2017 saw much happening but precious little appears to have changed, despite politicians and the car industry spending the year flapping around like headless chickens. For me, I would not conclude that the year has been entirely bland, because at least it has thrown-up several surprises.
Car finance shake-ups
Carrying on from previous years, motoring finance packages continued to offer certain motorists a fake-break from ‘austerity’, by permitting them to drive new cars that they cannot afford to own. Yet, next year should reveal whether, or not, motor finance is driving them into fresh depressions of crippling consumer debt, as using a depreciating asset as security might lead to a new ‘sub-prime’ crisis, which runs the risk of enhancing current public mistrust of the banking and finance industries.
Sales, models, industry, technology and the Chinese.
Despite carmakers following themselves like lemmings to introduce their own scrappage deals, once UK Government refused to hand-over yet more tax-payers’ funds, overall UK car sales have come down 5% (based on SMMT figures from November 2016 – November 2017, December’s results have yet to be released).
Of these, ‘Sport Utility Vehicles’, including ‘Crossovers’ continue their indomitable march to replace the hatchback as the everyday family car, even though their off-road abilities tend to be just as shallow as their typical marketing hype. As every car manufacturer has rushed to satisfy a perceived demand, the market has become rather crowded.
This leads me to the Renault – a brand that I like but even I admit that the company has found it difficult to convince the British motorist that it can churn-out decently reliable cars. After it scythed its UK model range to only a handful of models in the post 2008’s financial crash, Renault has grown its British offerings and seems to be making moderately good looking cars again (although the achingly striking Talisman and Espace remain ne pas pour les rosbifs, unfortunately). Strange name aside, the handsome Koleos SUV feels just as plush on the inside as it does on the outside – yet, the very poor driving experience (uncommunicative steering, poor damping and bump-thump that reverberates its way through the cabin) belies its origins as a product that was launched in Korea and arrived in the UK several years late. With sadness, therefore, the Renault Koleos earns my “Most Disappointing Car of 2017” gong.
While my favourite SUV for 2017 is the latest Volvo XC60 (the starting price of which is £7,000 more than the Koleos but is worth every extra penny), the Vauxhall Insignia Grand Tourer surprised me the most this year – even though the traditional ‘D’ segment large estate car market is becoming increasingly unfashionable – why else would I like it so much? I loved its looks, the supple suspension, enormous and usable boot and the cossetting interior – only the Insignia’s depreciation frightens me, not helped by Vauxhall’s fairly mainstream image – not part of the in-crowd of badge snobs – which is a great shame.
Car industry wise, Chinese cars are appearing on British shores but not in the form that many analysts expected, me included. While MG was an early company to be swallowed by a Chinese corporate behemoth, all of its subsequent products have been fairly lacklustre and technically antiquated, most budget-orientated buyers not being convinced by the low selling prices. However, a number of road test colleagues have been impressed with the new MG ZS, with one saying that it is the best budget Chinese car on sale today, especially considering its 7 years/80,000 miles warranty, despite its lowly NCAP safety rating. At the other end of the scale, Volvo’s S90 saloon became the first luxury car to be made entirely in China and shipped to the UK. Yet, Great Wall was the first Chinese maker to exit the UK market, on a temporary basis at least, after its 2017 model year commercial vehicles was not upgraded to Euro VI emissions standards in time.
The most surprising takeover came not from China but from the French PSA Group. Considering that the holding company of Citroen and Peugeot was flirting with bankruptcy in 2014, it has, somehow, managed to raise enough cash to buy General Motors’ loss-making European assets, including Vauxhall (and Opel). Obviously, this affects the UK specifically, especially as job cuts have been announced already by the French at the Ellesmere Port factory in Cheshire, which produces the Astra. My hope is that this will be the last of the headcount shed.
Technology-wise, Philip Hammond admitted in the Budget that electric cars are the future but uptake has been slow, thus far. However, I spent some time with a 2015 Nissan e-NV200 electric van earlier this year and was impressed with not only its performance but also how easy it was to maintain. A cabin filter was the only part required for a 24,000 service interval, aside from a splash of oil to top-up the reduction gearbox, and most of the routine maintenance items were straightforward visual checks. Although many people are suspicious of the electric car, I have discovered that maintaining them is easier and less expensive than an internal-combustion engine vehicle.
While the government announcement, regarding the banning of all petrol and diesel cars by 2040, was met with considerable over-reaction in many quarters, scrutinising the details revealed that the grandiose statement excluded hybrid vehicles, which are, of course, powered mainly by fossil fuels – for the time being. While hybrid and plug-in hybrid models are becoming more popular, Suzuki has combined its Parallel-Hybrid SHVS system with its BoosterJet turbocharged petrol engine in the Swift supermini, launched this year. The result is excellent fuel economy and very strong performance but the engineering works very well within a strict value-for-money remit.
Despite all of apparent turmoil, 2017 has not been a year of change that I thought it might have been. While new SUV models continue to flood the new car market, I was surprised that the Renault Koleos promises so much on first acquaintance but fails to deliver. Yet, the large, unfashionable estate car market continues to unearth such gems as the new Vauxhall Insignia – and even Kia’s Optima. PSA’s purchase of Vauxhall was unexpected, however, but I hope that the company fosters and grows its British assets. Chinese cars that hide behind European brand names are getting better, I learned that electric vehicles appear surprisingly easy to service and, if you are unsure about investing in a Hybrid vehicle, consider Suzuki’s SHVS system, which surprised me by being a very effective half-way house between a conventional car and a full-hybrid.