Do They Know It’s Christmas?

Once again, the people of the United Kingdom have been subjected to yet another rework of the Band Aid single first released in 1984. The primary objective of each recording is to raise funds to help victims of atrocities in parts of Africa. Originally, this was to address major famine, with the latest release directing funds to meet the Ebola crisis. A few of the lyrics have been altered and with most artistes being different from the original ensemble, the highly unoriginal Band Aid 30 has been formed. Whilst the underlying aim of such activity is to be commended, the real truth is that much of the money raised never reaches the people who need it, and furthermore, the people ‘giving’ their time to record the song are hardly making much of a sacrifice.

Indeed, gathering numerous groups and individual artistes to contribute a small section of the song, requires little effort. It’s more an opportunity for such performers to promote themselves and be seen as do-gooders. Many performers are barely recognisable which further endorses my cynicism that they are only there for the publicity. This time around, there have been subtle changes to some of the lyrics … It’s now heal the world rather than feed it! So what about the title of this song?

Band Aid 30
Band Aid 30

In my opinion, it is very patronising. Much of the African continent is essentially Christian, so of course they will know when Christmas is celebrated. Thankfully, not all people see Christmas as a time to splash out on expensive items … that practice is the commercial side of the festive season. Far more importantly, it’s about celebrating the birth of Christianity and sharing time with others, and undoubtedly the people of Africa do this far more than in this country. The already rich performers pose before cameras, relishing in all their glory. It would be far better if all these artistes were to dig deep into their own pockets lined with gold instead of making a sub-standard recording and enticing the gullible public to buy it!

Band Aid is the brainchild of Sir Bob Geldof and Bono from the group U2. Between them, they are worth umpteen millions of pounds sterling, and live very privileged lives. Many of the performers they enlist also enjoy a lifestyle way beyond the aspirations of the majority of people, but here they all are, through a cacophony of sound, urging people to buy the record and donate to the cause. Then we have the issue of the lyrics which in no way imaginable reflect what is happening in west Africa. They all imply great negativity of Africa but in reality, the outbreak of Ebola is only evident in three countries. The suggestion that there is ‘no peace or joy’ in west Africa is a complete fabrication of the truth and furthermore, much of the African continent is bounding with a wealth of resources. Ebola is concentrated in a very small area of the African continent. Yes, it’s claimed the lives of over 5,000 people to date, but some 30,000 people die each winter in the UK as a direct result of the cold weather. Who is raising funds to help those at home? After all, there is an old saying that charity does begin at home!

I’m not suggesting that the victims of Ebola don’t need help but there are far more practical ways of doing so rather than a bunch of vastly overpaid popstars producing an irreverent song. Most importantly, people in parts of Africa need educating … whether this be in birth control, inter breeding or basic lifestyle behaviour. Sadly, there is still considerable famine in parts of Africa despite the money allegedly raised by the Band Aid single in 1984. I suspect that this latest incarnation of the song will do little on a practical front to eliminate the outbreak of Ebola, which, incidentally, is not a new disease. Maybe it is time for the countries within the African continent to start helping themselves rather than acting so selfishly and creating numerous tiers of living standards through oppression, dictatorship and greed.

Do they know it’s Christmas? I’m sure many do but for those suffering at this time, that fact will be irrelevant. It would be far better if they knew how to deal with and contain the epidemic. There are already charities channeling both money and resources into the affected countries in west Africa so maybe it would have been more pertinent for Bob Geldof et al to come up with something far more original.


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.

Badge Engineering

A look at trends in the motor industry of yesteryear…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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