The past seven days of Engage Sport Mode have featured a number of confessions; my love for NASCAR, the fact I like Avril Lavigne (who is technically Canadian) and that sometimes I can be wrong.
Having been through all this, it’s probably worth noting that after so much discourse about products of the USA, I’ve never actually set foot in the home of the Star-Spangled Banner. I have been to Canada, and I’ve been to Niagara falls which borders right up against America. But I forgot to take my passport so thus stayed resolutely on the maple syrup flavoured side. Given this, why on earth do I have such a passion for US muscle?
In essence it all stems from just one car, and one TV show; the original Dodge Viper RT/10 and the original Top Gear with Jeremy Clarkson. Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, I can even recreate what that moment was like. The Viper was an unwieldy monster of a car, and yet special enough for even the most cynical of car journalists to fall for it. It is also, possibly, the only car to have ever made three-spoke alloy wheels look cool. A Ford Fiesta RS Turbo never looked as good as this:
I realise that I said how beautiful the Alfa Romeo 8C was a few weeks ago, but for a classic sports car shape you have to admit the Viper has it all. Long, low bonnet, swooping sculpted sides and fat wheels. The side-exit exhausts add an extra layer of both visual and aural drama to the mix. Being only around 8 years old, I didn’t care that the engine was based on a truck design, that the brakes were barely adequate and some suspension parts came from a pick-up. My only concern was that it’s motor packed a huge 8-litres, that it’d do 0-60mph in 4.6 seconds and didn’t even have a proper roof. All of that made it the coolest car I had even seen. It was also probably the only time I had a model car where the interior was identical in quality to the real one; check out the plastics.
To be honest, it doesn’t really matter. Nobody bought a Viper for the interior. They bought it because it represented a return to the crazed horsepower-hedonism of the late 1960s and early 1970s; which is where the second key factor in my love for American cars comes in.
I’m not usually a fan of 70s Art-House film, but one is different to most. Despite the fact Barry Newman is billed as the lead actor, it’s a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T which is the real screen grabber in Vanishing Point. I remember watching it late at night on BBC1 back when I was still in school, and was star struck by how awesome the Challenger looked and sounded. The plot of the film passed straight over my head; for me it was all about the Dodge.
If you want to try to understand why that white Challenger R/T, then take a look at Audioslave’s video for their single “Show Me How To Live” which used massive portions of the film, spliced with additional shots of the band:
That, in a nutshell, is my reason for loving the Challenger, the Viper and most other US cars which favour huge, high-capacity engines over finesse and dainty interior fittings. It seems only right that we end American week as it started; with another massive fireball.
Along with liking NASCAR, Engage Sport Mode is also willing to admit to other things. Like enjoying the music of Avril Lavigne (and seeing her live), thinking additional jalapeno peppers can improve everything and occasionally being wrong.
In this instance, the “being wrong” relates to a prediction made on this very website back in January. In that post I used the words to the effect that you should put “money on a Mk3 Panda victory” in the European Car of The Year awards. So certain was I that, like the previous Panda and numerous other Fiat products before it, that you could almost guarantee another victory for Turin. Rear windscreen sticker manufacturers were already to hit print, advertising executives were primed to see their updated adverts hit the TV, magazines and internets.
And then the Chevrolet Volt/Vauxhall/Opel Ampera went and won. I mean seriously, what the hell?! Without trying to make some battery related pun I’d imagine that I, along with many automotive commentators, were a little shocked by this revelation. Fiat has won the ECoTY prize 9 times since 1964, more than any other manufacturer. Before today, General Motors had notched up only three previous titles (Astra; 1985, Carlton; 1987 and Insignia; 2009). So I’d imagine that in Luton some marketing types, who aren’t in Geneva, were tonight hastily scribbling together some kind of press release. I’d imagine it’s going to look something like this:
But in all seriousness, the new Panda only came fifth out of the seven nominees. This isn’t a personal issue with me being a Fiat owner, it’s more a general confusion at how the Ampera emerged victorious. Even the Range Rover Evoque placed above the Panda, which really surprised me. The ECoTY judges are meant to assess the contenders on a complicated list of factors such as performance, safety, technical innovation and value for money. In that respect the Volkswagen Up! probably deserved its second place, providing classy, small car-chic in an affordable package; a big deal in these times of austerity. The Panda, on the other hand, perhaps didn’t do much more than build on the already successful packaged which won the prize back in 2004. In that respect it wasn’t really a “game changer” compared to others in the running.
The Ampera victory makes me wonder if, somewhere along the road, the automotive journalists who vote for ECoTY are losing grip with reality. Yes I understand that the Ampera/Volt/whatever has a special drivetrain which makes electric propulsion a reality rather than just a dream. You can plug your Ampera into your house and have it fully ready to go for work in the morning. Should your commute be a little longer that its 35 mile electric range, the internal combustion engine will kick in to top up those batteries. Unless you happen to have a Fisker Karma, this kind of technology is apparently a big deal.
But I can see one slight problem with the Ampera. To keep those batteries topped up and that electric motor turning, you either a) need to plug it into the electricity at your home/a charging station somewhere, or b) fill it up with petrol so the internal combustion engine can produce more electricity. The power to your house is more than likely going to come from a fossil fuel fed power station, and the gasoline is still going to come from refined oil. Either way, your Ampera is still going to be heavily reliant on crushed dinosaur to keep going.
Yes, with its trick powertrain means it uses less compressed stegosaurus bits than many cars, but this doesn’t solve the major problem of reliance on unrenewable energy sources. In addition, much will be made of the Ampera’s impressive fuel economy figures which give (in the Chevrolet Volt at least) an official combined 72mpg (UK imperial) from the US Environmetal Protection Agency. But take a look at what the real world figures are when the Ampera is allowed to use all power “modes” on proper roads. The 49.26mpg (US) obtained by Motor Trend translates into about 59mpg (UK imperial) which is an impressive figure. For comparison, a VW Golf MK6 Bluemotion will, realistically, get fuel economy of around 49mpg (UK).
I realise I’m delving deeply into hypotheticals here, but based on those figures, with a driver covering 12,000 miles a year and using the Ampera in all horsepower producing modes, it’ll take 26 years before the battery-powered car pays off the cost disadvantage against the Golf. For reference, the Vauxhall will cost £28,995 (reduced from £33,995 thanks to a Government grant) compared to £19,445.00 for a Bluemotion 5-door Golf. Yes I realise most trips in the UK are short and the Ampera will be able to use its electric mode, but remember the experience with the Auris Hybrid. £28,995 is a lot of money to sink into something with a Vauxhall badge on the front, let alone something with new technology which may fall to pieces or even catch fire in certain, albeit very rare, circumstances.
I can see why some may see the Ampera as the future of European motoring. If you can afford one, it may well indeed allow you to live the dream of dirt cheap, guilt-free automotive travel. But such luxuries will be out of reach for many in these difficult economic times. Granted, the Ampera’s victory is beneficial in timing for this blog; you’d have almost thought I planned it to fall into American Week! Good thing the Panda didn’t win, I couldn’t really bring back Italian Week again.
All jokes aside, cars like the Ampera are not the solution to our problems. Not at that price and not at that reliance on oil still. At that might well explain why General Motors has decided to suspend production of the Volt for five weeks due to slow sales. On the other hand, Land Rover has already churned out 50,000 Evoques, with orders for another 60,000 already on the books. Given that the Evoque starts at £27,995 I know which I’d be picking given the choice. At least you’d be burning pterodactyl in style…
Certain things cross the transatlantic divide rather well; television shows, rock music (I’m looking at you Springsteen) and a growing tendency to litigate over anything. Other things have tended to find the journey across the “pond” rather more difficult. Many of the products of Motor City have failed to make the adjustment to life in the confined surroundings of the United Kingdom. Our narrow roads and parking spaces favour nimble, nippy hatchbacks; our over-taxed fuel prices reward economical four-cylinder engines compared to rumbling, huge, thirsty V8 motors. But that doesn’t stop manufacturers, or private individuals, eschewing such ideas and bringing vehicles born in the USA to these shores. This week’s ICAT/CD focuses on those such cars.
I Could Afford That
Along with being American Week, this is also confessions week on ESM. And the second confession is that attempting to find bargain priced Yank motoring has not been easy. So accept my apologies if this week’s offerings are less budget than usual. Also, I’ve picked genuine US imports; not the products of European designed and built Ford or Vauxhall. Anyway, gentlemen (and any ladies present), start your engines.
Yes, it’s the car from Knightrider! Although unlike KITT this comes with neither a hydrogen turbine engine nor a David Hasselhoff chest wig in sight. It does, however, feature a 5-litre (or should I say 305 cubic inch) V8 engine under the bonnet. No word is given on whether this is the carburettor fed or fuel-injected version, though power output from either is likely to be no better than 160bhp. Combined with an automatic gearbox, from digging around various Trans Am owners websites, performance estimates seem to be from the fisherman school of estimation. But, given it’s age, somewhere around high 7s or low 8 seconds for 0-60mph seems about on the money.
It looks rather clean on the outside, and with that lift out targa top could be quite good for cruising sans roof as the weather gets warmer. The interior is however a timely reminder of why American cars do not always translate well. For a start, the steering wheel is of course on the “wrong” side, and after that, well just look at it:
The interior was apparently aircraft inspired, though I genuinely cannot ever remembering seeing the cockpit of a plane which made me think “oh, I wish my car looked like this on the inside”. I’m sure it’s all very clear and functional, but I just can’t ever really find myself wanting to sit in there for very long.
Verdict: Sorry Mr Hasselhoff, like your music, this one should have stayed in the USA.
Back in the late 1990s, General Motors felt that what the UK needed was a raft of direct US Chevrolet imports such as the Blazer, Camaro and Corvette. With the Blazer they even managed to find the time to convert it to right-hand drive, at least giving it an almost fighting chance against domestic competition. Equipped with a 4.3 litre V6 producing 193bhp and 249lb-ft of torque, this was enough to propel the 2 (metric) ton Blazer to 60mph in 10 seconds. It also returned an official average of 20mpg. I’d imagine the real fuel consumption is somewhere much further south than that.
But you can’t deny that this particular Blazer looks rather handsome in its blue paintwork and shiny wheels. Plus just take a look at how upmarket the inside is, you’ll be amazed:
Hang on…..something isn’t quite right. That aluminium trim looks surprisingly Teutonic, and I’m very sure I remember the BMW 5-Series having seat adjustment levers like that. Hmmm, that doesn’t look much look like an auto-shifter to me either! Yes folks, what we have here is a Chevrolet Blazer with the interior from a BMW. Or a trader that’s so ashamed of the hideousness of a late ’90s Chevrolet interior that they’ve slyly hidden it. Should you really want to see, and believe me it’s not good, go take a look. Mmmmm, plastic.
Verdict: I’m always cagey when a seller can’t upload the correct pictures to the correct advert. I’m also looking for excuses; let’s be honest this is never going to be a good purchase!
Having discovered that the cheap end of the American automotive market holds very slim pickings, how about reaching for the top of the tree? Luckily, Pistonheads manages to provide a saviour, to prove that not all Detroit offerings are to be ignored. In my mind there could only ever be one true contemporary choice for this week’s Classified Dream, this:
I realise it’s a Ford which costs more than a house. I know Jeremy Clarkson owned the first one in the country (whether that’s good or bad is your call). I also know that it is one of the most highly regarded supercars of recent yore. Evo magazine had this to say about the GT, before later going on to make it their Car of The Year in 2005. Granted it was a CoTY which didn’t feature a Porsche 911, but to claim such a crown is a major achievement for any contender.
It doesn’t matter that the engine has humble roots, sharing much of its block and cylinder head, with a Mustang. In the standard GT it bellows out 550bhp and 500lb of torque, with this particular example claiming to punch out an extra 70 ponies. That can only help improve on the already highly impressive performance figures; 0-60mph in 3.5, 0-100mph in 7.4 and a top speed of 205mph. Be in no doubt that the GT is the real deal when it comes to matching the established supercar hierarchy.
I like the fact that this car isn’t in the cliché red with white stripes of Gulf racing colours. The Tungsten Grey paint makes it appear almost subtle – check out the picture of it next to a row of Aston Martins, it almost blends in – and lets the beautiful shape sell itself. The interior is a faithful, but modernised, version of the original GT40 one, even down to the speedometer flung to the far reaches of the dashboard. It also seems to feature air vents which look remarkably similar to those in the Panda, but I digress. The Panda sure as hell doesn’t sound like this:
Verdict: A bona fide supercar, and thoroughly deserving of its price tag. Were I a multimillionaire, I could easily find room in my collection for the GT.