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Cars that underwhelmed in 2017 - Part 2

2018-01-06 16:16

Image: Wheels24 / Warren Wilson

Cape Town - Before the new year properly sets in, Egmont Sippel analyses seven 2017 cars that disappointed in one or the other way.

The Sad Seven they’re certainly not. But from reasons small to big – including something as minor as badging – you can’t call them The Magnificent Seven, either. Herewith instalment 2.

READ: Cars that underwhelmed in 2017 – Part 1

5) VW Golf GTD (R501 000)

                                                            Image: Wheels24 / Janine Van der Post

It’s heresy – to bring a diesel-powered car even vaguely into the ambit of GT-nomenclature, the latter represented so iconically by the VW Golf GTI.

OK, with 130kW/350Nm, the 2.0-litre turbo diesel GTD is nowhere near the 2.0-litre GTI’s 169 kW/350 Nm, especially not on the road. It’s slower from 0-100 km/h by about 1.5 seconds, it’s slower in in-gear acceleration and it’s slower on top speed (230 km/h vs. 248 km/). 

The GTD is, admittedly, detuned for our market, because of bad diesel quality; in Europe you will have access to 135 kW/380 Nm.

And yeah, if you’re chasing fuel efficiency, the GTD would make a good case for itself. It’s R40 000 cheaper than the GTI as well. 

But the car in question should have been called the Golf TDI Special Edition, or the Golf TDI Super, or something to that effect.

Taking a ride on the GTI’s back is heresy and can only taint the GT-moniker, as the GTD – on-road – displays very little of the fizz and sparkle that makes the GTI so special. 

6) Toyota C-HR (R322 000 - R360 000)

As a conservative car company – and not only in terms of design, but also mechanics and dynamics – Toyota realized, about 20 years ago, that they’d better a-move on, if they wanted to capture a slice of the youth market.

So, racing they went, in the USA, at Le Mans and in F1.

In 2003, Toyota also introduced the Scion youth brand in the US. Low specced boxy cars came and went and as of 2016 Scion is no more.

But the subcompact C-HR crossover is alive and . . . perhaps not so well.

It might be a little early to tell, but YTD (Year To Date) sales in the USA up to and including 3rd quarter results lagged at 15 000 units. Add 7 500 per quarter to cover for the fact that the C-HR was only introduced into the American market towards the end of March, and 22 500 still compares badly with America’s four best-selling subcompact SUVs (Jeep Renegade, Honda HR-V, Buick Encore and Chevrolet Trax) which old sold comfortably more than 50 000; the Jeep and Honda topping 70 000.

Still, C-HR styling is fresh, daring, futuristic and thought provoking. The car isn’t quite a coupe, nor a high-rider (which is what C-HR stands for), although reasonable ground clearance of 160 mm plus a flat back leaves no doubt as to the origins of the acronym.

Yet, it is in the architecture of the coupé-fashioned fastback that the weaker points of the C-HR reside.

The 1.2-litre four-cylinder, for instance, produces a good 85kW and 185Nm, enough to cope with 1.4 tons of vehicle.

Coupled to a fairly decent 6-speed manual you’ll certainly get along. Pick CVT transmission, and the C-HR might not please the market it was supposed to target – although, with kids these days . . . 

Do they still have the chutzpa and oomph to work a manual box? Or are they so caught up in cool urban let-the-machine-do-it-for-me mode, that CVT might actually be the answer? 

Mean to say, that 99% of youngsters go gaga over launch control. And where’s the trick (read: engagement) in that?
As CVT transmissions go, however, the C-HR’s is quite good. 

Ditto for cabin space up front. The somewhat quirky asymmetry of dash elements, sort of in line with an avant-garde exterior, might be off-putting to some whilst info and dash icons might, conversely, be a bit old-fashioned. 

In classic Toyota SA idiom, the spare wheel is also a full-sized one.

And this is precisely where we get to the tricky bit: that flat rear end, which conspires with a high boot floor (carrying a full-sized spare underneath it) to severely limit cargo space.

Door design also leaves very little in the way of side-windows, whilst the rear aperture barely lets in a slither of light, resulting in a small, cramped, dark and sombre space ripe for the gestation of cabin fever. Those suffering from claustrophobia, or tiny toddlers who sit down low, won’t appreciate the C-HR.

The bottom lip of the hatch, furthermore, reaches more than 2 metres high, when opened, so you’ll have to be careful when parked underneath a lowish structure.

And then those hidden door handles, positioned at the highest point of thick C-pillars; do you think kids will reach it?
Depending on your tolerance for modern design, the C-HR will thus bowl you over, or not.

But the end result of this curvy, swervy, swoopy, flowy design is very much an extremely un-Toyota-like case of form over function, best suited to couples only.

7) BMW i8 (R2 million)

Don’t get me wrong. I understand the whole ‘let’s save the planet’ thing. It is of critical importance. 
So, we can start with breeding. Slowing it down is our only long-term salvation.

In 1980, India had 300 million people fewer than China. Today, these two giants of the Asian continent run neck and neck at 1.35 and 1.4 billion respectively. In less than half a century, world population has doubled to 7.6 billion.

Yet, given the political incorrectness of mentioning the subject, politicians have rather focussed on other targets – like cleaning up cars.

Enter BMW’s i-brand with the i3 hatch and the i8 sports car, both plug-in hybrids and both very expensive. At over two bar the i8 will be owned by only an infinitesimally small percentage of those driving electric cars, which by themselves add up to an insignificantly small percentage of the world’s vehicles.

The i8 is a scarce commodity, then. 

But is it precious?

Well, it arrives like a bejewelled missile, decked out in at least three colours and extremely low-slung, but impossible to overlook. Styling is incredibly striking, all swoops and curves highlighted by piano black inserts, bright blue ribbons and a number of interesting fold-over wings and open-slit funnels at the rear, to channel air with. 

Seeing that the i8 klaps 250km/h, good aero is of critical importance here.

So is weight, not only to guarantee quick off-the-line sprints (4.4 secs, 0-100), but also to save energy, which is the whole raison d’être for the car. To limit mass to 1.45 ton, the i8’s body panels are therefore a carbon plasticky affair, the structural interest of which are rounded off by locust wing-doors.

And try and get into and out of the i8 with a measure of elegance. Try not to fall into your seat, over the high door sill. And try the egress without Houdini-like contortions. I challenge you, also to squeeze yourself into the rear cabin.

The i8 starts off then, by keeping your body young and supple – call it ‘green’ – and follows it up with some green credentials of its own, like an electric motor over the front axle, good for 96kW/250Nm. This motor drives the front wheels with just the faintest hum of audible electric power, to clock 120km/h without any assistance from the rear mounted 1.5-litre BMW three-cylinder cannibalised from the Mini.

Only here, the triple delivers 170kW/320Nm which is on a par with the specially tuned 2.0-litre four-cylinder doing service in the John Cooper Works Mini. Compared to the basic Mini’s version of the 1.5-litre triple (100kW, 220Nm) the i8’s positively shines, especially in conjunction with the electric motor.

It ain’t true supercar performance, no. BMW’s own M3/M4 is quicker to 100km/h, and so are a host of other cars, notably Audi’s superfast RS3 sedan which breaks through the 4-second barrier.

Nothing about i8 transmission is simple, either. Engine power goes to the rear wheels via a quick 6-speed auto box, either shifting by itself or being controlled by the driver via shift paddles, whilst the electric motor up front uses a two-stage auto. 

Courtesy of a combined 266 kW/570 Nm, the i8 is really quick in a straight line, but remote and lifeless steering and an ultimate a lack of grip across the front axle is a let-down in the twisties, the first third of your arc marred by the front going light and threatening to understeer.

Yet, it’s as much down to fairly narrow fronts (215/45R 20s) unable to live with 245/40R 20 grip at the rear, as it is to a heavy rear (carrying the internal combustion engine).

One thing it’s not, is balance affected by a heavy battery pack, as the latter is mounted low in the chassis, within the wheelbase. 

Yet, with easy rolling efficiency uppermost in the designers’ minds, the i8 will have to make do with the rubber it has.
Regenerative braking – which slows the car and charges the batteries – also provides an inconsistent pedal feel, same as in the Porsche Panamera E-Hybrid.

Dynamically, the i8 is therefore disappointing. It is fun to drive, up to a point – and it rides surprisingly well – but the car lacks the outright performance and dynamics of a true sports car. 

Add an exhaust note which is a piped into the cabin as a curious ensemble of synthesized wheez infested by a gruff timbre, and Beemer’s hybrid hottie fails to ignite the imagination – at least from a driver’s perspective. 

From a technical point of view it is brilliant, though. It might only be a smallish move in the right direction, but all long walks start with the first step – although the EV journey would be stillborn if the long-awaited break-through in battery technology doesn’t materialize.

At the moment, BMW’s claim of 37km from a single battery charge is pure fiction. Drive normally, and you’d be lucky to tap 22km in pure electric mode. 

That’s ostensibly why BMW has just announced a new partnership with Solid Power, a company specializing in the commercialisation of solid-state batteries, the latter being lighter and safer than equivalently sized liquid-based (read: flammable) batteries, whilst upping energy densities and charge retention and therefore delivering more power and range.

Solid-state technology is expensive, though. So, imagine the i8’s price tag by the time these batteries have been commercialised.

As it stands, the sporty Beemer hybrid is an interesting test lab on wheels dressed in a visually striking shape. As a showcase for the future, it is a bold effort with bona fide credentials.

But it is not a proper R2 million sports car, yet. A thorough-bred feeds from one trough at a time only.

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