Crash tests reveal flaws

The eye-opening results of the first crash test of popular South African compact and small cars may just tweak a nerve among car buyers and persuade them to put safety specification at the top of the must have list when considering a new car.

The crash tests of the VW Polo Vivo. The Datsun Go+, Toyota Etios, Renault Sandero and Chery QQ3 formed part of the launch of #SaferCarsforAfrica, a joint venture between the AA South African and Global NCAP, the internationally respected vehicle testing authority – that now gains its first ‘footprint’ in Africa.

The crashworthiness results of the five cars tested show a wide range of safety performance, from four to zero stars for adult protection, with the lowest ratings resulting in a high probability of life threatening injury in a road crash.

Combined sales of the five cars account for around 65% of all the new cars sold in South Africa last year.

Global NCAP chose the entry-level version of each model and as a result one of them was not fitted with air bags as standard. The results highlight differences in the structural integrity of the vehicles tested.

Lauchlan McIntosh, Chairman of Global NCAP, says: “In 2016 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a road safety resolution, which recognised the important role NCAPs play as a catalyst for improving vehicle safety standards.

“The UN has sought to encourage the spread of NCAPs across the regions and automotive markets of the World and today, in Cape Town, I am delighted Global NCAP is helping to achieve that goal with the launch of the first ever crashworthiness programme for cars sold in Africa. Global NCAP has provided assistance to launch similar programmes in South America, India and the ASEAN region, programmes which have led to the delivery of safer cars into those markets over the last five years.”

The results for the Chery QQ and Datsun Go+ were less than exemplary, with the former scoring zero and the latter just scraping through.

It is almost unbelievable in this day and age, there are any vehicles still sold without a basic mimimum of dual front air bags and anti-lock braking – especially in a country that kills dozens of people every day in car crashes.

South Africa has one of the poorest road safety records in the world and Government is snail-like in its approach with pretty much everything it does heavily focused on how much money it will generate for state or municipal coffers.

Admittedly there is a disparity in society with thousands still living below the breadline and juggling the need to achieve upliftment to personal mobility and keeping people safe is not an easy task.

Car ownership is not a right. It is a privelige and an expensive one.

However, allowing 10 and 12 year old ‘clunkers’ and new cars that do not have proper safety basics on the road is simply unacceptable – the problem being all too often people have the attitude road safety is something for other people.

Wrong! It does not matter how well you think you can drive, your chances of meeting up with someone who cannot is very likely. Driving an unsafe car will kill you.

Collins Khumalo, CEO of the AA of South Africa says: “The crash tests represent an important step in road safety in South Africa. We believe consumers have a right to know what the safety ratings are on the cars they want to buy.

“These results are critical to educating the public about vehicle safety, but, more than that, they empower road users to make informed decisions. In the same way emissions and green ratings are displayed on vehicles, we think safety ratings should also be displayed on vehicles, and we do not believe this should be too much of a challenge to make happen.

“The involvement of Global NCAP, the FIA Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies in bringing these results to Africa, indicates how seriously our partners view road safety, and it is incumbent on us, as South Africans, to consider road, and vehicle safety, in the same way.”

David Ward, Secretary General of Global NCAP added: “It is good to see a four star result in these first ever African crash test ratings. However, it is extremely disappointing there is a zero star car. Such a poor result shows why it is so important for countries such as South Africa to fully apply the UN’s crash test standards.

“Consumers need clear, comparative crash test information to help inform their car purchase decisions. This is why Global NCAP supports the introduction of mandatory crash test labelling for all new cars sold in South Africa.”

The Results

Global NCAP has awarded a separate child safety rating to each car in order to highlight the different levels of protection vehicles provide to passengers on the rear seats. Because the only safe way for young children to travel is properly restrained in a child seat, the assessment checks how compatible the car is with the child seats recommended by the manufacturer, as well as the protection provided in the crash test.

In the assessments, some of the child seats recommended by manufacturers were found to be incompatible with their vehicle’s belt system. In the Polo Vivo, Chery QQ3 and Datsun GO+ there was no three-point seatbelt on the rear centre seats and no way to safely install a child seat or transport a small child safely in that seating position. Only the Toyota Etios and Renault Sandero offer Standard ISOFIX anchorages for the outboard rear positions and three-point seatbelt for all passengers facilitating minimum conditions to safely install a child seat.

Toyota Etios

The Etios achieved a four star rating for adult occupant protection in the frontal crash test at 64 km/h. The vehicle structure was rated as stable, offering good general adult occupant protection. The car included seatbelts with pretensioners for both front passengers. Using the child seats recommended by Toyota, the Etios achieved a three star rating for child occupant protection.

Renault Sandero

The Sandero achieved a three star rating for adult occupant protection in the frontal crash test at 64 km/h. The vehicle structure was rated as stable, offering acceptable general adult occupant protection. The car did not include seatbelt pretensioners. Using the child seats recommended by Renault, the Sandero achieved a four star rating for child occupant protection.

Volkswagen Polo Vivo

The Polo Vivo achieved a three star rating for adult occupant protection in the frontal crash test at 64 km/h. The vehicle structure was rated as stable, offering acceptable adult occupant protection. The car did not include seatbelt pretensioners. Using the child seats recommended by VW, the Polo Vivo achieved a three star rating for child protection.

Datsun GO+

The GO+ achieved a one star rating for its poor adult occupant protection mainly in the Driver chest in the frontal crash test at 64 km/h. The vehicle structure was rated as unstable, steering wheel movement, even though a steering wheel air bag was fitted, recorded high compression to the chest of the driver dummy. There was no air bag for the passenger. The Datsun GO+ achieved a two star rating for child occupant protection using the child seats.

 

The QQ3 achieved a zero star rating for its poor adult occupant protection mainly in driver’s head and chest. The vehicle structure was rated as unstable as showed collapsed in some relevant areas during the impact. Injury impacts recorded in the dummy head and chest in particular led to this result. There were no air bags for the adult passengers. The manufacturer did not recommend specific child seats which explains most of the points loss for child occupant protection. The QQ3 was given a zero star rating for child occupant protection, considering the poor vehicle readiness to safely accommodate the child seats

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ROAD IMPRESSIONS – Fiat Tipo 1.4 Lounge

The task an automotive product planner is not an easy one, involving a lot of knowledge along with a suitable dash of thumb suck and gambling in order to correctly predict what the market will demand of a car that may still be a couple of years from actual production.

Rather like event organisers constantly faced with clients wanting the ‘Royal’ package but are prepared to pay only the ‘Joker’, the modern product planner has to balance the ever more demanding expectations of customers with the practicalities of the actual cost of the car when it does go to market.

In the South African market where the vast majority – in excess of 85% – of cars are purchased with some level of corporate involvement (pool car, company car or car allowance), the whole life operating cost of the vehicle is the primary driving force in the purchase process, followed by the ‘bang for the buck’ in terms of safety and comfort features.

The intensely competitive ‘C’ segment of the market offers an often bewildering array of choice and specification for potential buyers – and Fiat opted for quite specific targets with the Tipo.

The launch, in May this year, marked Fiat’s return to the medium-compact segment with a range that shares the same values but has unique personalities as diverse as their respective target audiences, from families and couples to young people or professionals.

The Tipo family was developed around the brief ‘Skills, no frills’ and the hatchback on test measures 4,37 m in length, 1,79 m in width and stands 1,50m high.

I previously tested and wrote about the sedan (that in diesel power) and this test involves the 1,4-litre petrol engine, more of which anon.

Corporate buyers have always favoured the sedan over the hatch for various reasons including the fact a boot is generally believed to be safer than the luggage space of a hatch and this is often reflected in insurance premiums.

However, the styling of the Tipo definitely favours the hatch in terms of pure aesthetics. There is nothing radical about the Tipo lines, but the flow into the hatch rear just works a lot better than it does for its sedan sibling.

The Tipo was designed in Italy by the Fiat Style Centre and developed in Turkey together with Tofa R&D, one of FCA’s largest research and development centres, involving a dedicated team of some 2 000 people during the three-year development process.

Like its sedan sibling, the Tipo hatchback is welcoming, practical and ideal for comfortable journeys. The designers adhered to the most modern ergonomic criteria in defining the parameters that measure the car’s capacity to respond to the need for on-board comfort. The result is excellent ergonomics: comfort, space configuration, accessibility, visibility and driving position.

The Tipo easily accommodates five passengers, even tall people up to 1,87m in height at the front and 1,80m in the rear travel in comfort.

The secret (says Fiat) is the regular shape of the rear end, with the horizontal roof profile providing passengers added cabin headroom. Legroom is 1,07 m between the edge of the front seat and the passenger’s heel and 934 mm for the rear seat.

The load capacity is 440 litres  and the boot sill is low and stepless, to facilitate loading  and the roller blind on the hatchback covers the load and can easily be removed and stored under the floor panel. Two lights, two bag hooks and four load-retaining hooks positioned on the floor provide added convenience.

The interior of the Tipo features 12 litres of storage in numerous compartments with a variety of shapes and capacities that are easily reachable by driver and passengers.

The Tipo features a suspension layout comprising independent McPherson struts on the front axle and an interconnected torque beam on the rear.

The 1,4-litre 16-valve Fire is the entry-level petrol engine of the Tipo family. This engine delivers 70 kW at 6 000 r/min and reaches maximum torque of 127 Nm at 4 500 r/min. The engine, combined with a six-speed manual gearbox, is a four cylinder with twin overhead camshafts and direct valve control.

Accepting the Tipo was never designed, nor intended, to be race-ready, the Fire engine is something of a disappointment being both noisy and rather breathless at the upper end of the rev range, while severely short of torque at the bottom end.

Put into the context of a daily drive to and from the office in medium to heavy traffic, the 1,4-litre engine copes well enough – and one must bear in mind here the price positioning and what it offers for that money.

It is more the open road that leaves this model wanting and sometimes frustrating to drive with regular downshifting required to maintain momentum – more than sealing the case for choosing the diesel variant.

To be fair, the petrol version offers ample luxury, a comfortable ride on long and short hauls, excellent handling and hassle-free operation.

The Tipo features a hands-free Bluetooth interface, audio streaming, text reader and voice recognition, AUX and USB ports with iPod integration, controls on the steering wheel and, on demand, the optional rear parking camera and the new TomTom 3D built-in navigation system is optionally available.

Besides the generous array of safety devices, comfort and practicality are assured by the fitment of automatic air-conditioning, power front windows, electrically adjustable door mirrors with defrosting function and the 60/40 split rear seat.

The Lounge trim, exclusive to the hatchback, features 17-inch alloy wheel rims, chrome details and a leather steering wheel and gearshift knob.

Comfort and safety features include rear parking sensors, front fog lights, automatic climate control, cruise control, front armrest and driver’s seat with optional lumbar adjustment. The Lounge also features the UConnectTM infotainment system with Navigation as standard.

Active and passive safety devices include driver and front passenger air bags (with side and curtain airbags as an option). Also standard is electronic stability control (ESC) that includes a number of devices such as Panic Brake Assist (PBA), which intervenes in case of emergency braking by increasing the braking force; anti-lock braking, traction control (TCS), and Hill Start Assist.

All Fiat Tipo models come with a standard 3 year / 100 000 km warranty and service plan.

Road Impressions – Nissan Navara 2.3D Double Cab 4×4 Auto

Brand allegiance plays a crucial role in the cutthroat world of ‘bakkie’ sales in the South African market and goes a long way to explaining why automakers will go out of their way to provide very specific model derivatives and specifications to satisfy customer requirements.

In the last 10 or 15 years, the light commercial vehicle market competition has become intense – and the brand allegiance is often more from the manufacturer side than the consumer, with the former trying to keep customers and the latter becoming ever more choosy and demanding, knowing if manufacturer ‘A’ does not offer item ‘X’ then manufacturer ‘B’ will make it happen.

Tough economic conditions have forced the overall market to contract somewhat, but has not lessened the intensity at all levels – business workhorse vehicles, combo work and play or the pure leisure segment.

The new Nissan Navara, launched locally earlier this year, falls mainly in the leisure segment where vehicles of this type are widely taken in place of a company car and the leisure pursuits are more genteel and rarely involve full-on donga-diving.

The demand here is for all the safety specification and systems that would be found in a luxury car along with the identical convenience and comfort features – and the Navara provides all of this in bucket loads.

The design of the Navara centres on the V-motion grille where the chrome grille flows into the creased bonnet and is resolved on the tailgate, which features a stamped V-motif.

Hints of SUV-features are seen in the full LED-headlights with boomerang-style LED daytime running lights across the range.

Viewed in profile, the lowered roof line (by 20 mm) gives it a more sporty look helped by the diamond-cut wheel design and 18=inch rubber.

The load bay on double cab versions has been stretched by 67 mm to 1 503 mm and been made deeper (474 mm from 456 mm), resulting in a capacity of 1 061 litres.

Load carrying capacity has also been upgraded significantly. The new Navara can carry up to 1 002 kg, depending on specification level and can tow a braked trailer of up to 3 500 kg.

The Navara has a 229 mm ground clearance, but the new raised suspension set-up has allowed for a 3-degree improvement in the approach (33,0 degrees), ramp-over (25,2 degrees) and departure angles (27,9 degrees). The suspension and drivetrain set-up also means the Navara has a lateral tilt angle of up to 50 degrees.

The fully-boxed ladder-frame chassis has been reinforced with high-strength steel  and improvements in design and manufacturing result in a 176 kg weight reduction over the previous generation Navara.

The 2 298 cm3 engine in the Navara is a new one for the coming, being a twin-turbo diesel that combines common rail direct injection and both a smaller, high pressure turbo and a larger, low pressure turbo to deliver more linear power throughout the engine speed range.

The two turbos are connected with a series of bypass and impeller valves to optimise boost pressure at different engine speeds. The smaller, high-pressure turbo is utilised mainly at low engine speeds, although neither turbo is disengaged fully at any engine speed. At higher engine speeds, the exhaust gas flow is channelled to the large, low pressure turbo. This layout allows for more low-speed power and improved fuel consumption.

The new engine delivers 140 kW at 3 750 r/min and 450 Nm available between 1 500 r/min  and 2 500 r/min. Fuel consumption in a combined cycle has been officially rated at 6,5 l/100 km, which we found to be somewhat optimistic.

Covering nearly 500 km of city, urban and rural (excluding dirt) roads on the test route my overall average was 10,6 l/100 km and this brings it into line with the opposition vehicles on the market that all average between 10,0 l/100 km and 11,0 l/100 km.

In this category power and torque mean a lot and the Navara is bested only by the 3,2-litre Ford Ranger with 17 kW and 470 Nm.

My test vehicle was the 7-speed automatic variant and I was a tad at odds with the ratio choice – trying to maintain a steady 120 km/h (on the speedo) on an open, if undulating, road I found it tended to hunt a little too often on longer inclines.

Getting off road and into more challenging terrain, the auto box worked extremely well, allowing me to keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times – and, naturally, the Navara has both High Range and Low Range options available at the twirl of a dial on the dashboard.

It soaks up bumps and ruts being the first mainstream pick-up to offer a coil spring five link rear suspension (Land Rover did use a coil spring on its pick-up some time back).

The set-up combines traditional pick-up load carrying capabilities, with the benefits of improved road holding, car-like ride comfort even over rutted gravel roads and better tracking through high-speed corners.

In four-wheel drive mode, either High or Low, the Navara will engage its new Active Brake Limited Slip Differential system (ABLS). This electronic system actively manages power delivery and wheel braking between the front and rear axles and between the left and right of the vehicle, depending on traction and speed.

The ABLS system works in conjunction with the Vehicle Dynamic Control system (VDC) and anti-lock brakes and the High-spec models also add Hill-start Assist (HSA) and Hill Descent Control (HDC) as standard features, also connected to the ABLS-system.

Inside, the plasticky look of the previous version is gone and replaced with soft-touch materials  and Spinal Support front seats that feature a new spinal channel in high-density foam. These seats are designed to distribute body pressure on the seat surface and have been proven to reduce fatigue significantly over long journeys – and they do!

Leather seats with heating function and electrical adjustment on driver’s seat, are available as optional on the High-grade models.

The on-board Navigation system with 3D mapping and live traffic updates, includes radio – with up to 30 pre-set radio stations, video in DVD/VCD/CD/MP3 or MPEG4 format, USB connectivity and Bluetooth with audio streaming – all operated from the steering wheel.

Standard luxuries include automatic headlights,  air-conditioning, cruise control, three 12V sockets in the cabin, an automatic dimming rear view mirror and seven air bags (including an air bag to protect the driver’s knees).

High-grade models also add features such as dual zone climate control and keyless entry with a Start/Stop button.

On the new Navara, the Nissan Assured warranty includes a mechanical warranty for 6 years or 150 000 km and a comprehensive 3-year / 90 000 km service plan.

Pushing boundaries

Remember the ‘good ‘ole days’ of ’10-4 Good Buddy’, handles, seat covers and the local choke ‘n puke? Back then, in the 70’s CB Radio (Citizens Band) opened up a new level of connectedness, bringing together people from all walks of life over the radio.

Through the application of VoicR, Continental is transforming the 40-year-old analogue CB radio technology into a digital, speech and location-based social ad hoc network with real-time functionality. In so doing, the technology company is creating new solutions for efficient, secure and future-oriented fleet management, especially aimed at fleet operators and the commercial vehicle market.

Whether rental via an app, vehicle access via a smartphone, personalised seat adjustment or even remote diagnostics: Continental will demonstrate how holistic connectivity is changing the mobility experience of rental car users by means of a vehicle that brings together the technologies making up the rental car of the future into a single ecosystem.

The ‘not just a tyre company’ is pushing the boundaries of vehicle connectivity as it strives to deliver next-generation smart mobility solutions for the automotive industry.

“For Continental, holistic connectivity creates entirely new business models. In addition to our product business, mobility services will become the next key pillar of Continental,” says Helmut Matschi, member of the Executive Board at Continental and head of the Interior Division.

To enable drivers in the future to enjoy digital content without having to stare at a classic flat media display, Continental has developed a 3D display surface featuring optically bonded, topographical elements that restore a sense of quality and allow individuality to the classic display.

In addition, the integration of digital functions in decorative surfaces for vehicle interiors is featuring more and more on customers’ radars. Light integration is a vital development step in this respect.

The translucent cover material Acella Hylite produces special lighting effects that can be used, for example, for backlighting a vehicle door. Varying light sources can be used to create customised colour effects or to light up warning signals.

To improve wordless communication between drivers and their vehicles, Continental has developed user-friendly touch gestures for the cockpit to ensure the displays are geared towards the connected functions, as well as the digital world.

Alongside new technological and design possibilities in the vehicle, holistic connectivity offers a range of additional benefits.

A central requirement for a range of mobility services is the acknowledgement that the better a vehicle knows its environment, the safer, more efficient and more user-friendly it is on the road. With eHorizon, Continental demonstrates how a vehicle provides important traffic information for the cloud and other road users using a so-called crowd-sourcing function in the driver assistance camera.

Numerous mobility services can be implemented on the basis of the resulting database. It is also a central element in the development of automated vehicles.

Another example of a new application that announces the concept of holistic connectivity in its name is the Holistic Connectivity Car from Continental. With this application, the company not only demonstrates how a vehicle becomes part of the Internet of Everything, but also offers an insight into the development of new services such as eHorizon.weather.

Using eHorizon technology as a basis, this solution will turn a vehicle into a mobile weather station. The service, which was devised in collaboration with Météo-France, not only increases driving safety and comfort, but also acts as a data supplier for weather forecasts.

Continental has also constructed a special-purpose, outdoor test field in France comprising 200 vehicles, which allows testing this and other services and to develop new services.

In the world of fleet management in particular, connectivity opens up whole new possibilities and enables, for example, remote and anticipatory diagnostics. vAnalytics and Remote Vehicle Data are examples of Continental services that are already available.

Road Impressions – Fiat Panda Cross 4×4

The Fiat Panda Cross is simply the best fun I have had with my clothes on for a long time.

Rather like the Bumble Bee, which was never told it should not be able to fly yet bumbles along happily unaware of its aerodynamic shortcomings, the Panda Cross simply outperforms its limited size to provide a driving experience to bring a broad grin to the face of even the most jaded of drivers.

It is a Noddy car – a segment ‘A’ mini mobile with raised ride height (161 mm), silly little wheels and an engine that, on paper, barely has enough power to pull the skin off a rice pudding.

Yet, it does not know that, and as the 900 cm3 engine winds up through the revs doing its best impression of a kitten attempting to roar like a lion, the little car comes alive and responds instantly to any driver input – cruising quite comfortably at legal limits, even if long uphills do require a couple of downshifts to keep the momentum up.

My test route took us into the foothills of the Drakensberg and onto a 25-kilometre stretch of dirt road covered with small stones – these marbles making it rather slippery. So, I drove it four times just for FUN!

Click the Panda into 4×4 Lock mode and it really showed its mettle – the ‘silly’ little wheels and narrow tyre footprint cutting through the marbles rather than resting on top of them as would be the case with some ‘big brother’ SUVs riding on big rubber.

The traction control system respectfully hangs back to allow the car to slide enough to correctly position into corners and judicious throttle inputs keep it from activating too soon and damping down the revs – meaning it can be pointed into a corner and squirted out like a scared rabbit.

The Panda Cross is equipped with a ‘torque on demand’ transmission system, with two differentials and one electronically controlled coupling. On the 4×4 derivative, this is a permanent four-wheel drive system managed by a control unit which, by analysing vehicle signals, distributes traction to the front and rear axles according to the road conditions. The advantages of this system include fully automatic operation and zero maintenance.

Compared to its 4×4 sibling, the Panda Cross takes the ‘Terrain Control’ a step further by offering selector-controlled AWD features based on the driving conditions. The ‘Terrain Control’ lets the driver select three different modes: Auto – Automatic distribution of drive between the two axles in accordance with the grip levels of the road surface; Lock – The four-wheel drive is always active for optimal off-road use, with distribution of torque among the four wheels, braking the wheels that are losing grip (or slip more than the others), and thus transferring the drive to those with the most grip and Hill Descent – For optimum handling of particularly steep hill descents or when going down extremely bumpy routes.

Launched in South Africa earlier this year, the revised 2017 Panda expanded from the Easy and Lounge versions in conventional front wheel drive (4×2) for the city car, to include the 4×4 and Cross versions.

It is still the same size: 3 650 mm long, 1 640 mm wide and 1 550mm high. The wheelbase is 2 300 mm long and it has a front track of 1 410 mm and a rear track of 1 400 mm, riding on 15-inch wheels and 185/65R15 all-season tyres.

The Cross comes with leather upholstered steering wheel, radio controls and silver finish, to complement the  updated dials that improve the overall readability.

The seat fabrics are refreshed and it has the largest boot in its segment – 225 litres that turns into 870 litres when the rear seat backrest is folded down.

Standard equipment includes the new UconnectTM infotainment system with Bluetooth 2.1, audio streaming, a USB port located in the cubby, a dash mounted USB recharging port as well as voice recognition.

Power comes from Fiat’s two-cylinder 900 cm3 TwinAir petrol engine producing 66 kW of power at 5 500 r/min and 145 Nm of torque at 1 900 r/min driving the wheels through a 6-speed manual transmission.

Unlike the previous generation, the tailpipes of the new Panda 4×4 seamlessly follow the lines of the body and ensure complete protection for the lower part of the car.

The front of the Cross features a brand-new bumper incorporating a generous skid plate in a body colour is standard on the Cross but customers have the option of ordering the Cross Plus package that consists of skid plates and door protection panels in silver ultrashine colour as well as alloy rims and red tow hooks.

The Cross also features new light clusters and new fog lights integrated with the logo holder bonnet trim and new DRLs with LED technology, built into the skid plate.

Inside, the Panda Cross offer automatic climate control, CD/MP3 radio with Blue&Me system with steering wheel controls, rear head restraints, height-adjustable steering wheel, fog lights, leather steering wheel and gear knob and height-adjustable driver’s seat.

Handling is a function of suspension geometry and independent MacPherson strut features at the front and interconnected torsion beam layout at the rear, specifically developed for the four-wheel drive version. The rear suspension is lighter than the previous generation, providing better ride and acoustic comfort with the same off-road performance.

The Panda Cross features an approach angle of 24°, a departure angle of 34° and break-over angle of 21°. Panda Cross can even tackle a maximum gradient of 70% and a lateral gradient of 55%, values close to those of pure off-roaders and higher than those of the leading SUVs on the market.

For the more fuel conscious, the Panda has an ‘Eco’ button that kills off the revs and does, in the long run, save a few litres and I managed 4,7 l/100 km in that mode – which lasted just long enough to establish the consumption before being switched back to fun mode.

Pressed hard on the test route of both tar and dirt, the overall average rose to 6,8 l/100 km, still not bad considering it was being driven like it was stolen and with CO2 emissions of just 114 g/km, it ticks that box as well.

I said at the start it was fun, and it is. The trick to really enjoying the car is taking it in context – it is not going to perform like a Ferrari, so do not compare it one. Enjoy it for what it is – and the only change I would make is to pimp the sound system or, at least, improve the speakers.

Road Impressions – MINI John Cooper Works Countryman All4

It had been far too long ago since a John Cooper Works MINI had graced my test schedule, so the prospect of a latest generation offering was something I was looking forward to – a chance to reconnect with a nimble and feisty performer with more than just a hint of the mischievous.

That the car in question was a Countryman, brother to the more standard version tested not so long ago and described by me as “MINI gone Maxi” mattered little – it was the race face I was most interested in.

The second generation of the MINI Countryman is the biggest model in the entire range of the British brand and the MINI John Cooper Works Countryman comes with an output of 170 kW – the most powerful engine ever to be fitted in a MINI.

The car sprints from zero to 100 km/h in 6,5 seconds with both the standard 6-speed manual transmission and 8-speed Steptronic sports transmission. Combined fuel consumption is claimed at 7,4 l/100 km with CO2 emissions at 168 g/km, however we found the average consumption edged closer  to the 8,0 l/100 km.

The all-wheel drive system has a sports suspension with 18-inch John Cooper Works light alloy wheels and Brembo sports brake system, special body features to optimise aerodynamic properties and cooling air intake, and a model-specific cockpit with John Cooper Works sports seats.

Dimensionally and in terms of basic standard equipment, the JCW version is identical to the Countryman previously described, but it does come with a harmonised package of engine, suspension, aerodynamically optimised exterior.

The distinct vehicle character is given additional emphasis with model-specific standard features including LED headlamps, MINI Driving Modes, Park Distance Control, Comfort Access, Radio MINI Visual Boost, multifunction buttons on the steering wheel and cruise control with brake function.

Up front is a  2,0-litre petrol engine developed for John Cooper Works models with the new generation of the all-wheel drive system ALL4.

The 4-cylinder turbo-charged engine offers 170 kW, some 29 kW higher than that of the MINI Cooper S Clubman.

It does not have to be in ‘Sport’ mode to feel – or hear – the differences. It fires up with a suitably throaty roar and, even at low speeds, keeps this burbling boogie comfortably audible in the background, changing instantly to a full-bodied bellow when the throttle is pressed to the floor.

Always feeling as if it wanted to be someplace else, the throttle response is instant and even more impressive in ‘Sport’ mode, when the whole car seems to tighten up and the ‘Maxi’ previously discussed ceases to be a factor and it hunkers down to encourage being pressed to its limits.

With all four wheels being driven it was easy to carry more speed into corners and to accelerate out of them much more quickly without upsetting the car and the initial understeer tendency is easily adjusted with the accelerator.

The power steering provides good feedback and is extremely accurate, perhaps even a smidgen too sensitive at times.

I came away impressed with the overall stability of the car in all situations, the taller profile not really a factor at playtime.

In terms of the look, the front section has especially large side cooling air inlets instead of parking lights and fog lamps; model-specific side sills; wide rear apron with integrated, tapered dual tailpipes of the sports exhaust system; John Cooper Works rear spoiler; hexagonal radiator grille with honeycomb pattern and cross member in Chili Red; John Cooper Works logo on radiator grille, side scuttles and rear; body finish in Rebel Green, red contrasting finish for roof and mirror caps, sport stripes in red or black as options available exclusively for John Cooper Works models.

It has five and a luggage compartment volume of 360 litres. By folding down the rear backrest, optionally available in a 40 : 20 : 40 split, this can be expanded to 1 250 litres.

In terms of safety it has a weight and crash-optimised body structure and standard safety features include front and side air bags, side curtain air bags, ISOFIX child seat mountings at the rear and optionally also on the front passenger seat, tyre pressure display as well as Intelligent Emergency Call and collision warning with city braking function, LED headlamps with LED daytime running light, white turn indicators and LED rear lights as standard adaptive light distribution and turning light as an option.

All driver assistance systems offered for the new MINI Clubman also available for the John Cooper Works model including rain sensor with automatic driving light activation, Parking Assistant, rear view camera and Driving Assistant including camera-based active cruise control, collision and pedestrian warning with initial brake function, high beam assistant and road sign detection.

Standard comfort features including air-conditioning and Radio MINI Visual Boost with 6,5-inch colour screen, USB socket, AUX-IN socket and Bluetooth hands-free facility.

Options include 2-zone automatic air-conditioning, panorama glass roof, seat surfaces in Dinamica/leather, seat heating, MINI Excitement Package including LED ring for the central instrument, ambient lighting with adjustable colours and MINI logo projection from the exterior mirror on the driver’s side when opening and closing the door, heatable and folding exterior mirrors, interior and exterior mirrors with automatic dip function, heatable windscreen, Harmon Kardon hi-fi speaker system, alarm system including red LED status indicator in the fin antenna, MINI navigation system and Wired equipment package including navigation system Professional, operation via MINI Touch Controller and 8,8-inch colour screen with touch function.

Road Impressions – Kia Sportage 2.0 EX PLUS 6-speed Automatic

From its initial humble beginnings locally as a small, quirky off-roader, the Kia Sportage has grown both in size and in character to be a significant player in the SUV market, albeit not at the kind of low price level it once enjoyed.

Price, however, was not the only reason the early Sportage earned its stripes – endearing itself to many because of its surprisingly (given perceptions at the time of Korean product) robust nature and off-road ability that certainly equalled a number of already established brands.

With the influence of designer Peter Schreyer and now, Pierre Leclerq, the Sportage has morphed from caterpillar to moth, with the latest iteration (fourth generation) a rather handsome devil crafted by Kia’s European design studio in Frankfurt, Germany, with input from the brand’s Namyang, Korea and Irvine, California design centres.

The ‘face’ of the Sportage features the biggest change to the car’s design over the outgoing model, with Kia’s hallmark ‘tiger-nose’ grille and the car’s headlamps separated for the new model. The headlamps are now positioned higher, sweeping back along the outer edges of the sharply detailed bonnet.

A lower, wider grille – enlarged to support greater engine cooling – adds more volume to the lower half of the Sportage’s face. The result is a more imposing appearance and a more stable-looking stance, despite the new model retaining the same 1 855 mm width as its predecessor.

As with most new generation designs, the Sportage grew compared to the model it replaced and the latest version has a 30 mm longer wheelbase (now 2 670 mm), 40 mm greater overall vehicle length (to 4 480 mm) and longer, more aerodynamic rear spoiler resulting in a more swept-back shape.

Longer front overhangs (up by 20 mm) and shorter rear overhangs (reduced by 10 mm) add to the car’s more raked profile.

At the rear, and inspired by the 2013 Kia Provo concept, slim combination lamps running along a horizontal parallel are joined together by a strip that runs the width of the rear, while the turn signals and reversing lights are separate, located lower down to add more visual weight to the lower half.

The new design also makes this the most aerodynamic Sportage to date, with drag reduced from 0,35 to 0,33 Cd.

At launch, the Sportage 2.0 CRDI EX was the only mid-spec offering in the range, paired to Kia’s 2,0-litre turbo-diesel engine and a six-speed automatic transmission.

This recently changed with the addition of the subject of this test, the 2,0-litre petrol option.

The EX specification grade offers all of the features included in the Ignite grade, but adds significant additions such as an electric parking brake, front park distance control, rain-sensing wipers, cruise control, a Smart Key with Start/Stop button, leather upholstery, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and gear knob, and electric folding side mirrors with integrated indicators.

The exterior aesthetics were not the only changes and the interior of the Sportage boasts a cabin that offers a wide, driver-oriented dashboard with a simple, modern design.

Material quality is improved and there is a far greater proportion of soft-touch materials and the use of cloth, leather and stitching creating the ambience (model dependent).

The lateral design of the dashboard divides it into two clear zones – ‘display’ and ‘control’. The ‘display’ zone is focused purely on delivering information to occupants in the clearest way possible via the driver’s instrument binnacle and the entertainment and HMI (human-machine interface) system in the centre of the dashboard.

Below a clear line, running the length of the dashboard is the ‘control’ zone, with the central console cascading downwards and tilted 10 degrees towards the driver.

Passenger space is increased, with headroom rising to 997 mm (+5 mm) and 993 mm (+16 mm) for front and rear passengers respectively, while maximum legroom has expanded to 1 129 mm (+ 19 mm) and 970 mm (+7 mm).

In the front, there are stiffer seat frames, with varying densities of foam chosen for different areas of the seat in order to maximize occupant comfort.

In the rear, a 40 mm lower interior floor – without sacrificing exterior ground clearance – and 30 mm higher rear bench hip point mean second-row passengers benefit from a more natural and comfortable seating posture and improved under-thigh support.

Primary reasons for choosing a SUV include the raised ride height and improved forward visibility. However, lateral and rear vision has often been compromised in some chunky ‘macho’ design style and Kia took cognisance of this with the Sportage.

Forward visibility is aided by a lowered A-pillar base, while the A-pillar itself has been made thinner. Side mirrors sit slightly lower on the door without impairing the driver’s rear view – this is further aided by the new thinner C-pillars (62 mm thinner compared to the third-generation Sportage) and taller rear glass (+30 mm).

All that becomes evident when trying to squeeze into those ridiculously small public parking bays at shopping centres and airports.

The new body’s larger dimensions mean cargo space has expanded from 465 litres to 503 litres the fuel tank increasing from 58 litres to 62.

A criticism of the previous generation was related to road and wind noise and this has been addressed in the latest version through new bushing in the rear suspension and more sound-absorbent materials throughout the Sportage’s wheel arches. Wind noise is also reduced because of thicker front windshield glass, a new dual lip seal for the panoramic sunroof and additional soundproofing in the doors.

Six air bags are standard, while ISOFIX child-seat tether and anchor points are fitted to the second row of seats.

Pedestrian safety is improved with a lower leading edge on the bonnet and a larger impact absorption area, which has been revised with greater use of highly-absorbent safety foam and synthetic rubber.

The fully-independent front suspension carries over the format of the outgoing model, but features a range of modifications to make the best use of the new body shell. The new setup achieves better ride quality, while also delivering sharper handling.

Modifications include revised bushing mount positions for greater stability and more natural responses to changing road surfaces, as well as stiffer wheel bearings and bushings resulting in more direct handling and greater stability in all conditions. The steering gearbox is also mounted further forward on the axle for smoother steering inputs.

For the rear suspension – also fully-independent, including the adoption of dual lower-arm multi-link suspension for two-wheel and all-wheel drive models – there is a stiffer cross member to cut road noise and vibrations from intruding into the cabin.

My test unit came equipped with a 7-inch colour touchscreen with integrated satellite navigation as standard along with a rear-view parking camera, with dynamic parking lines displayed on the larger screen to assist when reversing into or out of a parking space.

The 2,0-litre ‘Nu’ MPI engine, produces 114 kW at 6 200 r/min and 192 Nm torque at 4 000 r/min. While the engine is carried over from the third-generation Sportage, it has been significantly revised to improve efficiency, including the addition of advanced continuous variable valve timing (CVVT) and a new variable induction system.

The six speed automatic transmission, originally fitted only to the diesel variant, did not enthral me and, while efficient enough, often sounded like a CVT gearbox as it hunted for a suitable ratio – and this, in each of the three drive modes, Normal, Eco and Sport.

I would venture it is sorely in need to upgrading to a seven speed gearbox at least to provide that additional ratio and to allow for better cog spacing that would transform the drive experience.

Other than my niggle with the gearbox, the ride quality is top drawer and the Sportage barrels along confidently on both highway, rural and dirt roads with the suspension nicely ironing out the ripples and bumps.

In the 4X2 guise of the test car, it tracked accurately and the electric power steering gave positive feedback and pointed exactly where I wanted it go – never heavy and light enough to make intricate manoeuvring something that did not require an Iron Man contestant.

It comes standard with a  5-year / Unlimited Kilometre Warranty, as well as a 5-year / 90 000 km Service Plan.