Article

What’s wrong with Opel?

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To be closed down later this year: Opel Bochum Plant (Photo: Google.maps)

Like many, I have owned several new Opels. The latter, an Astra, was purchased for over twenty years ago. Since then, I have bought several new cars, but never considered buying an Opel. I think I know why.

Opel’s market share in Norway has declined drastically, and is still falling. I think the trend is the same everywhere. What has happened to Opel since the great seventies, the eighties and the early nineties? I think the reason for the decline is that I – and many with me – no longer choose Opel when we buy a new car. The big question is:

Why do we not choose Opel?

I am browsing through a sales brochure for Opel 2013 made by Opel Norway AS. I browse, but I am not reading. Not at all. Even though all pictures are provided by Opel’s headquarter, there are nothing that catches my mind. To me, the booklet is as interesting as a brochure of kitchen appliances. Boring!

You may think that I don’t like Opel. That’s not true. I have recently driven a brand new Astra 1.4 Turbo, 140hp, 5-door, with the latest facelift. It has plenty of legroom. It runs very well – both on the motorway and in the city. It is comfortable. The wagon version is a full-fledged family car. I think, it will be difficult to find a more spacious, better equipped, better motorized and more pleasant car to drive for the same price.

When I parked the car on the curb, just behind a new Skoda Octavia, I kind I perceived what Opel’s problem is. Even with nice 17 inch alloy wheels and a dark gray pearl paint, the Astra seemed totally anonymous behind the Skoda. It almost seems that someone deliberately has tried to hide Opel’s brand identity. The lack of brand identity is also present behind the wheel of the Astra.

What really should keep Opel’s executives awake at night, is that the anonymous design affects you only when you want to buy a new car, not in everyday use. Anyone interested in cars, knows that Opel is a good car. In the brochure, however, – in the showroom and on the street, parked behind the Skoda, no one notices the Opel.

One of Opel’s historic slogans is “Look at Opel now!” Someone should really look at Opel now. Opel has lost its grip on their old, faithful customers. The enormous Bochum Plant is going to be closed down later this year. It is no doubt that the executives at Opel must know they are knee deep in shit. But what can they do?

I think, maybe Opel should let Opel die, and create a new car brand, for instance Lepo (Opel backwards). We know that the staff at Opel does a good job. That is for sure not the designers, nor the marketing department. They should be laid off immediately and replaced by people who know what the slogan “Wir leben Autos” really means.

Maybe someday Opel may change its slogan to:

Opel – The one you notice!

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Ready to Go Automatic?

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If you were considering buying a new car with automatic transmission 15 years ago, chances are that someone would warn you, like:

-You won’t be able to resell it.
-Automatic is for the disabled and old people.
-Automatic transmissions break down all the time.

This is Europe. In the United States everyone has been driving automatic for ages. Cars with “stick shifts” are for a handful of oddballs.

I have noticed that the demand for automatic cars in the Nordic countries is higher than ever before. New computer assisted transmission systems have made it technically possible to shift automatically without loss of power and without extra fuel consumption. Basically, there are 3 different transmission systems available. If you plan to choose an auto-shifter for your next car, make sure to pick the solution that suits you best.

• Conventional automatic transmission (hydraulic system with torque converter)
• Continuous Variable Transmission (CVT)
• Robotized shifting

Conventional Automatic Transmission
The power between the engine and the driveshaft is connected via hydraulics and not mechanically linked. That gives fabulous comfort because harsh vibrations from the shafts and gears do not find its way into the cabin. However, the solution absorbs some of the energy from the engine on its way out to the wheels. It affects fuel economy and performance negatively. Lately, conventional transmissions make extensive use of electronics to monitor the vehicle’s movements and driver’s response in order to make intelligent shifts – for better fuel economy and performance.

Continuous Variable Transmission (CVT) transfers power between the engine and the drive shafts via a metal chain that adjusts seamlessly. The solution provides almost no energy loss, and since the shifting is seamless, it is possible to keep the engine ticking constantly at a favorable speed for power and consumption. This is probably a good thing for the engine, but some profound drivers miss the entertainment of listening to an engine that works its way through the gears. A constant humming from the engine can be a bit boring. And what’s even worse: It brings memories about your first scooter …

Robotized Shifting is the solution that has had the greatest emergence in recent years. The system is based on a robot that operates the clutch and engages the gears according to an electronic analysis of the engine revs, the rolling speed, the up-hill and down-hill sensors, and whether the driver is braking, accelerating or keeping a steady pace. The problem with this system has been that the robot shifted a lot slower than a skilled driver. Today, there has been some major improvements to this solution. The most advanced system – the so-called dual clutch solution – uses two gear boxes. One of the gear boxes is being used, while the computer anticipates the next gear and engages it in advance in the other gear box. When it is time to shift, it happens instantly – clutch in – clutch out – done! By calculating the optimum gear change, both fuel consumption and CO2 emissions are reduced. Even the most experienced driver cannot do better.

Hill-starts
Conventional automatic transmissions keep the car from rolling backwards more than a few inches, even when the driver takes off from a steep upwards hill. Inexperienced drivers never have to worry about the car rolling backwards. The other transmissions systems mentioned here, need a Hill-holder or Hill-start Assistant to effectively prevent the car from rolling backwards. However, no Hill-holders hold the car more than about 3 seconds, – just enough time to move the right leg from the brake pedal over to the accelerator.
Hill-holders are now standard also on many cars with manual transmissions.

Driving on Snow and Ice
Generally, there are no problems whatsoever about driving with automatic on snow and ice. I know that some of the first – and primitive – Robotized Shift solutions could be a challenge when driving in extreme snow and ice conditions. I think the first transmissions were not designed for Nordic driving conditions.

I have also heard that some CVT transmissions fail to operate smoothly when they get worn. I think similar things may happen to Conventional Automatic Transmissions as well.
To be able to drive well with automatic on snow and ice, you need a transmission that can do the following:

• Lock-into-gear, or manual selector.
• Shift rapidly
• Operate smoothly

The problems can be described in the following scenario:
You are about to drive up a steep slope full of snow. As you accelerate, the transmission shifts from the first gear into the second (good) … and, woops, it shifts to… third! Then, at the most critical point of the slope, the transmission decides to shift down to second gear, and the car loses traction …

Traffic Jams
In congested traffic all the 3 automatic transmission solutions have major advantages over manual cars when it comes to comfort and easiness. Instead of coordinating clutch and accelerator, you just hold the foot on the brake pedal and eases it as the traffic snails along.

When you drive a manual car in congested traffic you may get a lot of clutch wear. This is not a problem with Conventional Automatic Transmissions and CVT Solutions, since they do not use any clutch. A Robotized Gear Solutions, however, has a clutch and uses it extensively, just as much as in a manual car.

My Choice
I would prefer a robotized shifter from one of the major car manufacturer. It provides the most benefits and makes the driving more entertaining. If I can choose between a driveline with a Robotized System and CVT, I would take the Robotized System. I would probably never choose a Conventional Automatic Transmission unless I am choosing a very powerful engine at the high-end of the price list, – or I am searching for something very simple – at the very low end.

Here are some of the solutions available today:

Make
System
Type
Audi
S tronic or Multitronic
Robotized (S tronic), CVT (Multitronic)
BMW
Conventional
Chevrolet (Korea)
Conventional
Citroën
EMG
Robotized
Ford (DE)
PowerShift or conventional
Robotized (Powershift)
Mazda
Conventional
Mitsubishi
INVECS-III
CVT
Nissan
Xtronic
CVT
Opel
Conventional
Peugeot
EMG
Robotized
Renault
EDC
Robotized
Seat
DSG
Robotized
Skoda
DSG
Robotized
Toyota
MMT or Multidrive
Robotized (MMT), CVT (Multidrive)
Volkswagen
DSG
Robotized
Volvo
Geartronic or conventional
Robotized (Geartronic)
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So You Want to Buy a Mini Car?

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I promise, you will be pleasantly surprised how much space there is in a mini car. An overall length of 3.5 meters (140 inches) is not very impressive, but you will find all the modern safety equipment such as ABS, ESP and airbags exactly where they should be. And you get a brand new car for the price of a 3 year old Golf! The smallest cars on the market offer a number of obvious advantages, such as: – low price – low depreciation, – low fuel consumption – low maintenance costs – easy to park. Downtown, you can park along the curb on spaces too small for other cars – it does not fill up your garage – it is easy to drive – and convenient. Nevertheless, there are some critical limitations related to small cars that you should consider before you decide on a car in this segment.

Cabin Space
Cabin space is the most-prominent point for most buyers in this class. Do you need to bring a lot of luggage, like a full size travel bag, or a baby stroller? Then you will have to keep one of the rear seats folded down, converting the cabin into no more than a 3-seater, – no matter whether the car is a 4-seater or a 5-seater. In real life, a mini cannot carry more than 3 persons on a week-end trip.

Weight
Four adults weight a 300-350 kg (650-750 lbs) in total. In a mini this is close to the car’s maximum load capacity. Besides affecting the drivability, a fully loaded vehicle may cause excessive wear on the suspension and chassis parts. If you plan to use a mini car regularly with, say, 4 adults on board, you may run into some high maintenance costs.

Wheelbase and Track Width
These are factors that affect the car’s steadiness on the road. Image yourself a winding road full of bumps and potholes, – perhaps a lot of wind gusts as well. Driving on such conditions expose the vehicle to forces that affect its ability to maintain a steady course through the curves. A car which is running on a long wheelbase and a wide track width, is more capable to absorb these forces than a small car. What matters here, is not the outside dimensions of the car, but the dimensions underneath. For a mini, you really would want a car that is as large as possible underneath. That means the four wheels should be located as far apart as possible.

Engine Size and Extra Options
Do not pay too much attention to the number of horsepower, as it is “Horsepower per Ton” that really counts. Cars in this segment work well with small engines, because of their light weight. Remember that one of the best reasons for buying a mini car is the low price. If you choose a bigger engine and tick off a long list of “nice-to-have” extra options, you might just as well by a car in the Polo-Fiesta segment.

Safety
Obviously, size matters when it comes to safety. Larger vehicles are superior to smaller vehicles because of their weight and extra inches of steel. But there are more factors than weight and inches of steel that affect a car’s safety. New cars have far more built-in safety than just a few years ago. According to results from The European NCAP, small cars can be as safe as larger cars – as long as they hit stationary objects …

Respect in traffic
Based on everyday observations, some motorists seem to act more aggressively and less respectfully to small cars. If you drive a mini car, you may find them tailgating you without keeping a safe distance. They never give way for smaller cars, even when they are obliged to yield. They will always try to get in first before traffic lights – and so on. A typical aggressor is a male (40-60) driving a 5-10 years old Mondeo-sized family car.

Interior
The first sign of solid interior is the steering wheel. Does it give you a good grip? Does it feel chunky? How about the handles and controls on the dash? There are no reasons to create puny and cheap interior just because the car is small! The backrests of small cars are often made thin to give a few extra inches to rear seat passengers. However, you should feel that the backrests are stable and rigid.

Recommended Options and Accessories
It is important to ensure that all safety accessories are included. That include ABS, ESP (anti-skid), at least 6 air bags and Isofix mountings for child seats. Some of the cheapest models do not have all necessary safety equipment as standard. They are most likely to be found in the list of extra accessories. This is a trick to keep the price low. Don’t be fooled.

One of the reasons for buying a mini car, is its low price. In order to keep the price low, you should not be too generous about choosing accessories. The equipment you must have in a mini car, is a split foldable rear seat. Due to the limited storage capacity, you may have to fold down the rear seat more often than in a bigger car. If the rear seat is not split, your mini turns into a 2-seater every time you need to carry some luggage.

A Smart Tip
When you take the car for a test drive, make sure to park next to a well-known car model, such as the Volkswagen Golf. Step out of the car and compare “your” car with the well-known car model. Then you can a realistic look of its size. It is easy to be fooled when the cars are lined up at the dealer.

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