WHAT IS IT?

This is Jaguar’s newest; though they do have an SUV that is more or less ready for the showrooms; but still, this is Jaguar’s newest. It is also Jaguar’s smallest, and Jaguar’s cheapest.

From a hoon’s perspective, it is Jaguar’s best as well.

It is not the replacement for the old, defunct X Type, which was a Ford Mondeo in a fancy frock. This is a whole other car. However, it does occupy the slot previously darkened by the X Type. Motoring hacks have long memories and we do remember the wrong-wheel-drive X Type that seemed such a sellout for a company like Jaguar.

There is the company blurb that attempts to describe every line-up with  words like “dynamic”, “class-leading”, “segment”, “exciting” and God-knows-what-other-silly-adjectives. Somewhere in the pre-drive talk I heard the word “cosmopolitan” and I almost lost my mind. What was that again?

That word reminds me of yuppies: young, good-looking, overeducated and overpaid city-dwellers whose idea of a great night out is to swallow two glasses of some creatively named mildly alcoholic drink that glows in the dark; before dancing themselves into a sweaty headache and heading off to sleep at 3am to wake up two hours later in the daily grind that justifies their unfair capitalist salaries and… and… and this is not the Jaguar we know.

It just isn’t. I’d expect “cosmopolitan” to feature in a BMW ad. Or even a Lexus one. But Jaguar? No. Jags have since forever been the charming English ruffian to Audi’s focused contract killer, Mercedes’ domineering corporate mogul and BMWs egomaniacal Wall Street banker.

Jags were for cool people, slick cats who could talk their way out of trouble. A BMW buyer would swallow two glow-in-the-dark drinks and dance it off. A Jag owner would inhale several shots of whisky before leaving the premises with the Mercedes’ owner’s wife and then smile disarmingly when confronted about it. After all, he drives a Jaaaag… Where do you think Clarkson got that whole “Jaaaaaag” malarkey from?

The Jaguar XE is a four-door, 5-seater saloon car with rear wheel drive, which makes it a pukka Jaguar through and through (again, that X Type was not really a Jag), but about the five seats… this could be a problem. Read on…

THE INTERIOR

Unmistakable. Once you get inside, it is immediately obvious what car you are in. The design cues are heavy off the bigger and pricier XJ saloon and F Type thundercat, what with the circular steering wheel boss, the thick-rimmed wheel, the rotary gear knob, the infotainment screen, the lovely detailing, the stitching on the leather…. wait a minute, what leather? Is that leather or is it not? It sure does look like leather.

Turns out it isn’t. Strike one for the XE. Jaguar’s focus on “premium luxury” whatever-ness (again, PR press talk jargon) does not allow them to skimp out on the fancy stuff. It behoves them to be less frugal in the apportionment of costlies. What they use instead is something that almost looks and feels like leather but isn’t leather. Good news for the cows, I guess.

There is further evidence of cost control in the use of plastics around the dashboard. Some of it is scratchy. While the overall appearance is actually quite good; more so if you spec your car up with the dark interior; the cheapskate build materials are a bit of a disappointment, much as they are not immediately obvious.

You will have to be looking really hard before you spot them. Eschew the lightly hued interior too, which could easily show stains and also be a bit misleading.

Misleading? Yes, misleading, which is where the XE’s strike two comes about: the rear seat space. A  brightly coloured interior may give an illusion of space where there isn’t any.

The car may be a five-seater, but it will not seat five, at least not without considerable discomfort. Four up is also a bit if a pinch: the rear armrest is intrusive into the elbow room (and rib cage areas) of the flanking seats, which makes it less than ideal for use.

This is not looking good for the car.

To further exacerbate the absence of upper body wiggle room is the rear legroom, which is, for lack of a better word, terrible. Even with the front seats shoved as far fore as they could possibly slide on their motorised rails, knees in the back seat will squash into the backs of the front seats. This may force the rear seat occupants to sit a bit more upright than they would prefer to, but that too highlights yet another problem: there is no headroom.

There is an inexplicable dip in the rear roof lining that seriously robs the space in which to toss your heads during hard cornering manoeuvres… or during animated conversations that will surely crop up about claustrophobia, knee pain and armrests digging into ribs. The front is cosseting without being claustrophobic, and it is where you would want to be, as driver or passenger. The back seat is for kids.

The lack of rear space is not all that surprising, though, because before you get into the car you will have seen…

 

… THE EXTERIOR…

… and you may have noticed a few things. The face is as unmistakably Jaaaag as the dashboard design was. The bonnet has three strakes on it that resemble the claw marks of, well, a jaguar. This makes the car look aggressive from the front, but aggressive in an attractive way, not unlike a female superhero from a comic book. The side profile reveals the compact dimensions and high window line that solidly place this car right in the firing line of the Mercedes  Benz C Class and BMW 3 Series. The boot is short and stubby. All this makes the XE, for all intents and purposes, a small car; which then explains what was going on in the back seat in the preceding paragraphs.

The rear fascia is… an Audi A4. It very clearly is; we had a chance to drive behind another XE on the dual carriageway and an Audi A4 pulled up alongside it and, truth be told, at one point we were hard pressed to tell which car was which (both were silver in colour).

What gives? The XE’s design flowed so nicely from the bonnet leading edge, through the fancily high shoulder lines and sculpted metalwork, through the angular rakes of the A and C pillars, to the boot and then what? A plagiarised rear end? This is not to say it looks bad; it does look good, but then again it also does look unoriginal.

The distinguishing feature is the twin tail pipes which, in my view, seemed too close together (in the metal… in the pictures they seemed fine) and too close to the centre line of the car. Jaguar would do well to push them further out towards the ends, and add chrome tips for the plebeian 2.0 litre turbo four which has to make do without and the result is a cheapish appearance. At least the 3.0 V6 gets the chrome tips.

 

ACTIVE ENGINES

This may read like the absent-minded observations from a scatter-brained cynic; having started off by declaring the Jaguar XE as a good car that we like only to present it as a small car with a plastic dashboard, unusable rear seats and a stolen rump; but there is compensation for all these — admittedly minor — shortcomings from under the bonnet.

First up is the 2.0 litre petrol-powered DOHC 4-cylinder boosted by a single mono-scroll turbo.

This is the same engine we find in the Evoque, good for 240hp and 340Nm. You don’t need insane revs to reach these figures: peak power is available at “only” 5500rpm. It will propel the car to 100km/h from a dead stop in 6.8 seconds; and on to a top speed of 250km/h. Consumption figures are quoted as 7.5l/100km, which in Car Clinic-speak translates to 13.3km/l. Not bad at all, for a Jaguar.

The exciting unit is the 3.0 V6. Four valves per cylinder and DOHC work together with a twin vortex supercharger to yield 340hp and 450Nm, numbers that would cause a small tremble of excitement to shiver its way down a petrolhead’s spine, more so given that this urge is fed through a rear-drive platform.

The power is on a slightly higher shelf: 6500rpm, but is it ever lower whenever such numbers come up on a spec sheet? 100km/h comes up in a hair over five seconds and you will top out at 250km/h too, but this terminal velocity reeks of limitation to me. One might be able to pay Jaguar to dismiss the electronic nanny, in which case I’d say 290km/h would not be impossible. There was no confirmation of this, though: it is just clever speculation.

The economy may be comparatively worse at 12.3km/l (8.1l/100km in real world terms) but I seriously doubt if many will get these figures.

The supercharged car begs to be spanked, and spank you it will, meaning sub-10km/l outcomes are to be expected. None of it will be regrettable.

Both of these cars come with eight-speed ZF automatic transmissions that allow for pootling around at only 1500rpm (which then makes the consumption figures both possible and plausible). Both also have manual overrides via paddle-shifts mounted on the steering wheel. The suspension is multilink.

 

SWEETENING THE DEAL

Hands up if you think running a Jaguar will introduce economic strife to your otherwise carefully planned fiscal behaviour. Put those hands down and listen here very carefully, because this to you might seem as hard to believe as it was for me.

Buying a brand new Jag earns you a five-year/150,000km warranty. Yes, you read that right: for half a decade or the equivalent of three and a half trips around the Earth, your new baby will be under the protection of Jaguar Land Rover, well covered by a comprehensive warranty that stretches to the suspension gubbins as well.

This is particularly handy: multilink suspension tends to have many joints and knuckles, which in turn indicate a higher incidence of breakages; and given how much griping goes on about “African roads”, one can see why the running gear would be a especially sore spot in motor vehicle maintenance. Fear no more.

While all the details of the warranty are still unbeknownst to me, there were hints that some consumables might be covered as well. That means routine service might be either dirt cheap or damn near free of charge. Five freaking years; or three round-the-world excursions. Dang!

Speaking of service intervals: these come up at 32,000km, or three-quarter way around the Earth (nothing puts distances into perspective as much as referencing the Earth’s 40,000km circumference). That means some of the hand-me-down Toyotas people relentlessly pursue will have been serviced six times before the Jag goes in once.

The pricing is also unclear, and Jaguar will not commit to any numbers at this moment, but in the next few days they should have answers. This is because the company wants to consolidate the pricing in various markets to make it similar across the board irrespective of the prevailing tax regimes in a given country; and this is no simple task. While all countries levy taxes, some levy more taxes than others.

Tentative figures are about Sh5.5 million for the cheaper 2.0 litre vehicle and about Sh7 million for the pricier 3.0 litre alternative; which leads us finally to the big question:

WOULD I BUY ONE?

Yes. Hell yes! The XE really is a thing of beauty. The engineering in it is top-drawer, and the after-sales support is impressive to the point of being unbelievable.

Five years/150,000km is a long period of cost-free ownership, and the asking price is not even reflective of the give-with-one-hand-take-away-with-the-other type of mind-numbing contract detailing that certain dodgy manufacturers use to recoup some coins from such a sweetly outlandish offer.

The niggles I mentioned are not as bad as they sound (OK, the rear space is really not that good, but the plastics and non-leather can be easily tolerated).

You would be insane to walk away from such a deal, and I may have to write a few more columns to raise money for this car because this is one Jaguar that I really, REALLY want.

The biggest reason I want one is not even the warranty. Find out what it is next week as we slide into the driver’s seat and stretch the little cat’s limbs on a scenic mountain pass.

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To spare yourself trouble and tears in future, be careful with Peugeots

Hi Baraza,

I am an avid reader of your column, thanks to which I have learnt a lot about cars.

In 2013 I bought an ex-Japan Peugeot  206 SW. My husband didn’t understand why and how I settled for the car, but I was in love, period.

However, after a year, it started overheating, forcing me to stop abruptly on two or three occasions.

I went to Marshalls and was advised to replace the ECU after spending a few thousands on unnecessary spares. I thought it would be prudent to seek a second or third opinion before spending Sh100,000 on the ECU.

Luck was on my side as I was referred to a mechanic with years of experience with Peugeots. He replaced the ECU with a second-hand one, which served me very well until sometime in January, when my door locks decided to open only when they were “in the mood”.

Miraculously, they started working well again, jamming only occasionally. One day recently,  the engine overheated but the problem hasn’t recurred.

My husband thinks I should sell the car although he definitely enjoys the way it picks up speed  when he occasionally wants to frustrate the V8 crowd.

I love my Peugeot, although this problem is worrying me. My questions are:

  1. What would you recommend to sort this overheating?
  2. Should I keep the car or sell it ?

3.Your opinion on Peugeots.

Esther.

 

Esther, welcome to the world of Peugeot ownership, a world I left near tears.

The tears were occasioned as much by the financial and logistical pain caused by the car’s wilful and unpredictable tendencies as it was by the need to part ways with something so beautiful, and to which I had given so much of myself.

I once did an entire article about Peugeot ownership and I likened it to dabbling in a relationship with someone you met at the bar. It is a leap of faith.

I also sketched out the peculiarities Peugeots  seem to have, and listed some of my own experiences. Your description fits that bill to a T. I smiled when you mentioned the door locks as I remembered how the car locked me out courtesy of a wayward central locking system that I never eventually put right.

Now, I would like to challenge you and invite bets from spectators. You bring the 206 SW and I will bring a V8. Let hubby drive the Pug, I will take the helm of the V8 then we will see who gets  humiliated.

Anyway, to your questions:

  1. Find the cause of overheating before looking for a solution. If the radiator or any of its feeder pipes/hoses and/or the channels/water jackets in the engine block are clogged, have them unclogged. If the water pump is malfunctioning, replace it. If the fans have gone on the blink, have an electrical person check what the problem is.

A quick solution would be to connect the fans directly to the electrical power, bypassing the thermostat, but that might not be necessary. Speaking of thermostats, is yours okay?

Finally, make sure you do not have a leaking or blown head gasket.

  1. Seek a new owner. Avoid the tears that plagued me; seek a new owner and pray that he/she does not read this column, otherwise you might have a hard time selling the car.
  2. I believe I have cleared this up in the preceding paragraphs.

 

Baraza, thanks to you, I now know some things about my car better than some mechanics. Keep up the good work.

Now to my questions:

1) My car, an automatic Toyota DX, jerks whenever  I engage the reverse gear; and

2) It vibrates, though not very much, especially when I drive in traffic jams (I usually engage “N”  at such times… and the engine runs so smoothly that it’s hard to tell whether it is still on).

My mechanic recommended that I replace the engine mountings, which I did, but the vibration persisted.  When I went back to him, he said that the mountings would take some time to “adapt”.

Seriously?!

 

Hilarious! The mountings must be human for them to adapt to their new surroundings. Try checking the transmission mountings, they might be the culprits here. Also, check the level of ATF and the driveline (CV) joints.

 

Baraza, please indulge us, drivers of second-hand, imported Japanese cars. Review commonly driven cars and give us a break from the Prados, Lexuses and Benzes. Give us something we can identify with.

Evans

 

Evans, I’ve done that more times than I care to count. Five years in the business means we are looking at close to 260 weeks of this column, give or take 20.

Two hundred and forty weeks’ worth of Behind The Wheel/Car Clinic (assuming we are at 20 less than exactly five years) are more than enough to have covered even the most rudimentary of motor vehicles (the Mobius, or maybe the OX) as well as the most complicated (the latest Mercedes S Class).

In between, we have covered countless Toyotas, Subarus, Nissans; we have also had Range Rovers, Jaguars, Lamborghinis and Ferraris, among others, and I might even have talked about the Bugatti Veyron once or twice.

In fact,  I have reviewed a go-kart at the low end of the size scale, and a Scania truck on the higher end. In between have been saloon cars, estates, pick-ups and SUVs. Invariably, most of the content has centered on used cars bought by the middle class, the sort of car you claim to “identify with”.

Take a good look at the rest of the content in this week’s write-up. While I have mentioned in the same section the very cars that seem to rub you up the wrong way (Prado, Benz), the subject matter has been on commonly driven, second-hand, imported Japanese cars.

If you do not like the Prados, I’m sure you will be especially miffed come end of April when I go to Mauritius to test-drive the latest product from Land Rover: the all-new Discovery Sport.

I will  compensate for it immediately after by reviewing a Nissan Note… or perhaps  I should review my own Mazda Demio; after all, it is a commonly driven second-hand, imported Japanese car.

 

Baraza, I want to buy my first car and  my biggest challenge is which to choose between a Toyota NZE and the New Nissan Bluebird. How do fuel consumption, maintenance and depreciation of the two cars of 1500cc engine capacity compare?

Nick

 

Nick, I will  ignore your question and answer one of my own. This is mainly because the comparison you ask for is neither here nor there, and the results can swing one way or the other, depending on the operator’s idiosyncrasies.

Get the Bluebird and ditch the NZE. I’m guessing it is the so-called Sylphy, and it is one of the best kept secrets in the used-car market (well, not anymore).

Here is why you should get the Nissan rather than the Toyota (over and above fuel economy, maintenance and depreciation):

The Nissan is prettier. It just is. The rear may be a bit bulbous and could be more of an acquired taste but the rest of the car has a whiff of executive about it.

The size too: it could be considered Premio-grade, rather than NZE-class. This classification extends to creature comforts as well: spec levels, roominess, ride quality….

The rear legroom is especially fantastic; believe it or not, there is more space around the back seats of a Sylphy than there is at the back of the newest Mercedes Benz E Class model. I have sat in both (and driven one) and can say that with some authority.

This brings us to pricing. The Sylphy is cheap, or rather, it is cheaper than an NZE, which is ironical given that it is far better than an NZE.

I know of a friend who got a used one from Japan and after paying all sundry charges and taxes, he had plenty of change left over from the million he had budgeted. Get a similar Corolla from Japan — or worse still, locally — and you will not be counting many leftover shekels in your hand.

And now the big question: why? Blame your fellow Kenyans. They are split into two factions: the first comprises worshippers of Toyota, who believe the corporate giant is the only purveyor of value-for-money automobiles and any other car manufacturer is a charlatan out to swindle unsuspecting buyers of their hard-earned money by selling sub-Toyota grade automobiles at super-Toyota level prices.

It is a very large group and consists mostly of cab drivers, owners of 14-seater matatus, about 85 per cent of the people who buy used Toyotas and my friend from a tea plantation who once said a Hilux can keep up with an Evo. I still soil my pants with laughter every time I remember that conversation.

The second faction is the exact opposite of the first one. It is a smaller clique that believes Toyotas are hugely overrated, and that Toyota are dishonest money-grabbers, not Nissan or Honda or Mitsubishi or the little-known Mitsuoka (the ninth largest car manufacturer in Japan).

They think anyone who buys a Toyota just because it is a Toyota is an idiot who deserves to be relieved of his money, as is the case when they buy a Toyota anyway.

They believe better deals can be had in other brands. Some members of this faction then buy European cars, which they immediately regret when an invoice quoting parts pricing is thrown their way; or buy Chinese, which they also immediately regret when they discover that they have bought a disposable car that will never see the used-car  market because of its ephemeral life expectancy.

Their purchase decisions are usually mostly based on leaps of faith rather than cold, clinical analysis.

Well, Toyota-haters, rejoice, for your time is nigh. While both trains of thought are right in their own way, one is more right than the other. Ignore the fundamentalist train of thought employed by both crowds and sift through the extremism to see their points.

Toyotas are the bees’ knees in value-for-money terms, but this only applies if they are bought new. Get into the pre-owned sector and reputation starts to make itself felt. This might explain why Corolla 100s are still commanding prices painfully close to Sh400,000 despite their age.

It also explains why Premios and Allions cost almost twice as much as they really should on the used-car market. Reputation.

With reputation comes demand, and with demand comes price mark-ups to take advantage of the market dynamic. The sucker is the end user who pays these prices to someone who drives an ex-UK Range Rover Sport, and that someone the owner of the used car lot from which the Premio is sold.

The above might justify the Toyota-hating, but then again, this clique’s George W Bush style of reasoning is flawed. There is a good deal to be had out there on a Toyota, but only if you search hard enough.

Just because used Toyotas are overpriced does not make them rubbish; in most cases, they really are superior to the competition.

A good example is the Nissan Bluebird you enquire about. Its rival is the Premio, not the Corolla, but the Premio costs almost half as much again over the Sylphy for the simple reason that the Premio will sell faster.

The Sylphy is lowly priced to get rid of it and avoid its spending too much time in the dealer lot. This does not change the fact that the Premio is superior to the Sylphy.

Long story short: when in doubt, go for a Toyota. If you have time on your hands and a clever friend, shop around for an alternative.

This Toyota/not-a-Toyota quandary is not cast in stone, nor is it exactly black and white. While your dilemma might favour the Nissan, other decisions are no-brainers whose answer is definitely Toyota. Hilux double-cab vs Navara? Go Toyota. Landcruiser  vs Patrol? Landcruiser any time. Fielder vs. Wingroad? Take a guess…

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Motoring news this year

The Sky Has Finally Fallen

It is all doom and gloom along Lusaka Road as CMC Motors woke up to the shocking news that Jaguar Land Rover is no more.

No, the Indian-owned British corporation has not closed shop, but as far as CMC Motors are concerned, Jaguar and Land Rover cars may as well not exist beginning February 2013, if the world does not end in two week’s time.

CMC’s contract expires then (Feb), and it will NOT be renewed. I bet some individuals there wish the world would end this month, after all….

In a statement released to members of the motoring press all over Africa, one Willem Schoeman of JLR SSA (Jaguar Land Rover Sub Sahara Africa) made it clear that JLR as a company has high hopes for Kenya; only these hopes are tied to another company; one that few people have heard of: RMA.

It was not so much we don’t want CMC as it was we want RMA. These sentiments were echoed within the Tweet-verse and the blogosphere, the difference being that while JLR’s statement was more pro-RMA than anti-CMC, Internet opinions were the other way round.

“It has been a long time coming…” one of my Twitter followers chirped. “It is about time…” piped another. “Good riddance…” said a third. Hard times, these.

“Jaguar Land Rover is pleased to announce the appointment of a new partner in Kenya, the RMA Group,” thus quoth Herr Schoeman.

If a lady announces she is pleased to have a new boyfriend, more often than not that means the incumbent/outgoing squeeze was not up to scratch and was therefore relieved of his duties. I don’t know if this also applies in the corporate world.

“The RMA Group brings a broad range of expertise and experience in the… industry… with the (JLR) brand, which they currently represent in other global markets.”

( My new boyfriend is an accomplished lover and is way cooler; and all his old girlfriends still have the hots for him). These are not very encouraging words to be reading when one is being replaced: whether as a boyfriend or as a franchise holder.

On a more serious note: this is not a time to celebrate for the motoring giant (CMC, I mean, not JLR). JLR is on a roll, releasing new products faster than we can write about them, and now is not the time for anybody to fall off their wagon.

The 2013 Vogue has been received with rave reviews and plenty of excitement worldwide. There are updates for the two Jag saloons: the XF and the XJ.

There was the Discovery 4, and the Evoque not too long ago, the Freelander has just received its 2013 model year refresh, there will be an all-new Defender in the not too distant future, the long awaited Jaguar F Type is slotted for release next year, there should be an all-new Range Rover Sport somewhere within sight also….

Now is really not the time to get oneself fired, in a Trump-esque, Apprentice-style send-off.

You may have noticed that the word “surprise” does not appear anywhere in the preceding writing. This is because whispers and hints of the looming break-up reared their unseen heads as far back as September.

Back then, the grapevine had it that, first, CMC and RMA were to share the franchise, with RMA being primary importer. Then it became a contest as the two vied and jousted for the new contract (still on the grapevine, and thus unverifiable). Now word from Mzanzi is that CMC will not be selling JLR products much longer. This much is verifiable.

What Herr Schoeman’s missive doesn’t explain is exactly why CMC Motors have been kicked to the kerb in favour of RMA. The signs were there though: scandals – 1. the head honcho earning a bigger salary than the entire company’s profits, 2. his replacement being on the receiving end of some dirty, underhand maneuvers in an attempt to keep him and his whistle (which he blew very hard) away, 3. the disappearance of (of all things) an ex-President’s Range Rover car…

This, by the way, had been nearly forgotten until the vehicle surfaced several years later (a few weeks ago) in the hands of yet another high-profile individual, blowing the case wide open again.

An insider also confessed to yours truly that they were unable to move units in sufficient numbers, so the company depended heavily on maintenance and service of Range Rovers for the department to make money. Clearly all has not been rosy at the country’s biggest motoring franchise for a while.

It was good while it lasted, CMC Motors. Hold your heads up and work towards a brighter future. RMA: you have your work cut out.

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2013 Freelander

Still on matters Land Rover: The Freelander 2 has been updated for the 2013 model year. Cosmetic surgery has been done to great effect so that the new car looks much better than the outgoing one.

Not that the predecessor was ugly to start with, but it takes fresh input to put things in perspective, and the perspective is that the Freelander Two-And-A-Half is out in full force to threaten the competition which had been catching up.

Freelander 2.5, you ask? Well, yes. The changes are not just skin-deep. New engines and new transmissions appear too. The Evoque’s engines to be exact: the 2.0 litre petrol Si4, the 2.2 litre diesel SD4 (which we will get, good for 140kW/182bhp) and the 2.2 diesel TD4 (110kW/143bhp, which we will not get, and is also not found on the Evoque).

All are turbocharged 4-cylinder units: the 3.2 litre V6 is no more (boo!). The engines come attached to a 6-speed automatic gearbox with Tiptronic override. A new body, new engines and new transmissions: that sounds like a whole new car to me, but JLR says its is not the Freelander 3, so Freelander 2.5 I will call it.

The car is semi-skilled off-road (not that many of you will be driving it on cliff faces or underwater anyway), it is fine on road, with a floaty feel from the steering at speed.

In an odd turn of circumstances, the petrol engine is ok, you could even call it a bit special, but the diesel is a mite underwhelming in performance and response.

Weird, considering how diesel versions of a car are usually made to outshine the petrol version in order to boost sales. Couple this to a dim-witted automatic and it is easy to see which spec will win hearts: the petrol version, which you will most likely drive in Tiptronic mode 85 per cent of the time.

Expect the car to cost anything from Sh5 million upwards once it hits the showrooms next year.

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Nissan Qashqai

The-Nissan-with-a-name-that-cannot-be-pronounced has just been “launched”. This is despite its making an appearance in several local shows and displays, including DT Dobie’s own previous other-vehicle launches.

Quite a launch this particular one was though, featuring well-heeled senior corporate suits, finger food, fruit juice, paint guns and graffiti. I don’t know what effect DT Dobie was going for with this ensemble.

The Qash-and-Qarry continues Nissan’s recent tradition of unleashing slightly underpowered vehicles on an unsuspecting public (Tiida, Almera). 136bhp and 20kg.m are nothing to write home about, especially for a Kluger-sized car; when a mid 2000’s Honda Civic Type R hatchback has better outputs.

To sum up the irony, DT Dobie used words like “dynamic” and “distinguished” when they introduced the already familiar motor show prop. Interestingly enough, a sizeable portion of my Internet disciples detest this car.

The Nissan Qwerty can be had with 2WD or 4WD. It can be had with 5 or 7 seats. It can be had in black, or silver, and maybe in some other colours too. But there is no escaping from the 136bhp 2.0 litre “powerplant”. DT Dobie also says they sold out their initial stock, which took an entire year to accumulate.

Methinks either they are taking liberty with facts or that “stock” consisted of only three cars, because I kid you not: I have not seen a single Cash-Guy on the road. Maybe I’ve been driving on all the wrong roads….

The Nissan Quash-Key costs Sh3.6 million (more, if you spec it up). If and when I do a review on it, we will decide whether this Qar will be a Qlever Investment or a Nissan Waste-of-Qash.

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F30 BMW 3 Series

Another new vehicle release (in Kenya, at least) is that of the F30 BMW 3 Series. The front looks shark-like, which means it looks like the former 6 Series. The rear looks like just like it did on the outgoing car. I have not driven it yet, so for now that is that.

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The baby Range Rover: An understated pleasure

I was going to start off this article making analogies involving fashion accessories — about how they are high on looks and low on practicality — and I also intended to talk about the unwise move of deploying the pop star wife of a football legend in the automotive world to influence the end product of what, we have to admit, is the most profound Land Rover vehicle ever since Charles Spencer King installed a Chrysler V8 into the very first Range Rover car.

I even thought of touching on the defining characteristics of one Judas Iscariot, a man for whom the word “loyalty” was Roman to his Jewish “sell-out”.

Basically, I was not planning on being kind to the Evoque, the latest and most controversial Range Rover car, ever. Here is why.

Range Rovers have been typified over the years by several key ingredients. They are tall, massive, seat five (or more), have full-time 4WD, and contain six or more cylinders in their engines.

They were also thirsty, most of the time. The Evoque is none of these. Range Rovers have also been manly cars and the manifestation of an engineer’s passion.

This one, the Evoque, was designed by a woman, not even an “engineeress”, so to speak, but a diva from the now-defunct British girl band called the Spice Girls.

It is like asking Beyoncé Knowles, former lead of Destiny’s Child, to come up with the new Scania prime mover. Sounds like a corporation committing suicide, right? Wrong.

What Mrs David Beckham, née Victoria Caroline Adams, unleashed on us is nothing short of epic. Again, here is why.

The engine

While Range Rovers past have always packed 2.5-litre plus six — or eight — shooters under the hood, the Evoque arrived toting a puny four-cylinder with a single turbo.

This flouts all known automotive technology rules: Range Rovers are supposed to have massive engines, and nowadays nobody does single turbos anymore.

To eliminate lag without resorting to an anti-lag system (ALS), which is dangerous to both engine and pedestrians as it shoots flames out of the exhaust pipe, most engine builders use twin turbos; a small one for low revs, complemented by a larger one for full top end power.

The brochure says: “The Si4 petrol engine is a lightweight all aluminium unit…” I believe them. Driving the Evoque, one would be hard pressed to tell that there is even an engine up front.

So even is the weight distributed through the front chassis components that balance is not a point one would want to raise when criticising this vehicle.

The brochure also says: “It uses the latest direct injection technology and advanced turbocharging…” Again, I believe them.

So cleanly and smoothly does this engine run, you would not be fooled into thinking it belongs in a cheaper car — that is courtesy of the direct injection.

But more important is the authoritative pulling power that is accessible from low revs. Now, that is the turbo. Most single turbo setups suffer from tremendous lag or very narrow torque bands (or even both), but the Evoque’s engine is something else.

From as low as 1200 rpm, pedal-to-the-metal antics yield results, and impressive results at that. Acceleration is instantaneous and torque delivery is linear. Woe unto any competitive drivers of lesser cars who would want to take this on.

There is also twin independent variable valve timing that allows economy when the driver is circumspect with the hot pedal and haste when he turns lead-footed.

It works, believe me, it does.

With a three-cylinder economy on demand, it is actually a four-cylinder, emits a five-cylinder growl under WOT (wide open throttle), gives six-cylinder smoothness, delivers V8 torque, and still possesses the top-end screaming power of a V12. Dr Jekyll’s doings have nothing on a road test of the little Evoque.

Performance

That single turbo suffers from so little lag you would hardly notice it at all. At full tilt, the Evoque will humiliate anything affordable on the road right now — it even shamed its ancestor, the grandfather of all SUVs, the Vogue, on an open road.

(If you were driving a black Range Rover Vogue along the northern bypass on 17 May and a tiny, grey Evoque pulled away from you despite your best efforts, that was me. Sorry).

While the top-end power is quite impressive, there was still a moment of weakness somewhere. The car will pull from rest to 180 km/h effortlessly, but between 180 and 200, it gets a little breathless.

Beyond 200 requires an autobahn to find out, and we do not have one here. Yet.

Power had a dead spot somewhere, but torque did not. Overtaking was not even an epiphany, nor was it even momentous: there is no adjective majestic enough to describe what happened the first time I sent the pedal all the way to the floor while on the wrong side of the road.

The figures in the mirrors could not disappear backwards any faster if I was in a low-flying aircraft. Stupid grins were available all round as my road test crew suddenly realised that we were not in yet another ordinary 4-cylinder mini-SUV.

Sum up: While the general consensus is that BMW builds the best engines in the world, the Automotive Engine of the Year last year was from the bigger Range Rovers.

It was the 4.4-litre TDV8, now available in the Vogue and the Sport. The Evoque’s 4-cylinder mill proves that this was not a lucky hit; the engineers at Jaguar Land Rover are on a roll.

Tip: Use the cruise control. At 80 km/h, it will stick to fifth gear at 1950 rpm, but it will not stay in sixth (1400 rpm), even if you force it. Sixth gear works best at 95 km/h and 1600 rpm, which, I believe, is the most economical state of this car.

The suspension

More magic here; the little Rangie uses magneto-rheological dampers and shocks. This simply means that the suspension stiffness varies in real time according to the prevailing conditions, and is controlled by an electrical current and billions of tiny little iron filings in the shock absorber fluid.

When the current is off (such as on smooth, steady surfaces), the little metal bits just float around giving a comfortable and slightly floaty, pillow-like feel.

During hard cornering, an electrical current runs along the metal casing of the shocks, causing the iron filings to bunch up together and stiffen the suspension, thus improving handling by eliminating body roll.

This is the same setup used in the Audi R8 sports car. It is also used in the most powerful road-going Ferrari car ever made, the 599.

Ride and handling

This being a Range Rover, no matter how small, it is a given that from ordinary road use one would expect ultra-smooth ride quality and quietness. Enter our handling test course.

Anybody who has driven from Nyeri town to Nanyuki knows of the smooth and sinuous tarmac that lies just outside Nyeri. Sweeping S-curves, tight hairpins coupled with blind switchbacks and no run-off area whatsoever define this five-kilometre stretch of bitumen.

A sneeze at any point along this course from the driver would mean instant death. We wrung the little Evoque’s neck here, but the tyres would not give, nor would the suspension, nor would the steering. Bliss.

Taking those tight turns at 85 km/h yielded no understeer. There was also no tyre squeal and no body roll. The only downside was that this is a two-way road; start clipping apexes and you might end up a statistic.

Sum up: This is a GTI car, a performance hatchback, a luxury saloon, and an SUV all rolled into one, with the focus bending towards the performance hatchback. Many tried to keep up along this stretch of our test route and many failed.

The styling

Being a footballer’s wife, a pop star, and a businesswoman exposed Mrs Beckham to the finer things in life, and that is what she has tried to replicate here.

The Evoque looks a lot like the Range Stormer I talked about some time back, only this time there is clearly a feminine shade and shadow on the silhouette.

Really clever cues include a three-quarter length skylight roof. The massive tyres are pushed to the very edges of the vehicle body, not only lending the car a sporty look, but this is also responsible for the sublime handling.

Lastly, the roof tapers backwards from the top edge of the front windscreen to the back windscreen. The side mirrors are also cleverly designed but massive, and could be a visual impediment on oblique junctions.

A bit of bad and good

The tapering roofline has a negative effect: it robs the car of rear headroom and boot space, and creates a very tiny rear window, thus impeding the rear view.

The window shoulder line is also a bit high, creating a pillbox effect for the driver and passengers. First time in the car feels like a sniper’s hideout, so it does take some getting used to, however much you fiddle with the seat controls.

The massive side mirrors create huge blind spots at junctions, so a little care is needed.

The body styling and the skylight roof, on the other hand, will generate more attention than you have ever wanted.

Not even the police are immune to the Beckham effect, gawking as the car weaves through their stingers (thus forgetting to ask themselves why three scruffy, sweaty, grinning men would be driving a car that fancy on a road that lonely and at a speed that absurd).

Sum up: Attention seekers, your Google equivalent has arrived. Looks of lust, looks of envy, and looks of approval will henceforth be your lot.

The road test

As tests go, this has been our most thorough to date. Pity there is not enough space to report everything. We did a dyno run: power hit 160 whp (which translates to about 190 bhp — the traction control and ABS kept cutting in); 336 lb ft or 458 Nm/46 kgm of torque; and top speed (225 km/h, or 140 mph).

We also played with the toys (Bluetooth can be a headache sometimes). In fact, we played with everything, short of disassembling the entire car; not a wise proposition for something worth Sh12 million or so.

Doing it differently

I will make no bones about it: my car reviews are not always regarded highly by those in the motor vehicle business. So it came as a shock to me that I was invited to drive the Evoque out of the blue.

And not in the typical Kenyan road test fashion where you are supplied with a car, a driver, and a security guard (for the car, not for you) and required to fill out 1,300 pages of paper work, before being driven round the nearest roundabout then told to get out, go back home, and write something nice.

You will have the car for two days, they said. Who is the driver and who is the security guard, I wanted to know. You will be on your own, they said.

It does not make sense, I countered. Why would I drive today, give the car back, then drive again tomorrow? You will not, they chimed. You will go home with the car, then give it back tomorrow, they added. We trust you, they cooed. What is more, we are giving you a full tank of fuel, they gushed.

I did not go home. A Range Rover Evoque, two test drivers, and a photographer: the wisest thing to do was to point the car towards the biggest and most picturesque mountain available and gun it.

That is exactly what we did, and in my mental checklist, on the dotted line next to the entry labelled “Most Spectacular Road Test, 2012”, I quietly filled in “Range Rover Evoque Si4”.

The tank was empty when I handed the car back.

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An SUV for less than a million? You are fishing for trouble

Dear Sir,

I have a 1996 Toyota Corolla 110 that I love so much since it’s my first car, but everyone else thinks that’s wasted love — especially my mum and my girlfriend — so I want to sell it and buy a used SUV.

Considering the local roads, what should I go for on a tight budget below one mili, never mind fuel consumption and spare parts.

Mak

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A used SUV for less than a million? Hmm… I know of two or three Range Rovers (3.5-litre V8, 3-door, carburettors, from 1978) that are going for about 400K apiece.

Jokes aside, getting an SUV for less than a million is like buying meat at Sh40 a kilo — it could be from Naivasha and might not even be beef (maybe donkey).

In other words, if you want a big car, then you have to pay big money. An SUV for less than Sh1 million means a knackered example; the engine could be mere inches away from complete failure, the 4WD transmission could be dysfunctional or missing entirely and it might be having only one seat. Not to mention a family of rats living inside it.

Sh1.5 million is a better bet, and could net you the Prado Box (J70) or a V46 Pajero, the best bets so far and in good condition. An old Land Rover Discovery could also fall here, but running it might be beyond your means.

The same Sh1.5 million can also get you any number of 4WD double-cabs, also in good condition.

That is unless you land yourself a deal, following the advice I gave some time back on how to get the most out of your money when buying a car.

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Dear Baraza,

Many thanks for your very educative column. I want to buy a car that can accommodate a family of three soon.

Please assist me in choosing from the following in regard to maintenance, spares, fuel consumption and reliability: Mazda 2 (or is it Demio?) with a DHOC VVT engine, Nissan FB15, or a used 1998 Mercedes Benz C200.

Also, is it true that the bodywork of some of these cars degenerates faster than others even with proper care? And lastly, what is the difference between a four-wheel-drive and an all-wheel-drive vehicle.

Joe

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Demio vs B15 vs Mercedes? Quite a diverse selection, I must say! If it was up to me, I would buy the Benz and live on greens for six months, but anyway, here goes.

Maintenance: The Mercedes should be the easiest to maintain, seeing as to how they don’t break down easily.

And in the late 90s, Daimler introduced this technology that informed the driver exactly when to service the vehicle, as opposed to after a given time or distance.

So, when properly handled, the Benz can go almost double the typical distance before its service is due.

The B15 might cause you a spot of bother given what I have gathered from readers, and the Demio might be a better bet between the two lowly Japs.

Spares: Of course you will sell your kidneys once the Merc’s bits start demanding replacement. Not so the Demio and B15.

And I don’t know if this still holds true, but once upon a time, whenever a busted headlamp or indicator lamp on a Benz wanted replacement, you had to buy an entire set of lights, not just the affected one.

The logic given was that if one shoe goes bust, it is atypical to walk into a shoe store and demand to buy one shoe; you normally just buy another pair.

Fuel consumption: Drive soberly and maturely and you will be hard pressed to tell the difference. And yes, this includes the Merc! In C180 or C200 form, it will still do 16kpl. along with the other two.

Reliability: Benz is best, then Demio, then the silly B15. 4WD vs AWD: Here’s a quick differentiation; 4WD implies switchable 4WD (that is, can shuffle between 2WD and 4WD).

AWD, on the other hand, is a form of full-time 4WD, the difference with full-time 4WD being the use of viscous diffs to distribute torque (automatically) between axles fore and aft, and between sides, starboard and port.

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Hi Baraza,

I am planing to buy a VW Polo Classic 98, manual, with a 1600cc petrol engine and I will be the fifth owner.

That’s all I know about it. This is going to be my first car and I intend to use it within Nairobi and occasionally go with it upcountry.

My mechanic has convinced me to buy it, so what is your take on it?

Opondo

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Merits: It’s a Volkswagen, so bullet-proof build quality and good fuel economy.

Demerits: It is tiny. And it is a Volkswagen, so beware of costs. You are the fifth owner, which is never a good thing.

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Dear Baraza,

I would like to buy a Suzuki Jimny. Could you please give me the pros and cons of this type of car in terms of spare parts availability, fuel consumption, engine problems?

Keziah

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I don’t like the Jimny, at all, but that is besides the point. The spares are available, second-hand or from CMC Motors, so no problems there.

The fuel consumption is manageable (1300cc) but could be a bit compromised by the breeze-block aerodynamics.

I do not know of any engine problems it suffers, but given how basic the power unit is, it is unlikely that anything would go wrong.

And in answering questions that you did not ask: The car is an off-road maestro, yes, but it is punishment on road.

The ride is hard and bouncy, the engine is noisy at cruising speed, the puny dimensions means you will not be spending a lot of time inside it and that tall ride height means you should take corners like a true Christian, lest you roll over.

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Hi,

How good is the 2000cc Avensis and what other cars does it compare to? Also, please comment on its fuel efficiency, D4 VVT-i engine and general handling.

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The Avensis is very good and compares to the likes of the Subaru Legacy and, in some cases, the entry level BMW 3-Series and Mercedes C-Class, so an Audi A4 also.

You could slot in the Volvo S40 too, and maybe the Jaguar X-Type; that Toyota is that upmarket. Fuel efficiency is at an optimum, what with D4 and VVT-i, and D4 does what D4 does.

Feed it the right fuel and treat it like you would your son and it should not present problems, at least not anytime soon.

Handling? Not bad, but nothing to keep your wife awake at night gabbling about. It is not, unlike the European competition, a sporting vehicle, so it will not tickle your fancy when driven in anger.

Genteel is more like it. It is an old man’s car, so drive like an old man if you want to enjoy it.

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Hi Baraza

I have a Toyota AE 111 assembled in South Africa and which I bought from one lady owner.

The car has given me good service for the last one year, but of late I have been experiencing problems with power steering oil leaking from the rack.

One mechanic told me nothing can fix the problem except a new replacement. Which is the best option?

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Did the mechanic make a roadside declaration like a past president of ours or did he crawl under the car and try to find the leak?

It could be a broken hose or bad seals causing the leakage, which would cost less that Sh1,500 to fix and replace.

What he is suggesting is much more costly; an appraisal on my own 24-year-old Peugeot lies somewhere in the region of 60K (replacing the entire power steering system).

The Corolla’s may be cheaper, but you can see where I am going… first make sure that it is not something fixable before opting for replacement.

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Hi,

I have a budget of 550K to buy a car, so would you advise that I go for a Kenyan used car or a new imported car like the Platz, Alto and such?

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Kenyan used, definitely. FSH and tropicalised, you can never go wrong. And more likely than not the franchise that sold it still exists, unless you buy something obscure like a Daewoo Cielo.

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Hi,

I own a VW Golf MK 3 ABD. For the last six months, it has developed poor combustion, producing sooty exhaust fumes and carrying a strong smell of petrol.

It has stalled in the jam a few times and then restarted after like 15 minutes. I actually suspect the previous owner may have sold it for the earlier versions of this problem.

But I believe I may have my finger on the problem. Being a single-point petrol injection arrangement, it is flooding the intake manifold at idling and intermediate engine speeds, though this seems to happen consecutively nowadays, with high speed running.

I suspect any of the relays/actuators/switches and/or sensors around the injector are faulty but the problem is that this model (1994) does not have a port for the diagnostic equipment to confirm or rule out my diagnosis. Any help out there?
Maringa

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It has sensors but no OBD port? Are you sure it has no port or it is you who cannot find the port?

Are the plugs fine? It is very rare for a fuel injected vehicle to flood; it used to happen back in the days of carburettors.

Find the port because all cars since 1991 have them, most of them at least (I doubt if crap like Mahindras and UAZ jeeps have them).

But the Golf should, even if it is OBD I (as from 1994 all cars conformed to the OBD II standard). And check the plugs because I suspect they may have reached the end of their lives.

JM.

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I intend to buy a car (my first car ever) for use upcountry and I’m split between a Nissan B15 and a Mitsubishi Lancer, both manufactured in 1999.

Please help me make a decision by highlighting the merits and demerits of each, including such things as fuel consumption and spare parts availability.

Lastly, is there any other alternative in terms of acquiring, maintenance and running costs?

Kefa

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Lancer, any day. It is prettier, and I get more complaints about the B15 than I do the Lancer.

It is also a touch smoother: the shift shock I experienced the first time I drove a B15 as I switched from P through to D informed me that I was in a low quality product. The Lancer has a better interior too, only just.

Consumption is low for both (average of 12–16kpl) and spares are available at reasonable prices. The Lancer’s GDI engine, however, needs a bit more care. Alternative? Corolla NZE, or Honda Fit sedan.

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Hi Baraza,

I am considering buying either a 2005 Mazda RX8 or a 2004 Forester XT and I am mostly after speed, safety and at least 10 kpl in traffic. Oh, and I do not want to get stuck in mud, I find that embarrassing. So, of the two, which is the better bet?

——————

Of course the Forester. It is fast and won’t get stuck in mud. But forget about 10kpl in traffic — it will not happen. Consumption and power aside, there is one very BIG reason not to buy an RX-8, and that is the engine.

It is what we call a Wankel (the RX-8 was nicknamed the Wankel Wunderkind) and is not what you normally find under most bonnets.

Ordinary piston engines are what we call “reciprocating” engines, and have circular pistons that pump up and down and the crankshaft is below the engine.

The Wankel engine is a rotary engine; the pistons are triangular and go round and round, and the crankshaft runs through the middle of the engine.

The engine itself is the size of a good watermelon. I can’t wait to see the look on your mechanic’s face when you present one to him for overhauling!

The problems with the RX-8’s engine in particular, and rotary engines in general, are thus: they develop very poor torque, are quite thirsty, they consume oil heavily and the rotor (triangular piston) tips get fried every few kilometres, calling for an expensive overhaul every now and then.

That is why Mazda are the only ones dabbling in that technology. There is one good point behind the poor torque: to develop any semblance of power, the engine has to have the nuts revved off it, and the RX-8’s engine is redlined at a heady 9500 rpm. Yikes!

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Hello,

Thanks a lot for your invaluable advice. I have read reviews, especially on ex-UK vehicles ( VW Jetta and Toyota Avensis) using D4-D engines.

Would I be putting my money in the right place if I bought any of the above vehicles?

And which is better than the other? Do we have enough know-how on these engines in Kenya?

——————

Buying any of the two would be money well wasted, but the Avensis is a safer bet if only because Toyota is familiar to us and you can always swap the engine for an ordinary petrol unit once the diesel goes bang.

And, no, I am not too confident about our ability to handle this degree of boffinry just yet.

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Hi Baraza,

I own a 2001 Toyota Prius 1500cc/Electric. The car is good, powerful for its class and fuel efficient (16km/l). On the flip side, the shape is whack and it’s ugly.

I want to ditch the Prius for the 2005 Honda Accord 2.0EL (2WD) saloon. I have seen other Hondas on the road but the Accord is rare, any particular reason?

The other option is a 2000cc VW Golf wagon. I’m worried about two things though: fuel economy and, more so, availability of spare parts for both cars.

The Accord has an auto/manual transmission, any problems with these types of transmissions? I am not worried about resale value, what I want is a comfortable and reliable ride.

——————

The Accord is fast becoming popular, just so you know. If I get a Type R, I will not hesitate to buy one.

Fuel economy is nothing to worry about with these cars. Or any other for that matter; in this era where a 4.4-litre V8 Range Rover returns 10 kpl at 140 km/h on the highway, I wish people would just buy new cars and stop asking about fuel economy.

(The Range Rover is the new TDV8 though, a diesel). Spares are readily available for both, and no, there is nothing wrong with the “manumatic” transmission in the EL, that is why almost every new car has such.

I prefer the Accord on looks, handling and weight. The Golf would beat the Honda on build quality and maybe, just maybe, ride comfort. And carrying capacity; it is, after all, an estate.

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Peugeot: A story of fantastic successes and pitiful failures

Of all the great car companies and brands, one of the most overlooked is Peugeot of France.

As a brand, it is a bit despised in the UK and rarely bought in Germany, but who cares what those Europeans think?

The places where these cars have had the biggest impact are Africa and the Middle East. Come across any current or previous Peugeot owner/driver and he will either swear by his car or swear at it.

I happen to fall in this particular demographic, having had (and still have) one of the original 405s in my care, and I have sworn both by and at it. Repeatedly. I still do.

Locally, Peugeot’s problems started with the 504. The car was powerful in all its iterations.

The saloon, with its monocoque chassis, was very comfortable (and this unitary body construction led many to declare — sagely and quite wrongly — that the car had no chassis).

The estate had an enormous boot and the pickup could take a considerable amount of luggage and abuse and still hold itself together.

As such, the saloon became the car of choice for the discerning, aspiring patrician — bank managers and pseudo-senior civil servants who had their own offices rather than sharing.

The estate, on the other hand, went into service in the police force, transporting shadowy men in trench coats who subscribed to a discipline more stringent than the Boy Scouts, and as a ground-hugging passenger aircraft (memories of Crossroad Travellers and WEPESI bring about tears of nostalgia), while the pickup became the farmer’s friend, and nemesis to the Toyota Hilux. Good times.

The bad

But there were issues. A common adage went “A Peugeot will give you flawless service for 16 years, after which it will stall if the doors have not fallen off yet”.

Too true. Peugeots were near-perfect machines for the tasks they were assigned, but as they say, when it rains, it pours.

If and when mechanical infidelity reared its unsightly noggin, the problems came in droves, never singularly. I know, I have a Peugeot under my care.

The electricals were usually the first to act up, closely followed by the doors divorcing themselves from the rest of the car.

This is not just a garage myth, it actually happens. The driver’s door on my fickle 405 came off its hinges one day at a petrol station, and as such the fuel flap could not open, what with the central locking system being tied to every single orifice of the car other than the bonnet.

A well placed six-inch nail brought it back to position, but it had a slight sag, so shutting it involved some careful balancing of the door itself.

The nail made the pump attendant quip something about Jesus and crucifixion, but I felt I was the one being crucified here by a car I actually loved.

Rust was also a common problem for the 504 and the absence of a ladder frame chassis meant that the car was also structurally weak because when it was invented, strengthening monocoques was still a new field of research.

Several years of hard use would bend the car out of shape, meaning resale value was a joke. If you bought a Peugeot, you bought it for life. It is this car that gave Peugeot cars their bad reputation.

The 505 was not much different. It was slightly more comfortable and offered better fuel economy than its predecessor, but the typical Peugeot gremlins still haunted it.

And it was not as much of a looker as the 504. The estate version sported a toned down look from the 504 while the saloon was a bit drab to look at.

However, the introduction of turbos for some models in the engine bay compensated for the less pretty appearance and imbued these cars with an outstanding sprinting ability. The 505 was an early ’80s introduction, while the 405 followed it in the mid-’80s.

The 405 started life with a bang, winning several COTY (Car of the Year) awards between 1985 and 1989. That is how good it was at the time, and the reason I gambled with getting one.

It was designed by Pininfarina, the same studio that does Ferraris and Alfa Romeos, making it a dead ringer for the Alfa 164.

It was fast and comfy (I can attest to this), had sublime handling (either because of or despite its front drive chassis), the boot space was class-leading and its appearance was the best of any car at that time.

In fact, the model was (is) so good that it is still in production in Egypt and Iran, where it is sold not as a Peugeot, but as the Paykan.

As I found out (to my horror and to the detriment of my wallet) it was not immune to the same demons that haunted earlier Peugeots.

However, at the end of its production run, it ushered in a new era, the era of the reliable Peugeot.

A leap of faith

So far, it might be easy to assume from my story that owning a Peugeot from that era is not entirely different from a kamikaze mission — the motive is honourable but the end result is less than pleasant — but I assure you it is not.

It is more of a leap of faith. The best analogy I can come up with is getting into a relationship with someone you met at the bar: you never know where it will lead or what will happen next.

Just like in liquor-assisted romance, the good times are really good. There rarely had been an ugly Peugeot up until the 607, just like there are no ugly people in the bar after 2am — that is, until dawn breaks.

The brief period when the car is mechanically sound, you will love driving it. Then the problems start and you either bail out like me (I have had to ground the poor 405 after it almost bankrupted me), or stay on and persevere the vagaries of a bad relationship when true colours start showing.

So, the 607. It was meant to be to France what Jaguar is to the UK — a homegrown product for government officials to run around in without having to gaze longingly towards Germany.

But the blatant plagiarism of the W220 Mercedes S-Class design language (and subsequent failure to resolve the swoopy lines into a properly pretty shape) did not win it many fans.

Its suspension was so-so, and then Peugeot went ahead and tried to make it clever by adding some complex gadgetry, and made it worse. The introduction of air suspension completely ruined what was a fallible item to begin with, and the 607 went on to suffer an ignominious death. No one will miss it.

Now the upside

Starting off with the 403 and 404, classics at the moment and fashion statements in their time, these cars are (surprisingly) still in service in small numbers if you look around rural municipalities, despite their age.

Enthusiasts might gush about the indestructibility of the Hilux utility, but the 403 and 404 pickups were harder to kill than a family of cockroaches on steroids.

And you cannot ignore Peugeot’s sporting credentials: The 205 Turbo 16 was a Group B monster that did not accept defeat easily.

The 405 Turbo 16 (T16) conquered the Dakar rally convincingly and then went on to claim a hill-climb record at Pikes Peak, Colorado in the hands of Finn Ari Vatanen. And who can forget the 206 WRC and its relentless chain of victories?

Away from motorsport, there has only been one definitive hot hatchback of all time, and that is the 205 GTI. Just like all software geeks aspire to be Steve Jobs one day, all sporting hatchbacks aspire to be the 205 GTI.

Originally, the VW Golf GTI was “it” but the Germans lost the plot and the French swooped in to show the world how to build a small car that is still a hoot to drive (ignore the cheap interior plastics and jumpy driveline).

Since then, France has incessantly churned out a succession of (really) hot hatchbacks, and not just Peugeots.

I had said the 405, towards the end of its production run, ushered in the era of the reliable Peugeot. Well, reliable is not exactly the right adjective. Let us say ‘improved’. And the improvement was drastic.

The 406 (it was originally to be branded 506) is downright pretty, again penned by Pininfarina, and is a less dear alternative to, of all cars, the BMW 3 Series (benchmark, yardstick, pace-setter, trend-setter, reference point: call it what you want, but the description is “the car to beat”).

The 306 is a driver’s car through and through, right down to the oil-burning versions that feed from the black pump.

The 206 is a lovely little number, and the 180 hp GTI version is geared in such a way that you can clock 70 km/h in first — insane.

Subsequent models are just as good, if not better: 207, 208, 307, 308, 407; all of them are good and as far removed from the flimsy products of the ’80s as one can possibly imagine.

Which brings me to the 508 and a firm called Eurysia. A quick survey among the general public reveals that many still assume Peugeot cars are sold and serviced by Marshalls.

They are not. Marshalls now peddles TATA vehicles (incidentally, TATA now owns Jaguar and Land Rover, but these two are sold by CMC. The motoring industry is a game of musical chairs, I tell you).

Also, a good number think the 406 or 407 are Peugeot’s latest offerings, but they are not. Peugeots are sold by a low key outfit called Eurysia, and towards the close of 2010 they made a small noise about the 508.

The 508 is one of the prettiest cars to come out in 2011, and one that I am dying to drive. The estate is also one of the most versatile cars available now, what with its boot space rivalling the hearse-like E Class estate, and this has got to be the best-looking station wagon outside of the shooting brake clique.

The manual gearbox — a man’s transmission of choice — is standard, its interior is second in beauty and execution only to Audi (and the company from Ingolstadt has the honour of making the best interiors ever. Forget Rolls, forget Maybach, and forget Bentley, Audis have the best interiors in the business, period).

So why are we not being inundated with promotions and ads glorifying the 508 and begging us to climb proudly back into Peugeots, like we once did two or three decades ago? I do not know. Over to you, Eurysia.

The children in the basement

Not all Peugeots were good in one way or the other. While some turned heads, others turned stomachs. In fact some were (and are) total garbage, the most notorious being the 309.

Poorly labelled (it came after the 305), poorly designed and poorly packaged, it was a poor performer that held its value poorly and was consequently poorly received by pundits, punters, and the press. It did not help matters that it was sold alongside the outstanding 405.

The 607, as described earlier, was another. Nobody knows what exactly was going on inside Peugeot’s head when they dreamed up this car.

Nobody still does. Also largely unloved is the 1007. It is hard to place: sized like a super-mini, designed to look like an MPV and it has a van’s sliding doors, through which both driver and passengers climb.

It falls in the same group as the Mitsubishi RVR: cars that are hard to place, trying to fill too many niches at the same time and as such fail miserably in all areas. Thankfully, I have not seen any on our roads. Yet.

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See you at the motor show

Now, everybody likes to be looked at, especially when the gaze in question is one of approval.

There is nothing quite like the knowledge that one is under the adulating gaze of another; it lends us a sense of worth, a sense of achievement, uniqueness and of being a cut above the rest — you could almost call it near-actualisation.

My favourite target of scrutiny — auto manufacturers — are not immune to this subliminal imposed-and-reflected narcissism that lurks within every one of us, and of all entities, this is one clique that loves to show off.

Hence the creation of the automotive equivalent of a multipurpose catwalk.

They vary in execution, but they all have one uniting factor: they are held expressly to impress the hell out of the general public, increase public relations, show clout and encroach on possible new markets.

The self-importance does not end there. It would be very simple to label these displays as My Car Show and The Other Guys’ Car Show, but no, nomenclature like Auto Salon (as in the Tokyo showpiece where Japanese tuners take their rivalries off the streets and into the hallowed halls of the local host), Autorama (CMC’s brainy name for their bi-annual, self-glorifying reminder that they hold the torch when it comes to sheer size of franchise) and Internationale Automobil-Ausstellung (the world-famous Frankfurt Motor Show) gets bandied about.

International standards

Whatever fancy brand these organisers give their respective stationary parades, they all fall under the generic name Motor Show.

There are motor shows and then there are car displays. Motor shows have come to be accepted as the international standard events, usually held over the space of several days at some exclusive locale, and most major car makers dare not shun any of them.

They are held all over the world, showcasing the latest technological and design innovations from each company: be it under-bonnet boffinry, crankshaft-to-tarmac torque deployment systems or the ripping apart of industry rulebooks as was the case of the BMW X6.

Most fall under the aegis of the Organisation Internationale des Constructeurs d’Automobiles, chief organisers of these events, and there is even a calendar for them.

For instance, the Frankfurt Motor Show is held biennially in Frankfurt, Germany, and the Geneva Auto Salon is held every March in that oft-mentioned city.

These shows are on a grand scale and not just anybody gets to host them.

For starters, we don’t (nobody would want to host a fete this big in a country that is so close to Somalia, but the real reason is that we do not constitute a substantial enough market for any particular car brand to bother spending large sums trying to swing our opinions), but South Africa does, in Johannesburg.

Funny thing with these displays is that, at least for the international ones, it is not just preening and showboating, there is also a good deal of politics and mudslinging that goes on there.

Remember the Porsche vs. Nissan saga I mentioned in the track discussion? This is how it went down. Porsche AG had as their flagship model a 3.8 litre, direct-injected, 6-cylinder, twin-turbo, two-door coupé developing 480 hp and propelled by an elaborate 4WD transmission, the 997 generation 911 Turbo.

Now, Porsche is German, which means its cars could call the Nürburgring home. Along comes one Carlos Ghosn, head honcho at Nissan, with his own 3.8-litre, direct-injected 6-cylinder twin-turbo two-door coupé developing 480 hp and propelled by an elaborate 4WD transmission, the R35 GT-R.

During the launch at the Tokyo Motor Show (different from the Auto Salon), the car’s unveiling was timed to coincide with the end of a video which showed the GT-R poke a hole through the Green Hell in a seven-and-a-half minute blitzkrieg that hugely embarrassed the 911 Turbo, long considered the yardstick against which all sports cars are measured, right in the 911’s own backyard.

Porsche did not take things kindly and threw a wobbly, accusing Nissan of chicanery, which prompted the Japanese firm to send their vehicle out again and post an even better lap time than before. Porsche prudently chose to shut up henceforth.

Still with the politics, sometimes major auto makers could try and influence the economic setup of a given country (yes, they are that arrogant).

Failure of that country’s compliance with the manufacturer’s demands will see the company boycott the local international motor show and threaten closure of its factories, creating job losses, revenue losses and a potential economic crisis. BMW have once tried something similar with the Birmingham Motor Show.

Politics aside, mid-level managers and sales reps can also learn a thing or two. Pacific Rim auto builders also never miss participating in these shows, and they are well aware that their offerings are bland at best and typically offensive eyesores to those obsessed with internal combustion.

To keep things lively, what they do is drape good-looking women all over their shiny metalwork, guaranteeing that men will visit their stand no matter what.

This, however, does not mean we who have no political or economic influence over others do not dabble in our own lower-rung shows, which I will refrain from calling “car gatherings” (they are a little better than that).

Ignoring thematic events like the Concours D’Elegance, the closest thing we have to a world class motor show comes every other September, and goes by the straightforward name of the Total Kenya Motor Show.

Kenya Motor Industry Association (owners) and Total Kenya (sponsors) assert that theirs is the biggest and most comprehensive setup in East and Central Africa, and who is to gainsay that?

I have attended a few of these and they are right: the Total Kenya Motor Show is a meeting point for every serious player in the automotive industry worth his salt.

This, in other words, means that variety is a guarantee, what with franchise holders, parts dealers, body fabricators, garages and other interested parties turning up for the show.

Just to show how seriously Total takes things, two of the stands in the KICC Plenary Hall are going for a cool million plus change each for hire, just for that weekend (9th to 11th September).

And just to show how seriously these folks are taken by the local industry, those two stands have already been spoken for by now.

In yet another of my unpublished works, I did observe that these shows are not only a feast for the eyes and minds of petrolheads and non-petrolheads, but they also provide rich pickings for anthropologists.

It is as much fun, maybe more, observing the “enthusiasts” as it is gawping in stupefaction at the latest cars that we might probably never afford.

People come here to expose how little they know about cars, mouthing off facts that have been fabricated on the spot and quoting vital statistics that only they know about.

This is not limited to guests, sometimes staff also expose their lack of grasp of the subject matter.

I remember in a past show, I came across the just-launched Chevrolet Aveo, and the GM PR team thought it best to post a comely lass at the stand, who chimed:

“This is the new Chevrolet Aveo, the newest entry in the blah blah blah”, right on cue every time a group of would-be buyers appeared.

Just to test the waters, I gave the open bonnet a once-over, pointed at some serpentine mess and quietly asked:

“Are those the fuel lines feeding the injectors or are they spark plug leads?”, to which the answer was a stony glare and a curt bark to the nearest assistant to “please handle this”. Amusing.

Toyota will be there

What should we expect? All major franchises, in a nutshell. Expect Toyota to be there, with a raft of boring saloon cars, their heroic Hilux range and the LandCruiser with two fuel tanks (a filler cap on each side of the vehicle) and the corresponding two fuel gauges in the instrument panel. I have always wondered how these work; are they emptied simultaneously or one at a time?

DT Dobie should also make a showing — whether or not the new Jeep will be there is pure conjecture, but I have one question for them: when do we get the V6 Navara, the 3.0 liter with 240 hp?

The duel with Ford’s Ranger is still unsettled, and there is a new interloper in the field, in the unlikely guise of a Volkswagen Amarok double-cab. (yeah, you read that right, a VW double cab).

Speaking of Fords and VWs, CMC will surely not give the event a miss mainly because they have too many cars to sell and they need the marketing opportunity.

Part of the press blurb for the show went something like this: “Several new makes (not just new models) have entered the Kenya market since the previous show…”

No prizes for guessing, but this has got to be Jaguar, CMC’s latest shelf occupant, and the source of suspicion from some of my readers that I might be part of their PR asset.

Incidentally, I am not, I just think Jaguars are the bees’ knees when it comes to fancy transportation. And before I forget, Bavaria, whither the new 5?

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How the Probox escaped list of ugliest things

While last week’s article may have been a bit controversial, it did not provoke a post-bag of outrage as sizeable as I may have desired, but there were responses.

Suspects were fronted, and disagreement reared its ugly (pun intended) head more than once.

Of note was the concord over the Toyota Will’s lack of visual appeal. This is how those who replied thought of my lists, and these are the offenders and unrecognised beauties.

Toyota Platz

One reader, a lady — quite obviously — defended the Platz as not just an art student’s runabout, but also a means of escape for those who cannot afford costlier hardware but would still wish to eschew the insanity that passes for public transport around this corner of God’s green planet.

Maybe, but just because women like it does not mean it is pretty. It still maintains its place on the queue of syphilitic warthogs on our roads.

Toyota Probox

Most of our readers expected to see this box on wheels vilified as an eyesore, but let us be honest, is it really that bad?

Yes, it lacks any sort of charm whatsoever, but keep in mind that this successor to the venerable Corolla DX is a commercial vehicle first, and commercial vehicles are not really about getting dates. They are meant to lug stuff and staff from one site to the next.

The Probox is what the Fiat 124 estate would have looked like had the Italians kept building it: instead, they gave the whole factory, plus parts, paperwork and foundries, to the Russians; who rebadged it the Lada Riva; and who in turn handed it over to the Egyptians; who still build the damn thing exactly as it was built 30 years ago.

That it is not sold (or imported to these shores) saves it from occupying a place on last week’s list of nasty sights; otherwise it would have been a more fitting replacement for the Probox.

Porsche Cayenne

Evidence that automotive ugliness is created by the manufacturer but propagated by the customer appeared in my inbox in the form of a man claiming that this car is “cute”.

What’s more, he went ahead to claim that it should have been listed there instead of the Jaguar XJ. Have your cataracts checked, Sir. In no way is this car “cute”.

The Nissan Micra is “cute”, and so is the Ford Fiesta, but the Porsche Cayenne has been listed as one of the ugliest cars in recent history, and not even by me.

The face of a 911 sports car grafted onto the body of a Volkswagen Touareg does not make “cute” anything. Thank God that the Porsche has the performance to justify the asking price.

BMW X6

A vitriolic response showed up on Twitter about “this writer thinking that the X6 is ugly”. What would you call the result of mating a swimsuit model’s torso onto the lower extremities of Arnold Schwarzenegger?

An aberration, most likely. BMW’s attempt at creating a niche that nobody asked for got the acerbic reaction it deserved from the world’s motoring Press.

The X6 tries to be a sports car and an off-roader, but it fails at both and loses the looks along with it.

It is too heavy to be any good on-road; and too focused on trying to be impressive on-road to be any good off it; and the huge, tall body with that sloping roofline leads to an epic fail in what would otherwise have been a good alternative to the Range Rover Sport.

The Design Process

It is time to start pointing fingers, and, to narrow down the list of likely suspects, we have to look at what exactly goes on during the design process of a given motor vehicle.

While it can sometimes be done purely by computer (leading to designs as disparate as the manufacturers are far apart: the Nissan GT-R is not pretty, but the Ferrari 458 Italia is, and both are computer-generated.

Maybe one company used a Mac while the other used a PC), what we are interested in is the handiwork of living, breathing humans.

Most cars are designed by a team, typically made of people with degrees and backgrounds in art.

More often than not there is a lead designer, though in some cases a car could be drawn by one man only, and this lead designer receives a brief from the big fish in corner offices.

The brief could be to go retro, to “revolutionalise” car design in general, to establish a corporate “face”, or quite simply, to “shock” the world. And it is at this point that problems arise.

While the brief could be worded in such a way that it will sound pleasing to shareholders, artsy types are not known to decipher such flowery language or show initiative that will be at cross-purposes with the administration, so they follow instructions to the letter.

This is how cars like the bug-eyed Ford Scorpio came to exist (the horror, the horror…).

Going retro also sometimes tends to fail quite badly, especially when designers are asked to draw from iconic elements in that manufacturer’s past.

The old Jaguar Mark II was a paragon of elegance, so the English firm thought that visage would look good on a modern car, and they proceeded to slap it onto the S-Type.

The result almost moved bowels. Thankfully, the S-Type has been replaced with the XF saloon. The Porsche Cayenne suffers from a similar problem.

So what would happen if a designer took it into his head to show initiative? Cars like the outgoing 5-series and 7-series BMWs creep into existence.

Chris Bangle wanted to make an impact design-wise, and make an impact he did. The 7 was so bad it had to have a facelift less than a year after launch.

The 5 was “controversial”, to put it diplomatically, and these two cars made the man famous as the “one who will finally bring BMW to its knees”.

It is a wonder these cars were bought at all: it says a lot about BMW’s technological supremacy that they were able to sell any of these cars at all.

Sometimes one man’s need to “express” himself ought to be checked, lest such terribleness afflicts us all.

On some occasions, I presume, the sheer volume of cars under manufacture also leads to bad design, and that, I strongly suspect, is the reason

Toyota scored freely on the list of uglies. Maybe the engineers are coming up with chasses faster than the designers can draw corresponding bodywork art, and so some of them come out a little bit rushed (Verossa). Either that or no imagination at all applies in the overall design (Probox, Platz).
Engineering also fudges up an otherwise passable design, especially when form follows function.

That is how winged and spoilered monsters like the Impreza WRX and Nissan GT-R rise from the depths of factory recesses to fill up your side mirrors menacingly on the road.

A good design could bite the dust when engines get too big or suspension components cannot be well-hidden, resulting in lengthy overhangs and bizarre fender flares; or when the outlandish performance on tap demands the installation of air dams and spoilers for aerodynamic integrity and stability at speed.

Geographical preferences

Can we surmise that geography also plays a part? America has never come up with what we could call a gorgeous motor vehicle — size seems to be their obsession; while the Asians don’t seem to even bother.

But Europe has been constantly churning out a steady supply of stunning bodies, especially England (Aston Martin, Jaguar) and Italy (Lancia, Alfa Romeo).

Small wonder then that all the great automotive artists (both firms and individuals) are registered in Italy.

Bertone, Giorgetto Giugiaro and the great Sergio Pininfarina have been charged by car builders all over the world as great artists, and their skills are highly sought whenever one company wants to have one up on their competition in good looks.

Planned obsolescence is a business concept dreamt up by one Alfred P Sloan, Jr, former head at General Motors in the early 20th Century, and the idea was that, to entice the client base into show rooms on a regular basis, they needed annual model changes in their lineups.

Sounds good, but people tend to run out of creative thoughts rather fast, leaving them in trouble when it is time for another refresh.

This, I think, has also been an affliction in Japan, as it closely follows the surplus of chasses and dearth of designs theory.

Henry Ford, forever the visionary, rejected this notion and stuck to the principles of simplicity, economies of scale and design integrity.

Much to his consternation, the planned obsolescence thing worked and GM overtook Ford in sales soon after.

All in all, I have just one suggestion to make. To all aspiring car designers, do not do it like your colleagues have been doing: at one point take a step back and have a good look at whatever you have drawn before you release it for manufacture.

It will save a lot of people some embarrassment.

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Behind the wheel… in a very uncomfortable, rigid go-kart

Up until I landed in the RSA, I had borne some prejudices about go-karts.

They are mostly driven by nine-year-olds, rarely crack 60 km/h, have no gears, and lack power assistance: no power steering, no brake boosters, no power windows (in fact, no windows at all), they use tiny tracks for their races, and their closest motoring equivalents are cane tractors, or Formula One cars.

Only crazy people would ever bother to race in them. That was until I found myself in one.

Inside

There is no distinct interior.

Outside

There is no distinct exterior either.

So now what?

You slide into position on top of the metallic skeleton of something that looks like a tea tray.

Your left foot is on the brake, which may or may not work (left-foot braking is hard to master, take it from me), and your right is on the throttle, which may or may not work.

The seat is metal, a mere three inches off the ground. You have a tiny, noisy single-cylinder “powerplant” underneath your right armpit (mid-engined layout. There is a rear-engined option where the mill is behind the seat), and this whole setup is suspended on slicks, which may sound fancy but they are ridiculously small.

It is a little difficult reviewing a racing machine, so instead what I am going to do is narrate how the whole go-kart experience went down.

During one warm autumn Monday afternoon two weeks ago, we took a break from driving Jaguar XJs in the Cape and switched to go-karts for a bit of good-natured fun and racing.

There were five of us journalists and two of our hosts, alongside three or four test drivers from Jaguar-Land Rover.

We were split into three groups of four drivers each, seeing that there were only four go-karts available, one of which was the track-mistress’ “Ferrari”, her pet machine, simply because it had a plastic bumper while the rest did not.

Each group had a turn at the track, members battling against each other for asphalt supremacy. After a brief orientation (during which time I discovered that I was the only one in that whole clique who had never driven a go-kart), our group was selected to go first. I was up against a fellow Kenyan and two South Africans.

The rules were simple: Do not operate both throttle and brakes simultaneously. Go hard, but have fun and enjoy yourself.

Respect the flags: a blue flag meant move over, you are being overtaken, a black-and-white striped flag was a warning, a black flag meant disqualification (also equal to two black-and-whites), the red flag meant the race had been stopped and of course the black-and-white chequered flag meant the race was over.

I was planning on forcing the blue flag on everybody else that day. Whether or not that happened you will discover in a moment.

The first lap was the warm-up lap, to warm the engine, tyres, and give drivers a feel of the machines. It was low-speed and non-competitive, followed by 10 screaming laps of hammer-and-tongs jousting and then one slow, non-competitive cool-down lap after the final flag.

Shower caps (I swear that is what they were) were distributed, over which helmets were donned. My helmet squeezed my face into a nasty scowl, giving me that mean and uncompromising race-driver look.

All the more perfect for the championship that I thought was headed my way. So, there we sat, helmets stewing our brains in that autumn afternoon sun, four abreast, as the track mistress walked from one kart to the next cranking the engines.

Sitting on the extreme right of the field meant that I was last out of the pits, my engine being started last. I took the opportunity to gripe a little about the floppy throttle pedal and the floppy brake pedal.

All I got was a curt “I know” from the track mistress before she flagged me off. Here goes. Now, you do not drive a go-kart, the go-kart drives you.

Sounds corny, yes, but that warm-up lap was a real revelation as I discovered that, unlike other machines which react to driver input, in go-karts the driver reacts to the input of a wilfully wayward, unpredictable, noisy, uncomfortable contraption that does its best to embarrass you in front of your peers.

Left foot braking is also extremely difficult, made more so by the unusual driving position. It feels like sitting in stirrups, ready for childbirth, with the knees splayed apart to make way for the saucer-size steering wheel and each foot on either side of the steering column.

Bathroom break

The warm up lap ended with me trailing the second-last driver (fellow Kenyan) by a clean 20 seconds.

On a track that size, there could only be one of two explanations: either I took a bathroom break halfway through the lap (unlikely) or my ineptitude behind the wheel of a racing machine is a lot worse than I initially thought (more likely).

The runoff area was good foresight on the designer’s part because it gave overambitious, understeering incompetents an extra half a second to mull over their mistake before smashing into the tyre wall.

This sharp bend led into the “main straight”, about 30 or 40 metres long (compare to the Nurburgring’s main straight, which is almost three kilometres in length), followed by a 90-degree left and then a series of hairpins and finally a sweeper back to the starting line.

The first three laps of the actual race saw me fall behind at an alarming rate, right up to the point where getting lapped by the leader (a hard-charging Jaguar test driver) was becoming less a possibility and more a probability.

I was not going to go down without a fight, so I opened the taps, put my foot down, and let it rip. It turns out that in karting the brakes are purely for stopping, not slowing down.

I found out that you are meant to drive a go-kart flat out, no partial throttle openings, and I also found out that the racing slicks offer insane levels of cornering grip, meaning you can turn at almost any speed.

This would all be fine had the steering not been set in concrete: turning the wheel requires full-arm movements, all the way from the shoulder, not the swift wrist-flicks that are seen in Formula One race footage. Racing karts is hard on the body.

My new driving tactics saw me close the gap within the next three laps, until I was tailgating my compatriot menacingly on the seventh lap.

That was when it happened: the blue flag went up. Move over Kenyan, for your fellow Kenyan wants to pass you.

Rules are rules, and exiting the first corner on the eighth lap, my colleague drove into the runoff area to let me by and I swept past my countryman to slide into third position. Hah!

The first overtake of the day, and it was done by me. Sadly, that was it; the rest of the field were driving like maniacs and come the tenth lap, I was still third. Not bad for a start.

The next set of races came up. This time round I was in the final heat, so I watched the first two incident-packed races with a sense of trepidation as people unleashed the latent Michael Schumachers in them.

Overtaking became more ambitious, tailgating more intense, drafting closer, powerslides more spectacular and there was one retirement: a Zimbabwean journalist understeered into the wall at turn three, sending tyres flying several feet into the air in a classic display of incompetence that drew raucous laughter from the rest of us once we established that the only injury he suffered was a bruised ego.

That was the only red flag of the day, as the race had to be restarted. Restarting a race means you start in formation, so there was a bit of drama as the second-placed driver tried to creep past the leader at the starting line before the flag went up.

Legs amputated

What made the accident all the more special was the fact that the Zimbabwean was driving the track mistress’ “Ferrari”.

We surmised that the plastic bumper probably saved him from having his legs amputated. He chose not to continue racing.

The last race of the day, and I was facing some veritable competition in the form of experienced kart drivers.

This time I was up first, and a hard truth made itself felt during the warm-up lap. While my original kart had floppy foot controls, the pedals on this other machine had no give whatsoever, and the result was I did the warm-up lap brakelessly and cruising on the puny torque available at tick-over (idle). I decided to carp again.

“The throttle and brake pedals are too stiff, ma’am, they are not moving at all”

“Push harder!” Then the flag went up. By the end of the first lap, the scope of my difficulties was obvious to everyone present.

The whole field was bunched up behind me (a dangerous thing in racing), and the other cars were weaving left and right looking for the smallest space to push past the time-wasting Sunday driver up front (me) and get on with real racing.

I got my first blue flag, so I drove into the run-off area to let them by and they all swept past. All three cars.

In less than two seconds I had lost pole position and was now dead last. Abashment does not come any worse than that.

It got progressively worse as the rest disappeared into the second bend, and by the time I got to it, I could not see anybody.

If this went on, I calculated, I would be lapped at the end of lap three, meaning by the time the race ended I would be three and one third laps down. This could not be happening.

Something had to be done, and that something was to floor the unyielding throttle pedal. This involved bracing my back against the seat while stretching my right foot to the maximum.

This caused my right butt-cheek to lift off the seat, meaning I did the rest of the race practically standing up, not sitting. On a bloody go-kart. But at least I got results.

The unusual driving position I adopted and my overzealous cornering speeds saw me reel in number three within the next two laps, and the blue flag went up again.

Move over. I was now up into third position. My lower back was numb, I had lost all feeling in my right thigh, my right foot was aching, my forearms felt like they were covered in angry wasps, the heat in my jacket was oppressive, as it was in my helmet, and the mandatory shower cap underneath it was sticking to my forehead while sweat dripped into my eyes.

I pushed on stoically. Long story short, I finished third. The leader was too good, even for my kamikaze antics, while the second placed driver I managed to catch up with, but as I prepared a spectacularly wrathful overtake the chequered flag went up.

Race over. Damn. One more lap, just one more, and I’d have had him.

Anatomy of a go-kart

Go-karts have got to be the most physically intense, pain-inducing pieces of automotive hardware that I have tried so far.

Their speed is low, but this is lost on the driver from the mechanical violence dispensed by the engine, which you have to share cabin space with.

The sense of speed is also warped by the cornering speeds: racing slicks mean plenty of grip so you can do an entire race without touching the brakes even once.

Be careful about exploring the outer reaches of the performance envelope, though: push it hard enough and the tyres will let go, and they don’t slide progressively like in road cars, they simple snap; one minute you are going through a corner like Alonso, and the next you are pirouetting in a bizarre ballerina-dance wondering what the hell went wrong. Catching a tail-slide in a go-kart requires real presence of mind.

Try not to eat too heavily before racing in a kart. The sideways grip generates some g’s that really make you ill at ease.

I had stuffed myself full of half-cooked fish and half a gallon of fruit juice (unknowingly) before racing, and having that mix sloshing around in your stomach as you try your best not to get overtaken is an experience that you do not want to go through.

The whole affair was horrible. I felt battered, abused, violated, and humiliated in the last race when everybody overtook me. Karts are horrid, hateful things.

I hated them so much that I am going to race them again, over and over, on a regular basis. Try kart racing before you die. It is fun.