Friday, June 16, 2006

L#28: New Car Musings (Part Two)

I know it should be an R# this week, but for the sake of finishing off a thought, I figured I'd mix things up a bit - it'll be an R for you all next week...

After last week’s trip down memory lane, I’ve got no further excuse to avoid talking about potential replacements for my car. Having now pretty much rejected the possibility of getting another old banger – that’s a little harsh on my present chariot, but nevertheless – I guess you might be wondering what else I’ve got in mind, so here’s three potential candidates for you.

The first thing you have to bare in mind is the budget; I was a bit over optimistic when I emailed an acquaintance at Auto Express, asking what he reckoned would be worth getting for between £7,500 and £10,000. He emailed back three very worthy automobiles: the Skoda Fabia vRS; the MINI Cooper; and, perhaps most interestingly, the Ford Puma.

All very cool – but the first two wouldn’t fall within the top end of that budget if bought new, and the Puma isn’t even made anymore. This brand spanking thing is pretty important, since I’m interested in the new car ownership experience – honestly, it’s research… The Puma did cause me to pause for thought momentarily though.

I’ve not driven one, but the little Ford coupe has a reputation for fantastically agile handling, and is easily available at the right sort of price, too, especially if you’re willing to look at leggier examples. Unfortunately, the 1.7 litre Yamaha engine in the quick ones (it was also available with a 1.4 and later a 1.6 during its life) is a bit too exotic for my poor student tastes, even if the rest of the car is basically Fiesta components. Oh, and it looks, um, girlie. Are you starting to get a sense of what I meant last week when I talked about the reality of purchasing priorities?

The other two were never really in contention because I don’t really have that kind of money to spend. This whole deal is partially my parents’ idea – oh, don’t I sound like a grown up? – and they’re going to be responsible for financing it, at least to begin with. Realistically, £10,000 is too much. We really are talking the bottom end of the new car market here – what can you get new for about £7,500? That you’d actually want to be seen in?

Much as I’d be liking to emphasize the fun, at this sort of money you are almost forced to think about practicality. Practicality is pretty close to reliability, and although I have personal experience to assuage the legend, the old ad campaign is still engrained on the consciousness, so when you think about reliability you end up thinking about Volkswagen. And with a neat touch of timing, I was starting to look just as the very practical Fox arrived in the UK.

In case you haven’t noticed, the Fox is pretty damn cheap – starting at less than £7,000 for a fully-fledge VW badge. But on the other hand, it’s an old design imported from Brazil, and no-where near as cute to look at as the Lupo it replaces. Hardly offensive, though, and it is cheap. Did I mention that?

Actually, there’s a lot to like. For starters, the dealer actually seemed interested in selling us a car. (Note to Ford… Nope, that’s all I wanted to say). More impressive, however, is the amount of space inside. All but the base model have a sliding rear bench, which allows you to negotiate between boot space and leg room in the back. I tested the base model, and even without that sliding seating arrangement my dad – who’s 6’4” – fitted in easily. With tons of headroom.

But there’s more. Of all the cars I looked at, the Fox was the only one with reach and rake adjustment on the steering. Small cars typically have terrible ergonomics, and something as simple (heh, I can say that – I’m not an engineer…) as this makes a hell of a lot of difference. The little 1.2 triple under the bonnet is remarkably pokey – three adults up and it was still pulling with evidence of gusto, if not vigour, foot down at 60mph.

The brakes are as snappy as you’d expect from a VW, and the gearchange didn’t leave me with any nasty memories. Though do remember that I’m basing all of these appraisals on genuine test drives (if the salesman – and they were all men – asked, I explained I was journalism student, but didn’t elaborate any further).

Less good in the Fox was the rest of the interior, and especially the quality of the plastics. Great grey slabs of it on the doors reminded me of the toy dinosaurs I used to have as a kid, but more significantly were already showing signs of scuffing. The dealer had only had the car for a week. It also rattled, but this was apparently due to one of the mechanics having broken a panel in the boot almost as soon as it had arrived. Hmmm…

Lots of cup holders, and some very funky trim options – well, assuming that “stripy” is in, anyway (and I do mean stripy) – the Fox certainly isn’t a bad car. But the headroom plays havoc with the centre of gravity, and this isn’t helped by the narrow track, meaning it wouldn’t exactly be my first choice for a back road hustle. Great car for my mum, though, and if you can stand the interest rates, they have some neat finance deals going that throw in free servicing.

Next up: the Suzuki Swift. The Swift amuses me for lots of reasons – not least of which is the pseudo-MINI thing it’s got going. Hardly in need of trim options to fulfil its funk quota, if you know what I mean – and given there’s only one that must be a relief. It’s also CAR magazine’s car of the year, which ought to say something about it. Starting price is £7,599 for a three-door 1.3 – looks expensive next to the Fox but it comes loaded with standard kit, and if you excuse some almost hilariously flexible door cards, the interior is in another league. A really nicely integrated stereo is a major plus point, and they’ve even borrowed the rev counter design from their superbikes to add a little flair all their own to the instrument cluster.

I got to have a go in the 1.3 and the 1.5 – the latter having the added benefit of VVTI variable valve timing. It probably was a bit gutsier going uphill, but I did drive it second so might have been more used to the car by then; there’s actually only 10bhp difference in power output. What was much more noticeable about the 1.5 in comparison to its littler sibling was the ridiculously high clutch biting point and the heavier steering.

A subsequent recall seems to have sorted out the clutch issue, but as for the steering my suspicion is that it was as much down to the wheels as the increased engine capacity. The 1.5 was riding on optional 16” alloys (a fairly hideous cross spoke design, as opposed to the Toora Hypers that are also available at that size), while the 1.3 was on scarcely credible 17s. That doesn’t sound like it makes much sense, but the 17s are ‘race-spec’, according to the brochure, which I’ll optimistically translate into “lightweight” – and I’m sticking to this theory as the 1.3’s ride was remarkably compliant considering the wheel diameter, too.

Nice car to drive, the Swift – not quite as top-heavy feeling as the Fox, and somewhat wider, scooting round corners with vim. The gearstick is in a slightly funny position, though, feeling slightly too far back for optimal comfort. Other ergonomic weirdness includes the pedal spacing: masses of room in the footwell, tiny pedal surfaces, and a huge gap between the brake and the accelerator makes heel-and-toeing only possible if you do it the old fashioned way (using, y’know, your heel and your toe – not just the edge of your foot). It does probably mean that left foot braking is on the cards, but I didn’t really have the opportunity to try that out.

So, Swift = fun. Well, certainly funner than the Fox, reckons I. Still, given my auto journ pretension I thought I had better try and find something even more hardcore for the money. Hello Ford, hello SportKa.

Officially out of budget, you can get one nearly new for about £7,500, and a few car supermarkets are selling delivery mileage non-SEs for £8,500. Non-SE is good because that way you don’t get the hideous two-tone blue and black leather seats – even it does mean missing out on aircon.

It looks nicely done on the outside – though that blue they’re practically all in is over-rated – and even the ordinary Ka receives great chassis reviews from most perspectives. Bespoke bumpers, 16” alloys, a spoiler – all in the best possible taste. A bigger engine, too: 1.6 litres of the finest, uh, vintage Duratec money can buy. But, boy, I really don’t think I could live with that interior. The plastic in the Ford reminded me of ancient boiled sweets, and the dash is just unnecessarily swoopy and impractical as a result. I mean, what’s with the weird bobble that looks like a glued down sunglasses holder on the passenger side, when they could have surely fitted a proper glovebox?

As for the driving experience, well, hardcore is certainly the word. Again, I hasten to point out that I drove a single, main dealer example (it’s always worth driving a few of the same car when you’re looking, because you then get a better idea about what a decent one should feel like), but they had several there and this was the one the salesman chose to go out in, so…

The Ka, and especially the SportKa, has been described as being a similar driving experience to the original Mini. Well, given the rock solid ride, buzzy drivetrain and strangely recalcitrant engine (‘rev’ and ‘nuts off’ necessary for significant progress), this isn’t a bad comparison. The steering’s sharp but heavy, too, while there didn’t seem to be much danger of running out of grip at sensible speeds, either.

The gearbox was my favourite part, however. If the Swift is pseudo-MINI, the SportKa’s ’box is almost microcosmic Ferrari: round alloy knob – from the Puma, fact fans! – atop a long thin stick, combined with a very short throw and snickety action. Really lovely. But you have to balance that against a car that doesn’t seem that fast, and rides likes someone’s taken the springs out. Crashy and hard work – but probably worth it once you’re up to a decent operating velocity. Tough call.

So that’s three possibilities for you. No absolute answers as yet – but look out for a list cars I haven’t considered coming up soon…


Volkswagen Fox

Suzuki Swift

Ford Ka

New Car Musings (Part One) [internal]

Pictures: Fox from this desktop wallpaper site (looks like a pres shot); SportKa is definitely a press shot - this crop from CarNet.


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