Spanish Roads

As in any country, motoring in Spain brings both challenges and pleasure … 

I think it’s fair to say that some of their motoring laws are overly complex and the roadsides are awash with signage which only leads to confusion for the non savvy motorist. Basically, there are speed restriction signs at the approach to most junctions outside urban areas, then once passed the junction, further signs reminding you of the maximum permitted speed. This also applies on motorways, so the countryside appears full of lollipops wherever you travel! On the plus side, many of the main routes and motorways across Spain are maintained to a far higher standard than in the UK but still fall short of the quality of road surfaces across much of France. On the downside, some of the minor roads are actually devoid of tarmac in places, simply resembling dust tracks! However, that simply adds to the charm of motoring in Spain, coupled with the complete lack of traffic on many secondary roads. Only recently, I drove in excess of 45 kms over mountain roads and only encountered four other vehicles in that distance, so saying many roads are quiet is something of an understatement.

One thing that won’t escape an astute motorist, however, is the average age of motor vehicles on the roads. According to a recent survey, the average age of a car on Spanish roads is now 11.5 years, compared with 8.89 years in 2008. This equates to some 11 million vehicles, and if the trend continues or simply stabilises, this figure could rise to 16 million by 2017. The average age is far higher than in the other four major European markets of Germany, UK, France and Italy. Statistically, 29% of cars on the roads of Spain are between 11 and 15 years old whilst a staggering 24% are over 15 years old!

The recession that took hold in 2008 is probably the main reason for this situation. Many families have struggled to make ends meet, especially in Spain where average earnings are considerably lower than in much of Europe, so updating a motor vehicle has either been unaffordable or lacked priority. A lesser factor is that cars actually last longer in Mediterranean climates as bodywork does not corrode as a result of adverse weather conditions. In an effort to try and encourage people to purchase a new vehicle, the Spanish government has run an incentive discount scheme, similar to that promoted by the UK government several years ago. Unfortunately, unlike the success of the UK scheme, buyers in Spain have not been quick on the uptake, so the scheme has been relaunched on several occasions, the latest version having started in March 2015. This will run for 12 months or until allocated funds have been exhausted, and will entitle buyers of qualifying new cars to a discount of up to €3000 (£2300).

People may well question the need to update an old car if it still serves their purpose. However, there are several major factors to consider when driving a vehicle considered to be past its sell-by date. The number one factor is safety. In tests carried out by the Royal Automobile Club of Spain (RACE), an impact between two vehicles with an age gap of 20 years saw the occupants of the new vehicle suffer serious but not fatal injuries, whilst those in the old car were killed outright. RACE stated that the chances of an accident increase proportionately to the age of the vehicle, as does potential fatality. Studies show that in a motorway accident in a car less than 4 years old, the fatality rate is 1:74 (one fatality for every 74 incidents) whereas in a car over 15 years old, this increases to 1:36. On ordinary roads, the comparable figures are 1:41 and 1:19! A second factor is the cost of running an older vehicle. On average, a newer vehicle consumes 30% less fuel and its emissions are 95% less, so it’s also kinder to the environment. It is acknowledged that perceived savings in fuel will depend greatly on the annual distance driven. Newer cars are also much safer with multiple airbags affording driver and passengers more protection, superior crush-proof zones, and often come with facilities that aid the overall driving experience. If Spain’s target figure of old vehicles were replaced with new models, in excess of 300 million litres of fuel will be saved each year, thereby preventing the import of over 1.96 million barrels of oil per annum.

Despite the recession, sales of new vehicles have continued to be quite buoyant in the UK market, with a particularly good performance in the first six months of 2015. However, unlike much of mainland Europe, the UK has a very large fleet of company cars, with many businesses updating their fleet every 2-3 years. The sale of these vehicles obviously impacts heavily upon monthly statistics which do not accurately reflect the number of private purchases. With more and more British families being squeezed nearer or below the poverty line, there is every chance that a higher percentage of older cars will ultimately be gracing the roads of the UK in the coming years.

Wherever in the world you may live, drive carefully and happy motoring!

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Daytime Running Lights

If you’re a regular road user, the appearance of daytime running lights on vehicles will be familiar …

European legislation going back to 2008 decreed that daytime running lights (DRL) should be fitted on all new model passenger cars and small delivery vans since February 2011 with trucks and buses following from August 2012. They should automatically illuminate when the engine is started and work independently of the main lighting circuit meaning that all other lights should be off. The appearance of such lights on vehicles varies considerably even though they have to meet minimum legislative requirements. They can be standalone lights or incorporated into the headlamp units and further vary from single bulbs to almost dazzling LED displays.

The concept of having lights on during daylight hours is nothing new. Volvo were the first manufacturer to incorporate such a facility into their cars because of local legislation in their native country of Sweden dating back to 1977. However, many people found them irritating and the facility could be switched off. In an effort to improve road safety, the UK introduced dim-dip lighting on new vehicles in the mid 1980s. This concept replaced the traditional sidelight but also meant that many drivers would try and drive on this reduced lighting rather than switch on headlights when dusk fell. The facility proved to be counter productive and was soon scrapped as it was not adopted throughout Europe.

So why have daytime running lights been introduced? Quite simply, they improve road safety during daylight hours as vehicles become more visible to pedestrians and other motorists alike. With numerous countries across Scandinavia and Europe demanding the use of headlights on all the time, it was inevitable that some form of new legislation would ensue. A European Commission study in 2006 claimed that road casualties could be prevented across the EU with a positive benefit-to-cost ratio when the costs of fitting the lamps and the environmental cost of running them were taken into account.

Many daytime running lights are of the LED variety that consume a fraction of the energy used by a normal headlight. A pair of headlamps could consume 110 watts, whilst LED lights typically use 5-10 watts of power. This therefore puts minimal strain on a vehicle’s alternator allegedly resulting in increased fuel economy. As with most legislative change, there are those in favour who claim they significantly reduce death and serious injury whilst those against complain of glare and the fact that motorcyclists will become less conspicuous.

From a personal viewpoint, I do find some of the lights fitted to vehicles extremely dazzling. Not only are the lights themselves too large, many are simply the whims of designers who try to make them as funky-looking as possible. Therefore, in many respects, they are nothing more than design over substance. Furthermore, manufacturers have not adopted standards for their vehicles with the type of light fitted depending upon the specification of the model. If these lights are intended to be a safety feature, then every vehicle should be equipped to the same standard. As it is, those who can afford the top of the range models drive around with the brightest DRL display suggesting they are more a status symbol than a safety feature. Some cars are fitted with single bulbs which emit a dull glow albeit complying with legislation and these are barely visible in bright sunlight thereby minimising their effectiveness. Another downside to these lights is that an increasing number of drivers are now failing to use their headlights in adverse weather conditions, meaning that their rear lights are not illuminated and their vehicles not clearly visible to following traffic!

A story widely available on the internet basically sums up the farce that currently surrounds this legislation. Many people think of a bank of LEDs when referring to daytime running lights but purchase a Vauxhall Antara and the reality is rather different …

A buyer from Oxfordshire could not get the DRLs on his Antara to work so consulted his local dealer who advised him that everything was in order. Basically the Antara’s version of DRLs simply involves switching the regular lights to their auto function! This, of course, activates all the lights on the vehicle, hence there is no energy saving. A spokesman from Vauxhall confirmed that the Antara was designed to work that way and that the lights comply with European DRL regulations.

In conclusion, that story basically sums up everything. There seems little evidence that the use of daytime running lights will save much energy and if one needs to be seen, then there is no substitute for dipped headlights. As for the effectiveness of these lights, my own vehicle has bulbs fitted but they are not connected to anything which is nonsensical! Already some drivers are finding ways to disable the function as the law in the UK only stipulates that a new vehicle must be fitted with the lights and not that they have to be illuminated.

Style v Practicality

Six months in the waiting but now the promised in-depth look at three popular small hatchbacks from the VW Group.

It surely won’t have escaped the notice of anyone who drives today that fuel prices have rocketed in recent months. On average, the price per litre is now at least 25% more than it was just over twelve months ago, attributable partly to profiteering by the oil companies, but also because of hefty increases in fuel taxation and the recent rise in the rate of VAT. Statistics are already showing that people are using their cars less than six months ago. Whilst this can be quite easy to achieve by some, others have little choice but to rely upon their motor vehicle, either for work or simply because they live in rural areas without regular or any public transport facility.

Petrol is now an average £5.80 per gallon whilst diesel costs £6.00 or more. These are staggering prices and for the average income earner, it is becoming increasingly difficult to absorb ever-increasing motoring costs. For many drivers, therefore, fuel economy is becoming the single most important factor in any decison regarding a change of vehicle, and recent sales figures show that the small car sector accounted for about 60% of all new car sales.

Whilst many new vehicles are now more fuel efficient than their older counterparts, it is the small hatchback that offers the best combination of comfort, space and economy. The market is awash with vehicles in this sector offering buyers an almost bewildering choice. Most manufacturers offer a choice of petrol and diesel engines, with some offering selective automatic transmission and sport models. The latter, however, do rather deviate from the economy label, although obviously offer better economy than larger sporty models. Readers will undoubtedly be familiar with the likes of the Ford Fiesta, Vauxhall Corsa, Renault Clio and the ubiquitous Mini but there are many offerings from Asian manufacturers too. However, this article is focussing on three models from the VW Group, namely the Volkswagen Polo, Seat Ibiza and Škoda Fabia. In engineering terms, these cars are virtually identical, but clever design and styling results in three very different models.

Faced with this dilemma, the final choice as to which to buy can be bewildering. If you are seeking a three-door hatchback then only the Polo and Ibiza offer this facility. If you want greater practicality from an estate version, then your choices are limited to the Ibiza and Fabia. For the sporting enthusiast, you have the choice of a Polo GTi, Ibiza Cupra and Fabia vRS. So… which to choose?

Choice is generally a very emotive subject. Given that overall performance and fuel economy are very similar on all these models if equipped with the same engine, then choice effectively comes down to styling, space and price! The most flamboyant of the three is the Ibiza with its combination of curves and sharply defined edges but this style is likely to date more quickly and possibly reflect in future trade-in value. The Polo is of pure classic design… in fact, it looks very much like a scaled down version of its bigger sister, the Golf, a car that has had phenomenal worldwide sales success. This can only be an advantage and of the three cars, the Polo will retain greater percentage value after three years. The Fabia, on the other hand, is rather box-like although it’s frontal appearance has recently been improved by a subtle facelift. Whilst its aesthetic appearance lacks the charisma of the Ibiza and Polo, it is the most practical of the three comparative models offering greater headroom and luggage space.

All models share the Polo platform and running gear, with engines coming from the VW group. Choice of engine is slightly more confusing however. Of the three models, Škoda offers the greatest range, with almost all engines on offer being the latest versions, including three common rail diesels. Seat also offers a good range of the latest technology whilst the Polo currently offers a limited choice of new engines alongside older and less environmentally-friendly units.

So finally it’s decision-making time! Let’s first take a look at the prices as at February 2011 … undoubtedly uppermost in many potential buyers’ minds:

Seat Ibiza Price range £9925 to £18275
Škoda Fabia Price range £9755 to £16260
Volkswagen Polo Price range £9995 to £18790

The starting price of all models is very similar but standard levels of equipment do vary considerably. However, it is the very top of the range where the price differential is greatest… all three sporting models come with the same 1.4TSI 180PS engine coupled with a 7spd DSG gearbox, one of the best in the motoring industry. Therefore one can save £2530 by opting for the Fabia rather than the Polo GTi if prepared to sacrifice on style yet benefit from more practical and usable space. At the time of writing, both the Ibiza and Fabia are even better buying prospects as purchasers can save 20% VAT on the list prices. There is, however, a downside to this as trade-in values will reduce accordingly. As the saying goes, you cannot have your cake and eat it!

As for my choice, if money were no object and I could increase the specification of the vehicle with extras, I would actually opt for the classic design of the Polo. However, despite all the vehicles sharing common parts, the Škoda continually excels in dealer and driver satisfaction surveys, so this is an important factor to consider.

As an addendum, the other manufacturer within the VW Group is Audi who have just introduced the compact A1 model. This also shares the same platform but with a price range from £13420 to £20705 it is somewhat out of the same league.