Keith Jones

keithjones

Keith Jones is a self-confessed car geek from Lincoln with over 30,000 car books, magazines and sales brochures being testament to that. Keith took his first steps in motoring writing launching his blog in 2011, contributing to Autocar, BBC 5 Live, CBS and MSN in the following months. In 2013, he gave up his teaching career to become a staff writer at Parkers.


Choice. It’s great having it, right? I mean the alternative’s pretty stark – an oppressive regime of being told what you can have and when you can have it is a cause people have fought against for generations. But perhaps you can have too much of a good thing?

In the car industry a tipping point is being approached – some would argue we’ve already passed it. When the plethora of makes, models, body styles and trims is so complex that even hardened car anoraks struggle to follow what’s what, what hope does a regular consumer have of finding the car that suits his or her needs perfectly?

Remember the good old days? No, me neither, but in the Post-WWII years, car manufacturers generally offered a choice of a small saloon, a larger alternative and, occasionally, a sports car. Sure, the then British Motor Corporation combine of Austin, Morris, et al, churned out umpteen differently-sized versions of a theme in a manner that’s now commonplace, but it wasn’t the norm in the 1950s.

Running the risk of sounding “Faragesque”, Europe is to blame for this exponential increase in automotive variety. Hear me out before fearing I’ve switched to the purple side.

Before the European Community’s common market was formed, manufacturers essentially built cars for their home nations. If overseas buyers were willing to part with a hefty wad of extra cash in local taxations for the privilege of owning something a little different, then so be it.

When those import taxes were removed, larger swathes of car buyers across the continent bought foreign-built models, gradually diluting national idiosyncrasies in the quest of producing models with a pan-European appeal.

Where once you might have chosen a Fiat for its compactness, a Mercedes for its peerless engineering, a Citroen for its comfort or a Rover because you liked sitting at the roadside with steam billowing out from under the bonnet, trends increasingly converged.

That’s not to say some cars are better in particular areas than others, but with each new model, the gap between the best and worst is constantly reduced and thus they become similar.

It’s not just between different car brands there’s growing similarity – venture into an Audi showroom and you’ll be greeted by four different saloons that look so similar you’ll need a doctorate in observation skills to spot the differences. If they’ve had the tell-tale badge delete option, you’re on a hiding to nothing.

Rather than simplify things to help customers out, car manufacturers are looking to fill every imaginable market niche to keep the balance sheets looking healthy and shareholders happy. This means more models and potentially more confusion.

Visit a BMW showroom and you’ll spot the 3 Series Gran Turismo. It’s a five-door hatchback version of the four-door 3 Series saloon. Okay, there’s merit in that idea. But wait, what’s that? Why, that’s the new 4 Series Gran Coupe. It’s a five-door hatchback version of the 4 Series coupe, which in turn is a two-door version of the 3 Series four-door saloon. Erm. And that one? Oh yes, that’s the new X4, a five-door hatchback version of the X3 4×4. Aaah, so that one makes more sense because you can get it with four-wheel drive? Yes, an argument that holds water until you spot the 3GT and 4GC can also be specified in that format too. My head hurts.

It’s not just in the automotive industry where such a choice explosion is ricocheting product shrapnel across a greater number of shop shelves. Apple was once a model of product purity, its iPhone being launched in one colour and two memory sizes. Now there’s not only a choice of colour, but a choice of plastic or glass cases. And if rumours are true about iPhone6, it’s going to become even more confusing as there’s allegedly a regular-sized version and a larger phablet (a hideous portmanteau of phone and tablet in case you’ve yet to hear someone utter that bile-curdling phrase). So the larger model will be bigger than the normal iPhone but smaller than the iPad Mini, which in turn is a smaller version of the regular iPad. Pass the Anadin.

For most people the level of choice is something that clever marketing people convince them they need. Cars of different sizes will be required depending upon individuals’ requirements, but do the vast majority of car buyers really care that their model of choice comes with five alternative diesel engines, three petrols, a trio of gearbox iterations and six trim levels? I suspect the answer is a resounding no. They want something that’s safe, economical and makes them feel good in most instances. The rest isn’t choice, its noise.

Maybe Henry Ford had it right all along – you could buy his eponymous Model T in any colour you liked, so long as it was black. I’ll save the story of how that’s actually an automotive myth for when your insomnia’s really bad.

Keith Jones is a self-confessed car geek from Lincoln with over 30,000 car books, magazines and sales brochures being testament to that. Keith took his first steps in motoring writing launching his blog in 2011, contributing to Autocar, BBC 5 Live, CBS and MSN in the following months. In 2013, he gave up his teaching career to become a staff writer at Parkers.

Years ago I was sat behind a car in traffic. Nothing remarkable about that, nor about the ‘Buy British Beef’ sticker in its rear window, with a bovine silhouette patriotically picked out in red, white and blue. Where the Britannic message fell flat was that it was gummed to the back of a Volkswagen.

I was minded of this when my brief holiday from this column coincided with the start of the World Cup. Even as a non-football fan, the tournament is impossible to escape, but even if I’d not subjected myself to any media exposure whatsoever, I’d have still known due to the mass of England pennants affixed to cars.

What I’ll save you from is a dullard’s explanation about what percentage more fuel you’re likely to use due to the flags having a negative effect on a vehicle’s aerodynamic performance. No, the real question is whether they’re the most effective demonstration of patriotism?

Visit any other country and almost everywhere you go its symbolic flags are draped from a variety of locations. Even in Scotland, where it appears less than half the population are pro-UK independence, they relish any opportunity to unfurl the Saltire.

Yet here in England, and Britain generally, too often the flag waving is seen as the result of jingoistic xenophobes claiming it’s high time the nation stood up for itself, conveniently ignoring thousands of years of migrants settling on these shores. Only when a band of overpaid, underperforming guys hoof a bag of air around for 90 minutes do people feel more at ease with such a patriotic display.

Whether you subscribe to the salad bowl or melting pot schools of thought, multiculturalism and the diversity it brings, is a good thing, a notion shared across all nations. But drive around those other countries and the roadscape is also different, with each country’s roads predominantly populated by ‘home’ brands, even if cars from overseas are undoubtedly better.

Maybe it’s simply that British car buyers are more discerning, factoring in other criteria significantly higher than the country of origin when making a buying decision. Even if it is, there’s a glorious incongruity about an Audi, Fiat, Renault or whatever is sat on the driveway with St George’s cross fluttering away in the breeze.

So is it selective patriotism or lack of knowledge at play? One former colleague once told me their latest car was British because it was right hand drive. Okay, there’s no accounting for such degrees of ignorance, but perhaps there’s an assumed belief that a car was built here and the salesman/woman didn’t do anything to counter that notion?

Vauxhall’s British-built Vivaro is now the only UK-manufactured van available.

Vauxhall’s British-built Vivaro is now the only UK-manufactured van available.

Ford’s the best-selling brand in Britain, and they’re made here aren’t they? Sure, it has a long history of making cars at Halewood and Dagenham, but the former now churns out various Land Rovers (and soon Jaguars) while the latter produces engines. No Ford-badged vehicle is made in the UK any more.

Vauxhall then? Well, if you buy certain Astras or the Vivaro van, then yes, otherwise they’re imported from as far afield as Korea. In fact, the firm’s latest Vivaro is 40% constructed from UK-made components, a statistic that should translate into £600m of revenue for the British economy by 2024.

So who does build cars in Britain? Luxury brands like Bentley and Rolls-Royce immediately spring to mind, despite having many major components supplied by owners Volkswagen and BMW, respectively. BMW also produces the smaller MINI ranges at Oxford, and even has an engine plant a few miles deeper into the Midlands.

The likes of Aston Martin and the Jaguar Land Rover combine continue to set sales records too, as is McLaren’s car division, ironically at a time its Formula 1 team is in the doldrums.

Need something more mainstream? Nissan’s facility near Sunderland is one of the most efficient car factories in the world, manufacturing the Note, Juke, Qashqai and electric Leaf, while further south Toyota produces Aurises and Avensises and Honda the Jazz, Civic and CR-V.

Lotus is just about surviving with an aging product line in Norfolk and Chinese-owned MG’s starting to show green shoots of recovery in Birmingham. And that’s before you begin to explore the plethora of specialist marques like Ariel, Ascari, Caterham, Morgan, Noble and Westfield, and all the engineering firms and racing car manufacturers that undertake development work for larger car-builders too.

So you can buy good quality British cars at a variety of price points, and surely keeping people in jobs, contributing taxes and minimising the trade deficit is more patriotic than cheering on Roy Hodgson’s band of merry men?

You can still wave your Union Flags – just be aware of the extra fuel you’re consuming while you do so!

Keith Jones is a self-confessed car geek from Lincoln with over 30,000 car books, magazines and sales brochures being testament to that. Keith took his first steps in motoring writing launching his blog in 2011, contributing to Autocar, BBC 5 Live, CBS and MSN in the following months. In 2013, he gave up his teaching career to become a staff writer at Parkers.

Just because something’s possible, doesn’t mean it has to be done. That phrase struck me as I began to get to grips with my new long-term test car only to discover it’s got a digital photo frame in the dashboard.

It’s symptomatic of the car industry’s major challenge. Truth is if you’re below the age of 25 and you’re reading this column you’re in the minority. Why? Statistics suggest that ‘young people’ (please tell me I’m not the only person who cringes when those two words are positioned together) as a collective have a declining interest in cars and driving generally.

When your entire business revolves around a manufacturing industry, selling expensive products with small profit margins, trying to engage with the next wave of buyers is of paramount importance, after all, your core market isn’t going to be around forever.

If people won’t come to the cars, then cars have to come to the people – in other words, cars have to become relevant and indispensible to drivers in the first flushes of adulthood (that’s barely any better is it?) in order for them to part with their cash.

Displaying photos on the car’s primary dashboard interface is only a small step in terms of where things are heading. The same 9-inch screen in my latest model acts like a mini-tablet accessing various music and streaming functions, movies, interactive maps and online apps.

Apps? Yes, apps. Whether generations of advancing years understand, let alone accept it, us younger models (I’m including myself regardless of whether 38’s considered young or not) have got used to 24/7 connectivity. WiFi, or at the very least a decent 3G signal, is as necessary as food, drink and shelter. So being able to keep up to speed with recent emails as well as the dark art of updating social media channels verbally will become far more commonplace.

Simply making the cars of tomorrow sociably accessible might not be enough to lure the young bucks to the automotive fold though.

Changing the way they own cars is something the industry is already bracing itself for. It’s inescapable that phones, tablets, laptops and other tech-centric devices are almost seen as disposable: there’s a race to be one of the first to own them before they’re fickly discarded for the latest model months down the line.

Car makers can learn a lot from the smartphone generation (that’s got to be the most inaccurate and patronising, surely?) because they rarely buy the technology – it’s usually leased. So why wouldn’t they lease a car for a year before moving on when the next version’s released? Mile long queues outside a car showroom at midnight? Stranger things happen…

News outlets, mainly online for obvious reasons, have devoted endless pixels to Google’s prototype self-driving car and it’s undoubtedly an exciting advance, despite looking like it’s driven itself out of a cartoon. Traditional car manufacturers are also working on autonomous technology but Google’s car has got to be something that’s troubling them. Not only does it appear to be in the final stages of development and potentially able to steal a march on established competition, it’ll be pre-equipped with all manner of internet connectivity, the perfect interface for Generation Y.

The biggest problem for the automotive establishment isn’t Google’s lack of experience in this industry but the equity of its brand name. Google’s far more familiar to future car buyers than many brands of car currently on the market. A centenary of automotive history could count for little.

Now, if only there was a camera on the steering wheel to take selfies of myself driving.

Keith Jones is a self-confessed car geek from Lincoln with over 30,000 car books, magazines and sales brochures being testament to that. Keith took his first steps in motoring writing launching his blog in 2011, contributing to Autocar, BBC 5 Live, CBS and MSN in the following months. In 2013, he gave up his teaching career to become a staff writer at Parkers.

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