Living the Culture

All too often, the phrase ‘living the culture’ is spoken by immigrants residing in a foreign country, but what exactly does it mean?

Let’s start by examining the definition of the word ‘culture’. The Oxford dictionary defines the word as relating to the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a society and also relating to the arts and intellectual achievements. If the meaning is taken literally, then one becomes totally immersed into a new society, thereby adopting both good and bad behavioural patterns.

As a settler into a foreign country, albeit still within Europe, I see many behavioural differences from those to which I have become accustomed in a period covering well over five decades. Some customs are to be applauded, notably the ‘warm’ greeting one frequently encounters when meeting people, but there are many behaviours that I detest and would never adopt. Driving standards are a classic example. Here in Spain, many drivers show little regard for white line markings on the roads, drive with one arm projecting through the window, talk on their mobile phones, double park at random and on road junctions, and frequently tailgate the vehicle in front.

I am not saying that immigrants should make no effort to integrate into the local culture but simply illustrating that this should be rather selective. I have already witnessed British drivers adopting the inconsiderate practice of double parking, an action that would rarely be done in the United Kingdom. It’s often easy to identify British drivers as many who have moved to Spain have matriculated their UK car, which for  those who don’t know, has the steering wheel on the right! Indeed, it is often these people who claim to be living the culture, yet they steadfastly refuse to let go of their UK vehicle. Whilst the costs of matriculation aren’t cheap as it involves new headlamp units, registration documents and a compulsory vehicle road worthiness test irrespective of the age of the vehicle being imported, driving a RHD vehicle on the right side of a road can be hazardous. This is particularly so if trying to overtake, and whilst that isn’t a problem on motorways, many standard roads are very twisty and narrow in places.

An important aspect of integration is trying to learn the language, or at least to gain sufficient knowledge for ease of communication. Whilst I have a basic grasp of Spanish, my knowledge is somewhat rusty and I will soon be attending lessons to improve my fluency. Sadly, there are many who make little or no effort to learn the language and this is not helped by the number of British-owned businesses and native traders who speak a smittering of English. Still, with some 80% of Britons bring unable to speak their own language correctly, there seems little chance of them embracing a foreign tongue! Then there are the British food shops selling familiar products at highly escalated prices. It’s amazing how many people use them on a regular basis rather than patronising Spanish supermarkets which stock most things one needs on a daily basis. The British stores do have their uses for any special foodstuffs or infrequent treats. For example, mince pies are a seasonal tradition in the UK but not generally available in Spain, likewise certain salad dressings and biscuits. However, why people will pay €4 for a packet of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes in a British shop completely baffles me when the same size pack is available in a Spanish supermarket for €2!

Some people dramatically change their drinking habits when in a new country. Spain is a vast wine producer, but to be honest, many of their wines are not to my taste. That is not to say that they aren’t good, although bars do have a tendency to serve up the cheaper quality stuff. It’s hardly surprising when you can buy bottles of wine in the supermarkets for under €2 but I’d suggest that, for a quality wine, one needs to be paying upwards of €5. Cava, however, is a different story with many of the cheaper brands offering a very acceptable drink. This resembles champagne as it is made in the método tradicional. So far as food is concerned, I’m a firm believer in eating what you like rather than being forced to embrace dishes that aren’t to your taste. Many local recipes involve copious amounts of seafood, of which I’m not a fan, so my taste in fish is very limited. I’m no real fan of tapas either unless made with wholesome ingredients. I suspect that places selling tapas for €1 are merely rehashing leftovers so thanks but no thanks! As you would expect, there are Indian and Chinese restaurants in the vicinity as well as numerous places offering traditional Sunday roasts with all the trimmings. These are well patronised by many ‘living the culture’!

An activity that many newcomers embrace is participation in ferias or street fairs. This is a very old Spanish custom but I have never been a fan of fairs, even in Britain. The thought of marauding crowds and being jostled about simply lacks appeal and I think they are far more suited to the younger generation. Likewise, I would never attend a bull fight, but thankfully, their popularity is on the wane and I can only hope they will soon be a thing of the past. It is nothing but cruelty to the animals, an aspect of Spain that I abhore. Numerous dogs and cats can frequently be found in the wild, often malnourished and unkempt. Whereas most Europeans are generally accustomed to having animals as pets and part of the family unit, many Spaniards have dogs simply as deterrents against intruders, and they are always kept outdoors. They may have the grounds of the property in which to roam, but taking them for daily walks is not a priority.

Finally, entertainment. I have already encountered several ex-pat homes where there is no Spanish television. I would be the first to admit that Spanish broadcasting leaves much to be desired and anyone watching it for a period of time will be eternally grateful for the existence of the BBC. However, it can be a useful tool in getting to grasp the language, especially when watching news broadcasts. With modern broadcasting technology, people here in southern Spain can watch UK television much as they did at home. There are several systems available, one of which is the trusted satellite dish. It can be quite amusing spotting the British-owned homes by the size of the dishes and sometimes being asked the question ‘how big is yours?’ I jest you not! For some inexplicable reason, both Belgian and Dutch residents require a much smaller dish despite the satellites all being in a similar orbit. There is something rather comforting about being able to watch favourite and familiar programmes, especially during the darker nights of winter.

To conclude, I would suggest that ‘living the culture’ is non-definable as it means different things to different people. Personally, I aim to embrace the aspects of Spanish life that are attune to my tastes and beliefs rather than encompassing everything for the sake of appearances. Conversely, I have no wish to simply emulate my lifestyle as it was in the UK, and I am fortunate in residing in a mixed European community. Whilst the majority are British and Spanish, there are also Belgians, Dutch and French residents so, hopefully, this makes for an entente cordiale! One certainty is that I will not be patronising the large number of British and Irish bars with their third rate performers strangling the hits of yesteryear. Instead, I shall veer towards the typical Spanish bar in the hope of experiencing some Flamenco dancing and music.

¡Hasta luego!


New Beginnings

There comes a time in many people’s lives when lifestyle options need to be reviewed. This can be for any number of reasons including work, health, family, or simply to escape the everyday hustle and bustle.

For many years, I have had the desire to move away from my native country of the United Kingdom and explore new horizons. In fact, I nearly started a new life in France way back in 2004, but this failed to materialise as I was unable to sell my home at the time. Nevertheless, my aspirations for a move to France didn’t diminish and until 2012, my mind was focused on the Lot Valley area in the south west of the country. This part of France offers dramatic scenery, ancient history and warm summers but the downside is that the winter months can be almost as cold as parts of the UK.

With a longing for a warmer climate, my sights began to wander further south and for the last few years, Spain became the number one choice. There was still the problem of having to sell a property before being in a position to purchase another as I’m not one of the nouveau riche who can afford a second home! After a spell of ill health and diminishing work, I eventually found a buyer for my house in the UK and in the autumn of 2014 began an in-depth search for a property in sunny Spain. Prior to this, I had already decided upon the region of Andalusia in the south of the country. This was mainly because of the climate with its mild winters and hot summers. The autonomous region is the second largest in the whole of Spain and also the most populated. Historically, there has been high unemployment as the region relies heavily upon agriculture and tourism for inoome, but recently there has been growth in the industry and services sectors. Andalusia is divided into eight provinces, namely Almería, Cádiz, Córdoba, Granada, Huelva, Jaén, Málaga and Seville. Many cultural and Spanish customs originate in the region, and much of its architecture is influenced by the Moors.

After a couple of house-hunting trips to Spain, I finally decided upon a property which was within my budget. It is well reported that property prices throughout Spain reached an all-time low during 2013-14, especially in rural areas, so arguably it was a good time to buy. The reality, however, is that for a half-decent property, one has to fork out a fair amount of money and properties with pools command an average €30.000 premium. Whilst many will see a pool as very desirable, most are only used for about four months of the year. They are expensive to maintain and keep clean, especially with the amount of dust blown in the strong winds, and households with pools face water bills of double those without. Having spoken to people who have pools, many express their regrets and wish they were not encumbered.

No doubt readers will guess which option I selected. Being cost conscious and a non-swimmer, I decided to seek a property without a pool but this restricts the number of properties available. I also stipulated an average sized plot as too much ground would require maintenance. Even so, plots are generally far larger than the average UK property and houses are built to keep the heat out rather than in! This means that they can be very cold in the winter months as neither central heating nor insulation are common installations and floors are traditionally all tiled. After extensive searching, I finally decided upon a villa-type property with some mountain views yet convenient for shops and easy motorway access.

In mid January 2015, I finally left the UK to embark upon a 1500 mile [2400 km] drive to my chosen province of Almería. Things didn’t exactly go to plan as I was unable to move into the house immediately and also had to wait for my possessions to be transported from the UK. Finally I moved into my new home on 28 January and have most rooms straight and tidy, hence the chance to sit down and write this overdue blog! There will be plenty of maintenance to undertake in the future, especially redecoration, but overall the place is now clean and habitable. The priority is to integrate into the community that comprises a large number of expats from the UK and Belgium, as well as local people. Also, one has to come to terms with excessive Spanish bureaucracy and the time taken for things to get done. It’s all part of the Spanish lifestyle though which simply adds to the charm of living here. In time, there will be plenty of places to explore, both locally and further afield, and it is hoped that some of these will be featured on these pages. Meanwhile the featured photos show the landscape in February although I should mention that, overall, the winter here has been the coldest for at least four years with snow on the highest mountain peaks. Talk about bad timing on my part!

Two Peas In A Pod

After nearly 8 years, Škoda has finally updated their Fabia model!

The first pea in the pod is the Škoda Fabia, the supermini in the manufacturer’s portfolio and a model that helped restore the fortunes of the company. The Mark 1 launched in 1998 proved to be very popular in the segment, most notably because of its chunky design and value-for-money practicality. Sadly, the Mark 2 model that arrived in 2007, has struggled to live up to its previous reputation. This is primarily due to styling or a lack of it … sitting fairly upright, the car has always looked somewhat incongruous and imbalanced. This in no way derides its practicality and overall good value, but it has been long overdue for replacement. So in early 2015 the Czech manufacturer releases a Mark 3 Fabia with aspirations to attract younger buyers.

This Škoda is a completely new car with revised chassis and engines. More than ever, the car closely resembles its sister the Volkswagen Polo, both in looks and passenger accommodation which makes choosing between the two cars much more difficult. With many engines shared between both models, including new three-cylinder diesels and the turbocharged four cylinder 1.2 TSI petrol, it is likely that driving and handling characteristics will be very similar.

Škoda’s design philosophy has always focused on functionality and simplicity, rather than being overtly stylish for the sake of it. The new model loses the awkward box-like image of its predecessor by more closely resembling styling cues from the Mark 1 model. This is achieved by making the car slightly wider and lower, resulting in greater road presence. From a practical perspective, this provides more shoulder room in the front, and with a slightly increased wheelbase, there’s more legroom in the rear. The boot offers class-leading capacity of 330 litres with the rear seats in place, which is 50 litres more than in the Polo.  The rear seats split 60/40 but do not lie completely flat meaning there is a slope when they are folded down. Overall, the Fabia is one of the most spacious cars in its class, beating the Polo, Fiesta and Corsa to name but three competitors, and undercuts them all on price.

Following their ethos of practicality over flair, the dashboard is generally well-designed and, for the first time, incorporates a large central display screen covering most main functions. This is very similar to the display function in the Polo. In higher specification models, there is a system called Mirror Link that allows owners of Android phones to replicate their apps on the dash screen. Quite how useful this facility proves to be remains to be seen – currently the iPhone iOS is not supported. Other facilities across the range include DAB radio, electric front windows, Bluetooth and a tyre pressure monitor with higher spec models offering alloy wheels, leather steering wheel and climate control air conditioning. Sadly, there is no soft-touch finish to the dashboard, with everything covered in black textured plastics, but all appears to be of a relatively high standard.

From a motoring perspective, the 1.2 TSI petrol engines are the most favoured. These petrol engines from the VW stable are very refined, thereby offering comfortable cruising without too much effort on the part of the driver. Whilst not as economical as diesel alternatives, they are considerably quieter. The three-cylinder petrol units also suffer from more noise when at high revs. The Fabia handles safely and confidently but lacks the agility of the Polo, due largely to greater body roll. Initially, the model will be available in S, SE and SEL trim levels. There are currently no plans to make a high performance vRS model though but an estate version will follow in due course.

What of the second pea in the pod? That, of course, is the Volkswagen Polo. It shares some of the engines with the Fabia as well as offering a 1.4 turbo petrol unit. The petrol engines are smooth and quiet, making the Polo a nice environment in which to travel. At lower speeds, the diesels are quite clattery but this abates when at cruising speed. The Polo lacks the overall fun factor offered by the Ford Fiesta owing to more body lean through bends and softer steering, but these are compensated for by all-round ride comfort and stability.

Although at the higher price bracket for superminis, few can rival the Polo’s excellent ergonomics and dashboard layout. As mentioned previously, most models boast a very good colour touch-screen system coupled with clear instrumentation and sturdy switchgear. Overall, it is built to the same high standards as the larger VW Golf giving the car an upmarket feel. Unlike the Fabia, the dashboard is covered in soft-touch plastics, but the car lacks curtain airbags and a passenger airbag deactivation facility. Most competitors offer these as standard equipment.

Rear legroom isn’t as great as in the Fabia and the boot is on the small side. Most versions provide a height-adjustable boot floor to counteract the loading lip. The rear seats do not fold totally flat either. The Polo is available in S, SE, and SEL trim levels as well as a Bluemotion and Bluemotion GT. The mid-range SE provides alloy wheels, aircon, electric windows all round and steering wheel audio controls. As can be seen, the model derivatives follow a similar pattern to those of the Fabia!

So which model to buy? As the title of the blog suggests, these two cars are basically peas in the same pod. Never before have two same segment cars from the VW stable been so close in both style, price and accommodation. The Fabia still distances itself from the Polo on price although the differential is nowhere near as great as it once was and there is little doubt that Škoda are moving upmarket. Whilst this is no bad thing, there is a danger of alienating their loyal customer base as buyers opt for models from other VW Group marques. The final choice between these two models basically comes down to the following:

For overall quality, the Polo is the one to beat.
For overall roominess, the Fabia wins the contest.
For styling, both cars are conservative although I think the Fabia has the edge with its bustle rear.
Mechanically, both cars can offer the same engines and designated trim levels.

Let us therefore draw a direct comparison between the Škoda Fabia 1.2 TSI 90PS SE5-door and the VW Polo 1.2 TS! 90PS SE 5-door … the Fabia costs from £13390 whilst the Polo is priced from £14360. That means the Fabia is a minimum of £970 cheaper despite offering more standard equipment, cabin and luggage space. The dimensions of the cars are very similar but the Fabia is 1467mm in height compared with the Polo’s 1453mm, hence the increased rear headroom in the Fabia. Škoda also offers customisation of the Fabia with contrasting colours for roof, mirrors and wheels, thereby hoping to widen its appeal. On balance, I would opt for the Fabia as it looks more distinctive than the Polo and offers several Škoda ‘Simply Clever’ features! The only downside to the Fabia is that the VW will hold its value better, but the differential is unlikely to be too great at this market level.

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.

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.

A Bite Out Of Apple

When something described as new isn’t that special…

With all the recent media hype, few people will be unaware that Apple has just unveiled the latest version of its iPad tablet. In an act of astounding originality, the company has decided to call this latest offering the new iPad rather than applying a suffix as has been the case up to now. Many anticipated improvements or additions have not been forthcoming meaning that this ‘new’ iPad is rather disappointing. Whilst it’s main feature is a new retina display, or improved screen resolution to the uninitiated, there is little else to shout about, unless of course, you work for Apple!

So what does this new resolution mean to the user? The new iPad apparently boasts four times the resolution of the iPad 2 which will undoubtedly enhance the viewing of HD videos, but this is unlikely to have a dramatic effect upon many web pages which, for the most part, are only viewed for a very short time. For the poorer sighted user, text will appear easier to read. In order to accommodate this high resolution, the new iPad boasts a new processor and a graphics chip which will enhance game playing for those interested in such activity.

Needless to say, it wouldn’t be Apple without the odd gimmick. Included in the package is Voice Dictation accessed via a microphone at the bottom of the keyboard. When touched, this enables the user to dictate text but how reliable it is remains to be seen. So often, utensils like this fail to recognise different accents so any time saved in speaking text could quickly be annulled in the time taken to correct errors. Users of the latest iPhone 4S will be able to relate to Siri and the problems encountered there in recognising variations in the human voice.

Certain model variations will be equipped for the next generation 4G network although currently this is primarily aimed at the US market. By the time 4G is up and running in the UK, this new iPad is likely to have been updated at least once, so one might well question the need for this facility especially as it has to be paid for. The new iPad also comes with an upgraded 5-megapixel camera which Apple says has the ability to shoot full 1080p HD video and can therefore effectively become your camera of choice. Now I don’t know about you but the thought of carrying around a relatively heavy tablet and using it to take everyday snapshot photos really doesn’t bear thinking about. Most people will either use a dedicated compact camera or their mobile phone for taking photos, although most compact cameras still beat hands down any mobile phone lens.

This new iPad is almost the same size as the model it will eventually replace although it weighs slightly more. It claims a similar battery life of up to 10 hours under normal usage and still runs the current iOS 5 software. The product will be available from 16 March 2012 with pricing starting at £399 for the 16GB Wi-Fi model.

In the words of Apple, this iPad is resolutionary rather than revolutionary, the latter being something which we have come to expect from the company.  As was the case with the iPhone 4S it appears little more than a marketing ploy on behalf of Apple to encourage susceptible and naive people to part with their money. The product does very little in addition to the current iPad 2 and it is virtually guaranteed that a further replacement encompassing more industry-setting standards will be launched within the next twelve months. Given that this offering is the new iPad, one can only speculate as to the name of it’s successor… the new new iPad maybe?

Unless you really need this product, don’t waste your money upgrading from earlier versions as the next incarnation is likely to render all current models redundant!