Top Of The Pops

This isn’t a reference to the latest trends in popular music but a look at the top-selling cars in Europe and UK colour trends in 2016 …

According to Autocar® a leading UK motoring magazine, only fourteen different models of car dominated the number one selling position in twenty-eight European countries. Furthermore, fourteen of those top positions were occupied by VW Group cars which comes as little surprise given their overall reliability and relatively conservative styling that doesn’t date as quickly as some manufacturer offerings.

Top of the popularity list is the Volkswagen Golf. This model was the preferred choice of new car buyers in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. Of these countries, only Germany and Sweden boast mainstream car manufacturers but, interestingly, Germans support their home industry whilst the Swedes relegate their native Volvo into second, third and fourth places. Even then, the combined Volvo sales still fell short of Golf purchases by nearly 5000 vehicles.

Unsurprisingly, given its space, practicality and value, the Škoda Octavia triumphed in its home market of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Poland and Switzerland. In the Czech Republic, buyers are very supportive of their own product as the Škoda Fabia took second place in the sales chart and half of all the country’s top-sellers are Škoda models. The Fabia also claimed second place in Poland making that country a lucrative market for the Czech manufacturer.

The Nissan Qashqai sealed first place in the tiny car market of Croatia and narrowly beat the Octavia to second place in the equally small market of Latvia. Renault claimed top spot in their home market of France with the Clio, which also was the favoured purchase in Portugal, a country that has an affinity towards small French cars. Other European markets share a variety of different models, none of which have dominance. Denmark car buyers favoured the Peugeot 208 whilst the uninspiring Toyota Yaris was top of the pops in Greece. Buyers in Hungary opted for the Suzuki Vitara which may be because it’s manufactured there but the Octavia was in a respectable second place. A strange choice of buyers in Ireland was the Hyundai Tucson, pushing the Golf into second place.

Fiat dominated sales in their home market of Italy with the Panda. With their twisty and often congested roads, it’s not surprising that an economical small car was first choice. The Fiat 500 was most popular in Lithuania where the Nissan Qashqai reached second place. The Fiat 500L took first place in the small car market of Serbia with the Octavia again coming second. Another country supporting their home market was Romania with the Dacia Logan and Duster in first and second places respectively. The Dacia is very much a budget product and is the Romanian arm of Renault. Prices are kept low by using discarded platforms and engines from earlier Renault models and benefiting from low manufacturing costs. The downside to these models is driving vehicles which are some ten years behind the times!

The final three best sellers are the Škoda Fabia which triumphed in Slovakia although the Octavia wasn’t far behind. Sales in Spain were dominated by the home-built SEAT Leon with their Ibiza in a close second place. Bringing up the rear is the United Kingdom where the Ford Fiesta was the number one choice. I’m sure there are people who think that the Fiesta is a British product but no Ford model is built in the country. It is most likely that Fiestas sold in the UK are manufactured in Portugal. The car is a strange choice given its odd styling and the fact that it depreciates at a higher rate than some comparable models from competitors.

Staying in the UK, an analysis was taken of the most popular colour choices for new cars. Monochrome colours are the most popular as white, black and grey take the top three spots. Of these colours, white dominates the charts with 20.51% of 2016 registrations. Blue remains the most popular primary colour and stood at fourth place with 15.38% of the market. Brown has fallen out of favour with demand down by 40.1% on 2015 sales. Somewhat strangely, beige has also dropped by 27.6%, possibly because buyers see it as an unexciting colour. Silver, which once dominated new car sales, found itself in sixth place in 2016, a drop of 7.5% on the previous year.

Of the top-selling ten cars in the UK in 2016, six were finished in black, two in white, and one each in grey and blue. Given the percentages shown above, it must be assumed that more of the less popular vehicles sold were finished in white!

More Britain In The 1970s

Trends in the decade …

As people yearned to get on the housing ladder, they also yearned for the latest furnishings and gadgets of the time. This was despite the fact that most people could not afford all the so-called luxury items becoming available but help was at hand in the form of the trusted credit card and as mentioned in the first part of this review, the decade saw a dramatic rise in debt. This was coupled with rampant inflation but the credit card was seen as a means of obtaining things at any cost.

The furnishings of the time were hardly going to stand out as design masterpieces or even stand the test of time. It was the beginning of the throwaway era which, sadly, is all too commonplace nowadays. Products were no longer being built to last generations but simply to last a few years in the anticipation that people would return to buy new replacements. One of the most expensive items adorning many people’s homes was the colour television, something that, in the UK, had only been around since 1969 and still commanded a premium price. Anyone reading who is old enough to remember early colour broadcasts will recall either garish resolutions or rather washy images. It seemed almost impossible to obtain a clearly defined picture on the screen, with some makes of tv displaying colours running into each other. Whilst my home did not benefit from colour television until 1974, I remember watching the investiture of Prince Charles at Caernarfon Castle on 1 July 1969, courtesy of a neighbour who had one of the first colour tv sets available. A snippet of the investiture can be found on YouTube which shows just how poor the pictures were compared with today!

The all-in-one compact music players of today, albeit now in rapid decline, were but a dream. Many people had fairly cumbersome gramophone players but the first combined record player, radio and cassette player was just around the corner. This was a decade long before the advent of the compact disc and even cassette tapes were relatively new, an innovation from Philips in the Netherlands. This company also introduced the boombox or ghetto blaster as it was affectionately known. This was essentially a portable device which fused the booming sound of home stereo systems with the convenience of cassette players … all in a small, black but heavy box. The youth of the era could be found roaming the streets with these heavy boxes held up to their heads! As the demand for deeper and louder base increased, so did the size of the ghetto blaster, rendering it almost anything but portable.

Although the first commercially available microwave oven was available as far back as 1947, the item we know today did not really enter domestic markets until the 1970s. Yet again, a microwave was an expensive luxury and actually took considerable time to be adopted as an everyday utensil.  Telephones were still connected by fixed wires to the exchange box inside houses so there was none of the hands-free portability we use today. All phones were the property of British Telecom so the availability of choice was very limited. In fact, the plug-in sockets in use today were only introduced in November 1981!

So what makes of car were people driving? Some of the current big names were obviously around such as Ford and Vauxhall (GM to overseas readers), but modern giants such as Volkswagen only had a limited share of the market. Other marques included Rootes Group products and those from the Austin Rover Group which was formerly British Leyland. Japanese manufacturers were only just beginning to make inroads into the UK domestic market so their popularity was yet to gain momentum. Top sellers of the decade based upon registrations were the Cortina, Escort, Capri and Granada from Ford, the Viva from Vauxhall, the Mini, Marina, Allegro and 1100/1300 range from Austin Rover, and the Avenger from Hillman, part of the Rootes Group. Looking back, many of these vehicles were extremely unreliable and badly made. Compared with the cars of today, most were only equipped with so-called basic levels of comfort.

Tobacco consumption was still very high and in 1971 the government introduced the first printed warning message on the left side of cigarette packets: “WARNING by H.M. Government, SMOKING CAN DAMAGE YOUR HEALTH”. Over time, this began to have an impact and consumption has declined considerably since these first warnings. Nowadays, the warnings are far greater with graphic illustrations of what damage smoking can actually cause. Diametrically opposite this, people were beginning to adopt new eating habits and yoghurts became much more popular in the 1970s. We were still a nation of beer drinkers although lager was adopted by many younger adults. The consumption of wine, however, was low due mainly to an absence of choice and our insulation as an island. In other areas, sales of the tea bag escalated and duvets or continental quilts became the must-have for the bedroom. People began to embrace new technology, albeit on a far lower scale than today, as pocket calculators and digital watches swamped the market place.

The 1970s were certainly a decade of change and new ideas although technological advancements were very much in their infancy. The most compact camera one could use was the Instamatic from Kodak and users of modern day photo-editing apps will see just how poor images actually were. Televisions didn’t come with remote control so one actually had to exercise simply to change the tv channel. On the subject of channels, there were just three to watch … BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. Even Channel 4 was not around as this was launched in November 1982. BBC local radio started as an experiment in the late 1960s but did not expand until the early 1970s at which point Independent Local Radio was also granted licences to broadcast. Despite some of the advances in the decade, it was a time of economic strife and Britain’s position amongst world powers diminished. Some things really don’t change …!

An Average Newcomer

A new traditional hatchback in the popular medium-sized family car sector hits the roads …

In October 2012 Škoda launched their new Rapid hatchback model (see blog entry for July 2012). As with most cars from this manufacturer, it bucked the trend in its overall style and more closely resembles a saloon. This approach offers more flexibility and space but it is difficult to draw direct comparisons with traditional hatchback models. The Rapid has hardly been a major seller since its launch but Škoda have now introduced a new derivative of the model to run along side the current car and are calling it the Rapid Spaceback. To many, the concept of a spaceback is an estate car design so the name is rather odd especially as it offers less luggage capacity then the car on which it is based. As I’ve previously blogged about comparable vehicles from the VW Group, this review looks at hatchbacks from other manufacturers who offer direct competitors to the Rapid Spaceback. It will also illustrate that I am not entirely biased!

With a range of engine options similar to the standard Rapid, the Spaceback has good handling and road characteristics although there’s considerable road and wind noise at motorway speeds.The steering is both accurate and reassuring following complaints about the standard Rapid. However, overall the car lacks refinement and ride comfort suffers when travelling on poor road surfaces. Lower aspirated versions of engines can sound rough and require considerable hard working to achieve performance. Emissions and economy fail to match either the Škoda Octavia or other models within the VW Group stable as the latest versions of engines have not been fitted. The cleanest diesel emits 104g/km of carbon dioxide whereas the larger Octavia only emits 99g/km. Whilst it is obvious that Škoda are building this car to a price, it actually costs more than the standard Rapid. However, all expected safety features are provided including six airbags, stability control, Isofix child seat mounting points and an alarm.

Unlike some of its competitors, Škoda sticks to a traditional dashboard layout which is well assembled despite the intrusion of some hard plastics. Controls are all logically laid out and the layout is very similar to the sister car except for a few trim changes. Luggage capacity and rear legroom are the key elements of the Spaceback and far exceed those of competitors. Access to the boot is via a large square tailgate but in line with other Škodas, the 60/40 split rear seats do not fold to a completely flat position. This model also has the option of a panoramic glass roof running from the windscreen to the rear window!

A long established competitor in this sector is the Ford Focus. However, it is questionable how many private buyers opt for this car from new owing to the price. Many new models are registered to fleet operators so it is more likely to be purchased by private individuals as a used car. It comes with a wide range of engines offering different power outputs with the 99bhp 1.0 Ecoboost an ideal option for local driving. A good all rounder, albeit quite noisy, is the 113bhp 1.6 diesel engine as it complements the overall handling and agility of the car. Comfort is far higher than that of the Rapid, with better seats and an absence of road and wind noise.

With regard to the interior design and dashboard layout, one will either love it or hate it! To me it is gimmicky and fails to put the driver at ease with its array of fiddly buttons. Some of the plastics are hard meaning they look cheap and tacky, thereby diminishing some of the better points of the Focus. There are adequate airbags, electronic stability control, air conditioning plus an alarm in most models. An array of options, however, can escalate the price. Luggage capacity isn’t up with the best although the rear seats will fold flat provided the seat bases are tipped up beforehand.

The final vehicle in this comparison is the popular Astra from GM  Motors. Undeniably, this has to be the best looking car of the three and is priced very similarly to the Ford Focus. It comes with an array of engines to suit most buyers, but again it is a popular fleet vehicle and pricey for the average new car buyer. Heavy discounts can be found to lure buyers but these are reflected in overall poor residual values which are likely to be less than for the Škoda. The vehicle offers an all round smooth ride and generally a lack of road and wind noise, neither of which can be said for the Rapid. However, road characteristics are not so appealing as the Astra suffers from body roll and unresponsive steering.

In line with competitors, models are well equipped with six airbags, electronic stability control, electric front windows and air conditioning. Options include climate controlled aircon, DAB radio and other luxury items, none of which add to the overall driving experience. Like the Focus, the dashboard is rather futuristic and far more design over substance with too many small and fiddly buttons. In reality, these could actually be a deterrent to safe driving as some are not clearly marked. The plastics used are also of dubious quality in places. Despite the curvaceous styling of the Astra, it offers generous passenger accommodation with split folding rear seats and a relatively large boot capacity.

So which car should one choose? Both Ford’s and Vauxhall’s reliability record are questionable though from recent results in the JD Power customer satisfaction survey whilst Škoda constantly excels being in the top four best positions. The Rapid offers by far the best overall accommodation but is let down by mediocre ride qualities.

For the majority of people, price may well be the deciding factor. Once this is taken into account, there really is no question … comparing like-for-like specifications, the Rapid has a retail price of £17265 whilst the Focus and Astra cost £19595 and £19640 respectively! With a potential saving of at least £2300 the Škoda must win the day despite it being a very average car all round. Also one has the satisfaction of driving a more select vehicle not popularised by fleet operators.

Badge Engineering

A look at trends in the motor industry of yesteryear…

Over the last six decades, our motor manufacturing industry has seen many changes. Perhaps the greatest of these changes is the demise of former well known British marques at the expense of Japanese manufacturers, with most of the major names from Japan now building cars in this country. However, this is a look back at some of the once proud names to adorn British-built cars and the subtleties engaged by manufacturers to offer what appeared on the surface to be completely different models.

During the 1950s Ford produced a three-box design which appeared under the guises of Popular, Prefect and Anglia. In effect, these models were exactly the same car and literally the only differences were to levels of trim and the possible option of having a slightly more powerful engine in the so-called luxury model which was the Ford Anglia. Similar treatments were applied to the Consul, Zephyr and Zodiac in the same period, although in the late 1960s, the models began to assume greater differences.

The former British Motor Corporation, subsequently British Leyland, Austin Rover and finally MG Rover, probably offered the greatest number of models under different guises. BMC had the advantage of owning several different brand names and unlike Ford, this meant that customers could utilise a certain element of snob value depending upon which brand they purchased. At the lower end of the market were the Austin and Morris brands, whilst the more up-market products were sold under the names of Wolseley, Riley and even MG. When the original Mini was launched in 1959, it was marketed as the Austin Seven and the Morris Mini Minor, but apart from a different grill and badging, the cars were identical. In the early 1960s, these two Minis were joined by a Wolseley Hornet and Riley Elf, both being differentiated by a rather incongruous boot extension to the rear. All other engineering was identical to the base models.

The same badge engineering was applied to the BMC family range of cars in the early 1960s. This practice was brought about by the need to economise on models yet continue to offer a perceived choice to buyers. The company offered the Austin Cambridge, Morris Oxford, plus Wolseley and Riley derivatives, and also launched the MG Magnette which was a more sporty saloon. The body shell, platform and running gear were all identical. Furthermore,  the company introduced a mid range model, initially branded as the Austin 1100 and Morris 1100. These eventually had 1300cc engines fitted and were joined by a Wolseley variant, the Riley Kestrel and an MG. As the company’s fortunes began to fail as a result of continued industrial unrest in the late sixties and early seventies, new models were rationalised and the Wolseley and Riley marques discontinued. Furthermore, the Austin brand offered completely different models from the almost defunct Morris brand.

Another former manufacturer to adopt a similar practice was the Rootes Group. They manufactured under the brand names of Hillman, Singer, Sunbeam and Humber. Unlike BMC, they didn’t use all marques for every model, therefore duplication was not as plentiful. However, in the 1960s they produced the Hillman Imp and its posher sister, the Singer Chamois. Mechanically and bodily, the vehicles were identical. They also marketed the Hillman Minx and Singer Gazelle, both of which would be resurrected in the 1970s with the launch of a new model called the Hillman Hunter. The Minx name was re-introduced to signify a slightly lower specification than the Hunter, whilst the Gazelle was more upmarket. In this instance, they also encompassed the Humber marque producing a top of the range Hunter called the Sceptre. The Sunbeam name was reserved for a rakish coupe model based upon the Hunter platform.

The other major British manufacturer at this time was Vauxhall Motors, now a subsidiary of GM. They also adopted a system of badge engineering, most notably with the Vauxhall Velox, Wyvern and Cresta during the fifties and early sixties. However, these names were dropped as new models were introduced during the sixties and seventies, which reflected a positive change in the fortunes of that company.

So what about badge engineering in the early part of the 21st century? Quite simply, it is still very much in practice, but changes are far greater than simply some trim detail and badge names. Nowadays, different marques owned by the same company will produce their own design of vehicle but utilise the same platforms, gearbox, engines and sometimes, switchgear. A prime example of this is the Volkswagen group. The modern VW Polo, Seat Ibiza and Škoda Fabia are identical vehicles under the skin, but as they all appear completely different in design, many purchasers are swayed by the style or brand name. Likewise, the Audi A3, VW Golf, Seat Ibiza and Škoda Octavia all share a common platform. Whilst some of these may be well known, there are less obvious modern day pairings. For example, both Peugeot and Citroën share all common parts as they are actually one and the same company. The Renault Modus and Nissan Note are also on the same platform as Renault owns a 25% stake in Nissan. Another surprise may be the Ford Ka which is actually a Fiat 500 under the skin. Manufacturers need to collaborate nowadays as research, design and tooling costs are so high. For companies like VW, it makes economic sense to cross-fertilise their model range and for others with limited brands at their disposal, a link with another manufacturer can be a crtitical point as to their continued success or impending failure. The truth of the matter is that you may not be driving exactly what you might think…!

A future blog will take an in-depth look at three popular hatchbacks from the VW stable to illustrate both the similarities and differences in the models marketed under different brand names.