Tuesday, 15 April 2014

A Trip Around The Porsche Museum (11/3/2014)

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On 11th March, I had a day that I'd dreamed of but never really expected to actually happen. Our University course had arranged a trip to Stuttgart, and because about half of us are automotive designers, that meant we were going to the Mercedes-Benz and Porsche museums, both of which are highly recommended by the motoring press on a regular basis. We went to the Mercedes one first, but because that was huge and I took about 300 pictures, I'll first share with you the smaller but in some ways equally fascinating Porsche Museum. What this building lacks in quantity compared to Mercedes, it makes up for in quality, from the first electric car to Le Mans winners, Dakar winners, concepts, prototypes and road cars from the first all the way through to the latest machinery from one of the world's most prestigious sports car companies.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Citroën C4 Cactus Is The New 2CV

(not to scale)
The Citroën Deux Chevaux - or 2CV, to you - is not just iconic on account of being in production for 42 years (1948-1990) and appearing in a James Bond film, it was arguably one of the most original cars ever made, taking inspiration from zero other cars that had gone before it and designed to be as cheap but also as capable as possible. The French 'people's car' was actually meant to be as minimal as possible; the brief for the engineers in the late 1930s was "an umbrella with four wheels" that cost both Citroën and its customers as little as possible. Oh, and it had to carry four farmers and 50kg of their goods to market. And it had to ride so smoothly that a basket of eggs sat in or on the car would survive a trip over a freshly-plowed field without a single broken shell. Oh yeah, and it had to consume just 3L of petrol per 100km, which put another way is 94mpg (78mpg US), the same as the new Porsche 918 Spyder in its greenest hybrid setting and considerably more miles per gallon than what modern family cars manage. With some brilliant and slightly bonkers engineering, they succeeded. You can read more about it in another tab by clicking hither. I recommend you do.

The 2CV wasn't the first innovative Citroën - that would be the front-wheel-drive Traction-Avant that went before it and cost them so much money that they needed the cheap-as-chips Deux Chevaux to follow it - but it solidified their place in the motoring world as The Crazy French Ones. Since then they've given us such glorious and ground-breaking oddities as the DS and SM, not to mention out-there designs like the XM, C6 (well, it was crazier than all its mostly-German rivals), DS5, Survolt and GTbyCITROEN concept cars and many more. Basically, Citroën is at its best when it's being weird, and after a brief stint of relative normality they're back to ignoring convention with this, the C4 Cactus.

OK, so it's not quite accurate to suggest that it's like nothing you've ever seen before. It's a small-ish hatchback-based crossover, for one thing, which is very much on-trend (and a bodystyle I typically hate), but Citroën have gone at this crowded marketplace in a pleasingly different way, by finding creative methods to make it as lightweight and cheap to buy and run as they reasonably can. Unfortunately that doesn't mean it'll cost as little as the £5995 Dacia Sandero, but then the base-model Sandero is equipped like something cheap from the 1980s, whereas the Cactus is packing such accoutrements as a fully-digital instrument display, 7" touchscreen dashboard for infotainment and standard air conditioning. But these things are either normal or becoming normal. No, it's the unconventional stuff that I'm interested in...

Let's start with the exterior. The round, grille-less nose has skinny LED headlights floating over larger fog and indicator lights, not unlike a Rolls-Royce Phantom or, at a stretch, a Nissan Juke. But check out those chocolate-brown panels on each corner and along the doors. Those are called "Airbumps." The ovular bumps are full of air and are there so that a low-speed impact doesn't dent or scratch the car in those areas. They're available in brown, grey, black or "Dune," which is probably light brown. Typically funky for Citroën, the overall exterior design looks rugged without being aggressive, and yet somehow gender-neutral. The apparently-floating rear pillar is actually a paint trick, though.

Inside, you'll find two front seats so wide they effectively make a bench (a nod to the 2CV), but little else other than a top-mounted glovebox to increase knee room and the aforementioned screens and a single row of buttons. Even the gear stick has been replaced with three buttons below the air vents. I'm not sure what that T-shaped thing between the front seat cushions is, though. A handbrake, maybe? If you like changing your own gears then there are paddles behind the wheel, or of course you can make them find somewhere to fit a proper gear stick and a clutch pedal, which they can do. Look up and - if you've paid extra - you'll see the sky through a heat-insulating glass roof. The C4 Cactus provides the same amount of rear passenger space as the conventional C4 hatchback, despite being slightly shorter. Bootspace doesn't suffer though, at 358L.

Speaking of comparisons to the C4 hatch (roughly Focus-sized, for any American readers), the Cactus is 20cm shorter, 6cm narrower and 1cm lower (despite looking tall like a crossover), but the big difference on paper is that, at a featherweight 965kg, it's a staggering 200kg or so lighter. This is partly because underneath it's a stretched C3 rather than a squashed C4, but mostly down to clever and minimalist engineering. Because it's designed for a top speed of "just" 190km/h (118mph), it doesn't need as strong, heavy components for stuff like the suspension and brakes. Even the cooling system has been pared back a bit. But don't worry, it's not going to be as fragile as France's often-unfair reputation for unreliable cars might make you think.

Under the bonnet, you'll find one of four small but state-of-the-art engines. In the petrol corner, you'll find a 1.0 turbocharged three-cylinder unit making either 81 or 108 horsepower, while in the diesel corner you can have 91 horsepower or a 99bhp "BlueHDI" engine that emits just 82g/km of CO2 and can - Citroën claim - consume as little as 3L/100km of diesel, the same fuel economy as a 2CV despite being nearly twice as much car in many ways. That's the power of modern engineering, wacky or not. Sadly the Cactus doesn't have crazy suspension, despite that being a weird-Citroën staple, because it's based on the conventionally-laid-out C3/DS3, but having driven 100 miles in a DS3, I'm OK with that.

Overall, this is by far the coolest and least-offensive small crossover on the market. Only the Dacia Duster and Škoda Yeti get thumbs up from me in this segment (not that I've driven them or even sat in a Yeti), but this surpasses them both for being a left-field Citroën, which adds about 50 cool points on its own. Add in the fact that it's considerably lighter than even a Lotus Exige, oddly funky-looking, plenty spacious, very cheap to run and costs from £12,995 in the UK and it's a pretty tempting proposition from The Crazy French Ones if you ask me. It may not look like it, and it may not protect a basket of eggs on the roof quite as adeptly, and it may not be the cheapest car on sale, but in many ways, this minimalist, cleverly-engineered car for Le People is a modern day Deux Chevaux.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Michael Schumacher Shows Signs Of Life At Last

Schumi in a happier time
Seven Formula 1 world championships and 91 Grand Prix victories put together do not present as tough a challenge as recovering from a serious head injury, but Michael Schumacher could well be on the way to his biggest triumph. The 45-year-old has been in a medically-induced coma all year, and in that time there has been an almost constant stream of speculation and misinformation ranging from optimistic to downright cynical. Even now, I urge you to only read official statements from Sabine Kehm, his agent, as anything else you read about his situation has no value.

But rejoice! The latest is this:

"Michael is making progress on his way. He shows moments of consciousness and awakening. We are on his side during his long and difficult fight, together with the team of the hospital in Grenoble, and we remain confident.

We would like to thank you all for the continuous sympathies. At the same time we again ask for understanding that we do not intend to disclose details. This is necessary to protect the privacy of Michael and his family, and to enable the medical team to work in full calmness.

According to Former F1 Doc, there is a difference between "consciousness" and "awakening." The latter simply means that he is technically awake, as in open eyes, but that does not necessarily mean that he's interacting with the world. In other words, the lights are on. Consciousness means that there's somebody still in there, recognising and responding to the outside world, and that's the best news. The fact that he shows "moments" of each must mean that he's drifting in and out, which I guess is how it works in the early stages of waking up from a coma. It means as well that he now stands a good chance of actually recovering from hitting a rock with his head hard enough to split his helmet open, while skiing off-piste in Meribel, France. Soon he may just be able to see and recognise the global outpouring of support towards him.

Keep pushing, Schumi!