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!

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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!

Battle Of The Giants

It’s not often that I review large or executive class vehicles as I’m very much in favour of economy and being environmentally friendly. Fortunately, nowadays, it is becoming easier to blend both these qualities as engineering and design advance in leaps and bounds …

Following my penchant for cars from the Volkswagen Group, mainly because of their more classic designs and overall reliability, this review is comparing two relative giants from both Škoda and VW in the guise of the Superb and Passat. The original modern-day Superb utilised a 10cm stretched version of the Passat model at the time, and was launched in 2001. Whilst never being a huge seller, it gradually commanded a larger slice of the market owing to its passenger and luggage capacity, not to mention overall reliability. It has therefore been popular with taxi drivers who opted for a larger car than the ever-popular Škoda Octavia.

This model was replaced in 2008 with the second generation Superb, which boasted a unique ‘twindoor’ arrangement with an innovative rear opening that could double as a regular separate saloon boot and full hatchback. The car was larger than its sister Passat derivatives and continued to attract new customers to the marque. Now, after over seven years in production, this model has now been replaced with the mark III Superb, a car that effectively takes Škoda into new territory.

It would be fair to say that the styling of the outgoing Superb was somewhat dowdy despite the car offering exceptional value for money with its passenger and luggage space. The Passat has always upstaged it in the design stakes, and whilst only coming in conventional saloon or estate form, has been the VW Group’s market leader in the segment. However, this could be all about to change with the new Skoda incarnation. The Superb is now an exceptionally classic-looking car and gives the equally attractive Passat a run for its money. The ‘twindoor’ rear opening has been ditched in favour of a traditional hatchback opening, but the car gives the impression of being a traditional saloon. Once again, the Superb is built on a stretched platform some 80mm longer than the outgoing model, weighs about 75kg less, and is 47mm wider thereby providing more elbow room. Passengers also benefit from increased headroom, especially in the rear. A major factor of all Škoda cars is their luggage capacity compared with comparable models from other manufacturers, and the new Superb boasts 625 litres with the rear seats in place, increasing to a massive 1760 litres when the seats are folded. It is therefore likely to swallow almost anything one cares to put in it!

The car will offer a choice of seven fully turbocharged petrol and diesel engines depending upon the model derivative. The excellent DSG automatic gearbox will be available with selected engines so it should be possible to tailor-make the ideal package. Living up to the Simply Clever features offered by Škoda, the car comes with a built-in umbrella in each of the front doors and a rechargeable torch that also serves as a boot light. Even the basic model is well-equipped, boasting alloy wheels, DAB radio, Bluetooth connectivity and an infotainment touch screen. Better specification models have larger wheels, climate-controlled air conditioning, cruise control and rear parking sensors. For the ultimate in motoring, opt for the expensive Laurin & Klement spec with heated front and rear seats, adaptive dampers, powered tailgate, a TV tuner and more luxuries besides. These specifications apply to the UK market where models are generally better equipped as standard than in some other European markets. The interior layout is clearly designed for ease of use and driver comfort and avoids the gimmickry found in many competitor cars. Overall, the car is very well assembled and offers a comfortable and quiet driving experience, and with the entry level Superb S 1.4 TSI 123bhp engine currently costing £18640 (€25500), it will take a lot of beating in the value-for-money stakes!

More than ever before, the Superb is a real challenger for its cousin, the VW Passat. This model recently underwent a major facelift to become even bigger yet lighter than its predecessor, but at the same time becoming far more fuel efficient. Some top spec models command a premium price meaning that VW are targeting customers of smaller BMWs and Mercedes, but it has to be said that the car is of premium quality. Whilst the Passat is not the largest saloon car in the VW stable, it is the largest in terms of sales as the Phaeton is a super luxury saloon competing with the likes of the Audi A8 and Lexus LS. At first glance, the new Passat looks very similar to its predecessor, but actually boasts a 79mm extended wheelbase in a car that is slightly shorter due to reduced front and rear overhangs.

Specification across the model range has been improved and the car offers a sleeker look than before. As with the Škoda, the interior layout is conventional, with all controls readily to hand. Astute readers will note common switchgear used across many models in the VW Group. All models come with a 6.5 inch touchscreen, Bluetooth, DAB radio, curtain airbags and a driver’s knee airbag. Higher spec models feature sat nav, adaptive cruise control and other optional extras including the much-publicised Driver Assistance featuring, amongst other things, automatic full beam dipping, lane assist and side scan radar. Like the Sperb, the Passat is based on the MQB platform that has been discussed in previous model reviews. This platform underpins popular cars like the VW Golf, Škoda Octavia, SEAT Leon and Audi A3, so reliability should be taken as read. Luggage capacity is 586 litres with the rear seats in place but these can be folded top increase space. Remember, however,. that access is restricted as the Passat is a conventional saloon with a boot rather than the hatchback versatility of the Škoda Superb.

The Passat is a very well-engineered vehicle and now offers the complete package … a refined, comfortable, sporty saloon in a classic design that will retain its value better than many of its competitors. As with many things, the final choice between these two cars will be the price. As mentioned, the Superb actually offers more room than the Passat, and whilst it may not be right at the top in terms of overall refinement, it isn’t far off and offers exceptional value for money. The entry level Passat S 1.6TDI costs £22215 (€31000) which is over £3500 (€5000) more than the Superb … a lot of dosh! Both cars will offer estate derivatives at greater cost but offering even more carrying capacity making it a true battle of the giants!

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.

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.

A Rapid Approach By A New Skoda …

… soon to be followed by sister stablemate the Seat Toledo!

After years of waiting, Škoda is finally introducing a compact-sized car to its range. Called the Rapid, this will slot inbetween the current Fabia and the soon to be updated Octavia models. Currently Škoda isn’t directly represented in this market segment which is popularised by the likes of the Volkswagen Golf, Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra, Peugeot 308, Citroen C4, Kia c’eed, Toyota Auris and Honda Civic. Other manufacturers also offer models in this segment so it is an important step for the Czech marque.

Currently their Octavia model competes in this segment but actually offers more car for the money. However, it’s replacement is likely to be larger and a more direct competitor to the Ford Mondeo and Vauxhall Insignia, so Škoda are placing great importance on a model that will already have considerable opposition. In line with all their models, the new Rapid will actually be a hatchback but it’s clever styling gives the impression that it’s a saloon.

In brief, the new Rapid is a car that will appeal predominantly to family car buyers. Recent pre-release road tests say that it’s practical, clever, efficient and easy to drive. Whilst it may lack certain current styling trends, it will offer no nonsense motoring at an affordable price and some motoring journalists claim there really will be nothing better on the road. Škoda has decided to be somewhat conservative in the design of this new model but attractive bodyline creases and attention to detail give the car a modern look. In many respects, classic designs stand the test of time far better than so-called experimental ones. The Ford Fiesta for example loses its value like a plummeting stone whilst its competitor the Volkswagen Polo retains value. Similarly the likes of BMW and Audi have a tendency to maintain their conservatism in design and certainly don’t lose market share as a result!

Whilst this new car won’t be available until around late autumn 2012 what can potential buyers expect? The Rapid has well balanced handling and a sure-footed feel on the road, turning into corners well with minimal body roll. The Rapid has clearly been set up to be predictable and easy to drive rather than offering boy racer thrills. The steering is responsive and nicely weighted, the gearbox is accurate and light, and overall performance will be at an acceptable level. Whilst there may not be a sense of real driving appeal, the Rapid is designed for cost-conscious motorists who seek reliability and economy as their main priorities. It will be offered with four petrol and two diesel engines each offering a range of power options. It is envisaged that many drivers may ultimately be attracted back to petrol engined vehicles not only because of the considerable price advantage over diesel-powered motors but also as a result of impending Euro 6 emission laws. These laws will take into account particulate emissions from diesel engines. As is the case with most modern cars today, the Rapid will come equipped with the latest safety features including six airbags, ABS and stability control. The interior layout is traditional Škoda with all controls laid out logically rather than in a gimmicky fashion. Whilst this may appear bland on cheaper models, the option of contrasting colours is available on higher specification models and this creates an ambience akin to more expensive vehicles! One area where the Škoda Rapid excels is its 550-litre luggage space which even dwarfs the Volkswagen Jetta.

So what of the aforementioned Seat Toledo? Mechanically this will be an identical vehicle and only distinguished by front and rear end styling differences. The dashboard is identical but there will be minor changes to door panels. Both cars will be made in the Czech Republic. Ultimately final choice comes down to styling … if I could choose, I would opt for the front of the Rapid and the rear of the Toledo! Prices of both cars are likely to start around £13000 at launch … highly competitive for cars that offer accommodation for five adults and their luggage!

For any doubters, remember that this car comes from the VW Group stable which incidentally owns Bentley! It is a well assembled vehicle built from tried and tested parts, and once again in 2012 Škoda scored very highly in the annual JD Power customer satisfaction survey.