Robertson’s Auto-almanac, Car-of-the-Year and portent of the future
Combining his year’s efforts with an ‘award’ for his favourite model, Iain Robertson also ponders about what might happen over the next twelve months in a motor industry that has endured more changes since 2000, than it did in the previous 100 years.
As we have come to expect, the promised severe seasonal conditions fizzled into little more than a light fluttering of snow, plenty of dicey moments and a dull greyness at the start of 2017 that we all prayed would end sharpish. If one colour has predominated in 2017, it has been grey…greyness could readily sum up our general mood, affected as it has been by that dread, governmentally-enforced word ‘austerity’ (which always leaves a more sinister impression, when enunciated by the Leader of the Scottish Parliament, whose insistent ministrations lost much of their bite partway through the year). It is a mood not helped by the very grey days some of our elected politicos spent in Brussels, while the remaining grey Conservatives fought to maintain a whiff of status quo in Whitehall, worried by an equally grey and largely feckless opposition.
It is abundantly clear that the headless political chicken has not been provided in 2017 with the success of the nation’s much-vaunted motor industry that has propped it up barometrically for decades. Finally, the reported upturn started its downwards slide, as even the motor manufacturers were forced to face realities that they had elected to ignore since the world-wide ‘crash’ of 2008.
For a motoring scribe, whom had become familiar over the course of the thirty preceding years with an endless diet of Michelin-starred meals, first and business-class flights of fantasy at least three times every week, a litany of manufacturer bribes (many of which were not-so-politely refused), the occasional ‘buff envelope’ and having to write about more than 100 new cars and in excess of 200 test cars for a personal portfolio of newspapers, magazines and periodicals, 2008 was a marker in the sand. 2017 was sublimely quiet by comparison.
While the actual number of unnecessary niche models being introduced has remained quite constant, it is abundantly clear that ‘SUV’, having lost 66% of the remnants of its original definition of ‘Sport-Utility-Vehicle’, being scarcely sporting and hardly utilitarian, and almost 100% of its implied 4WD elements, has now become the archetypal ‘family car’. It is a niche that has developed like Topsy into mainstream consciousness that has driven every carmaker and its dog into a frenzy to satisfy it and create a self-belief in the powers of marketing that are as shallow and fallacious as ever they could be.
Of course, the march of the marketers coincides with a continual destruction of the printed word, to the extent that newspapers are looking sorrowfully at their laurels, concerned about what the future holds for them, while the on-line sector has grown to new peaks of superficiality. I could link this prophetically and pathetically to the tragic downturn in the nation’s education standards but that would be largely specious. Intriguingly, there was a period during the 1990s, when observers referred to culinary TV chefery as being the new motoring business…it is a prophesy near fulfilled, with new ‘Top Gear’ being a pale shadow of its forebear and ‘Masterchef’ only just beaten in the BARB charts by ‘Strictly Ballroom’ (although I was delighted that they all took a sound thrashing, when David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet II’ hit the airwaves).
With SUV now dominating vehicle sales charts, Vauxhall (and its German counterpart, Opel) being swallowed-up by PSA, the Gallic group that owns Peugeot, Citroen and DS, Ford contemplating seriously the demise of Mondeo and its several MPV (people-carrier) models, Fiat’s partnership with Chrysler Corporation looking shakier than ever and the ‘premium sector’ plateauing and joining the mainstream downturn, the sometime praiseworthy motor industry has already lost much of its lustre. Do not misunderstand, there are still almost two million annual car registrations in the UK (of which around 40% are still motor industry platings and 90% of the balance are to businesses), to which only impending ‘Brexit’ might introduce some fresh nails.
Yet, there have been some genuine highlights in 2017, not the least of which was the launch of the Suzuki Swift. While I am not proposing that everybody should drive a compact oriental, a more perfect antidote to the shenanigans that have taken place in the rest of the motoring scene does not exist. It is lighter…thus making less of an impact. It is more frugal…thus eking out the cost-per-mile covered. It is more spacious…thus increasing its accessibility. It is prettier…thus creating a better impression. Most importantly, it is great value-for-money…which means that even the most impecunious can entertain the prospect of ‘ownership’, although that latter word ought to be ‘rental’, the other major financial displacement of 2017. It is for those key reasons that I nominate the Suzuki Swift as my 2017 Car of the Year.
Of the balance of market niches, the Volvo XC60 makes the grade as my favourite family car, the Vauxhall Insignia Grand Tourer is my favourite estate car, the Lexus LC is my preferred sporting coupe and the Hyundai Ioniq is my most desired hybrid car. The fastest of 2017 is a toss-up, even though there is no real competition, lies between the Audi RS5 and the McLaren 720S. Both are impressive. One is British. Both can cover cross-country mileages with aplomb but the more involving is the ‘Big Mac’.
It is a great success story, in that McLaren is finally proving its worth by boasting that before it has even produced its latest hybrid-hypercar model, the entire production run had been sold out. Intriguingly, the rest of its line-up of coupes and drop-tops is taking the fight to Ferrari and trouncing the ‘Prancing Horse’ in every respect. It is okay that only the 1% of the population that owns 50% of the nation’s assets can actually afford a McLaren, because it is not a car with which I could cohabit personally and I am not envious of those people who can.
As to the future, well, autonomous motoring is coming, whether we like the precepts, or not. While not wishing to cast a tragic pall over what might be hoving into view, road traffic accident fatalities will increase, not just because of the arrival of ‘self-driving’ motorcars but because our government has completely lost the plot on the road safety front and is ignoring the simple fact that concerted ‘Driver Education’, adopted on a cradle-to-grave basis, is the only way forwards. Although it has not happened yet, the sometime military term of ‘collateral damage’ is already circulating the halls of the Department for Transport and that is an unwarranted and undesirable status, for sure.
Fuel prices will escalate to new peaks, because our government and its opposition have mismanaged the nation’s finances and the motorist remains the only cash cow open to popular abuse. The paper ‘tax disc’ will make a welcome return, because the government has lost almost £100m in revenue (including ‘evasion’) since that blithering idiot, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, introduced its removal a couple of years ago. Insurance companies will be taxed again by government in its vain attempt to make the books balance, which will hike up premiums by another 10% and more. Car prices will escalate to obviate losses being made in sales levels and crushed profit-margins but also to help them meet the increasingly expensive rigours of cleaning-up-their-acts. Expensive electric and hybrid vehicles will double in turnover accordingly.
Perhaps more monumentally, the return of a ‘sub-prime nightmare’ in the PCP and vehicle leasing scene will come to the fore, further aiding our distrust of the finance and banking industries, along with their ‘evergreen friends’ in the political arena, thereby reducing our reliance on a motor industry already suffering from a major loss of consumer loyalty. The problem is, we may have already hit the buffers but some of Whitehall’s duffers cannot conceal the realities any longer. 2018 will be intriguing for a plethora of reasons.