Mid-Life Crisis?

In order to breathe new life into existing models, many manufacturers give mid-life facelifts to some of their cars.

As loyal readers of my blog will be aware, I have a penchant towards cars from the VW Group. I am not saying for one minute that other manufacturers don’t produce fine products, but personally I like the understated styling of VW Group models which don’t date at the alarming rate of some design offerings available today. Take the styling of the current Ford Fiesta as an example. This model compares directly with the Volkswagen Polo and Škoda Fabia yet depreciates some 7% more in value over a three year period. Most Japanese manufacturers appear to have lost the plot where styling is concerned, having adopted aggressive front ends and protruding tail-light clusters. This is simply the trend of the moment and avant-garde designs fast lose their appeal with the buying public. Whilst some would say that many VW Group products are rather staid, they continue to hold their value over the years and rarely look out of place amidst more futuristic offerings.

The question that one must ask is why models are given a facelift. Surely there would be no need for change had the designers got the product right in the first place. In reality, car makers want to keep their products in the forefront of the market place, and it is a constant battle to keep up with new and improved products from competitors. Facelifts therefore inject new life into existing models, extending their life for 18 months up to three years. In recent months, facelifts have been announced for the Audi A3, SEAT Leon, Škoda Octavia and VW Golf. The modified A3 is already available but buyers will have to wait until early 2017 for the updated models from the other marques.

To look at the aforementioned facelifted models, it is quite difficult to spot what is different. External changes include new or tweaked grilles, restyled bumpers, improved lights and new wheel designs. Most improvements are not visible from the outside as they centre around upgraded infotainment systems and enhancements to the power output of engines on offer. None of these are a bad thing and if they generate new life into a three or four year old product, it’s good news for the manufacturer. Limited changes to the exterior are also good news for the owners of pre-facelift models as only the diehard discerning buyer will be able to spot the differences.

Let’s start with the SEAT Leon. A reshaped front bumper now features a grille that has been stretched by 40mm, and the car is offered in three additional exterior colours. Interior trim has been upgraded and an electric handbrake and ambient lighting have been added. The new 115bhp 1.0 three-cylinder turbo petrol engine, already available in the Audi A3, Škoda Octavia and VW Golf; is now offered and the 1.6 diesel engine has had a power boost to 115PS. Add-on options include wireless phone charging, Traffic Sign Recognition and Traffic Jam Assist.

Next the Škoda Octavia. This boasts a new front end which has already divided opinion. It features split headlights with LED daylight running lamps and a wider grille that more closely resembles the new Kodiaq SUV. The lower bumper section has been tidied up with crisp horizontal lines designed to emphasise the car’s width. The rear bumper has also been restyled and the tail-lights tweaked. Inside, it is the infotainment systems that boast the biggest change. All systems now come with capacitive touchscreens which are larger in size. Optional features include a customised key that can store multiple driver preferences, a heated steering wheel, folding tables in the backs of the front seats and new cup holders that are moulded to the shape of bottles allowing them to be opened with one hand.

Now for the VW Golf which has a re-profiled bumper, slightly modified grille and air duct styling, minor restyling to the front wings and revised headlights with LED daytime running lights and a new full LED main beam function. The rear receives full LED tail-lights and a newly designed bumper and the model benefits from new wheel designs and exterior colours. Inside, there are revised trims for the doors, dashboard and centre console and some models can be specified with an Active Info Display with 12.3in high-definition monitor in place of standard analogue instruments. Infotainment systems are enhanced with larger displays across all models together with new or updated driver assistant systems including  Traffic Jam Assist, Emergency Assist, Lane Assist and an updated City Emergency Braking system. Needless to say, most of these options come at a price!

Finally the Audi A3. Key updates include styling tweaks with Xenon or LED headlights as standard. The front grille has had a minor restyle along with the headlights meaning the car now more closely resembles the larger A4. As with the other marques, the Audi also boasts new exterior colours and wheel designs. The main technological enhancement is the option of a virtual cockpit display in lieu of conventional analogue instruments.

Prices for the revised models are unlikely to deflect far from existing prices although uncertainties over exchange rates may ultimately have an impact. It’s fair to say that the improvements and enhancements across all these models are good for the consumer as they reflect the latest developments in technology. They should also reap rewards for the manufacturers as they either retain or attract new customers to their product range whilst remaining competitive in a fierce marketplace so it’s hardly a mid-life crisis!

For comparison pre-facelift photos of these models, please refer to earlier blog posts.

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When Less Is More

A few vital statistics …

Regular readers will already be familiar with my blog reviews and comparisons of cars from the Volkswagen Group. One aspect that I generally omit is the overall size of each vehicle, so to make amends, I am detailing the vital statistics of four comparable vehicles. These are the SEAT Leon, Škoda Octavia, VW Golf and the Audi A3. Each car compared is a 5-door hatchback, and for price comparison purposes, uses SE trim specification. Obviously, despite the same name, levels of trim in each car do vary considerably with the Skoda offering some of the highest and the Audi the least.

Leon

Firstly, the SEAT Leon. This is currently priced from £18245 (approx €23720) for a 1.4 TSI 125PS Manual in SE trim.

Wheelbase 2636mm Front Track 1549mm Rear Track 1520mm Length 4263mm Width 1816mm 1975mm with mirrors. Boot space ranges from 380 litres with rear seats up to 1270 litres with seats folded.

Octavia

Now, the Škoda Octavia. This is also currently priced from £18245 (approx €23720) for a 1.4 TSI 150PS Manual in SE trim.

Wheelbase 2686mm Front Track 1549mm Rear Track 1520mm Length 4659mm Width 1814mm 2017mm with mirrors. Boot space ranges from 590 litres with rear seats up to a whopping 1580 litres with seats folded.

Golf

Next, the VW Golf. This is currently priced from £19710 (approx €25600) for a 1.4 TSI 122PS Manual in SE trim.

Wheelbase 2636mm Front Track 1549mm Rear Track 1520mm Length 4255mm Width 1799mm 2027mm with mirrors. Boot space ranges from 380 litres with rear seats up to 1270 litres with seats folded.

Audi

Finally, the Audi A3. This is currently priced from £20700 (approx €27000) for a 1.4 TFSI 150PS Manual in SE trim.

Wheelbase 2636mm Front Track 1535mm Rear Track 1506mm Length 4310mm Width 1785mm 1966mm with mirrors. Boot space ranges from 380 litres with rear seats up to 1220 litres with seats folded.

It doesn’t take a genius to see how similar these vehicles are. The Leon, Golf and A3 all share the same MQB platform whilst the Octavia benefits from a stretched version of the same platform. The Leon and Golf are virtually identical in size, right down to the luggage capacity. Despite the A3 giving the impression of being a large car, it is actually shorter than the Octavia. As is to be expected from Škoda, the Octavia delivers considerably more for your money and offers boot space to rival cars in the segment above, proving once again that less is more! Ultimately, the final choice is down to styling as all the models are extremely well built and share the same mechanical parts.

Simply Clever

At first sight the title of this blog may seem slightly bewildering …

To an extent, this is an update of my blog in May when a comparison review of three cars from the VW Group stable was undertaken. This is a more in-depth look at two of the vehicles whilst the third is recently new to the market this year. The cars in question are the replacement Škoda Octavia and the all-new Audi A3 saloon whilst bringing up the rear is the Volkswagen Jetta, often seen as a booted version of the Golf.

All three of these vehicles are very similar in size and in many ways look similar to each other despite all being unique models. This rather illustrates the fact that computer-designed cars aimed at achieving maximum energy efficiencies all emerge from the design board looking very anonymous and manufacturers are left with detailed styling tweaks to try and make them stand out from the crowd.

The latest version of the Škoda Octavia has moved the model somewhat upmarket. It is larger overall than the model it’s replaced as the manufacturer introduced a new mid segment car called the Rapid some twelve months ago. The Rapid competes more equally with the likes of the Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra and with the introduction of yet another derivative under the Rapid banner in the shape of the Spaceback, the model should have a considerable impact upon that market segment.

In order to differentiate their model lineup, it was necessary for Škoda to increase the size of the new Octavia which is now closer in size to a Ford Mondeo than the previous model. So back to the blog header of Simply Clever .. it’s the tag line of Škoda and for very good reason as will be seen from reading on!

All the cars being compared here resemble a conventional saloon (or sedan for readers in the United States!) However the Octavia is in fact a hatchback which offers many advantages when it comes to versatility and luggage capacity. Whilst all models have a starting price at so-called basic level, the comparisons here are based on the higher specification models from all three manufacturers but all powered by the same 1.6 TDI 105PS engine.

For a car as large as the Octavia one might imagine an engine of 1.6 litres struggling but for everyday motoring performance is more than adequate even though it requires relatively frequent gear changing at low speed. The ride is generally comfortable and the driver has reassurance from the grip the front wheels provide. A slick gear change offers accurate selection and apart from some wind noise at high speed, the car is generally quiet even with the diesel engine. One of the Octavia’s highlights is the build quality of the cabin which is a match for the VW Golf, always renowned for its finish. Standard safety features include seven air bags including a knee airbag for the driver, five star Euro NCAP rating, electronic brake force distribution, stability control and a hill hold braking function.

The dashboard layout is clear and functional rather than a remit for the whims of designers and incorporates one of the best touch screen infotainment systems currently available. All the car’s functions can be controlled from this unit ranging from fuel consumption data to telephone connection and satellite navigation. Seats are quite supportive with lumber support available for the driver and front seat passenger. There is adequate room for 6ft adults both in the front and rear. The boot is simply cavernous providing 590 litres with the seats up and no less than 1580 litres with the rear seats folded.

Even the entry level Octavia is equipped with alloy wheels, manual air conditioning, DAB radio, Bluetooth and a multi-change CD player all for a starting price of £15990. The comparison model here boasts dual-zone climate controlled air conditioning, engine stop-start technology, front fog lights, rear parking sensors, all electric windows, cruise control, satellite navigation, automatic lights and wipers, and part leather upholstery … all for an on-the-road price of £21090!

Next we have the new Audi A3 saloon that is an addition to the established A3 range of hatchbacks and cabriolet. Whilst most models are powered by high performance engines, the manufacturer has not forgotten the cost-conscious driver, hence the availability of the 1.6 TDI unit. The standard specification for the car is with sport suspension which by definition provides a firmer ride all round but customers can opt for a no-cost standard suspension configuration. As is to be expected from a quality front wheel drive car, road grip is good although road noise can penetrate the cabin. Safety features include stability control, front, side and curtain airbags and the maximum five star Euro NCAP rating.

The quality of the cabin is first class although it isn’t as simple in design as that of the Octavia. A novel feature is the slim infotainment screen that pops up from the upper part of the dashboard. The multi media interface offers control of most of the car’s main functions via a control dial and a few buttons. Note that the Octavia’s infotainment unit is touch screen operated and as your hand approaches, a menu pops up! The front seats are both supportive and multi adjustable allowing most people to get comfortable behind the wheel. Boot capacity is 425 litres which can be increased by folding the rear seats flat but access is restricted owing to the saloon design.

The A3 saloon is available in two trim levels with standard specification including dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth connectivity, and sports seats. However, in order to bring the specification in line with that of the Octavia, extras costing £3240 will be needed bringing the on-the-road price to a staggering £25520!

Finally a look at the Volkswagen Jetta. In essence this car resembles a mini Passat which is no bad thing although it looks fairly staid and anonymous. As with the other vehicles reviewed, the Jetta comes with a choice of engines but again for comparison purposes it is the frugal 1.6 TDI model that is being costed. This unit is both fuel-efficient and a willing performer, providing plenty of pace and good acceleration when overtaking. Road holding is reassuring as is to be expected from a proven front wheel drive unit and the steering light yet positive. There is some slight wind and road noise at speed. All the usual safety features are on offer including front, side and curtain airbags, stability control, and a five star rating from Euro NCAP.

Whilst this model is a derivative of the Golf, the build quality of the dashboard doesn’t appear to match that of its stablemate. This may be because the car is built in Mexico where quality control standards are not quite as high as those in Europe. However, the car will readily accommodate four adults on well supporting seats as this model grew in size from the previous generation Jetta. Boot space is remarkably generous offering 510 litres with the rear seats in place. This can be enhanced if the 60-40 rear seats are folded down.

The base model with air conditioning, full electric windows and remote central locking will set one back £19315. However, to have a comparably equipped car to the Octavia, it will cost £24079 which includes £2844 of extras on top of the Sport trim which offers alloy wheels, cruise control and automatic headlights as standard.

The diesel engine referred to in this review offers fuel consumption in excess of 70 mpg for the Octavia according to official tests. Personally I think that is extremely optimistic although careful driving should yield in excess of 55 mpg on a regular basis. Both the Octavia and A3 have Euro V CO2 exhaust emissions of 99 g/km meaning they currently fall into the zero road tax bracket whilst the Jetta emits 109 g/km putting it into the £20 road tax bracket. For those fortunate enough to be able to afford a new car, both are attractive propositions; at some point in time we all need to take positive action to help our environment rather than selfishly driving around in fuel guzzlers that pollute the planet!

Time now to summarise. The biggest car of the three reviewed is the Octavia although only by a narrow margin. With the largest wheelbase, it doesn’t compromise on interior space and also provides the largest luggage capacity. The practicality of the car is further enhanced by the hatchback styling. From a visual perspective, the A3 undoubtedly wins but at a hefty price. Whilst offering reasonable value for money, the Jetta really doesn’t cut the mustard as it is lacking in so many respects at base level. As reviewed, the A3 costs £4430 more than the Octavia and the Jetta £2989 extra. This brings me back to the title of this blog .. namely that Škoda live up to their promise of being Simply Clever!

And to reiterate that fact, you’ll find neat little touches in the Octavia such as a multi media holder, waste paper bin and ice scraper behind the fuel flap. Simply clever!

Spoilt For Choice

When it comes to choosing a new motor vehicle today, whether new or used, one is literally spoilt for choice. There are vehicles covering all market segments ranging from small so-called city cars to the almost incongruous off road vehicle that spends most of its life on the school run! In between, there are the more traditional family hatchbacks and saloons and an ever-increasing array of multi purpose vehicles aka people carriers.

There are now approaching 34 million licensed vehicles on the roads of the United Kingdom. Fifty years ago, this figure stood at 10 million and grew during the boom period of the 1970s to stand at over 20 million by 1983. It is fair to say that this phenomenal growth rate cannot be sustained by our overcrowded road network, not to mention dwindling supplies of motor fuel. Despite ever increasing demand and very high prices, the most popular choice of vehicle is still the conventional family hatchback or saloon. The only difference today is that approximately 50% of all new vehicles sold are powered by diesel engines. Such an option was unheard of in the 1960s with only a trickle of diesel-powered cars being available in the 1970s. As these engines have become far more refined coupled with the ability to offer exceptional miles per gallon, so has their popularity. In addition, diesel engines have lower emissions as measured by a European Directive and therefore attract lower annual road fund licence fees.

According to a statistical report, in 2010 the average engine size of all licensed cars was 1750cc. With the advent of smaller engines with turbochargers, this figure is likely to fall. In the UK that year, Ford manufactured 15% of all licensed cars with GM Vauxhall making 12%. According to the report, almost 50% of all licensed cars in the UK are manufactured by Ford, Vauxhall, Volkswagen, Peugeot and Renault.

On the basis that the most popular choice of vehicle is still a traditional car, this article is looking at three latest offerings from the Volkswagen Group, namely the Audi A3, Škoda Octavia and VW Jetta. I make no apology for selecting models from this major manufacturer as they constantly outshine models from competitors especially in terms of reliability. To some, their designs may appear rather staid, but this is a long term bonus as they hold their value better than current avant garde designs on offer from some manufacturers, notably Ford and Peugeot to name but two.

Given that the models all come from the same group stable, final choice can be quite daunting as in many respects the vehicles offer a choice of the same engines and transmission, even sharing the same or modified platform. So what do the individual models have to offer?

First is the Audi A3, the design of this third generation car still looking similar to the original model. This is a general trend of VW Group cars whereby their conservative styling evolves rather than changing dramatically. Not only does this maintain easy recognition of a brand name, it also helps older models retain their value. This latest model provides a stylish exterior with an excellent interior made of high-quality materials. There is plenty of kit for the enthusiast but even base models come equipped with stop-start technology for fuel saving, alloy wheels, Bluetooth connectivity and air conditioning.

Comfort in the revised A3 has been improved by tweaking the suspension settings although the firmer sport settings are available in the top end models. The stiff suspension and lack of equipment were hallmarks of the previous model so great attention has been paid to rectifying these deficiencies. Whilst the car is the same length as its predecessor, the wheelbase has been stretched to provide more interior space as well as offering a slightly higher boot capacity. This now stands at 365 litres with the rear seats in place and 1100 litres with them folded. This new model received a full five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating. This is the only car in this review to come with a choice of three or five door bodywork.

Next is the all-new Škoda Octavia. Once again this model is something of an evolution of the previous model but unlike the Audi A3, the car is considerably larger than the one it replaces. Whilst giving the impression of a booted car, the Octavia is, in fact, a hatchback. The design is best described as understated, offering smart classic looks at the expense of design wizardry. Coupled with the conservative exterior is a cleanly-designed, functional interior but build quality equals that of the VW Golf which is hard to beat. Standard kit includes air con, stop-start, alloy wheels, Bluetooth and DAB radio with touchscreen. Other details offered by the Octavia include luggage restraints, a reversible boot floor and a useful ice scraper concealed inside the fuel filler cap! Like the A3 this vehicle received a full five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating.

To drive, the Octavia is comfortable with little body roll but lacks the excitement of the VW Golf. However, for a car of its size, the engines are very frugal yet still manage to power the vehicle capably. The accommodation offered by the Octavia has always been a major selling point and this new model provides 590 litres of boot space with the rear seats in place! Additionally, rear legroom beats the competition hands down and is close to that offered by the VW Passat, Vauxhall Insignia or Ford Mondeo, all cars in the category above.

Finally a look at the Volkswagen Jetta, often described as a booted Golf but actually a separate car in its own right. From the front it shares the familiar VW face which leads into a car some 90mm longer than its predecessor. In profile the car resembles its bigger stablemate the VW Passat, itself a traditional saloon car with a boot. Driver comfort is high and passengers enjoy more rear legroom than in the Golf owing to the longer wheelbase. The dashboard mimics the logical layout from the Golf together with similar build quality. Luggage is well catered for by the 510 litre boot space  and passengers are well protected by a five-star Euro NCAP safety rating.

The Jetta offers the same well-weighted controls that drivers expect from Volkswagen products and provides good value for money especially as discounts can be obtained by shopping around. Most models come with alloy wheels, air con and cruise control.

So which one to buy? Ultimately that depends on what one is seeking from a motor vehicle. Undeniably the Audi A3 has the sportiest pedigree of the three cars reviewed as well as the prestige associated with the brand but those come at a price. The Škoda Octavia offers the roomiest car of the three and is built to the same exacting standards. It also matches the others in terms of standard equipment and for those who have hitherto snubbed the marque, the company now sports a smart new logo which is as every bit upmarket as the car itself. The VW Jetta lacks the image of its sister car the Golf but offers a traditional saloon format at a competitive price. However residual values are unlikely to match those of the Golf.

In a recent press review, both the Audi A3 and Škoda Octavia were awarded 40 points out of 45 whilst the VW Jetta only achieved a score of 37. Prices of the A3 three-door currently range from just under £17905 to over £28160. The Octavia entry level model is £15990 going up to £23240 for the top of the range whilst £19075 is the starting point for the Jetta increasing to £23410.

A Bumper Year Ahead

To compensate for regrets in not pursuing journalism as a career I present yet another blog entry with a motoring theme …

It would appear that 2013 is going to be a bumper year for new model launches from several leading manufacturers as they strive to retain market share and offer ever-increasing fuel and emission efficient engines. As I have a preference for vehicles from the VW Group, once again this article focuses on upcoming new models from that stable.

Key to these new products is the VW Group new MQB platform. This supports the three models featured and in the near future will be used for updated VW Tiguan and Touran models. A slightly stretched version will accommodate the all-new Škoda Octavia when it is launched in 2013 as this car will be targeted at the market currently served by Ford’s Mondeo and GM’s Insignia.

First model to be launched on the MQB platform was a revised Audi A3. This model is perceived as being head and shoulders above its stablemates but in reality it is mostly an over-priced derivative and offers little enhancement in performance. For some buyers of course it is all about prestige rather than value for money, but savvy customers will not be hoodwinked by such blatant badge engineering. Whilst the A3 will hold its value well, this must be considered in conjunction with the initial cost. As a simple example, an A3 costing £20000 and retaining 50% of its value after three years will be worth £10000. An identically engineered SEAT costing £16000 and depreciating by 55% in the same period will be worth £7200. The total loss on the Audi is £10000 but only £8800 on the SEAT.

There is little doubt that the A3 is a refined vehicle and is built from first class materials. It boasts both aluminium and high-strength steel to minimise weight and has a delightful interior ambience. It offers three suspension settings but whilst the sportier ones give sharper handling, the ride quality suffers. Accommodation is more than adequate upfront but rear legroom suffers and the VW Golf offers more space. Currently the new A3 is only available in three door form which always hinders rear access. The boot is very practical with an adjustable floor to provide a level loading area when the rear seats are folded.

Hitting the streets within a matter of weeks will be the seventh generation of the VW Golf. The current version has only been in production for four years and this boasted many improvements over the Mark V version. So just what could be done to improve this very successful car further? Firstly, it’s lighter, more efficient and offers greater practicality than the exisiting model. New high-strength steel and other weight-saving measures used in its construction will enhance overall fuel efficiency. In addition, with new improved engines and aerodynamics, CO2 emissions have been reduced by about 14%.

Highlights of the new Golf include a progressive steering system to aid both low-speed and higher speed manoeuvrability. Most models will benefit from four driving modes which adjust the air conditioning and engine management systems accordingly. An electric parking brake is standard across the range. Also standard is Bluetooth connectivity and a DAB radio with touch-screen versatility. It also boasts an emergency braking function which utilises sensors to detect an imminent collision and at speeds below 19mph automatically applies the brakes. Such technology is an extra cost option on the A3. Overall accommodation for passengers has been improved in both the front and rear whilst boot space has also increased by 8%. As in the A3 a two-position boot floor is standard.

Overall the new Golf offers more refinement, economy, technology and sophistication over the outgoing model. Remarkably, prices are not expected to increase and should start from around £16200. This is certainly not cheap but considerably lower than the £19200 starting price of the equivalent Audi.

The final new car launch is the SEAT Leon. The current car is certainly getting long in the tooth and way overdue for replacement. The 2013 version has a much more aggressive stance that will stand out from the crowd. Of the three different marques the Leon will offer the sportiest stance. In line with its stablemates, the new Leon will be considerably lighter than the current model and up to 22% more fuel efficient. It will share many of the engines offered in the Golf and far more choice than the Audi A3. Ultimately buyers will have a choice of five petrol and four diesel variants.

Deserved criticism of the Leon in the past has been the inferior cabin compared with many of its rivals. The new Leon hopes to address these concerns with a more premium feel and improvements in both the quality of materials and attention to detail. A highlight of the Leon will be the availability of full-LED headlamps which is a first in this vehicle category.

Whilst the outgoing model has only been available as a five door, both three-door and estate derivatives are expected in due course. The anticipated starting price for this model will be circa £15000 and much in line with the current car. This represents a saving of over £4000 on the entry level A3 and whilst individual specifications do vary, these cannot justify such a price difference. All these cars share the same major components so ultimately any decision as to which one to buy comes down to aesthetics, snobbery or the size of one’s wallet!

Finally a preview photograph of the new Škoda Octavia seen here in estate form which, as mentioned earlier, will be moving upmarket.