Topless in a New Beetle

Our Down-under correspondent John Weinthal has just returned from a week in a New Beetle and falls in love with being topless. This is something he obviously had forgotten, as I can remember John many moons ago driving around in a Triumph TR2 (just to be different as the rest of us were in MG’s)!

He describes this variant of the New Beetle as “User friendly in every way”, so here are the Words from Weinthal:

“An essential in setting out to review any new car is to climb aboard with a clear mind. Forget what you have read or any preconceptions regardless of their source. After driving at least half a dozen examples of Volkswagen’s no-longer-quite-so New Beetle I reckoned I knew what was in store when the New Beetle Cabriolet - or convertible to most of us - arrived.

“I’d previously described new Beetles as little more than Golfs in Clowns’ Suits and triumphs of form over function. I’d certainly enjoyed the drive in the very rapid and endearing Turbo model, but as practical everyday transport they lack a lot.

“But prior to taking over the Beetle Cabriolet I’d overlooked the magic X-factor; the sheer joy of driving a good car without a top. Get the weather right - any clear night or a mild spring or autumn day is ideal - and all normal driving parameters change. Outright pace and handling play second fiddle.

“When your convertible has four adult-size seats the potential is there for almost double the fun. But before rushing in, it’s worth remembering that first in get the rather upright back seats and more wind in their hair.

“There are a couple of fine four-seater convertibles for not much more than the AUD 47,000 ask for the New Beetle, but none has attention-grabbing style. These include VW’s own much more serious looking Golf and Peugeot’s 307. Renault has a lower priced, but somewhat underpowered, contender in the handsomely stylish Megane.

There’s quite a price leap to the next batch of four door convertibles such as the 3 Series BMW and the recently introduced all-new Saab 9-3.

“The New Beetle delivered one of the most satisfying week’s drives of the year. Hood down, terrific sound system turned up and cruise control set ensured extended runs to and from Bundaberg became journeys to savour. This is a user-friendly car in every way. All the controls are nicely to hand or foot. An ideal driving position is easily achieved. Raising and lowering the hood is dead simple and quick.

“Standard gear for the lone 85 kW 2 litre front-wheel-drive Beetle model includes climate control air, cruise control, full leather seating and superb sound system with six-stacker CD located between the front seats. There are locks for everything that might be tempting should you abandon the car with the hood down. The large front seats have five-stage heating control and there is a heated glass rear window. There is even a single button to raise or lower all four side windows simultaneously - as well as individual window controls.

“On the safety front there’s full ABS braking, electronic brake force distribution, front and side airbags, an immobiliser and all seats have head restraints and three-point belts. This is one very well thought out motor car.

“Of course it pays to be more than a mite extrovert to maintain a straight face while going about your everyday driving chores in it. You never travel anonymously in any New Beetle, and the deal is significantly magnified when your Beetle goes topless.

“Judged simply as a car the New Beetle Convertible still shines. Performance is more than adequate and the ride is wonderfully compliant. The steering and brakes are nicely weighted for a commanding but undemanding drive. Both front seats are height adjustable and the steering wheel adjusts for rake and reach. Nobody could fail to find a comfortable driving position.

“The made-in-Mexico New Beetle Cabriolet is easily my Beetle of choice. This is a car I could drive year around and never be without a smile.”

(Thank you John. From that glowing report I could almost detect that you liked it! Dr. Iain.)

So you think we’re paying through the nose?

Compared to America, we pay very dearly for our new vehicles. Compared to Australia we pay very dearly for our new vehicles, even though many are manufactured here, so you can’t use the “import tariff” excuse.

In developing economies (I like that phrase - it means dragging the poor out of the mire, but not quite enough to make them feel rich, while the very rich get very richer) you would expect that governments would make it such that cars were easy to buy. Silly me!

Take Vietnam for example. The government there was apparently very impressed about the 35% growth in new vehicle sales last year, so it thought that if it increased taxes, it would get more revenue, and has just increased taxes on parts, VAT and “Special Consumption” items. A Toyota Corolla which costs USD 15,000 here in Thailand now costs USD 26,500 if you wear a coolie hat. That’s 76% more than in Thailand, two land borders away. For USD 10,000 I’ll drive one over to Hanoi!

Clearly the Vietnamese government has not thought this one through. It is now in the disincentive business! Watch new car sales fall, foreign investment slow down, and see the goose that laid the golden egg become sterile.

The Aussies are also peeved that their Holden Monaro, which they export to the US where it is sold as a Pontiac, is 20 percent cheaper in the US than it is in its country of origin. Explain that one? Well, you can easily - it’s called taxation, a nice word for government theft.

Autotrivia Quiz

Last week I published a photograph. This car returned 63 mpg in the old money (22 km/litre), had a plastic body and a drag coefficient of 0.25. It was built in 1982, and I asked what it was? It was the BL ECV3, an Energy Conservation Vehicle that was designed by British Leyland to be the lightweight economical car of the future. Unfortunately this was not the era of future thought for the troubled BL organization and the BL ECV3 ended its days in the Rover Museum.

So to this week, and another economy drive. There was a wicker bodied car made in Europe in 1924. Which company made this peculiar vehicle? And have a stab at ‘why’? For the Automania FREE beer this week, be the first correct answer to email automania
Good luck!

China’s Won Ton market

If you think China is into the one ton pick-up market, think again. China is eyeing off the luxury car segment as the top echelon of Chinese gets its hands on investment dollars. Last year they sold 1.13 million vehicles making China the fourth largest market after the US, Japan and Germany.

Toyota is going to produce its Toyota Crown models in China within two years, where currently they make the Soluna Vios. DaimlerChrysler has also just signed a framework agreement with Beijing Automotive Industry Holding Company, under which Benz will produce 25,000 E and C Class Benzes.

So after 10 years, the Chinese have gone from rickshaws to C Class Benzes.

Telematics. A bit more than rear seat TV

Information on the move, or Telematics came out of the US when General Motors first popularized automotive telematics with its OnStar system, but the big mover is now Japan, as customer driven demand drives the car navigation market.

In 2002, Nissan entered the market with its Carwings, Toyota the G-BOOK, and Pioneer the AirNavi, marking the beginning of full-scale services. These include extremely detailed maps, voice guides, ease of finding phone numbers, and points of interest, have all worked to satisfy the new users. (And you thought you were doing well with the on-board computer that could tell you how many clicks you could go before you ran out of gas!) Now with navigation telematics installed in 50 percent of new Japanese cars, the total number of cars with advanced telematics in Japan is currently over 10 million.

However, it is not quite as electro-simple as the manufacturers’ advertising departments would lead you to believe. There are problems. The magnitude of these problems became even more apparent at the Telematics conference in Munich this year, attended by the auto manufacturers and the Information Technology industry.

At this conference, DaimlerChrysler’s director of telematics, Peter Hausserman, said software complexity, unpredictable development costs and unpredictable time to get it on the market were the biggest problems in the complex field.

He highlighted the fact that DaimlerChrysler and other companies have different and incompatible systems in their cars. He described it as being similar to having IBM computers in some cars and Apples in others. Ah yes, remember the Beta-VHS recording videotape systems? Or anyone left out there with an 8 track cassette sound system?

Hausserman says he believes Microsoft is capable of rising to the challenge, but as I sit here and watch my PC crash because of inherent software glitches, I don’t share the same optimism. However, with such a huge potential market, Microsoft must become intimately involved, expecting that eventually 20 percent to 25 percent of all 55 million new cars annually and 25 million used cars will be equipped with some sort of telematics system.

There is also the issue of cost. The feeling of the conference was that low-cost software platforms with 10 year life cycles and the possibility of self-updating are crucial. So is the compatibility of on-board systems with external devices such as mobile phones.

However, there were some other items of agreement. One important one was that all telematics functions should be car-related and not be focused on creating additional revenue. “Infotainment is nice to have, not something customers currently regard as a must,” says Jan-Christiaan Koenders, director, Innovation and Advanced Marketing concepts at BMW. “Customers are not very interested in having the Internet in their car. They are more interested in car-related functionality.”

The results of the telematics conference were principally that the automakers have learned the hard way that customers do not always need all the features being thrown at them. Says DaimlerChrysler’s Haussermann, “What we now know is that less is more.”

We can expect that in the future, the thrust of telematics will be towards making life at the wheel simpler, rather than being more informed - other than where is the location of the closest McDonalds!