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+++ ASTON MARTINis expected to name its first SUV Varekai following the application of a new trademark. Since it was announced at the 2015 Geneva motor show, the model, which is due on roads in 2019, has been referred to as the DBX, the name of the concept that previewed it. But the Varekai name looks set to adorn the final version because it sticks to the brand’s naming convention by starting with a V, like the Vantage, Vanquish and Valkyrie. The production model is currently under development (its design was signed off late last summer) with intentions of drastically boosting the 105-year-old firm’s sales. Aston is going from strength to strength, having posted record profits last year. When the DBX production model arrives, it will rival the Bentley Bentayga, Lamborghini Urus, Maserati Levante and top-end Range Rovers and Porsche Cayennes in the luxury 4×4 segment. However, CEO Andy Palmer has previously stated that the DBX will stand apart “because it has not sacrificed any beauty to achieve its practicality or performance”. The SUV project was envisioned by Palmer before he took up his role at Aston Martin in 2014 and it was officially kick-started on his fourth day in the job. “When you are talking about running a company like Aston, you talk through your ideas with the owners before you are hired”, said Palmer. “My message was simple: if Aston Martin wants to survive, it must do an SUV. On my 4th day as a CEO, I got to spend some time with Marek Reichman, our head of design, and I told him I wanted the DBX. That was in October and I told him I wanted a concept car ready to show in Geneva by the following March. “He and his team responded magnificently. One of the many beauties of Aston Martin compared to a large car company is that we can move quickly. If something is agreed, we can leave the room and start working on it immediately, without the need for multi-layer presentations. It’s invigorating and I think we are starting to unlock the benefits of that now. I hope the Aston Martin of today has a swagger, but never arrogance, that it hasn’t had for some time”. The DBX concept of Geneva 2015 was a 2-door, 4-seater powered by electric motors mounted inboard of the wheels and powered by lithium sulphur cells. The car featured other high-tech concept flourishes, such as an Formula 1-style kinetic energy recovery system (KERS) to emphasise that it would be at the cutting edge of powertrain technology when it was launched. However, Reichman and his team also made a point of highlighting more practical elements, such as interior and load space. Palmer indicated that the final car will carry much of the DNA hinted at by the concept. He said: “There are aspects of the car that have changed dramatically (perhaps none more so than the fact that it is now a 4-door) and, on a comparison basis, you will be able to pick out many details that have been modified. But in terms of the pure lines and the fundamental core principles of the car, you’ll recognise them”. Reichman has suggested the roofline will have to be much higher than that of the concept in order to give the production car an extra layer of practicality. The DBX will be built on a new bonded and riveted aluminium architecture that is closely related in principle to that used by the DB11. There had been speculation that Aston would lean on part-owner Mercedes-Benz for its chassis technology, but Palmer said Aston Martin preferred to make use of its own expertise, albeit turning to Mercedes for some sub-systems and V8 power, as it will do with all of its next-generation vehicles. The DBX will also be the first Aston to be sold with 4-wheel drive, although it’s not clear if every model will have that function. Power in the range-topper will come from Aston’s 5.2-litre V12, which will be retuned from the 608 hp and 700 Nm unit found in the DB11. There will also be an AMG-sourced 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 that makes 510 hp and 675 Nm and, in time, an all-electric powertrain that will be developed as proprietary technology by Aston with input from Williams Advanced Engineering. Palmer has ruled out diesel versions of the DBX. However, Palmer confirmed that a hybrid version will be developed, but it will not feature plug-in hybrid technology because research suggests luxury car buyers do not consider the experience to be premium enough. This revelation raises the possibility of Aston using the high-performance powertrain from the Mercedes-AMG GT Concept that was revealed at the Geneva motor show last year. Its hybrid unit combines AMG’s twin-turbo 4.0-litre V8 with an electric motor to deliver a combined 800 hp. In the GT Concept, that equates to a 0-100 km/h time of less than 3 seconds, although the DBX will be heavier. The battery is charged as the car is being driven through brake energy recuperation as well as with the aid of the petrol engine. However, Palmer also highlighted the lessons the company had learned while developing the hybrid KERS-style system with Red Bull Advanced Technologies for Aston’s Valkyrie hypercar, suggesting the firm could use a modified version of that instead of turning to Mercedes. In terms of ride and handling goals, Palmer highlighted the characteristics of the Porsche Macan. “It is probably dynamically the best car in the SUV category”, he said. The interior of the DBX is set to take a new approach, with the design team having to focus more than ever on practicality. “There are certain issues you can’t compromise on that perhaps we haven’t given such credence to in the past: ingress and egress, for starters, and whether it is a car you sit on or sit in”, said Palmer. “DBX is a revolution for Aston Martin in so many ways and that has meant that we have had to adapt our way of thinking in places. We have one rule that never changes, which is that we don’t trade off beauty. But if you want the design to reflect its ‘4×4-ness’ and to deliver the sort of utility that customers expect from these cars, then you have find ways to achieve that. A 4×4 needs to be big, it needs to convey safety and security, and yet it also needs to be easy to get in and out of”. Aston Martin has created focus groups of existing customers to provide input, including the much-vaunted female focus group, which was instigated on Palmer’s suggestion as soon as the concept car was revealed after it emerged that just 3.500 of the firm’s lifetime sales of 70.000 cars were to women. “Some very special customers have seen the car to help guide our thoughts and provide feedback”, said Palmer. “They are our jury and our anchor points to what we want the car to achieve. The female jury has been particularly fascinating. This is not an Aston that is exclusive to any one type of buyer and these groups really help us get into and understand some mindsets that we have never focused on before”. Preparation for DBX production at Aston’s new facility at St Athan in Wales is well under way. As well as building all large Astons, the site has been earmarked to become the firm’s centre of excellence for electrification and cyber security. Customer and staff reception areas have been built and work is in full swing to repurpose three hangars into the manufacturing plant. At launch, 750 new employees are expected to work at the facility. St Athan’s role in Aston’s growth will be pivotal as the firm continues to grow its line-up following the launch of the new Vantage last year. A significantly more potent new Vanquish is due this year, while the DBX is expected in 2019, followed by a mid-engined supercar in 2020, the Lagonda saloon in 2021 and a Lagonda SUV in 2022. Aston Martin recently relaunched the Lagonda brand as a standalone luxury electric division. +++

+++ The AUDI R8 is soon to become more affordable thanks to the introduction of a new entry-level variant powered by a V6 engine. Using a twin-turbocharged 2.9-litre V6 petrol unit, shared with the Porsche Panamera, Audi RS4 and RS5, the model will extend the R8’s reach deeper into the sports car segment and effectively fills the void left by Audi’s older, naturally aspirated 4.2-litre V8 petrol engine. The 6-pot powerplant is a 90 degree engine that has been developed in a joint venture by Audi and Porsche as part of a new modular engine family known under the working title KoVoMo. Audi has not offered a V8 with the second generation R8 because of what Ingolstadt officials describe as a combination of the high costs of updating it to meet future emissions standards and concerns in markets such as China, where road tax is linked to engine capacity. In the latest Panamera 4S, the new V6 engine delivers 440 hp at 5.650 rpm and 550 Nm of torque between 1.750 rpm and 5.500 rpm when running a relatively low 0.4bar of turbocharger boost pressure. With subtle tweaks, including greater boost, the joint-venture engine is claimed to offer more than 500 hp and up to 670 Nm, although it has yet to be confirmed what output Audi has settled on for its quartet of new performance models. Audi officials have told that the V6 unit will come with more than one power output. An example of Audi’s desire to extend the R8’s reach has come recently with the launch of a rear-wheel drive version of the V10 model, called the R8 RWS. Whether the R8 V6 will adopt a base-level rear-wheel drive version is yet to be revealed; the brand may choose not to offer such a low-cost version to retain a certain level of exclusivity with the R8. The only visual cues to differentiate the V6 model from its V10 sibling, according to the spotted development car, will be smaller exhaust baffles hidden behind the rear grilles. The former has been made possible due to the V6’s lower volume. The most recently spotted test car is running with a V10. The fitment of camouflage on the bumpers suggests the aesthetic changes will be focused there. +++

+++ A range-topping CUPRA version of Seat’s new 2020 crossover could be a performance plug-in hybrid with output in excess of 300 hp. The crossover will become Seat and Cupra’s flagship model and is separate to the battery EV model also planned for a 2020 launch. Based on the next-generation Leon platform, itself a version of the Volkswagen Group’s MQB underpinnings, the car has been designed with a low roofline and “exciting styling”. “The crossover was first designed as a Cupra, but we will also sell it as a Seat, because we need the volume to make the project viable”, said Seat boss Luca de Meo. Seat technical chief Matthias Rabe said new plug-in hybrid powertrains (the first of which is due in the new Leon in 2019) would be configured with several ‘system’ powers (describing the combined output of the internal combustion engine and electric motor). Cooking versions of the plug-in hybrid will have total outputs of around 200 hp, but performance versions will be even more potent. “I don’t want to say exactly, but more than 300 hp maybe”, said de Meo. Such an output would make the range-topping version of the crossover more potent than the recently revealed Cupra Ateca. That car is powered by a 300 hp version of the VW Group’s EA888 2.0-litre turbocharged engine and can reach 100 km/h in 5.4 seconds. However, de Meo added that, by the time the Cupra crossover is launched, outright horsepower may not be the main marketing and performance benchmark. “We are looking at badges and names. But you know 0-100 km/h or acceleration may be a better measure”, he pointed out. The Cupra brand was officially launched at the end of January and it introduced its first model, the Ateca, at the start of this month. The stand-alone performance division has also previewed a hot version of the Ibiza in concept form, as well as a concept all-electric racing model based on the Leon called the e-Racer. +++

+++ NISSAN has given a 370Z successor the green light. The new sports car is expected to be shown in coupé guise before the end of next year ahead of sales starting in 2020, some 50 years after the original Z car arrived here. Future generations of the Z model are understood to have been in doubt because of struggling profitability in the sports car segment, an issue felt more widely across the industry. Honda has admitted a similar quandary about an S2000 replacement and Toyota and BMW have teamed up in order to cut costs in the creation of their respective forthcoming Supra and Z4 sports cars. Nissan design boss Alfonso Albaisa told last year that he was in favour of a new Z car to replace the 370Z. He said the sports car market was a challenging one but was “personally advocating” a new Z car. The forthcoming model is known internally as the Z35; a codename that continues a process started with the Z31 model launched in 1983. It has been twinned with the next Infiniti Q60, with which it will share its rear-wheel-drive platform, engine line-up and electric system, according to senior officials from Nissan. Dimensionally, the new Z car is set to mirror the more upmarket Q60. At about 4.520 mm long, 1.890 mm wide and 1.240 mm tall, it will be slightly larger than the 370Z, which has been in production since 2009. As well as a coupé version, Nissan plans a successor to the 370Z Roadster, although this model is unlikely to arrive in showrooms until 2021. Power for the new coupé and convertible, which insiders suggest could be called the 400Z, is planned to come from Nissan’s twin-turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 engine used in a number of existing models, including Infiniti’s Q50 and Q60. In standard versions of the new Z car, the engine, which has a 60 degree angle, is expected to run a similar state of tune to that of the Q60, which develops 405 hp and 475 Nm. By comparison, the outgoing 370Z has a 3.7-litre V6 powerplant that delivers 328 hp and 373 Nm. The highlight of the new Z-car line-up is set to be a 4-wheel-drive Nismo version. Due to arrive in 2021, this is earmarked to run a powered-up version of the turbocharged 3.0-litre V6 engine with a claimed 475 hp and 600 Nm. Although it’s still early days, it is understood that Nissan intends to reveal the styling of the new Z car in concept form at the 2018 Tokyo motor show in October. The definitive production version is then planned to be unveiled at the 2019 Los Angeles motor show. +++

+++ SKODA will launch 5 electrified vehicles by the end of 2020, CEO Bernhard Maier has confirmed. Previously, Skoda has confirmed 10 electrified models (made up of 6 electric cars and 4 plug-in hybrids) would arrive by 2025, but Maier has now said half of these will come in the next 2 years. Already confirmed is a Superb plug-in hybrid arriving next year, while Skoda’s first zero-emissions car will be the Citigo-e, a sister car to the Volkswagen e-Up and Seat e-Mii. A production version of the Vision E electric SUV, which sits between the Karoq and Kodiaq in size, is also due by 2020. It will be built on the VW Group’s electric MEB platform. There remains 2 unconfirmed electrified models to arrive in the next 2 years, both of which are likely to be plug-in hybrids of models based on the same MQB platform as the Superb. Maier has previously hinted that the Kodiaq is the next candidate. A plug-in hybrid Octavia would also be a natural step. The other models will come early in the next decade. Skoda has yet to decide on a naming strategy for its stand-alone electric models. While some brands such as Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz are giving specific names to their electric model line-ups (ID and EQ respectively), other makers are not separating electric models from traditionally fuelled models in their naming approach. Sales and marketing boss Alain Favey said: “it’s a very good question. We haven’t yet come to a decision on the naming strategy for electric-only models. We are discussing it”. On the broader topic of electrified powertrains, Maier added that the compressed natural gas hybrid electric powertrain shown in the recent Vision X compact SUV concept was certainly “possible for production”. He said he was “fighting for it” but it was important to “gain synergies” with other VW Group brands, suggesting at least one of its siblings would need to commit to the idea to make it commercially viable. +++

+++ SUBARU will not continue to offer diesel engines in its range according to UK boss Chris Graham: “We can only sell what the manufacturer produces, and moving forward it looks like they will probably not be producing any diesels. We’re working very hard, particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are both very hardcore diesel areas. We’ve secured ourselves enough diesels to move us beyond the point of exhausting all those customers who want to change at the moment. Bearing in mind the footfall of customers is, rather than 3 or 5 year, a 7-year cycle. Graham said Subaru has “stock to last us certainly until the end of this year, possibly into the first 3 months next year. We’re not thinking there will be a wholesale stop tomorrow, where everybody stops buying diesel, so we’re quite comfortable with the stock we’re holding. If the sales start increasing because buyers think ‘if I don’t buy now, I won’t get another one’, then we’ll have to manage that. We’re working with the dealers to start offering petrol to try and ensure a test drive is taken just for comparison with diesels. Some people will convert, but some unfortunately won’t. Saying that, I think they will because a Subaru buyer is a Subaru buyer. We’re confident a high proportion will stick with Subaru as a brand”. Subaru bosses admit the firm was late to the party with diesel, with the first diesel powered Subaru not introduced until 2007 a delay widely credited to the firm’s insistence on sticking with a horizontally-opposed engine, which became the world’s first turbocharged boxer unit. Graham fears Subaru’s lateness in launching a hybrid engine could be the biggest threat to the business, in the UK at least. However, Subaru’s New Global Platform, which underpins the latest Subaru XV and Impreza and will be the basis of all of its models over the coming years, has been engineered to accept petrol engines as well as all-electric and hybrid powertrains. He suggested that in time, all models in the range could be offered with a choice of three powertrains, as there will be few technical obstacles in the way. +++

+++ TESLA boss and real-life Bond villain Elon Musk tweeted at President Trump about the difficulties his company faces with the Chinese market and how the current regime is unfair towards U.S. carmakers trying to set their foot in the world’s biggest market. President Trump then read Musk’s tweets during a press conference, using them to back up his decision on changing import duties on steel and aluminum, promising to continue revising tariffs on imported goods from certain countries. Tesla has been trying to establish a factory in China for quite some time now, but negotiations with the local government have been tough, in part because the American carmaker wants to keep full control of any local partnership and protect its intellectual property. “No US auto company is allowed to own even 50 percent of their own factory in China, but there are 5 fully China-owned EV auto companies in the US”, Musk wrote in one of his tweets aimed at Trump. China’s car rules dictate that foreign automakers should partner with a local manufacturer in order to establish a production facility there and avoid the steep 25 percent import duty. “If China’s going to charge us 25 percent or if India’s going to charge us 75 percent, and we charge them nothing, if they’re at 50, or they’re at 75, or they’re at 25, we’re gonna be at those same numbers, it’s called reciprocal, it’s a mirror tax, so they charge us 50 we charge them 50, right now they’ll charge us 50 we’ll charge them nothing, it doesn’t work. So that’s called a reciprocal tax, or mirror tax, and we’re going to be doing a lot of that”, Trump said during the press conference.

+++ A third of VAUXHALL dealerships in the UK could be closed as part of an aggressive efficiency-boosting strategy laid out by the brand’s new parent company, the PSA Group. An anonymous source has told that more than 100 of the company’s 324 UK retailers could go within a year, putting 3.800 jobs at risk. “PSA has already implemented savage cuts in its manufacturing operations and it looks like that’s set to continue in retail”, the unnamed dealer said. “A third of dealerships will go”. Vauxhall told that the claims are “pure speculation”. It said in a statement that “The Opel/Vauxhall Pace plan is improving the efficiency of the business in all areas. “Within the plan, the go-to-market strategy is being carefully reviewed, including the contractual framework with the dealers”. The source said the dealer network was now running with high inefficiencies because it’s set up to handle much higher volumes, with sales having peaked at 330,000 in 2007. In 2017, Vauxhall sold 195,137 vehicles. “Last year, I think the network ended up at around 0.35 percent return-on-sales. You can’t sustain that for long. Without the volume, there are just too many sites”, the source told. “Whether this is a crisis is a moot point, but either way, many Vauxhall dealers will already be saying ‘enough’s enough’ ”. Since acquiring Vauxhall and its German sister brand Opel late last year, PSA has been particularly vigorous in its attempts to cut costs from the UK-only brand. Vauxhall recently offered 250 members of its Ellesmere Port staff voluntary redundancies in a bid to reduce costs and improve efficiency at the factory. This followed the first wave of cuts in October last year, with the total number of jobs Vauxhall plans to have removed from its Cheshire site by September 2018 amounting to 650. PSA’s strategy aims to return Vauxhall and Opel to profit by 2020. +++

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