Safety first with Volvo

Volvo Cars has cemented its position amongst the leaders of automotive safety innovation with its new S90 sedan and V90 wagon by being the first car maker to score a full six points in the Autonomous Emergency Braking for Pedestrians (AEB Pedestrian) test procedure and an overall five-star rating for both cars.

The Volvo S90: Scored a full six points in the Autonomous Emergency Braking for Pedestrians test procedure and an overall five star rating.

The S90 and V90 results surpass the best overall score of any model tested last year and now make Euro NCAP’s top-3 best performing cars ever all Volvos.

“The result follows in the footsteps of the XC90, which was the first car from any manufacturer to score full points in the Euro NCAP Autonomous Emergency Braking Car to Car rear-end tests (AEB City and AEB Interurban),” the company commented.

It further boasted that the S90 and V90 performed “as expected” in the 2017 testing cycle, achieving a full 5 stars, thanks in large part to the high level of standard safety equipment in the new cars.

“We work hard to ensure that our cars fulfil all safety requirements and pass all testing procedures that the ratings agencies develop.

“Our main focus is, and always has been, real-life safety.

“Autonomous Emergency Braking systems, such as our City Safety offer, also represent a clear step forwards on our journey toward fully autonomous cars, which we see as a key element to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries,” said Malin Ekholm, director of the Volvo Car Safety Centre at Volvo Cars Group.

Volvo Cars has a long held vision that no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car by the year 2020.

The S90 and V90 are further proof of Volvo’s continuing investment in and commitment to automotive safety leadership.

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Iconic Ioniq has all the fruit

The Ioniq comes with a choice of three drivelines overseas.
The Ioniq comes with a choice of three drivelines overseas.

Although it’s a spin-off from the i30 range, Hyundai’s Ioniq family of maximum economy flagbearers is a completely different engineering proposition to the popular hatchback.

Designed from the ground-up to accommodate three different drivelines, the Ioniq allows Hyundai engineers to demonstrate readily accessible technology, hopefully ahead of its major competition.

The Ioniq concept is to engineer a lightweight and efficient automotive template that has nimble suspension, a high level of driving dynamics, plenty of people and luggage room and a cabin fit-out that matches some premium cars.

The difference is you then plug-in one of three optional drivelines to deliver the blend of electrons that is your preference.

On the outside, the car still displays an echo of Toyota’s well-established Prius, with a sloping rear roof line and a tall impression from the front.

It’s for aerodynamics, but most hybrids spend their lives in cities and suburbs where aerodynamics plays little part in the fuel statistics.

The Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid’s set-up.
The Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid’s set-up.Picture: Supplied

Connectivity is of course critical, and the Ioniq inherits the new i30’s crammed-full package of features that turns the car into an adept extension of home or office. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto deliver what is becoming a standard in cars, and wireless conductive charging in a small compartment forward of the centre console is standard for compatible devices.

Tom Tom LIVE services are also on board to deliver the information owners are starting to consider essential.

Vehicle systems are optimised for energy efficiency. The Ioniq’s climate control has an efficiency mode and the dual-zone system can be set to a driver-only mode to reduce the load on the energy package.

Batteries are all lithium-ion polymer and vary in size between the three, but despite the big difference between the hybrid pack and the all-electric’s resource, the car’s basic architecture doesn’t change.

Weight savings have been high on the list of must-dos for the engineers, who selected aluminium for the hood and tailgate, the biggest slabs of sheet metal. The hybrid and plug-in share a multi-link rear suspension system with dual lower arms, and also includes a healthy dose of aluminium that chops around 10kg from the suspension.

On the all-electric version, space requirements means a torsion beam rear axle is used to fit the 28kWh battery pack, which extends into the spare wheel well.

All the cars use a new-generation permanent magnet electric motor with reduced thickness of core components and rectangular section copper wire to decrease core and copper loss.

In detail the differences between the three cars are significant.

The Ioniq inherits the i30’s bells and whistles.
The Ioniq inherits the i30’s bells and whistles.


The new Kappa 1.6-litre GDI petrol engine is an Atkinson cycle unit with a healthy thermal efficiency of 40 per cent. It produces 77kW and 147Nm of torque. The control unit combines this with the 32kW and 170Nm electric motor to produce a total output of 103.6kW and 265Nm. A top speed of 185km/h serves to illustrate potential and the all-important fuel figure is drilled down to as low as 3.4L/100kms.

A six-speed dual clutch transmission gives the drivelines an edge missing in the competitive hybrids, and the software manages to keep an unbroken stream of torque available at any speed. Multi-link rear suspension and a tight front suspension helps the Ioniq hybrid to stick to the line you select and reward a driver looking for something more stimulating than just getting there.

The petrol engine is small and develops its power over a wide range. But the instant torque boost from the electric package keeps the front wheels dragging the car around bends without interruption.

A high-resolution instrument cluster is in fact a digital display that presents requested information in a different hue, depending on the drive mode selected. A revolving speedo surrounded by a tacho appears in SPORT mode.

Plug-In Hybrid

I didn’t get to drive the plug-in as its release date is still a few months away from its hybrid and all-electric brothers, which are already on sale in South Korea and the US.

But in essence, the major difference is, recharging the battery pack doesn’t depend entirely on the engine driving the electric motor in regenerative mode. That’s there as well, but you can plug your car in when you’re stopped to provide you with a healthy 50km of pure electric range before the engine will cut in to top up the charge.

The plug-in’s electric motor is rated at 45kW, 13kW more than the hybrid.

The Ioniq looks similar to the Toyota Prius from the rear.
The Ioniq looks similar to the Toyota Prius from the rear.Picture: Supplied


You don’t start an electric car. You turn it on. One press of the “Power” button, which replaces the “Start/Stop” button in the i30, and the systems engage. The dash lights up telling you some things you need to know, like battery state, range and distance to a recharge location, and a lot of stuff you don’t.

A fan under the bonnet cranks up to cool the inverter stack sitting across the top of the electric motor unit, but apart from that it’s silent.

Foot on the brake pedal, press “D” and off we go.

I had the new Ioniq EV five-door around the environs of Incheon, a satellite city to Seoul, to see how Hyundai’s electric experience shaped up.

Two conclusions were immediately apparent. Firstly, it’s no Tesla-beater, but secondly, it’s a better drive than most other electric vehicles short of top-end premium technological explosions like the BMW i8.

Thankfully, the car is completely free of any electric “whine.” Silent progress is as good as any other small car, while Sport mode opens the electron’s pipe for a liveliness that starts with a punch on the back on take-off and a fair amount of wheel spin if you’re not careful.

A surprise is the paddles on the steering wheel. They’re not for gears, but to control the three levels of regenerative braking, with level three making the brake pedal unnecessary except in coming to a complete stop.


As a price indicator, in the US the three cars start at $US22,200 ($28,850) for the hybrid, with the all-electric on sale from $US29,500. The plug-in hybrid hasn’t been released yet but is likely to be priced somewhere between its brothers. Hyundai can look to a procession of environmentally conscious buyers — and lookers — heading to Australian showrooms when the cars arrive soon. Putting an electric small car on the road in Perth is a move guaranteed to stimulate much more discussion on issues such as range anxiety and noiseless motoring.

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GENEVA MOTOR SHOW: Velar hints at Range Rover luxury car

Premium luxury brand considers move into passenger vehicles as Range Rover stretches boundaries

The new Range Rover Velar could be a significant step toward the British SUV brand building luxury passenger cars for the first time.

That’s the possibility aired by Land Rover’s chief design officer Gerry McGovern, the man ultimately responsible for shaping the most road-oriented vehicle to ever come from the now Indian-owned SUV company.

The existence of the five-door, five-seat Velar SUV coupe was confirmed today, with full details set to be revealed on March 1 ahead of a motor show reveal the following week in Geneva.

The Velar shares its core IQ architecture with the Jaguar F-PACE crossover and eschews the hard-core off-roading capability of fellow Land Rover models such as the Range Rover and Discovery.

The fourth model in the Range Rover line-up, it sits between the entry-level Evoque and Range Rover Sport.

“If you look at other [passenger] brands they have come into the SUV territory and why couldn’t Land Rover-Range Rover go into that [passenger] territory,” McGovern said.

“The thing about Range Rover as a brand is it has massive equity. It has equity comparable to certain fashion brands … I’d argue Range Rover as a brand is peerless, there is nothing else like it.

“We have proven with things like the Evoque and we will prove with the Velar we have the ability to stretch and give much greater resonance in the marketplace.

“So I think there are lots of opportunities. But we still have to keep people guessing — otherwise we give the game away.”

Speaking to Australian media at the global launch of the new Land Rover Discovery in Utah, McGovern was clearly enthused by what his design team has achieved with the Velar.

It has been generically described as an SUV coupe, a much-maligned form of automotive design, intended to take on the likes of the BMW X6, Mercedes-Benz GLE Coupe and Porsche Macan.

But McGovern rejected any pigeon-holing of his new vehicle.

“It is not a coupe,” he insisted.

“What I would say about the Velar is it is a new type of Range Rover for a new type of customer and I think it will really change the perceptions of what the brand is about.

“And it has been done in a very unique way. There might be things that are comparable in terms of its overall size, but there is nothing like it in terms of what it is.

“This will blow the spots off the lot. Wait till you see it, I am telling you, wait till you see it,” he added

“People can criticise the hell out of me, but I am telling you the brand is on fire and what will be the proof in the pudding is the way these vehicles sell.

“And when you see Velar – because some people have seen it and have been quite surprised by it — I think … it really is a master class in a modern less-is-more approach.”

McGovern also made it clear Velar would retain Land Rover’s commitment to off-road capability, even if it is shaping as the most road-oriented Range Rover yet.

“Every Land Rover we do has to be incredible, has to be the best in terms of its ability and it (Velar) will be,” McGovern promised.

Ahead of any possible expansion into passenger cars, McGovern made it clear there was expansion of the Discovery and Range Rover families to be catered for as well as the return of the Defender as a family of vehicles.

“If you look at where we currently are and where we could be in six or seven years’ time, it is a massive shift,” he said.

McGovern hinted that another future direction was an SUV smaller than the Evoque.

“You think about small cars,” he said. “You think about how small can you go with an SUV and do it creditably.”

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Jeep defends conservative Compass design

Jeep exterior designed says scaled-down Grand Cherokee styling is a purposeful push for segment sales

Jeep’s new Compass small SUV might eschew the polarising styling of its larger brother, the mid-size Cherokee, but at a glance it could easily be mistaken for its two-segment-up sibling, the Grand Cherokee.

But according to the US off-road brand’s head of exterior design, Vince Galante, the model’s traditionalist, mini-Grand Cherokee design is no coincidence.

Speaking to at the international launch of the Compass this week, Galante said it was important for the brand’s five SUVs to offer different styling, noting that C-segment (small) SUV segment buyers are more conservative than those elsewhere.

“We tried to capture the essence of that car [the Grand Cherokee],” Galante explained.

“It’s muscular and at the same time athletic, and there’s something about its body that looks protective or indestructible. We tried to keep that in mind.

“With the Cherokee it was different. We intentionally wanted to do something adventurous, because we felt that segment was pretty established,” he added. “While with the Renegade we also wanted to do something adventurous, to appeal to the younger, funky buyer.

“But with the Compass we knew right away that this is the biggest SUV market – the C-SUV segment is the most popular globally – and we knew that we’d have to really appeal to a wide range of people. So, we did, on purpose, make it more of a simpler, more conservative design,” he admitted.

Globally, the Compass will sell into a market segment expected to reach 7.5 million sales by 2020; and while Jeep was keen to retain its stand-out four-wheel drive ability, it was equally aware of the need to remain mainstream stylistically.

Galante said the brand had originally considered a more avant-garde design, but that the broad appeal and solid sales of the Grand Cherokee had an affect on toning things down.

“We always start out trying to scare ourselves, but then we reel it back,” he laughed.

“We tried lots of different things, but as we learn more about the markets the Compass will sell in – and seeing how widespread the appeal for this model would be – we chose to embrace a style similar to the Grand Cherokee, which is universally loved.”


We questioned Galante about the difference in styling between its SUV models, and asked whether the lack of similarly had worked for or against drawing buyers up through the line-up. He defended the design differentiation between the Jeep range, saying it was important that each model stood strong on its own merits.

“There’s a really broad range in personality in what Jeep can be,” he explained. “Every Jeep looks like a family, but they’re all different. We have a spread of personality with our models — each is like its own person,” he enthused.

“If you look at a lot of the car companies, and the German car companies are particularly well known for it, each of the models looks like a scaled version of the next. Ours are all related in a different way.”

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New car sales accelerate to record high for second year

Annual new car sales have reached an all-time high for a second consecutive year
Annual new car sales have reached an all-time high for a second consecutive year

Annual new car sales have reached an all-time high for a second consecutive year – but are expected to fall in 2017, according to an industry trade association.

Some 2.69 million cars were registered in the UK last year, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) said.

This is up by 2.3% on 2015.

The organisation’s chief executive, Mike Hawes, said growth was due to “very strong” consumer confidence, low interest finance packages and a raft of new models.

“P eople are obviously driven by new technologies,” he told reporters at a briefing in central London.

“Increasingly people do want to see connectivity. People are wedded to mobile phones. They expect equally to have that connectivity on the move.”

Mr Hawes predicted that registrations would decline by “between 5% or 6%” in 2017, but said this was still ” historically an incredibly high level” and insisted it would not represent “a collapse in the market”.

He said five consecutive years of increased sales has been fuelled by latent demand built up during the recession.

“We have to recognise that growth can’t be inexorable,” he said. “There is undoubtedly a levelling off.”

More than 85% of new cars bought in the UK are imported and their cost is “gradually going up” due to the reduction in the value of the pound, Mr Hawes said.

Although manufacturers hedge against currency risk and absorb some of the additional costs, there have been price rises of “2% or 3%”, he added.

Mr Hawes expects 2017 car sales to be “lumpy”, adding that, although the triggering of Article 50 for the UK to leave the EU would “probably not immediately” have an impact on purchasing patterns, he acknowledged that “we have not seen the full effects of Brexit”.

Jim Holder, editorial director of magazines Autocar and What Car?, described the 2016 figures as “very positive”, saying “the expected Brexit bump was mostly negated”.

He told the Press Association that some people within the automotive industry are warning that sales could drop by 10%-15% this year, so manufacturers would be “very pleased” if the SMMT’s prediction of a 5% or 6% drop-off proved accurate.

He added: “When you’re at record levels and you bounce down, I think that’s reasonable.”

:: These are the UK’s new car registration figures for recent years:

2012: 2,044,609

2013: 2,264,737

2014: 2,476,435

2015: 2,633,503

2016: 2,692,786

December was the second month of 2016 when sales decreased, down 1.1% on the same month in 2015.

Fleets were responsible for most of the annual growth, with demand up 4.8% to 1.38 million.

Private registrations were down 0.2% to 1.21 million.

The market share of petrol cars rose from 48.8% to 49%, while alternatively fuelled vehicles such as hybrids and pure electric cars went from 2.8% to 3.3%.

Diesel cars were down from 48.5% to 47.7%.

In September 2015 US regulators told Volkswagen to recall 482,000 diesel cars after discovering they contained illegal defeat devices.

The Environmental Protection Agency said the software allowed cars to release fewer smog-causing pollutants during tests than in real-world driving conditions.

It then emerged that about 11 million cars worldwide were fitted with the software, including 1.2 million in the UK.

SMMT figures show that sales of Volkswagen cars in the UK suffered their first year-on-year fall this decade in 2016, down by 7.5% on the previous year.

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Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate: Paragon of style, class and practicality

Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate: Paragon of style, class and practicality

I went racing in Leopardstown recently with a few friends and when they quizzed me about what mode of transport I would be ferrying them in, I was hardly surprised to hear a chorus of approval that they would travel in a Mercedes E-Class estate.

Just the job I was told; you cannot beat a bit of quality when you’re mixing it with the silks and tweeds brigade.

Now, given that the E-Class saloon was one of Examiner Motoring’s Cars of the Year in 2016, the prospect of driving the new Estate version was certainly something to look forward to, especially if it came anywhere close to its saloon sibling in the style, pizzazz and looks departments — not to mention the engineering and technology. It did.

The E-Class Estate is a fine looking thing and a wonderful car to drive. From its’ AMG ‘Exterior Pack,’ which adds a number of tasteful visual additions to the standard offering, to its’ excellent new 220d two litre turbodiesel engine, there is much to admire here.

On the engine front, it is once again worth lauding the manner in which this unit — allied as it is to Mercedes’ nine speed auto ‘box — goes about its business.

One of the quietest turbodiesels you’ll find, it is capable of a 7.7 second 0-100 km/h time, a top speed of 235 km/h, and yet delivers 4.4 l/100 km (60-plus mpg) while emitting just 120 g/km of CO2 for an annual tax bill of just two hundred quid.

The test car also eschewed the iPad-stuck-to-the-dash design of the regular car for a widescreen cockpit layout which is fantastic to use and live with, even if it does add nearly €6,000 to the overall cost.

The traditional roominess of the E-Class estate is one again a feature and the voluminous capacity of the boot — especially when the rear seats are folded away — will only encourage people to move house very regularly. With this thing on hand, they’d pretty much be able to fit everything from a three bedroom semi into the back.

It drives beautifully too, although I will caution that the suspension is terribly hard when in ‘sport’ mode and not really suitable for B-road work as the ride becomes very tiresome. In all other situations, the car has a nice balance, excellent handling and top drawer grip levels.

One thing that annoyed me, however, about the advertising campaign for the E-Class was the Mercedes claim that it is the ‘next step on the road to autonomous motoring.’

Sure it has adaptive cruise control — and very impressed my passengers were by it having seen it in action going and coming from Dublin — but believe me, this is a very long way from autonomous motoring.

The Mercedes-Benz E-Class Estate is loaded with the latest technology.

Car companies in general get very excited when they add some new piece of kit or savvy tech to their production machines and they do tend to towards hyperbole such is their enthusiasm. They do lose the run of themselves sometimes, though, and the Mercedes example is only a small indication of how this manifests itself.

I mean, Ford, Opel, BMW, Citroen, Lexus (and Toyota – by association), Nissan (Renault — ditto), Audi (VW, Skoda and Seat — ditto) all have this sort of technology and while each or any of them may have made ludicrous claims about it, none has as yet gone down the ‘autonomous motoring’ road in an attempt to sell it.

I wrote at length about Ford’s system some time ago and how much I was impressed I was with it, although noting it was nothing like as intuitive as the combination of a pair of legs and a brain. Similarly so with the Mercedes system: very impressive in its own right but not seamless as when a human is in charge.

It doesn’t drive the way people normally drive. Whether or not this is a good or bad thing in general terms is open to argument, but in terms of the four heads in the E-Class Estate that day, there was general agreement that while the system was impressive enough initially, it was not flawless.

“You’d never normally have let that guy out,” one passenger remarked drily as the car braked to avoid a cheeky opportunist cutting into the fast lane when they shouldn’t have. And he was right. The system certainly does have its good points but it is clearly not blessed with the sort of intuition most good drivers have in abundance.

So Mercedes, easy on the hyperbole next time around; save it for when it truly means something.

I will say that the system on the car was as good if not better than most I’ve encountered, but it is a long way from being the real deal — in the same way as the much touted safety stuff like lane changing warnings is a long way from being useful for anyone other than, maybe, a long distance truck driver.

The bottom line however, is that in the E-Class Estate Mercedes has built another paragon of style, class and practicality and, in this case, some mildly impressive technology as well.

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Insurance body in liability call for driverless vehicle manufacturers

Insurance firms are worried about claims relating to driverless vehicles
Insurance firms are worried about claims relating to driverless vehicles

Insurance firms should have a legal right to recover costs from manufacturers when a defect in a driverless car causes a crash, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) has said.

The trade association believes that both the driver of the car and injured third parties should be able to pursue a claim against the driver’s insurer in such cases.

But insurers should then be able to recover the cost of the payouts from manufacturers, according to a joint paper published by the ABI and industry body Thatcham Research.

There is currently no automatic right for insurance companies to obtain compensation from car makers when their vehicles are found to be at fault for a crash which results in a claim.

Insurers are concerned that with the development of driverless technology, product liability insurance cannot be relied on as it is not compulsory and can be subject to limits – whereas motor insurance cover for personal injury is required to be unlimited.

Also, product liability does not cover damage to the product by the product, making it ineffective if an automated vehicle drives itself into an object and the owner wants to cover the cost of replacing the vehicle.

The ABI and Thatcham Research called for drivers to continue to require just a single insurance policy to cover both manual and automated driving, to avoid complications and ensure accident victims have enough cover.

They stressed the importance of agreeing good procedures for collecting and sharing data so those involved in claims get compensation without delay and warned that drivers should not be misled into thinking “their car can drive itself when it cannot”.

The paper was issued in response to a Department for Transport consultation into driverless cars, which closed on Friday.

ABI director James Dalton said: “With these proposals, insurers are showing their commitment to the new technology, and to ensuring that anyone injured in a road accident continues to get quick and easy access to help and support, as they do at the moment.

“Motor manufacturers share our goal of reducing deaths and injuries on the roads.

“When an automated vehicle or piece of software causes an accident it is important insurers can recover costs from the companies involved so that vehicle owners are protected from any upward pressure on the cost of motor premiums.”

Peter Shaw, chief executive of Thatcham Research, commented: ” Building driver confidence is at the heart of this consultation paper, so keeping things simple and clear is paramount.

“Similarly, there is still much work to be done by legislators and the automotive industry to give drivers absolute clarity and confidence around what automated driving systems are capable of doing and under what circumstances they can be used.”

Driver assistance systems are already in use in some cars, including control of speed and lane changing. But fully automated driving technology is not yet commercially available.

US manufacturer Ford announced last month that it intends to have completely driverless vehicles with no steering wheel or pedals on the road within five years.

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BMW’s 520D M-Sport saloon was ‘sheer driving bliss’

Sheer bliss: The classy BMW Five Series is a joy to drive on mountainous roads
Sheer bliss: The classy BMW Five Series is a joy to drive on mountainous roads

Valentine’s Day was spent in Southern Spain testing the new BMW Five Series.

It was beautiful weather, the roads were pretty empty and you could really give the car some welly and set the pulse racing a bit. It was good to escape the mind-numbing commercialism of February 14, although, of course, I had left the obligatory chocolates and card.

Yet if you think I was road testing a car, that was not quite what the BMW people had in mind. They seemed less interested in how much I enjoyed thrashing the 520D M-Sport saloon down to Gibraltar and then among the mountains to the north of Estepona than how I liked the “connectivity” on board through the car becoming what they claimed is “the most innovative vehicle in its segment”.

Everything is now possible: just wave your hand at the large touchscreen and you can control most functions – the car will park itself, keep in lanes by itself, coast along autonomously, take dictation for emails or text messages, and warn you about all sorts of hazards that the eyes can’t see.

It is getting to the point where the car can be the office and people can go on conference calls or have animated discussions with people in the back while the car does the boring driving stuff for you.

BMW makes no secret of the fact that this is how it sees its future. At press conferences on Tuesday night and then at breakfast time the following day, the message was very clear: “We are not a car company, we are transforming into a technology company.” There is a mission to “let the car take care of you” in order to keep driver and passengers safe at all times. Semi-autonomous systems will change the way we do our driving and save lives.

The Five Series was first launched in 1972 and the company likes to think it has been very much at the forefront of technical innovation since then.

On paper, the new model is a bit bigger all round with especially more rear leg-room, but, strangely, the driver feels more cocooned and tighter, rather like the Three Series. This is a bit of a paradox when set against the idea that it is your office on the move.

For my money, the new model drives better than the old, although there isn’t a consensus on this. I kept to the 520D, which will be the big-seller and is perfectly adequate for all needs, especially with the M-Sport trim. All Five Series cars now have an eight-speed automatic gearbox. The overall car is lighter and more efficient but really needs the sports suspension set up to be in play to stop wallowing over country roads.

The car is extremely quiet and while on the whole is not quite up with the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class, it has a sportier feel.

The Five Series will largely be diesel, BMW is hedging its bets on the future with massive investments in petrol/hybrid and electric, so that it can switch heavily, if as expected, the massive diesel off-load happens.

Of course the 10.2-inch touchscreen, which includes Professional Navigation as standard, dominates the fascia of the car. When I have the car for a full week’s test, I’ll have to take a lot of time to get to grips with it all.

At the moment, I tend to believe that this connectivity is going in the wrong way for anyone who really enjoys driving. It is wrong that we are so wedded to our phones that some people cannot go through a meal or meeting with a friend without spending a lot of time gazing at them. And worse, people drive or cross roads totally concentrating on the little device squeaking into their ear rather than the job at hand.

But then maybe I’m just too much of a dinosaur or grouch. Yet I’ll keep happy thoughts and remember the sheer driving bliss of pushing the 520D across the mountains last Tuesday in the sun. That’s what driving a well-built and controlled, powerful rear-wheel drive saloon is about. Sheer bliss. For the moment, connectivity can look after itself, but no doubt one day I will want a car that parks itself and then delivers itself to me ready to drive. But maybe by that time it would be safer just to put me in the back.

Prices start at €52k but expect to pay about €60,000 for a well-equipped Five Series. Many, many people will be doing that or rather getting their companies to do it for them.

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Renault eyes return to its heyday with new Megane Hatchback

The company, which likes to think of itself as the automotive equivalent of the Marseillaise — ie that Renault is to French car-making what l’Hymne National is to patriotism — has hit various purple patches down the years, but the 1980s and ’90s was a particularly potent time for the company.

During those heady years Renault consolidated its position as one of Europe’s leading manufacturers with a series of cars which were not only innovative, but breaking completely new ground. The Regie National des Usines Renault, as the company had become after de Gaulle nationalised it out from under the Renault family, became a powerhouse of design ingenuity and sales success.

Unfortunately, a golden era featuring the likes of the Espace, Clio, Twingo, Scenic, turbocharging, and Megane, died away and while the originals of those cars and technologies were classics of their time, what followed was not.

Despite being privatised once more in 1996, poor product quality dogged the brand and even killed off several models — remember the Renault 14? — but thanks to a very productive alliance with Nissan (which it purchased in 1999) and the firm hand of boss Carlos Ghosn on the corporate tiller, the company has once more turned a corner.

With such SUV hits as the Captur and the Kadjar, as well as revitalised stock models such as the Clio, Twingo, Scenic, and so forth, Renault is now, it would appear, well into another golden era and the test car we’re trying this week would tend to suggest this epoch might be with us for a while.

Now the Megane has always competed gamely with the likes of Ford Focus and VW Golf without ever replicating the vast sales numbers achieved by those behemoths of the family car genre, but it sold well in the various guises afforded it down the years while not really troubling the big boys.

It might have been snazzy (one of the first cars to have keyless operation), good looking, and techie (it had satnav before most of us plebs knew what that was), but there was always the impression — misguided or otherwise — that it was not the same build quality league as its main rivals and did not have the same clout in terms of residual values either.

And, as any self-respecting driver will tell you, it did not have the same appeal as an on-road experience as the VW or the Ford. Well, let me tell you now, you can forget the old misgivings you had about the Megane because a new one is here and it is damn good.

But let us not lose the run of ourselves here, because by comparison with previous Meganes, the new car is better looking, better built, and nicer to drive.

But — and it’s a big but — has it gotten any closer to the top dogs in the segment?

I believe it has — quite a deal closer in fact — but there is still something of a gap between the new Renault and its primary targets and this may well be due to a critical element of its DNA. French cars have traditionally preferred comfort over driver engagement and the new Megane, unsurprisingly, follows this well-trodden path.

If you want something with bags of grip and body control, you’ll have to look elsewhere because, even in GT Line trim as tested, the Megane does not come close to the class leaders.

It handles quite well, but the ride is very mushy and you feel, as so often is the case with Gallic machinery, that the focus during the design process was to end up with a car which glided rather than gripped.

This is fine for a lot of family requirements on great surfaces where Aunty Mabel would adore the tremendously comfortable rear seats on a balmy Sunday afternoon trip; but her cucumber sambos might not be resting as easy when she’s getting bounced around in the back on ragged Irish by-roads where the set-up’s flaws become quickly obvious.

Engaging ‘sport’ mode does tighten things up a little bit, but cannot overcome what appears to me to be a basic design flaw.

And, I do have to say that the Megane’s mega-sensitive lane-change warning system was a real pain in the ass. The Renault is not alone in this regard as all too many such systems — a complete waste of time, in my view, and an excellent example of safety consciousness gone mad — are too intrusive and annoying.

I also had a minor quibble with the automatic low/high beam lights which I felt were not quite intuitive enough for my liking and in the end I turned off the ‘auto’ function and did it manually.

Auto lights, lane-changing warning, and ride and handling aside, then, what was good about the car? Well, aside from the excellent exterior looks, Renault has made big strides on the quality of the interior. Gone are those awful scratchy, plastic surfaces and instead you’re presented with chic, tactile, and pleasing surroundings.

The seating too is excellent and the engine — the very familiar 1.5 DCi unit with 1120 bhp, which is almost ubiquitous across the Renault and Nissan ranges at this stage — is very easy to live with and, let’s not be shy about it, extract the most from.

It is a very willing partner and while performance is not too far removed from pedestrian (11.2 seconds 0-100km/h and top speed of 188) it is still a smooth and relatively entertaining package.

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Sales of SUVs overtake passenger cars for the first time in Australia

SALES of SUVs — also known as “faux-wheel-drives” and “soft-roaders” because they’re more suited to sealed roads despite their rugged looks — have overtaken passenger cars for the first time in Australian automotive history.

According to official sales figures in February, 35,497 SUVs were reported as sold versus 34,740 passenger cars.

However, year-to-date, passenger cars remain narrowly ahead of SUVs: just 36 sales apart, 69,660 compared to 69,624.

Our changing taste in vehicles comes as more drivers favour the high driving position and better cargo flexibility of SUVs over traditional sedans and hatches.

The arrival of more “pint-sized” but high-riding hatchbacks — categorised as SUVs — is also behind the surge.

The Mazda CX-5 (left), Toyota RAV4 (centre) and Subaru Forester (right) are becoming commonplace. Picture: Joshua Dowling

The Mazda CX-5 (left), Toyota RAV4 (centre) and Subaru Forester (right) are becoming commonplace. Picture: Joshua DowlingSource:Supplied

“This one monthly outcome doesn’t signal a landslide but clearly Australian buyers are attracted by the features and capabilities of new generation SUVs, and how these types of vehicles suit their needs and lifestyles,” said the chief executive of the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, Tony Weber.

The February figures also revealed the biggest new-car sales slowdown since the Global Financial Crisis.

Sales of all new vehicles were down 7.7 per cent in February: 89,025 deliveries versus 96,443 in the same month last year.

“It’s important to look at sales results in the proper context because February 2016 was an unusually strong month,” said Mr Weber. “It included one extra selling day and saw a lot of activity in the market. This resulted in a 6.7 per cent surge over February 2015.”

Nevertheless, the sudden drop in new-car deliveries means dealers will be more desperate to move metal in the coming months as they clear last year’s stock, sparking further discounts.

Toyota continued to lead the market ahead of Mazda and Hyundai, but Holden had a shocker, down 22 per cent to fifth place and was overtaken by Mitsubishi. The Commodore only just stayed inside the Top 10.

Commodore sales took a hit in February but will bounce back when final editions arrive in showrooms midyear, Holden claim. Picture: Supplied.

Commodore sales took a hit in February but will bounce back when final editions arrive in showrooms midyear, Holden claim. Picture: Supplied.Source:Supplied

Holden’s sales and marketing chief Peter Keley said sales were slow because the full Astra line-up was yet to arrive in showrooms and many customers placed forward orders for limited edition Commodores.

“We actually grew our order bank for the Commodore but that’s not reflected in the February figures,” said Mr Keley. “As those cars are built you will see Commodore sales pick up in the coming months.”

Ford posted first decline after 14 months of growth (down 15 per cent), its sales dented after Territory and Falcon reach the end of the line.

Despite the popularity of SUVs, only three are in the Top 10 — the Mazda CX-5, Toyota RAV4 and Hyundai Tucson — because the market is so fragmented.

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