Thursday 18 January 2018

Horseless carriage with bells

The Mercedes-Benz CLS is stunning yet in our reliance on oil, we have not really come all that far from Karl Benz's first vehicle, writes Campbell Spray

VIEW FROM THE TOP: Campbell Spray in a replica of the first ever petrol-powered motor car
at the launch of the Mercedes-Benz CLS
VIEW FROM THE TOP: Campbell Spray in a replica of the first ever petrol-powered motor car at the launch of the Mercedes-Benz CLS

I feel pretty exposed at the moment as you can see in the picture on the right but things aren't all bad. Sitting on a replica of the first ever petrol-powered motor car, outside a super luxury hotel, which is in Nama, gives you a good perspective on the world.

That you are there for the launch of a luxury Mercedes-Benz coupe in the week that oil prices have soared to record levels, putting at risk the fragile recovery in the West, adds a bit of spur to the creative process.

In the 125 years since Karl Benz -- pictured in my stead at the top of the page -- built his own four-stroke cycle gasoline engine in Mannheim, Germany, production of motor vehicles has reached such a point that there are about one billion worldwide.

Nearly all of them feed from the oil wells like demented hyenas and ever since Karl rattled down the street, the anger people now feel about the price of fuel has been a certainty. The resource is fast running out, which is why at long last the motor industry is going all-out to get better consumption as well as taking a major punt in putting enormous resources into developing different power systems such as electric and hydrogen.

Okay, there's a lot more body, comfort and styling around but looking at Benz's vehicle, I feel we haven't come that far in developing the car. That's probably because it has always done a pretty basic job and there was plenty of fuel about. The horseless carriage turned into the senseless one.

Here in this country, which is more reliant on Libyan oil than anywhere else in the world, we often rush to take decisions that aren't based on a thought-out policy. In that vein, we have encouraged the major switch to diesel power because its lower emissions usually result in cheaper VRT and road tax. That is, of course, relatively short-sighted as diesel engines tend to be more expensive to build, need extra maintenance and, despite enormous advances, are still noisier and less refined.

This was brought home to me when I was testing the Hyundai ix20 this month. This is the company's slightly more up-market version of the Kia Venga, which was one of my favourite cars last year. It is a superbly roomy, adaptable and likeable car whose interior is almost Tardis-like in contrast to the nicely sculpted exterior, which even verges on the cute -- in the nicest sense, of course.

It is a compact-grade mini- MPV, which will appeal to young families and downsizers alike. The luggage area is simply enormous, especially when you lower the false floor. Fold the rear seats and you could put an elephant in. But as much as I liked the ix20, I found it rather lumbering to drive, mainly because the gear ratio was poor and the engine rather gruff and ponderously slow.

This was basically because the superb, well-equipped safe small car for families that I had on test had been given a low emission diesel 1.4 engine, which brings it into the annual €104 road tax band. However, there is also a 1.4 petrol version which has a peppy, much more compliant engine. Yet it comes into the €156 road tax band and sales are going four to one in favour of the diesel, despite the petrol model being €1,500 cheaper than the €18,995 for the oil-burner. It will take 30 years of road taxes to make up the difference and I reckon that the majority of drivers will get much the same economy as well as the fact that the price difference between diesel and petrol fuels will narrow even more and in the long run is likely to be reversed.

Both versions have Hyundai's five-year triple car package of unlimited mileage warranty, roadside assistance and vehicle health checks. They can both avail of the Government's and Hyundai's scrappage policy, which reduces prices to a most attractive €15,250 and €16,750 respectively. Cars such as the Opel Corsa and Meriva are knocked for six by the value in the Korean ix20, as are competitors from Japan and France. It is one of the reasons why Hyundai is doing so well at the moment, with a growth of 56 per cent in passenger car sales to date this year and a market share of 4.5 per cent.

Hyundai says that it has a 'modern premium' concept based on the idea that high quality does not necessarily require a high price. Hyundai says it will offer "high-end, high-quality and emotional values that customers never experienced or expected".

I'm not sure what that means. However, I sat very high on the Benz replica last Monday and enjoyed beautiful views of the Wicklow hills. As I said earlier, we were there to see the launch of a new Mercedes, and a pretty stunning one at that. I have already written about the CLS after a test drive around Florence last autumn. The new price is worth savouring. Starting at €65,750 for the CLS 250CDI automatic, with this time a very efficient and smooth diesel on board, it is 23 per cent or €19,100 less than the outgoing model, which was far inferior in terms of specification, style and driving ability.

It is still a massive price but let's not beat ourselves up about it. In its own world, it is great value. Karl Benz would be happy. Yet unless we really get to grips with our move away from a reliance on oil as the basis for fuel, Benz's legacy will be just to stir up righteous anger.

Sunday Independent

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