Friday, 14 August 2009


The world’s most powerful hybrid SUV will make its premier at the 2009 Frankfurt Motor Show in exactly a month. BMW’s ActiveHybrid X6 has a V8 petrol engine with two turbos which makes 300kW (408hp). At the same time supplementary power is harnessed through two electric motors which deliver 63kW (86hp) and 67kW (91hp) respectively. Together the entire system makes 357kW (485hp) and 780Nm of torque. Performance is claimed to be a swift 5.6 seconds for the 0 – 100km/h with top speed electronically pegged at 236km/h and 250km/h with the Sports Pack fitted.

Driving the four wheels through the xDrive AWD system is a 7-speed automatic gearbox based on ECVT (electronic continuously variable transmission) architecture. It has four clutches and can, as expected of a BMW, be changed “manually” by the driver.

Of course hybrids are all about saving fuel so BMW says the vehicle will save up to 20% in petrol use compared to a similarly-powered all-petrol SUV (SAV, sorry – no, Coupe SAV).

Up to 2.5km can be travelled in full electric mode without using fossil fuel, at a speed of up to 60km/h. While this may appear paltry, when sitting in traffic like Jozi traffic this can possibly be more, leading to fuller tanks at the end of the working week. A rating of 9.9 litres per 100km has been achieved, along with a C02 emissions figure of 231g/km.

Because this is a different car to the recently-launched xDrive50i, “there is no starter, alternator, or belt drive for the air-conditioning compressor and hydraulic pump. The dual-circuit cooling system has been modified for all-electric operation.

Most new hybrids are coming out with lithium-ion battery technology but the X6 has stuck to the old technology of NiMH batteries which are sitting underneath the floor. Kinetic energy is captured when the car brakes, converted to electrical energy and stored in the battery pack.

Standard wheels are 20-inch light-alloy types that are unique to the ActiveHybrid X6. If you look at the bonnet you’ll notice the power dome that lets the car stand out from others in the range. The suspension is also tuned for the hybrid setup.

Most of the rest of the car is pretty much the same as the normal X6. That means things like Head Up Display, iDrive, cruise control, park distance control and an 80GB satellite navigation system with a music storage facility.


Fiat South Africa has released details of the new Strada bakkie called the Strada Working, an apt name for a vehicle expected to do a lot of that. It is built at Fiat’s plant in Brazil. Power is sourced from a 1.4-litre petrol engine with 8 valves that replaces both the current 1.2-litre and 1.6-litre plants. It produces 60kW at 5500rpm and 120Nm of torque at 2250rpm, and can help haul up to 715kg in the standard cab model and 700kg for the X-Space Adventure. Working with it is a 5-speed manual gearbox.

The EL and ELX models are now a thing of the past, now replaced by the Working and soon-to-come Life. Some refinements accompanying these changes include a new interior trim, new Fiat badging and a new instrument cluster. The Life and X-Space Adventure get alloy wheels while the Working makes do with new wheel caps.

“Detail changes, most notably the adoption of the more powerful 1.4-litre engine across the range,” says Oscar Rivoli, Managing Director of Fiat Group Automobiles “as well as the shift to Brazilian production in the state-of-the-art Betim plant which is renowned for its quality, will ensure that the Strada remains highly competitive in the smaller pick-up arena.”

Standard features from the baseline Working include tinted windows, a 12V power point, power steering and central locking. The X-Space Adventure is fitted with alloy wheels, air conditioning, a stereo sound system, colour-coded exterior, front and rear fog lamps, electric windows and a driver’s airbag.

Safety is taken care of by a strengthened body shell, side impact bars on the doors, a fire prevention system that locks the fuel pump to prevents fuel from escaping and an immobiliser system.

The new Strada comes standard with a 24-month Manufacturer Warranty, unlimited mileage and an additional 12-month Dealer Extended Warranty or up to 100 000km in total, three years on paintwork and five years on rust anti-perforation.

Fiat Strada pricing

Fiat Strada Working 1.4 (R105 500)

Fiat Strada Life 1.4 (R129 500)

Fiat Strada X-Space Adventure 1.4 (R164 500)

Wednesday, 12 August 2009


DRIVING SOLUTIONS SAYS: Defensive Driving Key #1. Pay Attention and Focus On the Task of Driving. Yes, this one seems the most obvious! But how often have you been on your cell phone while driving? Or fiddled with a handbag, papers, a map, or kept digging for something in your pockets? Splitting your attention from the process of driving immediately puts your driving on auto pilot.

You are no longer consciously involved in operating your two ton box of metal - you find you can't remember what you saw, or that you changed lanes a km back. Most importantly, your response rate is reduced and impaired. You cannot react quickly to new stimuli because your conscious brain is not involved in the active reception of such information.

So how can you increase your ability to pay active attention while driving? Never use your cell phone illegally - in some Companies, it is policy that drivers are not allowed to use a mobile phone at all. Try not to daydream, and if someone else is in the car with you, do not look at them while talking - keep your eyes and attention on the road. Averting your eyes, for even two seconds, while talking to a passenger, could put both your lives in serious danger.

Also form good driving habits. For instance, if you're making a trip to a new destination, get familiar with your map or directions before getting into your car. Make sure that you can recall most of them from memory so that you are not forced to finger through, or constantly look at your papers while driving. In addition, pace yourself - if you're hungry, stop and eat at the restaurant. Don't drive through and eat while driving. If you're tired, pull over and rest. Don't gamble your life and another's just because you're in a hurry or you believe you won't fall asleep. Driving is hypnotic - eventually you will fall asleep if you are not well rested.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009



Alfa Romeo is well-regarded for designing some of the best-looking cars in the business. Think of the 159, or the GTV roadster, or the Brera. Think of the 8C Competizione which incidentally is the design and styling inspiration for the MiTo; the brave smooth face with the big egg-shaped eyes, the clean lines on the sides and the round rear lights in a chrome casing. It really is Alfa-beautiful.

In creating the current MINI (model R56), BMW deliberately stayed within the boundaries of short overhangs, big headlights, flat roofline and a punchy rear end. Owners of the previous-generation car have not been left wondering why BMW back-stabbed them then. The MINI is still a MINI, but different. Liking the look or not is a matter of personal preference but we the first to admit that our test unit was dressed for the kill. Of our two contenders the bigger mini is the MiTo which just runs over the 4 metre mark while the MINI keeps it just past 3.7 metres. Practicality is won by the MiTo with a bigger boot but solidity belongs to the Cooper S. Call this one a draw.


We can already hear the “Alfa quality issues” brigade but let’s assure you that the MiTo is very solidly built. We are not talking continent-solid but good enough not to reveal any niggles. The design and carbon fiber-like material (which can be painted in different colours) used on the dashboard is revolutionary, giving the car a sporty yet somewhat chic demeanour. Steering grip and feel are absolutely top drawer stuff while the seating position can be idealised to fit most drivers. No electronics though; it’s all manual. The seats are a little tight and cannot be adjusted for lumber support. Nevertheless this is what keeps the body in shape during hard cornering.

We weren’t bowled over by MINI’s insistence on the Big Ben-type info-meter stacked up in the middle. People who enjoy driving prefer having their information displayed to them directly up front, not on the side. Previous generation car was middle-of-the-road strong and solid. This time the Brits notched it up a step or two by introducing higher quality materials, especially on the dashboard and by introducing more upmarket bits like steel pedals and chrome-finish in certain parts. Yes the plastic walls are still dominant but they don’t protrude as much as they used to. MINI takes it by a whisker.


Targeted at the young at heart – few actual young people can afford these two cars – our foes are packed to the hilt with youthful techno. The Brit features expected luxuries like power steering, electric windows, an iPod/ auxiliary jack, a CD player, leather seats, power windows (easier to operate on the MiTo), an on-board trip computer, air conditioning and a multi-function steering wheel. Granted some of these items are optional. Both radio systems have a memory function as well as an RDS display to show which radio station is currently on.

The Italian has the same list apart from the iPod/ auxiliary jack, and instead it features the Blue&Me system which was developed with Microsoft. It accepts USB memory sticks and also connects Bluetooth devices, features the Cooper S was short on. When fitted to the MINI a similar system would cost R4200 against Blue&Me’s R3200. On the gadgets list the MiTo is king.


Both these babies are fitted with compact 4-cylinder engines. Both are strapped with turbo chargers and both are driven via the front wheels through 6-speed manual gearboxes. The MiTo’s engine is the smaller of the two despite the car’s larger body. It is a 1.4-litre TJet with 114kW made at 5500rpm and its peak torque is 230Nm at 3000rpm.

As for the Cooper S its older 1.6-litre has 128kW of juice achieved at the exact pace (5500rpm) while maximum torque is 240Nm at a much lower 1600rpm. While it might appear as a lost cause for the Italian on paper, in reality the divide isn’t that great as our figures show in the next section.

We posted an average fuel consumption figure of 8.6 litres per 100km on the MINI. MiTo proved a little thirstier with an overall figure of 9.1 litres per 100km. This makes sense because you are driving a bigger body on less power than the Cooper S, which stresses the engine that much greater, creates more work for it which requires more power, which requires more fuel.

Alfa also installed the DNA system which gives the driver the choice to pick the correct suspension setting for the prevailing road condition. Whether you want a dynamic, tauter drive or something for driving in gravel or cruising in normal traffic, the MiTo has the programme for it. For its greater flexibility and higher tech the MiTo drives off with this round.


On our 2.1km track the Cooper S planted a best time of 1 minute 36.4 seconds, compared to the MiTo’s 1 minute 39.5 seconds. The air temperature was 17 degrees Celsius while the altitude an oxygen-robbing 1500m above sea level. So a rough 3 seconds off the pace is nothing for MiTo to be ashamed of considering what we said previously; more weight, longer car, fewer ponies and less torque. In fact both these cars match and exceed a number of cars with bigger engines. Even when it was time to go from 0 – 100km/h the differences were not too hectic. MINI posted a time of 8.3 seconds and the MiTo did it in 8.8 seconds.

The latter seldom felt fully composed, instead the MiTo exhibited small signs of anxiety whenever foot hit pedal. Some of that can be attributed to its front-wheel-drive (FWD) layout and was encouraged by the turbo unit. Steering feel was not too strong either. The MINI felt more surefooted, more confident and direct in cornering and did not exhibit as much torque steer. Mind you some people like torque steer. But when it comes to handling the MINI is legendary, with some even comparing it to a go-kart (a mini exaggeration). Sounds emanating from the rear had the thicker beat coming from the MINI than the higher-pitched MiTo’s choking wails.

In all fairness the MiTo is a standard car while its foe is a performance model, albeit not the highest-performance in the range. Nevertheless this round goes to the ever courageous Cooper S.


One area we cannot test effectively is safety because most safety systems only come into play when something goes horribly wrong and during our sessions nothing of the sort even came close to happening. I promise. So we’ll go with the EURO NCAP test results which state (score in brackets):

Alfa Romeo MiTo

Adult occupant protection (36)

Child occupant protection (26)

Pedestrian protection (18)

MINI Cooper

Adult occupant protection (33)

Child occupant protection (29)

Pedestrian protection (14)

No results are available for the Cooper S unfortunately. Based on these scores it is clear that the Italian is the safer option although both cars achieved 5 stars overall.


Taking a standard Alfa Romeo MiTo and stacking it up against the established MINI Cooper S didn’t seem quite fair at first. However, the MiTo’s primary point of existence is just that; challenging the MINI. Because of power gaps there is no model on either side that matches the other; what we got is pretty much the closest matchup, regardless of the fact that the Cooper S is more geared towards performance than its rival.

At R228 500 standard the MiTo appears to be the cheaper option to the Cooper S’s R270 500 asking price. Its options list is not as comprehensive as the MINI’s but you do get an above-average performer with better practical considerations. Some potential buyers might adopt a wait-and-see attitude, especially given Alfa Romeo’s reputation for shoddy service (which they say has improved in leaps and bounds) as well as their product’s negative market perception.

As for this shootout the value performance package is clearly the MiTo. Ben fatto.

*Live exterior pictures of the MiTo and MINI were taken using a NOKIA 6210 Navigator