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Small Things Should Come In Small Packages

Something strange is going on in the minds of car designers, and it is best summed up by the words “small SUV” and “Mini Countryman”.

‘The Mini Countryman is classified as a small SUV – a description I regard as oxymoronic, but appropriate given I consider that car simply moronic.’

SUVs started out big, but they have been getting progressively smaller. The Mini started out small, but it’s been getting progressively bigger. Now we find that the Mini Countryman is classified as a small SUV – a description I regard as oxymoronic, but appropriate given I consider that car simply moronic.

SUVs initially were popular because they were big. With a lot of metal wrapped around their occupants, they instilled a sense of invincibility on the school run or on the odd occasion they ventured outside the city limits on to anything other than a three-lane freeway. Even if that sense of well being was misguided, it was appealing. If you’re going to hit something, the big SUV seemed to say, you’ll want to be in something bigger than the thing you hitSometh

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Meanwhile, the mini was initially popular because it did exactly what it said on the tin – it was so small that urban types could tootle around town and find parking easily. It was fun to drive, comical to look at, and cheap to run.

So as the SUV has shrunk, and foregone size as a selling feature, and the Mini has bulked up and foregone its quirkiness as a selling feature, I wonder what’s going on. Are we seeing the convergence of car sizes on some unspoken ideal? Or are we seeing an inevitable result of the cost-cutting…sorry, efficiency…drive of manufacturers of the past couple of decades to plonk as many different body shapes on the same basic mechanical platform as possible?

In the same way the Jaguar X-type supposedly was built on the same basic floorplan as the Ford Moneo, I’m wondering if the Mini Countryman is built on, say, the same platform as one of the baby SUVs sold with BMW badges on it. They call these cars that are neither one thing nor another “crossovers” in some circles, in tacit admission that they’re trying to be both things (while avoiding acknowledging that they’re actually failing at both). But you can sort of understand what’s gone on.

While SUVs got bigger, the cities that most of them are driven in didn’t suddenly open up. Spaces in car parks didn’t get wider. Roads around schools didn’t get less congested (in fact, big SUVs made them worse). As a result, SUVs got smaller so they were not as acute a pain in the arse to steer around the suburbs.

And while the focus shifted to safety and ANCAP ratings and the like, really small cars like the Mini just couldn’t cut it any longer. The public stopped quite a long time ago accepting that drivers and passengers could be killed in relatively minor accidents.But come on. The original Mini measured just 10 feet (3m) front to back and weighed just under 590 kg. The Countryman is 4.3 m (14 ft) long and weighs nearly a tonne more (or more than a tonne more, depending on the variant).

Really, what’s the point of it? Why give a car a name that means small, and make it big? It’s like giving a car a name like “fast” (or if you’re Italian, “veloce”) and then ensuring it is under powered. Oh, but wait – that actually happens, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s not a good example, but I hope you get my point. I’m a simple gal. I want my Minis small, I want my SUVs big and I want my “veloce” models to be fast. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

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The perils of drinking and buying

A GOOD friend of mine is currently hatching a plan to combine two of his greatest loves in life: cars and whisky. It’s a risky undertaking because of the understandable and reasonable sensitivity around drink-driving, but I trust him to be sensible and I have to say that what he’s planning sounds like a lot of fun.

 

I’m sworn to secrecy on the details. It’s not as though anyone is going to steal the idea, but a healthy dose of paranoia has been at play ever since he had an idea for an iPhone app and then saw something remarkably similar mysteriously appear in the App Store about four months after he shared the idea with a mate.

 

A former mate, I should say; while the app did quite well financially it was the betrayal of trust that was the bigger problem. His latest project has been several months in the planning and has a couple of months, at least, still to go before we see the first fruits.

 

The aspect of this project that attracted me most was the cars. While I love whisky, indulging in one tends to preclude indulgence in the other, and so forced to choose I invariably opt for the car.

 

Not only is it legally wiser to avoid getting behind the wheel of a car after enjoying a few, it’s actually a lot more fun. I am often accused of being a wowser but there are aesthetic and philosophical elements to my stance. It’s easier to live in the moment if the moment isn’t filtered through a booze-haze.

 

I am more than capable of cutting loose when the occasion provides and would be happy to provide a first-hand demonstration any time the drinks are on you. But driving is, I believe, one of life’s pleasures best experienced fully sober. There are others, too, but this is a family website and so I shall not list them in detail.

 

One of life’s lessons I am happy to share, though, is that two activities it definitely is not a good idea to combine are drinking and eBaying. I have learned this the hard way. When the doorbell rings and there’s an unexpected courier delivery then it’s a fair bet that there was a pretty good party roughly seven to 10 days earlier. The timeframe tends to vary according to whether the item in question has been delivered locally or from overseas.

 

Our houses are now quite generously stocked with items that seemed like must-haves at the time, but now sit around gathering dust, and without the eBay context would be presumed to indicate a severe personality disorder.


I am not alone. The Companion’s forays into online shopping have resulted similarly impulsive and eclectic purchases, of which the life-size standee of Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider is merely the least disturbing. It’s in the attic with his unfeasibly large cache of Nerf guns and ammunition, and the 1959 Hammond B3 organ supposedly played by the late Billy Preston (of course it wasn’t).


When you get to a certain age you begin to appreciate that life is both short and precious. Life’s pleasures are best unadulterated – but let me say I intend no morally judgemental pun by saying that. If you’re going to drive, drive. If you’re going to party, party. And if you’re going shopping online, never drink and buy.

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Mercedes’ CLS 450 Offers Full-Time Comfort Mode

There something quite magnificent about slipping into a well-made leather car seat, hearing the pleasing thud of the door closing and rolling away to the sound of silence. It’s relaxing, but also grounding which was exactly the salve Madam Wheels needed after something of a wild weekend with fellow car enthusiasts in Sydney.

The realities of life were quickly forgotten once I was immersed in the exquisite cabin of the new Mercedes-Benz CLS 450. A canister of perfume mounted in the glovebox piped its fragrance through the pretty air vents, while ambient lighting changed to reflect the heating or cooling (red to blue lights) in the cockpit.

 

‘It’s not just a luxurious, comfortable cruiser for the long haul; its sporty nature becomes apparent in quick-turning back streets.’

On approach, it was a rather austere-looking vehicle, finished as it was in “Obsidian Black Metallic” paint. But it took no time to get across why the CLS has long been a favourite among Mercedes converts, especially now that it has a swag of functionality and technology included down from the brand’s higher E- and S-Classes.If I thought the car was comfortable at first blush, I was delighted to find that many desirable moods and physical states could be induced or enhanced at the push of a button or twist of a dial. But we’ll get to this fun stuff later

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Leaving the Mercedes-Benz Australian headquarters at Mulgrave, in Melbourne’s south-east, I eased the car on to the city-bound Monash Freeway and immediately activated the adaptive cruise control, setting the distance well back from the car ahead then settled back into that comfortable dark chocolate-brown chair.

As if sensing my malaise, the car’s lane-keeping assist system kicked in, part of an additional Driving Assistance package which, along with autonomous braking, evasive steering and blind-spot warning, helped dispense with whatever anxiety was attempting to keep a grip on me.

After the unruly Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrofolgio test drive of the week before, being back in an all-wheel drive was a relief. And like every Mercedes-Benz, there are plenty of safety features on board this large, five-seat sedan with nine airbags, ABS and traction and stability control in the mix.

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Yet far from looking conservative, the coupe-like line of the roof gives it a contemporary edge while providing plenty of poise through the twists and turns of the city’s back streets during my week behind the wheel.

With its E-Class platform topped with the sophisticated functionality of the S-Class, the CLS 450 manages to look aggressive yet soft at the same time. It’s always been a head-turner, but this third-generation version is even more of a standout with its forward-slanting front-end and long, smooth body lines. Oblique headlights and the trapezoidal grille lift the look dramatically.

Frameless windows on the four soft-closing doors remain a nice touch atop the 19-inch AMG 5-Twin Spoke Alloy Wheels on my variant, and I love the way the tail tapers like a speedboat. One downside of the steep sloping roof, however, is that it does restrict visibility, and might make for tricky entry and exit for tall folk.

But it does make the sedan feel like a coupe inside, and it’s powerful, too. Put your foot down and the gear shifts are quick and decisive whether you’re operating in rear or all-wheel drive, with or without the optional air suspension.

It’s not just a luxurious, comfortable cruiser for the long haul, either; its sporty nature becomes apparent in those quick-turning back streets.

Inside, the modern and elegant design showcases how forward-thinking the top car brands are these days. Head-up display and two 12.3-inch digital screens display their myriad bits of information in crystal-clear detail. This includes the operations of a new integrated electric motor called an EQ Boost. It’s not quite a hybrid system as the electrics don’t drive the wheels, but they do charge the battery and add to available power.

The dash features a lot of attention to detail like the stitching in the soft leather which surrounds the air vents, the white lines in the piano-black lacquer, the textures and piping of the seats, the wave-like curve of the dash.

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ll of this is backlit with that ambient lighting which can cycle, if you choose, through 64 colours automatically, illuminating the doors and headlining.

There’s even a gym class on board, with a woman’s voice directing the driver through a series of exercises designed to work certain muscles while driving with mood music in the background. If things warm up too much, the front seats are ventilated. And on cold days, seat heating is thoughtfully extended through the centre consul and door-mounted armrests.

Priced at $155,500 before on-road costs, Mercedes-Benz’s CLS 450 is a car that suits those who like to take things easy and are looking for ways to check out of the chaos of the day-to-day trudge.

Just get in, sit back and relax.

Madam Wheels Verdict

Madam Wheels Worthy? 

The CLS 450 is an elegant, classy, comfortable set of wheels which is large enough for a small family but delightful to drive solo, especially after a stressful day.

Buy:   Because you’ve already got too much to think about and you’d rather the car takes some of the hard yards out of the drive.

Avoid: If you like road noise and road feel. There isn’t a great deal of it here.

LikesThe comfort-factor is next level. It’s quiet, smooth-riding, and takes all the hard work out of driving in peak-hour Melbourne, which is worth a lot to any motorist these days.

Dislikes: The lack of headroom in the back.

Delivering: On sale now.

Bottom line: $A155,500 before on-road and dealer delivery costs.

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Alfa’s top-line Giulia gets it back in the game

ALFA Romeo is back from the brink of being a brand forgotten with its Giulia Quadrifoglio putting it firmly in the fast lane – for petrol-heads, at least.

 

The top-of-the-line Giulia has won the hearts and minds of (and plenty of cash from) fans of the The Grand Tour car show after co-host Jeremy Clarkson gave the car his solid tick of approval.

 

There’s no doubting it’s got the goods under the bonnet and it’s certainly a good-looking vehicle. Yet some of the Italian brand’s inconsistency issues remain. While this powerful beast has an outstanding engine and is dressed in magnificent clothing, it still lacks soul where it matters most to many, which is on the inside.

On the street, the premium sports sedan’s look is pure European luxe, but its interior feels like it’s going Japanese. High-quality materials apparent on the car’s exterior aren’t consistent throughout. That may not matter, however, to a bloke – or gal – who’s after engine power. And this car has that in spades.

 

After decades of underwhelming Alfas, the Giulia Quadrifoglio is described as “a proper Alfa Romeo”, marking a return to the true sporting values that used to be the hallmark of this automotive group. The Giulia QV is in fact one of the first cars from the brand in a planned decade-long big-spending program to return it to a market-leading position in the power-to-weight ratio contest. In attempting to get there, it’s been chasing down some big competition in BMW M, Mercedes-AMG and Audi Sport.

 

But in achieving its lightweight goals, this car may have had to give up too much. The value proposition from the driver’s seat, for a start, is less-than-apparent, with buttons, dials and indicator stems feeling plastic and cheap.

 

Perhaps this is a matter of getting used to things, but many of them also feel like they’re in the wrong place, rendering them either counter-intuitive or ungainly. The large scale and positioning of the plastic paddle shifts make for clumsy indication or use of wiper blades. Put a bottle in the cup holder and the climate controls are blocked.

 

On the Infotainment system, our photographer says he’s not sure “if it is ‘simple smart’ or ‘simple stupid’. It wasn’t easy to use, and the controls for it felt really loose, unfinished.”

‘Physically getting into the car involved a bit of trickery which left me feeling my derrière was verging on the too-large size – if there’s such a thing these days.’

 

Another gripe was getting into the car. If an automotive manufacturer’s going to go to the trouble of including “Keyless Go” and putting in a bright red start/stop button, then Key Recognition at a locked door seems an obvious inclusion. But no. With the Giulia, one must fish around in the handbag for said key and do things the old-fashioned way. Not that there’s anything wrong with old-fashioned in some instances, but the key thing was just annoying.

 

As if that wasn’t exasperating enough, physically getting into the car involved another surprising bit of trickery which left me suspecting my derrière was verging on the too-large size – if there’s such a thing these days.

 

There didn’t seem to be enough space between the steering wheel and seat, which meant entry to or exit from the driver’s seat often resulted in contact with the car to some part of the body, either head, knee or rear-end. Given it’s not a particularly low car, this isn’t something I’d encountered in a sedan before. It is possible this was just me being particularly uncoordinated that week. Or maybe my bum really is too big. Whatever.

 

But all of this is meaningless for power hounds after the unadulterated performance offered in the flagship of the Giulia range (though they would be right in being less forgiving in lower-level Giulias). Plant your foot on the pedal in the Giulia QV and the reason this V6 eight-speed automatic has been propelled into the world of powerful executive saloons becomes amply apparent.

 

Acceleration is quick – under 4 seconds to the 100, though with all the power going to the rear wheels, it’s prone to side slip in the wet. At least it stops well, even in the rain, which is important especially as it has a claimed “best-in-class” top speed of 307km/h.

 

The body control and ride are relatively comfortable in the relaxed drive modes, though suspension is tight in Dynamic mode. Using the paddle shifts in that race mode provide a superb driving experience, with each gear change delivering a push in the back.

 

At low speeds, one thing that must surely annoy anyone driving this car is the knocking that happens when it’s in a tight turn, like a simple U-turn. Apparently this happens in all Alfa’s but it absolutely detracts from the external classy feeling of this car. And that’s going to matter to discerning customers.

 

Madam Wheels Verdict

 

A car for the power-hungry driver, best enjoyed on the open road through varying terrain over a long run where the car can be put through its paces.

Back-Seat Drivers’ Verdict: (First comments on entering the car, aged 13 and 11 respectively.) She said: “There’s not enough leg room in the back.” He said: “It feels cheap (inside the car).”

 

Madam Wheels Worthy? Not a car we’d like as a day-to-day drive because of the less-than-impressive finishes, tight confines and annoying knock on the front wheels in tight, slow turns.

 

Buy: If you believe Jeremy Clarkson who claimed in his 2017 review that “you can’t be a true petrol-head until you’ve owned an Alfa Romeo” and that this was the one to buy.

 

Avoid: If you’re not a petrol-head and have no desire to be one.

 

Likes: The look of the car on the street, the cool Monza exhaust with quad-tips detail and, of course, that engine.

 

Dislikes: The cheap, almost thoughtless attention to detail inside the car.

Bottom line: Around $158,800 drive away in Toorak.

 

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Aston Martin Shares Details Of Electric Car

 

DETAILS of Aston Martin’s first all-electric production car have been revealed for the first time, with production of the “Rapide E” well underway.

Only 155 units of the “battery electric vehicle” (BEV) will be made, with technology and engineering company Williams Advanced Engineering (WAE) adding its EV smarts to the mix. WAE must have had its work cut out for it in overcoming the challenges of delivering to Aston-Martin standard not only on tricky weight-to-performance ratios, but also keeping the onboard batteries and motor cool.

With a bespoke-mounted 800V battery replacing the Rapide S’s 6.0-litre, V12 engine, the Rapide E’s range target will be more than 320 km (200 miles) and will have a projected top speed of 250 km/h (155 mph). Its sprint to 100 km/h is expected to take less than 4 seconds regardless of what stage of the battery life the car’s travelling on.

Aston Martin says the car will be able to drive a full lap of the 20.8 km-long Nürburgring without backing down power. It will have full ability “to cope with the daily demands of repeated hard acceleration and braking”. Perfect for Melbourne traffic

 

While you’d expect the Rapide E’s body to be aerodynamically designed, its wheels have been aerodynamically optimised, too. Shod with bespoke tyres, they promise to deliver better grip and less noise.

Aston Martin says it has attempted to retain some of the grunt and growl of the Rapide S’s V12 engine by messing with the tuning of power train and chassis, and using a limited slip differential to drive the rear-wheel drive Rapide E’s twin electric motors. The combination will reportedly deliver the handling characteristics for which the petrol-powered Rapide S is known. Customers of this first run of Rapide Es will be an important part of the company’s ongoing research and development program, with their feedback on their driving experiences feeding into the Rapide E program and shaping future EV models.

Aston Martin CEO Andy Palmer says the development of the marque’s first all-electric production model is a critical step on the its path to re-launching Lagonda as the world’s first zero-emission luxury marque. “Environmental responsibility and sustainability is a global challenge faced by us all,” Palmer says. “As a career automotive engineer, I’m proud that the car industry is leading the way in finding long-term solutions and reducing harmful emissions.”

Aston Martin announced yesterday that a new UK production facility at St Athan, in South Wales, would become the “Home of Electrification” for both the Aston Martin and Lagonda brands. That’s where the Rapide E will be built. Pricing is yet to be announced and customers are expected to start taking delivery late next year.

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Turn Down The Stereotype And Pay Attention

When  you’re out in the car next time, try not to be a dick. I say that with good intentions, because if you, like I, drive a so-called “luxury” car you’re apparently more likely to be aggressive on the road, less likely to give way to pedestrians and generally be more likely to break the law.

‘Data shows that as the value of the car increased, the driver’s tendency to break the law increased as well – the more expensive the car approaching the crossing, the less likely it was to stop.’

I can’t be talking about you, can I? After all, we’re not only all better-than-average drivers (and lovers), but we’re all good people, too, right? Well, not according to Paul Piff.

 

Paul works in the Morality, Emotion and Social Hierarchy Laboratory at University of California, Irvine, and he is an assistant professor in UCL’s Department of Psychology and Social Behaviour. He’s semi-famous in certain circles for an experiment he ran a few years ago involving rigged two-player games of Monopoly, and how the winning players of the games invariably believed they’d won because they were better at the game than the other player. They all conveniently overlooked that they’d been allowed to roll the dice twice each turn, had started the game with twice as much money as their opponent and received twice as much each time they passed Go. And they’d been awarded those privileges based on the toss of a coin before the game, meaning their “victory” essentially came down to dumb luck – a straight 50/50 chance.

Paul is interested in how social class and economic inequality inform relationships between individuals. What he has found, and what he has to say, is often uncomfortable stuff. In another of his experiments he asked undergraduate students to stand close to a pedestrian crossing and observed the behaviour of the drivers as they approached the crossing to see if they were – to use his words – “more or less inclined to break the law”.

What he found is fascinating. In California it’s against the law not to stop for someone who is waiting at a pedestrian crossing. Paul carried out this experiment on several days and involved hundreds of cars. And his data shows clearly that as the value of the car increased, the driver’s tendency to break the law increased as well. The more expensive the car approaching the crossing, the less likely it was to stop.

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He found that exactly none of the cars in the least expensive category broke the law, while almost 50 per cent of the cars in the most expensive category broke the law.

I’ve been thinking about Paul’s experiment since the other night when I drove home from a party and sailed straight through a crossing while the pedestrian waiting to cross roundly abused me. It was dark, and they were wearing dark clothes, but that would have been little consolation had I hit them.

I’m pretty sure this incident occurred for a combination of reasons – lighting, inattention and fatigue, and the pedestrian being one of those people who steps from the curb and just assumes the traffic has seen them and will stop – but what if Paul is right and there’s more to it than that? What if my driving an expensive car is symptomatic of an attitude towards others?

I do know that some of my cars – and now that I think about it, it’s the less expensive ones, generally – require quite a bit of actual driving, demanding attention and engagement; the experience in the more expensive cars is definitely more cocooned, I generally listen to the music louder, and I’m significantly less connected to the driving experience and the conditions outside. So for now, and without wanting to dwell on the implications of Paul’s research too much, that’s what I’m going to put it down to.

But I will pay attention next time I’m out in one of the more luxurious of my cars, because if there’s anything worse than conforming to a stereotype, it’s actually being a dick.