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Thursday, 31 May 2012

Eco Velocity 2012

For 1600px versions of all these images, go here. Some of them are a bit blurry around the edges, though...
Earlier this month, I went to the second ever Eco Velocity car show (read about the first one here). There were a few distinct differences this year, such as having a roof over our heads and a much longer test drive route - three "First Impressions" reviews inside - but it didn't quite live up to last year's show for a couple of reasons. Chief among those reasons is Kevin McCloud. Nevertheless, it provided an opportunity to get to know environmentalist motoring today. So I did. Mostly...

First of all, as you may notice when comparing photos with last year's show, it was a somewhat smaller affair this year, despite running for twice as long as originally planned due to popularity. I'm not sure whether that's what caused fewer manufacturers to bring their latest green models, or if it's the other way round, but either way, you get the feeling it had been shrunken down by "Grand Designs Live", a show I have literally zero interest in, which took up at least two thirds of the hall at London ExCel used for the two shows. Our EV12 tickets also let us into the bigger show for free (and vice versa if you were more interested in looking at futuristic skirting boards and sliding glass for three hours), but I didn't see the point. As far as I'm concerned, this setup only allowed people not interested in cars to wander around getting in the way and considering the interior design of the Vauxhall Ampera more than the very important range-extender powertrain.

Actually, on that note, I'd just like to say that I wasn't able to test drive the Vauxhall Ampera (or its Chevrolet twin, the Volt) because, unlike every single other car at the show, you had to be 25 years old to book a test drive. This annoyed me greatly. Is it dangerous? Is £30,000 too valuable for under 25s to handle without definitely definitely smashing it into things? Come on! I had no problem driving the Nissan Leaf - a direct rival in many ways - at last year's show, and I was a year younger then! The woman at Chevrolet said it was for insurance reasons and probably just because it's American, and they took out a much more serious/protective insurance policy. Damn you overcautious Americans!

I could at least be trusted to open doors and sit in one that wasn't switched on without melting it or being sued for leaving finger marks or something. It was all pretty standard for a Prius-sized 5-door hatchback, although the instrument display had been replaced by a plasma screen about the size of two smartphone screens stacked together in landscape. A similarly-sized screen sat in the dashboard, which is true of most new cars of this size by now. Still, why would an electric car be better with more screens? Surely that uses more electricity than traditional dials? Or maybe they didn't want anything traditional in this "giant step forward"? Anyway, that's not what's in the picture. What you can see is a pair of buttons in the lower part of the driver's door of an Ampera. It's pretty clear that they let you switch between pure battery power and engine-assisted battery power. Could this be the future equivalent of a manual transmission? Manual drive-mode selection? Who knows. Oh, if at this point you're not entirely sure how the Volt/Ampera works, it's an Extended-Range Electric Vehicle (E-REV). 50 miles of zero-emissions is then extended by another 300 miles by burning dead dinosaurs. The way it works is very similar to diesel-electric train locomotives or TopGear's "Hammerhead-i EagleThrust", in that the engine doesn't power the wheels at any point. This is still a purely electric car in terms of putting your foot down and sending power to electric motors which directly drive the wheels. What the engine does is hum into life when the electric car needs more juice, either just charging the battery or providing a power boost as well (the latter function is definitely true of the Fisker Karma, another E-REV, but I can't remember if the Volt/Ampera does that too).

It's important that you know this, because E-REVs - or whatever version of the acronym other car makers use - are the next big thing. They're much better than a Prius-style hybrid, because while a Prius is an engine-powered car aided by a (nickel) battery, E-REVs are battery-powered cars aided by an engine. Vauxhall's slogan for this car is "Driving Electricity Further", which in a way is exactly what the car's doing, as the engine extends the range far beyond the 30-40 miles of a Nissan Leaf or such like, while consuming much less fuel than even a Prius because the engine isn't working nearly as hard to provide the power. It just spins quietly at a constant rpm, completely disconnected from the wheels at all times. In a way, this progress is like making a car "quit smoking". The first nicotine patches were battery-assisted engines, and now we're onto the second stage of weening the car off engine power ["smoking"], so to speak. Of course, lots of companies still "smoke" because all the cool people are doing it and it's expensive and will-requiring to "quit". Alas, it's only a matter of time...

Also at the Vauxhall stand was the RAKe concept (either pronounced "rake" or "rackee", your choice), a tandem two-seater for the city with 48bhp from an electric motor. To be honest, while VW and Audi have also done one of these recently, I don't see the point of a dinky little commuter pod with no luggage space in it. Yes, small cars in cities make sense (otherwise Japan wouldn't have Kei cars), but after a point you have to consider whether it would just be much cheaper and easier to walk or cycle instead. Maybe get a motorbike if it's speed you need in cities. I'm pretty sure you can get electric bikes these days. Or maybe take the solar-powered monorail to your office job in the future metropolis?

For now though, we drive cars. Cars that are quickly becoming electric, as Mark Goodier (a famous music person who was the first UK Nissan Leaf owner and knew his stuff) discussed to a crowd that should really have been bigger. Likewise for the talk where a car company was put "under the spotlight". Said company was Tesla, but Elon Musk probably couldn't afford to fly there what with all the tremendous debt Tesla are in, so a UK spokesperson answered questions about the Model S, Model X and future endeavours. Tesla aren't looking into an E-REV, but might look into hydrogen in the near future. If they're still around then...

Much like last year, I test drove three cars around a test route, but instead of just doing a lap around the edge of the area, we could actually use a real road or two, with traffic lights and roundabouts... and speed limits. Still, being able to hit 30-40mph was much better than staying in 2nd gear the whole time. My dad also drove the Ampera (what with being over 25 and all...) and a Honda Jazz Hybrid, which I can attest is very bouncy in the back when going over those loathsome black and yellow speed bumps, which there was a whole row of outside the loading areas/coach parking. According to him, the Honda hybrid moves off much more smoothly than London's new hybrid buses do. As I've mentioned already, there were fewer manufacturers taking part this year, and I reckon that that subsequently caused test drive slots to fill up faster. Even before lunch, Peugeot were fully booked up to 5PM! This meant I couldn't get a go in the brand new 208 hatchback unless I wanted to be in the same small hall for well over 6 hours. I did not. Clearly the serious folk knew to book in early, and we did too, turning up at about 10:30 and almost immediately going to Honda, as they were the first thing you saw upon walking in. More about my choices (and how good they were) very soon.

Test Route (Click to embiggen)
First, a quick look through the test route. We start indoors, in a room lined with cars and barriers, which is best described as Very Grey. Driving slowly out onto the upper loading area (the White area door for those of you keeping score), we head down a ramp and immediately have to stop at a T-junction, so you get a feel for the brakes early on. We turn right and basically go where the yellow line goes in the image above, before returning, driving past the back doors of the ExCel centre before turning left and making a U-turn to climb up to the upper deck again. On the way into the building, there are a series of temporary speed bumps, put there to test...... your spine. The concrete ramp back up again proved to be quite a test for one of the cars I drove.

So now, without further ado, the First Impressions tests:

Honda Civic 1.4 i-VTEC SE
No, this is not a hybrid or electric car. That's because I've already driven the CR-Z (see last year's article) and I was already going to get a ride in the Jazz Hybrid. I'm intrigued by the new Civic anyway. The pre-facelift car looked like an '80s spaceship, which was great, whereas the looks have been slightly toned down for this new one. I think the 2008-11 version looks better, but hey ho, apparently this one's better to drive. I was given the basic 1.4 to play with, because it's capable of many, many miles per gallon. That's not the first thing you think about, though. The first thing you think about is the dials. They're pretty. Super-clear, futuristic and positioned so you can see the important stuff without looking down from the road. When dials are a highlight of a car, it's either time you give the dial design team a pay rise or time to add some pizazz to the rest of the interior. That said, it all felt very solid, and I like the layered thing (which again is mostly to do with the dials). They get better too - at the sides of the upper dial are digital kerbs. They start off a visually soothing blue, but if you change into a higher gear, they go green! No more hypermiling techniques - your car will just show you when you're being a good boy/girl. To make sure it stays green, there are six gears even in the basic 1.4 petrol model, meaning I could shift into 6th gear for the first time ever! Despite being in top gear at about 30-40mph, it pulled well enough, not feeling like you needed to kick down a gear at any point (although I was hardly pushing it). Certainly, it never felt as sluggish as my Punto and had noticeably more direct steering that felt more connected, but still felt very much power-assisted. That'll be the power steering.

Another comparison I made to my Punto is interior noise. It was quiet... too quiet. Sure, the lack of tyre and wind noise made it feel refined, but I'm used to hearing my car's engine and feeling it vibrate, and that element of communication was somewhat absent in the plush new Civic. This is something I reckon to be true of all new cars, at least ones not built down to a price. It subsequently meant that I forgot to change down for quite a while, so the revs stayed pretty low! While the gear stick was close to the wheel, I found it to be too far back, meaning a lot of wrist-bending to get it into 4th and 6th. Another thing to check out was rear visibility. Just how much does that telephone handset they call tail lights obstruct the view out? A little bit. I think it's lower in this facelifted one to give you more rear window, but I reckon it would be a bit Marmite to live with - you'd either get used to it or it would become a constant niggling irritation. The ride felt fine, with impacts feeling well-softened (dampened? Probably).

Overall, a good, solid, efficient car that drives well. With AWESOME dials.

Mia L
I actually booked the third car in long before this one, but despite doing so before noon, I had to wait until 3:40, so I queued up for this in the meantime, having realised that I'd gone to an eco car show and not yet tried an EV. This little car intrigued us last year, mostly because of its McLaren F1-style seating and the sliding doors. It's called the Mia, and is made by... Mia. Mia Electric, to be precise. On the face of it, the Mia is what a G-Wiz would be like if it was actually a car and not a safety-dodging "quadricycle", but actually a lot of this French commuter box is well thought out, like how it's 95% recyclable and made out of single-component, biodegradable materials. The Mia is available in two sizes, a 1+2 seater or this longer 1+3 seater "Mia L", which adds 32cm to the length, all of which is gained in the wheelbase (a 1+0 seater panel van is also available for if you're selling flowers or something). Featuring 420 litres of luggage space and an 8kWh battery - or a 12kWh one as an option, which adds 50kg onto the 800kg kerbweight - the Mia L can reach a claimed top speed of 100km/h (62mph). That technically means it can set a 0-60 time, but I wouldn't want to be the one to test it...

Despite the central driver's seat, this is not a hard car to get into, because the doors slide back to reveal a cutaway in the floor, so you put your foot in there and just climb in like you would in any car. It's little things like that which you appreciate, even upon the first time of driving it. I actually rode in the back as my dad had a go too, and the red seats were nicely soft and squishy. They weren't leather though (that's an optional extra), and the texture was smooth but slightly rubbery. This was another particularly unpleasant car to be in the back of going over speed bumps, but I later found out that it wasn't particularly pleasant taking them in the front either. When my turn came around, I got a fake carbon Mia L with red wheels, just like the one pictured. The supervisor was a French gentleman - while the event organisers hired in third-party professional drivers for the other manufacturers, Mia seemed to have brought their own people - who was sporting an excellent walrus moustache and knew about as much English as I know French, which to be fair is at least some.

The view from the right passenger seat.
Being  a 1+3 meant loads of rear legroom
He asked if I knew French, I said "some", so he proceeded to explain everything in French. It was OK though, because it was pretty straightforward. There's a button on the left of the dash bar (like a dashboard but a bar) that puts in into forward, park or reverse, a handbrake, and two pedals. Simple. I just had to remember to keep my left foot away from the brake, thus remembering one thing more than my dad did. Unlike the Nissan Leaf I drove last year, there's no built-in 'crawl' to make it feel like an automatic car, so when I took my foot off and nothing happened, I was a little confused. The accelerator also has to travel at least a coin's thickness before you start moving anywhere as well, but eventually we set off. I complained that the Leaf felt like a car in my hands and the seat of my pants, but a toy at my feet. This felt like a toy at my feet and in my hands. The 'wheel felt cheap and provided slightly rubbery steering, with a surprising amount of lock required to turn in making it feel quite vague. Being electric, it had instant torque and accelerated quite happily until you reached 40mph or so, at which point the thrust really started to drop off. It was also louder than the Honda Civic at speed, simply because it isn't as chunky or well-insulated, something that wouldn't be difficult to explain if the Mia didn't cost more than the Honda (£20k upwards, or £17k for a cheapo one). The price of technology, I guess. We had to take a shorter route in the Mia, turning back at the first roundabout, which was perhaps preparation for the world of short-range motoring you would enter with a car like this. Visibility was good, although there's only one rear view mirror (on the right), whereas the equally-central-seated McLaren has two, one for each direction.

Not only did the top speed of 60mph start to seem optimistic, but the brakes on the one I drove were squeaking horribly, adding one more element of hatred whenever we approached a speed bump, at which point the rear wheels would literally attack the bump and jar the whole car unpleasantly as we bounced upwards. After an assault on ears and back, we got to the concrete ramp near the end, which rises a storey high in about 40 or 50 metres. I'm not sure you'll even be surprised to hear that the Mia struggled here, almost treating it like a mountain climb. The squeaky brakes and rubbery steering made the Mia L feel unfinished, which, considering Mia launched in the UK this month, makes me hope for their sakes that I was in an overworked pre-production car.

In summary, the Mia has its pros, but it also has definite cons, like a lack of speed and range. Much better (and probably much safer) than a G-Wiz, but no Nissan Leaf rival, it's probably best in the flat and level cities it was designed for. Roomier and greener than a Smart car, too.

Citroën DS3 e-HDi 90
The second-booked, and final car of the day was the Citroën DS3, a car I've been interested in for a good long time. It's one of the few small hatchbacks that I actually want, deep down inside (the others being a Mazda 2 and a Fiat 500 TwinAir... or maybe the Abarth version). Citroën are the only company in the world who make a car that for which "funky" truly is the best word, and that's particularly true within its DS premium range. When I say premium, the cheapest diesel with the DStyle kit to make it look like the one pictured (and the one I drove) costs exactly £16,000, although the one at the show also had plenty of ICE in it as well like Bluetooth, Sat Nav, MP3 connectivity and so on, bringing the price up past £17,000 according to the supervisor, who was a real actual racing driver! I can't remember his name, annoyingly, but he competes in ADAC GT3, "GT Supercup" and apparently has done some BTCC recently. He's a car guy, so we got along well. Dad squeezed in the back for this one, which wasn't as arduous as I first imagined (don't take that the wrong way, if you're reading this), but the DS3 still pulled really well coming out of roundabouts. Despite having only 90 horsepower, the 1.6 turbo diesel had nearly twice as much torque, at 170lb/ft, so when you pressed the accelerator, off it went without hesitation. It was a lot of fun. It also smelt GREAT. New leather will do that.

I actually learned to drive in a previous-generation C3, so the driving position was very familiar. Unfortunately, this subsequently meant that it felt like I was sitting on top of the seat and not in it, with the gear stick seeming very low down compared to the Civic. I ratcheted the seat down as far as possible and still felt slightly too high. Other than that though, it was my favourite car of the day. The steering wheel felt really good in smooth leather (in crossection, the wheel rim wasn't quite round, and seemed to fit in my hands better as a result), it felt refined, comfortable and airy, and aside from the clutch having a high biting point and a little too much travel when compared to my Punto, driving it just felt natural. It did what you told it to do and felt happy to be driven. I'd be happy to have one, I reckon. Also, the base diesel can (and has been proven to) get over 70mpg, even with one cog less than the Civic, so it'd be nice and cheap to run as well. I might swap the arrest-me red for dark blue, though.

Ride-along: Vauxhall Ampera
Having only sat in the back of the headlining E-REV, I can't tell you much about how it drives, but the central screen had a display of what all the clever drive systems were doing, so when you put your foot down, the engine kicks in and you can see it glowing. The Power Flow screen also shows how little charge the battery has left (I would say how much, but, well, it's a battery), while the Energy Info screen tells you what kind of mileage you're producing both on your current journey and overall, as well as the other things you can see in the picture. The touchscreen display can also be used to show navigation or infotainment. As for the car, the ride was mercifully undramatic over speed bumps, the stereo was great and at one point - according to the third-party supervisor - the car was getting over 180mpg, which isn't the limit of its fuel-sipping capabilities. That's very impressive. The Ampera also has a decent stereo and was roomy enough in the back, although boot space was of course hampered by the presence of (lithium-ion) batteries.

So that was a glimpse into the, er, present of motoring. As for the future? I'll let you know after I've test driven a Vauxhall RAKe. I'll post all the other pictures I took and caption them the next time my internet isn't being so slow. For now, see them here.

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