Automania by Dr. Iain Corness

BMW heads away from gasoline

With oil now well over $100 a barrel, we are all going to have to dig deeper to keep our cars in fuel each week. All this falls right into the hands of auto manufacturers offering something other than straight petrol engined motor cars.

BMW 520d
BMW has been offering diesel variants in many countries for quite some time, and the flow-on is now coming to Thailand, with a diesel 3 Series just being released. Interestingly, in the US which has been very slow to embrace diesel technology, BMW is talking about releasing all-electric versions of its cars by 2010 (and GM already has their all-electric Volt).
However, back to BMW diesels, and the overseas columnists have been raving about the new 5 Series 520d. Words such as performance, economy, ride comfort, ‘proper’ tyres and value are being applied to this car, though some negatives such as outside noise, iDrive and suspension thumping are mentioned. As an aside, I wonder how long it will take BMW to realize that nobody likes their iDrive, to my mind one of the most cumbersome ways of changing any of the controls inside the car. Having driven an X3 the other day, it was wonderful to be able to lower the volume by turning a simple knob to the left, rather than iDriving my way into the radio menu and then selecting lower volume and stabbing some knob or lever to do it.
GoAuto had this to say about the new small diesel 5 Series. “BMW has good reason to expect a revival of 5 Series diesel sales with the introduction of the new 520d - a four-cylinder variant that comes in a remarkable $35,000 under the only other variant, the six-cylinder 530d.
“As well as being much cheaper, it is of course also much more economical and, although it lacks the 530d’s impressive off-line acceleration, overall performance of the 520d is hardly lacking as it reaches 100 km/h from rest in a useful 8.6 seconds.
“That might be 1.5 seconds slower than its bigger sibling, but it is a full second faster than the recently released X3 2.0d, which is powered by the same engine.
“The new all-aluminium 2.0 liter common rail turbo-diesel engine is also shared with the little 120d (which we are spared from - it is pug ugly) and soon the compact 320d sedan, developing 125 kW of power at 4000 rpm and 340 Nm of torque from 1750 to 4000 rpm, and is nicely mated with BMW’s smooth-shifting Steptronic six-speed automatic transmission.
“There is little diesel clatter to be heard inside the 5 Series at idle or low revs, so it should be quiet to drive around town, but it certainly sounds like a diesel from the outside.
“Our launch drive on rural and mountain proved the 520d to be capable and refined, offering good overtaking ability and quiet cruising, ticking over at just 2100 rpm at 110 km/h on the freeway.
“We found the engine to be a little coarse in the upper rev range (where you don’t want to be anyway), but it was otherwise very smooth and delivered strong performance for quite a big and heavy car, while returning good economy.
“The official combined fuel figure of 6.1 L/100 km is outstanding and, while our test figure was closer to 8.0 L/100 km, this included some fairly spirited driving and some heavy climbing.
“A nice surprise was the level of ride comfort in the big sedan, the result of having ‘normal’ tyres because run-flats are not available for the 16-inch wheels fitted to the 520d. It is therefore able to absorb bumps better than its more expensive siblings while still offering plenty of grip. (Are you listening, BMW, we don’t like the harsh run-flats either!)
“Not even a little floatiness and a higher-than-expected level of noise transfer to the interior from bumps could spoil the overall driving experience with the 520d.
“The stability control does a superb job of keeping the car on track without being too intrusive and, although the steering could do with more on-center feel, it is very well-weighted at speed while still being light for parking.
“It is also an extremely comfortable car, with good seats and excellent ergonomics, although the iDrive system – improved as it is with the addition of ‘favorites’ buttons – still infuriates with its unnecessary complexity. (Are you listening BMW?)
“Priced $5000 below the similarly-equipped 523i – and with better performance (half a second faster to 100 km/h), two-thirds the fuel use and 10 per cent lower emissions than the petrol-engined model – the 520d makes a strong case for buying a premium diesel-engined sedan.”
While I honestly believe that the future automobile world will be electric, in the short term, the Euro-diesels make good economic and environmental sense.

Autotrivia Quiz

Last week I asked: what was the only British GP to be abandoned because of the weather? It was a 1951 Silverstone race which was abandoned after six laps because of a torrential downpour.
So to this week. What was the first motor car to be designed and built as a complete engineering entity, rather than cobbled together with odd bits and pieces. Clue, it was built by two brothers in 1895, though production models were not made until 1900.
For the Automania FREE beer this week, be the first correct answer to email [email protected]
Good luck!


Putting money on the wrong horse

Motorcycle carnage again?

The Land Transport Department, in a public relations extravaganza show, has arranged a “Car Check-up for Road Safety” encouraging drivers to get their cars checked for safety before the annual Songkran bloodbath. GM and Mitsubishi have leaped aboard the bandwagon, offering free check-ups at their service centers, who will no doubt find something wrong and sell some spares and labor to fit.
Since around 85 percent of all the road fatalities over Songkran involves motorcycles and alcohol, these free check-ups will do precious little. They manage to ban alcohol during elections, how about over Songkran? That would make more sense from a humanitarian standpoint.

Bangkok International Motor Show
As you are reading this, I will be in Bangkok for my annual visit to BITEC for the Bangkok International Motor Show. There will be some very interesting vehicles released at the show, including a cheap one-tonne pick-up from Indian carmaker Tata called the Xenon, some new RHD Mercedes models (the SL 350 and SLK 200K) in their ‘Road to the Future’ display stand celebrating their 10 years in Thailand, plus a plug-in Volvo C30, which was shown last year in gasoline form. The C30 is also available in E85 biofuel.
The show opened to the public on March 28 and closes on April 6, and chairman of the organizers, Dr. Prachin Eamlumnow expects around 1.7 million people to visit the show in that time. New exhibitors this year include Tata, Hyundai, Proton and Spyker. Dr. Prachin also said there will be concept vehicles from Toyota, Honda, Nissan, GM, Hyundai and Proton.

Bangkok International Motor Show

Bahrain GP this weekend
The F1 season arrives at the sand this weekend. Bahrain has a Grand Prix circuit constructed in a country with no tradition of motor racing, but with a desire to enjoy the prestige of being host to a major international sporting event. And the necessary financial wherewithal to be able to do so.
Bahrain (Sakhir) is not a single circuit but a complex of six individual tracks which includes a drag strip and an oval test track. From the beginning Bahrain was clearly interested in more than an annual event because it incorporated the infrastructure to run club races and to become a centre for motor sport in the Middle East.
The test oval suggests that Bahrain is interested in attracting motor manufacturers who might wish to test prototypes at sustained high speed in very hot conditions. The drag strip suggests a use for all those supercars which are bought by wealthy Arabs and which otherwise receive little serious use. There is no shortage of interest in cars in the Middle East, and no shortage of money, and no shortage of interest in competition with camel and horse racing being immensely popular, but until the complex opened in March, 2004, there were no bespoke motor sport venues.
To judge from the flexibility of the complex, which cost USD 150 million to construct, Bahrain hopes to become the driving force of motor racing in the region. Read those numbers again - USD 150 million. That is why you will not see an F1 track in Thailand!
The Sakhir track is quite superb, but Bahrain must sort out issues such as hotel accommodation if it is to be taken seriously and not merely regarded as a race-track in the desert.
The race begins at 2.30 p.m. in Bahrain, which would make it 6.30 p.m. here, but please check your TV guides. Qualifying is at 6 p.m. our time on the Saturday.