Volkswagen flexing muscle at Porsche

It's less than a week since Porsche was disolved into the Volkswagen Group, becoming one of ten brands under the direct control of the German car making giant. But already officials from Wolfsburg are attempting to exert their influence in Zuffenhausen. According to one key insider we spoke to today, the Volkswagen Group's supervisory board chairman, Ferdinand Piech, along with its chairman, Martin Winterkorn, are pushing for Porsche to add a sixth model to its line-up in the form of a comapct SUV positioned beneath the Cayenne. The new four-wheel drive, long speculated upon within the automotive media, would share its underpinnings with the Audi Q5 - a car that has no direct siblings and, according to our source at Porsche, is rather more expensive to build than its rivals, the BMW X3 and Mercedes-Benz GLK. By twinning its with a new price leading Porsche SUV, the Volkswagen Group could expect higher volumes and lower production costs for the Audi Q5. We asked for an official statement, but as usual Porsche isn't prepared to comment on any speculation surrounding its future model line-up.

Opel Astra to spawn new small Buick

General Motors is mulling plans that could see the sixth-generation Opel Astra spawn a new compact Buick for sale in key markets, including North America and China. Nothing is official at this stage, but with General Motors' boss Fritz Henderson having paved the way for the sale of the loss making Saturn division there are strong indications the Buick line-up will be extended in coming years with a range of compact, fuel efficient models including rebadged versions of the new Astra in both hatchback and sedan bodystyles along with a third generation version of the Opel Zafira MPV due to reach European showrooms in 2010. The new Astra shares is Delta II underpinnings with the recently introduced Chevrolet Cruze, something that would provide General Motors with important economies of scale for any new compact Buick model. Watch this space!

Pictures above show fifth generation Opel Astra sedan and new sixth generation Opel Astra hatchback.

Volkswagen Passat CC to be produced in China

Volkswagen is preparing to produce the Passat CC in China. Sources from Volkswagen's joint venture partner, FAW (First Automobile Works). say the swoopy sedan will roll off production lines in Changchun alongside the Chinese market Mogotan (a lightly modified version of the Passat sedan).

Dong Feng eyes up Australia

China's push into Australia continues.
Following news that Chery intends setting up a R&D operation in Australia comes official word that Dong Feng will send a delegation of high ranking officials Downunder in July to eye up opportunities in the land of Kangaroos and Koalas.
High on the list of Dong Feng's priorities is part sourcing and possible joint ventures with component suppliers. It is not known whether Dong Feng intends selling cars in the Australian market but it is eying a push into potentially lucrative export markets early next decade as part of an expansion program outlined at the recent Shanghai auto show, where it unveiled a host of new models, including its Fengshen sedan.
“Dong Feng are very keen to develop strategic partnerships with our auto industry for component supply,” said Australia's trade minister Simon Crean following a visit to the Chinese car maker's headquarters in Wuhan, China.
Dong Feng, which translates as East Wind in English, was founded in 1968. It is based in the city of Wuhan in Hubei Provence and operates joint ventures with Citroen-Peugeot, Honda, Nissan and Cummins. It has become the second-largest automobile manufacturer in China. The company made an IPO (initial public offering) in December 2005, but remains 70% owned by China's central government.

FIRST PHOTOS: Opel's sixth-generation Astra

Opel’s not going down without a fight!
Facing an uphill financial battle following General Motors’ announcement back in February that it intends selling its European subsidiary as part of broad ranging restructuring plans, the German car maker put on a brave face today with the unveiling of its new sixth-generation Astra – a car that is as crucial to its future existence as any is its 110 year history.
The new hatchback, which competes head on with the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf in one of Europe’s most toughly fought market segments, departs radically from its seven year old predecessor, picking up elegant new exterior styling cues from the larger Insignia as well as a brand new front wheel drive platform that goes under the name Delta and is shared with the Chevrolet Cruze among other upcoming models from General Motors.
Together with the five door version of the Astra shown here officially for the first time, Opel is also developing a three door model that features a more sportier appearance. It will be followed into showrooms by a more practical wagon version boasting a longer rear overhang for greater load capacity.
Dimensionally, the new Astra has grown, putting on 110mm in length at 4400mm. A good deal of that can be found in the wheelbase, which has been extended by 71mm to 2785mm mainly in the interests of creating greater rear seat legroom.
We’re yet to get an official look at the Astra’s interior but going on prototype versions we’ve seen testing at the Nurburgring you can expect the Insignia influence to extend inside. Opel claims a quantum leap in quality, although we’ll have to wait until closer to its planned unveiling at the Frankfurt auto show in September before we can back this up.
Underpinning Opel’s new hatchback is a heavily reworked version of its predecessor’s MacPherson strut (front) and torsion beam (rear) suspension. It also gets the FlexRide electronic damper system launched on the Insignia among a long list of options that also include Adaptive Forward Lighting, which alters the intensity of the head lamps to suit prevailing driving conditions and Opel Front Eye, which recognises road sings and provides a lane departure warning.
Downsizing is the name of the game for the Astra’s four-cylinder gasoline engine line-up. It is underpinned by a new turbocharged 1.4 litre unit delivering a gutsy-for-its-relatively-small-size 140bhp. Other gasoline engines set to become available from the start of European sales in December include a 100bhp normally aspirated 1.4 litre, 177bhp turbocharged 1.6 litre and 140bhp normally aspirated 1.8 litre.
Not enough? Within a year Opel also plans to introduce a successor to the Astra OPC – a Focus ST and Golf GTi rival powered by a 240bhp turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine. Its rumoured to be good for 0-60 in 6.2sec.
As you’d expect given its European origin, there is also a strong range of four-cylinder diesels, including a 95bhp 1.3 litre, 110bhp 1.7 litre and a pair of 2.0 litre units with 130bhp and 160bhp. Opel isn’t prepared to say too much at the moment, although sources suggest a plug-in electric version of the new Astra is also undergoing development. It would make sense since the Delta platform which underpins it shares certain elements with that found beneath the Chevrolet Volt – both having being conceived to house General Motors' Voltec gasoline-electric system.


FIRST DRIVE: Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid

Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid

The lithium limosine hits the road at last

What's this?
Mercedes-Benz's first gasoline-electric hybrid model, the S400 Hybrid. It's planned to go on sale in North America in September just prior to the arrival of Mercedes-Benz's second hybrid model, the ML450 Hybrid, in US showrooms.
Pricing hasn't been announced just yet but Mercedes-Benz is already hinting at a sticker close to the S550's $90,225. Ouch! Still, the S400 Hybrid looks likely to end up being a good deal cheaper than the more comprehensively equipped Lexus LS600h, which retails for $105,885.
The S400 Hybrid is a mild hybrid. That means it can run on gasoline or a combination of gasoline and electric power depending on the driving conditions and charge of the battery. What it doesn't possess is an ability to run exclusively on electricity. So don't expect any zero emission hype from this latest Mercedes-Benz model.
It is based around the S350, and like all new S-class models benefits from a mid-life facelift that provides it with a smarter appearance thanks to some detailed changes up front and new tail light graphics. It also gets some slight revisions to the trim inside, but they are all rather minor compared to the tinkering that has gone on with the drivetrain.
Sitting up front is a reworked version of Mercedes-Benz's 24-valve 3.5 litre V6 gasoline engine. Strangely, it's not the new direct injection engine that goes into the E350 CGI and is claimed to deliver even better fuel consumption. Rather, it's the older multi point fuel injected unit running a slightly higher 11.7:1 compression ratio than it did previously. Peak power is 279bhp, while torque extends to 350Nm between 2400 and 5000rpm.
The efforts of the gasoline engine are backed up by a disc shaped AC electric motor that's mounted between the gasoline engine and the S400 Hybrid's standard seven-speed automatic gearbox. It delivers 20bhp and muscular 160Nm the moment the magneto is engaged. Owing the specific characteristics of Mercedes-Benz's hybrid system, however, you can't just take the numbers and add them together to get an overall output. That's because the torque produced by the electric motor begins to trail off following an initial burst of thrust. As such, the S400 Hybrid possesses an overall 299bhp and 385Nm of torque.
Supplying energy in the form of electricity to the electric motor is a lithium ion battery that uses the very latest nickel-cobalt-aluminum charging process. It's mounted up front underneath the hood in a position that is usually reserved for the S-class’s standard lead acid battery which leaves the packaging of the rear wheel drive S400 Hybrid unchanged over other S-class models. All up, the battery weighs 60 lbs. But with all its various cables and other ancillaries the weigh gain over the S350 is put at 165lbs at 4310lbs in short wheelbase form. The long wheelbase model gains a further 55lbs at 4363lbs.

How does it drive?
Superbly. For a start, there's no need to learn how to operate the S400 Hybrid. You just get in, crank the key as usual, disengage the electronic hand brake, brush the throttle with your right foot and move off as you would in any of the new S-class models. The added low end torque serves to provide it with a relaxed feel in an urban driving environment, mainly because the gearbox isn’t continually forced to find a new ratio in the stop and go of urban traffic.
The gasoline engine cuts out completely as you coast to rest at speeds below 9mph as part of a range of fuel saving measures incorporated on the S400. It then springs back to life when, ready to move away, you lift your foot from the brake pedal. It’s an odd feeling, sitting in silence waiting for the lights to change to green. However, any anxiety quickly subsides because the gasoline engine is fired by the electric motor rather than the usual starter motor. Being more powerful, it leads to a start up process that’s noticeably smoother and a lot more rapid than in the S350.
Accelerating away from the traffic lights it feels a touch more powerful than the S350 – up to around 30mph, say. However, there's not much between the two in overall performance terms: Mercedes-Benz claims a 0-to-62mph time of 7.2sec for the S400 Hybrid and 7.3sec for the S350, while top speed for both is 155mph.
At kick down, the electric motor doesn’t help that much; it’s real purpose is to complement the gasoline engine rather than replace it. So, while the 3.5 litre V6 lacks for outright go under 2000rpm, it is here where the electric motor has been conceived to deliver its best. It’s all about providing an optimal balance in power delivery. Keep your foot planted and the contribution of the electric motor fades and the efforts of the gasoline engine are extended.
At cruise, there are few tell tales signs to signal that you’re behind the wheel of a hybrid. As with all S-class models, the S400 Hybrid possesses extraordinary straight line stability. We got the chance to run it all the way up to its limited 155mph top speed at one point on the autobahn heading south out of Stuttgart. At which point it felt superbly planted and eager for more. Progress is also hushed in the best of S-class traditions. It’s only the appearance of a charge indicator in the centre of the instrument binnacle that really gives the game away.
With this kind of driving the lithium ion battery is quickly drained of energy. It gets its charge from regenerative braking rather than the engine, which makes for a much simpler and cost effective system than with a full hybrid like that found in the LS600h. Mercedes-Benz’s claims that it has developed a battery with extra fast recharging capabilities. And indeed, after a few stabs of the brakes it quickly recovered its charge.
The brakes operate via a new mechanism, which has robbed them of feel compared to other S-class models. The modulation seems to vary depending on the charge of the battery. When it is low, the first degrees of pedal travel are aimed at providing regenerative braking, and only when you apply more pressure do they operate to pull the car up. When the battery charge is high, you get full braking performance from the get go. If there’s one areas where the S400 Hybrid needs improving it is here.

Bottom Line
Mercedes-Benz has taken a typically cautious approach to the introduction of hybrid technology to its production car line-up. The S400 Hybrid is fairly straightforward – much simpler than the LS600h, for example. But that doesn’t mean it is found lacking in any way.
For, just like the rest of the facelifted S-class line-up, if feels tremendously well engineered. Performance is acceptable, if not dazzling. Refinement is truly outstanding. But while its claimed consumption of 29.8mpg is a worthwhile 6.3mpg up on the S350, it still fails to get the better of the S350 CDI, whose excellent 235bhp 3.0-litre V6 common rail diesel engine endows it with an even more impressive 30.9mpg.
For cashed up early adopters - presuming there are still a few about in a world left reeling from the effects of the credit crunch, the S400 Hybrid is going to be hard to resist. If only for purpose of image alone.

Fantasy garage: BMW Just4/2 meets S1000RR

Letter to Norbert Reithofer, chairman BMW AG ...

Forget all the expensive development work you're putting into the MCV (Mega City Vehicle). You've already got the template down. Remember the Just 4/2?
Here's a city car the guys and gals at FIZ (BMW's R&D centre located in the middle of Munich) could get up and running inside two years if they really put their minds to it.
It's light, compact, highly economical, surely fun to drive and, when built in sufficient numbers, would be cheap enough to produce to give it a sound business case over a six or seven year model cycle.
The structure could even be shared with Mercedes-Benz, whose Smart division could resurrect the much missed Smart Coupe/Roadster along similar lines. You are, after all, looking at ways to create greater economies of scale with your long time German luxury car rival.
Our suggestion: base it around an aluminum space frame like that used in motorcycle manufacture, with the engine placed over the axle at the rear. Send the drive to the rear wheels via a compact seven speed double clutch gearbox like the DQ250 unit that Volkswagen uses in many of its lower end models these days. Getrag, the gearbox specialists, have just such a unit under development right now.
The Just 4/2 weighed 550kg. That's the key to this car. Low weight, acceptable performance. We reckon something in the region of 6.0sec on the run from zero-60mph would easily be achieveable given the right gearing. That, and something around 60mpg.
Engine? That's easy. We at theautoinsider would happily settle for BMW's new 999cm3 four-pot as revealed in your latest motorcycle, the S1000 RR. In its current state of tune it packs 193bhp and 112Nm of torque. But it could easily be retuned to plump out the torque curve.
Better still, a three cylinder engine. You could lob a cylinder off the Mini's 1.6-litre four-cylinder unit. That'd give you a 1.2 litre powerplant that, with turbocharging and direct injection, would give you something like 140bhp. You could even turn out a plug in electric version with the batteries mounted low down in the floor.

So, what do you say Herr Reithofer?

Mercedes rings changes for C-class diesels

Stuttgart, Germany: Mercedes-Benz is planning some engine changes to diesel versions of the C-class in a bid to boost its overall fuel consumption rating. Although not yet official, here's a run down of what we can expect to see unveild at the Frankfurt motor show in September.

The C200 CDI will switch from the OM646 four-cylinder common rail diesel engine to the newer OM651 DE22LA red. Capacity remains at 2.2 litres, power remains at 136bhp, but torque goes down by 10Nm to 330Nm.

The C220 CDI will switch from the OM646 four-cylinder common rail diesel engine to the newer OM651 DE22 LA. Capacity remains at 2.2 litres, power and torque remain the same at 170bhp and 400Nm respectively.

A C250 CDI will join the line-up powered by the most powerful version of the OM651 DE22 LA engine. Capacity is 2.2-litres, power peaks at 204bhp, torque is a claimed 500Nm.

The C320 CDI will be renamed C350 CDI and get a slightly more powerful version of Mercedes-Benz's OM642 DE 30LA engine.

Mercedes-Benz insiders have suggested the C250 CDI, which is claimed to return over 47mpg on the Eurpean fuel consumption cycle, could head to North America as part of a plan to reintroduce four-cylinder models to its US line-up.

Volkswagen Up! based EV due in 2013

Wolfsburg, Germany: There's been a lot of speculation surrounding a possible plug in electric vehicle from Volkswagen. Now I can confirm the official plans as they stand today. According to Volkswagen development boss, Ulrich Hackenberg, the German car maker will begin selling a compact urban based electric vehicle based on a modified platform structure from its New Small Family (otherwise known as the Up!) range of small cars from 2013. Hackenberg. who is busy at the moment preparing for a run in the Nurburgring 24 hour race later this month, says the new electric vehicle is conceived to be sold under different brands, including Audi, which is keen to use it to counter BMW's much talked about MCV (Mega City Vehicle), which will be offered as a plug in electric version in a time frame, BMW R&D boss Klaus Draeger, puts between 2011 and 2015.

Toyota under Toyoda: the future is regional, not global

Toyota City/Nagoya, Japan: An e-mail from Japan landed in my in-box today. The big news in the land of the rising sun is a sweeping new strategy being formulated by Toyota's soon to be new boss, Akio Toyoda.
His plan is to switch the focus at Toyota from that of global to regional operations. In other words, we're going to be seeing more models being developed for specific regions of the world rather than single models being developed for the whole world. The phrase Toyota insiders are already using to describe the new plan is "Multi-Continental".
Toyoda, who has made his name in streamlining production process at many of Toyota's most important manufacutring plans, is taking over the running of the world's No.1 car maker from Katsuaki Watanabe, who originally got the job on the strength of his purchasing skills.
Before Toyoda begins remodelling Toyota's worldwide operations he plans to have a crack at this year's Nurburgring 24 hour race at the wheel of the company's yet to be launched Lexus LSF.

Porsche Spyder RS. Finger's crossed . . .

Zuffenhausen, Germany: Porsche has secretly been developing a new mid-engined supercar to fill the void left by the Carerra GT.
The two seat open top is planned to run a 3.4-litre V8 engine that, in its ultimate state of tune, is claimed to kick out in the region of 480bhp and reach the rear wheels via a seven speed double clutch gearbox.
My source in Zuffenhausen has even spilled information regarding the dimensions, indicating the new car is quite well advanced; if not at prototype mule stage, then not far off. Length is 1831 inches, width 787 inches and height 433 inches. That makes it more compact than the Carerra GT.
The idea is to assemble to the new car in limited numbers on a dedicated line at Porsche's Leipzig based plant in the former East Germany. Likely name? Spyder RS - the same nomenclature given to Porsche's race cars.
Problem is, Porsche has effectively been taken over by Volkswagen in the past week, which leads to the obvious question: will the new car ever be built?

Oversteer controlled via GPS/ESP

Got speaking to a source who plays a pretty important role in the area of vehicle dynamics for one of the world's most respected sports car makers the other day.
Inevitably talk turned to oversteer. It always does in the end . . .
At this point my source let slip on a new ESP (electronic stability program) device that's being developed in a co-operation between German electronics giant Bosch and BMW (not the company he works for, by the way).
My source saw the device attached to a 5-series prototype testing in Arjeplog, Sweden and began asking some obvious questions.
I won't go into specifics - it's way too complicated to explain here. However, the basic idea is based around a military grade GPS (ground positioning system) that's used to measure slip angles and allow a certain degree of oversteer before the intervention of the ESP.
Bosch and BMW have placed one GPS at the front of the car and another GPS at the rear. They are used to measure the speed, angle and severity of a drift. Only when ESP really needs to apply engine and wheel braking it does. The idea being to allow more oversteer more of the time than existing systems.

Chevrolet Impala SS not dead yet

Detroit, USA: Much has been made of General Motors' decision to kill off the Impala SS. But it should be taken with a grain of salt according to my sources in Detroit.
The days when you could successfully compete in the North American perforamnce sedan market with 5.3-litre V8 powered four door that puts its power through the front wheels are numbered.
Even with all the electronic trickery car makers can get their hands on these days to quell the nasty effects of torque steer and wheel spin, channelling 307bhp and 440Nm through the front wheels is not the sort of stuff that's going to attract enthusiast buyers. No, they're likely to run the other way . . .
GM knows it needs to switch to rear wheel drive for the Impala.
The answer is simple, according to one guy sitting in the Renaissance Centre I spoke to today: take the Pontiac G8 ditch the grille and replace it with one that's got Chevrolet's shiny bow tie emblem sitting out front. Then plaster an Impala badge to the trunk.
Presto! New generation Impala.
The mechanical package is the same as that found underneath the Camaro. The new Impala is also planned to use the same 304bhp 3.6 V6 in standard specification and 6.2-litre V8 in SS specifiction as GM's iconic two door coupe. So, there are important economies of scale on build, parts and servicing.