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An Uber in South Africa update

I’ve written before about Uber and how I thought it was a bad idea in South Africa (read about it here). I’ve used the service in both Joburg and Cape Town and have been suitably impressed by the service. You request a cab on your phone, they call you to confirm and then pick you up. Simple and easy. In Cape Town the pricing was totally different making the service both affordable and easy. In Joburg though the minimum cost per trip was R85, making it quite expensive. Things have changed and these are the new prices:

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A day with the Ford EcoSport

I got whirled down to Durban for a brief spin in the soon to be launched Ford EcoSport, a small SUV aimed at young, sporty people. The EcoSport was originally designed in Brazil and now built in India. Ford South Africa will be importing these models directly from the subcontinent. We’re getting the second generation of the EcoSport; there are three spec levels, three engine options, two transmission choices and eight different colour choices. The name of the car is a portmanteau of Eco (economic) and Sport (lifestyle implications).

This is very much a car for the B-segment buyer (Ford Fiesta or VW Polo) looking for the SUV lifestyle and a vehicle that is more aspirational than your hatchback runaround. According to Ford the B-segment makes up 24% of yearly sales in South Africa, making this a smart move on their part. Competitors in the “B-SUV” segment include the Daihatsu Terios, Suzuki Jiminy and to some extent the Nissan Juke.

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This is an Uber bad idea

A recent job posting by Uber.com shows the service is coming to both Cape Town and Joburg according to this job posting. If you’re like me you’re probably thinking: “what the hell is Uber.com?” Here are the details:

Uber is a venture-funded startup company based in San Francisco, California that makes a mobile application that connects passengers with drivers of luxury vehicles for hire. The company arranges pickups in the San Francisco Bay, New York City, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C., Toronto, Paris, Berlin, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Diego, Amsterdam, Atlanta, Denver, London, Melbourne, Minneapolis–Saint Paul, Munich, Baltimore Phoenix, Stockholm, Sydney, Baltimore, Detroit, Milan, Sacramento, Rome and Singapore.

 

Uber drivers have cars such as Lincoln Town Cars, Cadillac Escalades, BMW 7 Series, and Mercedes-Benz S550 sedans. Cars are reserved by sending a text message or by using a mobile app. Using the apps, customers can track their reserved car’s location.

 

Uber has indicated it is planning to expand operations to include non-taxi ridesharing in the near future.

Considering they’re taken the service to large parts of America, Europe, Australia and some parts of Asia I guess they’ve run out of places to try market the service. It’s great to see a massive startup looking at South Africa and Africa as a whole to enter however I wonder if someone forgot to do their homework. While it’s technologically a great product (you hail a car with your phone) and it’s going to be a good employer for drivers and the tech industry I’m skeptical.

With our complete lack of public transport you’d think that Uber would make a lot sense however there are two major issues here:

  1. South African’s love their cars: We spend fortunes on buying, maintaining and showing off our cars. Ownership of a car is for some, more important than a house.
  2. Cars are expensive in South Africa: Cheapest BMW 7-series in the US is $77,000 or about R800,000. Locally the cost of entry is just over a million.

Uber have money, they recently ended a $50 million funding round but the target market might be problematic. High end cars equates to high end consumers, the type who may have an iPhone probably would rather make a call than use an app to get a taxi. The other issue is that you load your credit card once and then it’s automatically billed after the trip. I’m pretty sure the average South African has the attitude of “you want to me to load my credit card with who?”

I’m fairly certain this will come down to the person who manages to run the project. A good Country Manager could make this work but anyone less than amazing and the service will flounder.

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My week riding a Kuga

I’ve always been a sedan or sports car kind of guy. My car history includes a Mazda MX-5 two seater sports car and now and Audi A3 Sportback. I’ve never considered an SUV before, it’s always seemed the territory of people with a soccer team of kids or the type that desperately want to park on the pavements of the local mall parking. Driving an SUV always seemed like something you did in order to overcompensate or tell the world you’d reached middle management. In my opinion it’s never fit into my lifestyle.

I was completely wrong.

Besides for the jokes about riding a middle aged single woman this was a great week of driving.

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Colour aside, the first impression of the Kuga is how striking its lines are. Take a look at the power bulge on the bonnet, it signals power. The roof rails also give the car a great side profile and the little vents on the side of the car add to a sporty image. Seen upfront it’s unmistakably Ford although from the back it’s a little nondescript.

The interior is extremely upmarket and sitting inside in the driver position is a great place to be. Leather seats, a chunky but comfortable steering wheel and a very bright interior make for a great driving experience. I drove the automatic and the gear lever is placed higher up than in a car, closer to the dashboard. This is actually the perfect position for when you’re driving a car of this size. The design of the entertainment system is fairly polarising: there are a LOT of buttons on the Sony system and in a smaller car this would be overwhelming. However, in a car of this size it feels like you’re in an airplane cockpit leading you to feel like you’re in control. I have one gripe: this car would be amazing with a panoramic sunroof. Of course this would add substantially to the price but I hope Ford at least gives this option in future generations.

You also get some technological gimmicks such as heated seats and the Ford SYNC system that allows you to connect your phone via Bluetooth and also plug in a USB drive with music on. There are unfortunately no maps included but the voice dialling is a great feature. I’m a stickler for these sorts of things but upfront the car has two cup holders as well as a third in the glove box between the two front seats. Speaking of storage space: the cubbyhole is gigantic and there is even a cool space on the roof to put your sunglasses.

The back is setup for kids: there are trays that fold out of the back of the front seat for kids to put their food and drink. It’s like being on an airplane except you don’t get asked to put your tray tables up when you take off. Space is a little limited in the back and I wouldn’t recommend putting a large adult in for a long journey.

The boot is pretty big, I managed to fit two mountain bikes into the car with the seats down, an easy process that you can do with one lever on the side of the seats. The bikes fit in easily because of the width of the boot meaning you can get a lot in. The boot lid might require shorter buyers to have to jump and pull it down although almost 6 foot me had no issue. All in all, this is a great lifestyle vehicle.

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In terms of driving I had the 2.0 TDCI model which puts out 120KW of power and obviously has that diesel grunt when you take off. Push the accelerator down and the car really takes off and while this isn’t really important to a car of this size you’re looking at a 0-100KM/h of around 10 seconds. Interestingly the 1.6 liter 110KW petrol engine version (which is cheaper) gets you to 100km/h in about half a second less. This probably has more to do with the turbo lag of the diesel. Due to the fact that this was the four wheel drive version the ride was silky smooth and going over the typical Joburg triangular bumps there was absolutely no jarring, awkward moments. In terms of economy the Kuga is fairly heavy in town however on the highway I got the consumption down to about 4 liters per hundred kilometers.

So far, so loving this car.

Let’s jump straight into competitors: The Kia Sorento, Hyundai iX35 and the Nissan Qashqai. I’ve driven the Nissan and the Kia but only sat in the Hyundai and I can safely say that the Ford is the best drive of the three. In terms of pricing the Kuga ranges the version I drove (two liter diesel) comes in at R384,900. The equivalent Kia costs R10,000 less but doesn’t include the useful Ford Sync system and the heated seats. The entertainment system costs an extra R15,000 in the Kia making it more expensive than the Ford.

I’ve come to realise that an SUV isn’t just about being a poser, it’s an actually useful vehicle that fits into an active lifestyle. It would be a tough choice between the diesel and the petrol engine although the entry level Kuga (without the gimmicks) is only R289,900. The all wheel drive version is R364,900 but that version of the 1.6 liter engine pumps out 132KW which should make this a highly engaging drive.

I loved the Kuga, so much so that I’m even thinking of buying one myself.

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Thoughts on the Mini Paceman

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The new Mini Cooper, originally released in 2001 by BMW and started the premium retro small car trend we’ve come to love as drivers. The Mini has always been a particularly feminine car and the variations such as the convertible haven’t helped. Mini has expanded their lineup to include the estate car style Clubman, the 2 seater roadster (and convertible version) as well as the four door Countryman version. In order to appeal to a manlier audience the company has released the Paceman. Coming in at around R400,000 with a couple of options boxes ticked it’s not cheap but it does fit the typical “yuppie-mobile” stereotype.

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Last week I had the pleasure of driving the Paceman at the Joburg launch and while I only had about 30 minutes in the car (and about 15 driving) here are my two cents:

The Mini Paceman is a strange mashup between the original version of the car and the Countryman. Essentially it’s the raised platform of the Countryman (including the two seats in the back and front rather than the bench seat in the back of the original version) as well the two doors of the original model. What this means is you get a weird combo between coupe and 4X4. The result is that it looks a little similar to a Mini Range Rover Evoque. This is thankfully a great combination and the car is beautiful with typical Mini flair. The swooped back gives the car a reasonably large boot for a Mini and gives the car some visual “junk in the trunk”. Don’t get me wrong, the boot is still tiny but it’s bigger than the Cooper where you can basically fit a laptop bag in and not much more.

Inside the car is typical Mini with the massive dial in the center with the speedometer and other info such as the screen with the Mini version of i-Drive. In front of the steering wheel is the rev counter and on the wheel itself is a wide array of buttons for the multimedia system.

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The seats themselves are extremely comfortable in the front however due to the downwards swoop of the roof the back seat was fairly uncomfortable for a just under 6-foot person such as myself. Being two doors you’ll also have to move the front seat forward to enter the rear. There are only two seats in the back with a center console stretching to the back of the vehicle. If you’re a single person or a young couple this isn’t a bad choice although I wouldn’t want to be the sucker in the back on a long drive or even if the passenger up front is tall and needs to put their seat back. I must be honest, I was getting quite uncomfortable in the back; almost to the point of disliking the car. Then, I had the pleasure of driving it.

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The Paceman comes with two models: the basic 90KW 1.6 liter Mini engine as well as the Paceman S, the 135KW turbocharged version that I drove on the night. Once you get behind the wheel of a Mini you realise the appeal, especially with the “S” branded models as it totally takes off when you put your foot down. Driving the Paceman is a great experience with brilliant steering response and excellent, consistent power delivery at your fingertips. It’s comfortable as well as sporty depending on your preferences. There are little quirks such as mood lighting that you can change although the real appeal for me is the 0-100km/h in 7.5 (7.8 for the auto) seconds.

The problem with something such as the Paceman is that it’s got a pretty wide array of competitors. First off you’ve got the new Audi A3 hatchback that for many is the benchmark but does seem somewhat bland in comparison. You’ve also got the new Mercedes A-Class and the BMW 1-Series but for me, the biggest competitor is the original Mini Cooper S.

You see the kind of person that needs a bit more space and practicality will probably buy a Countryman with its four doors, reasonably boot size and interior similarities. The Cooper S is smaller with the same engine meaning speed and is about R100,000 cheaper. Compared to the Audi, Merc and even stablemate BMW the Paceman oozes class and style while still maintaining nothing else its rivals can: fun.

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Can driving a van be a cool experience?

Last week I had the pleasure of driving a Ford Tourneo, the bus version of the world famous Ford Transit Panel Van. The Transit has been the best-selling light commercial vehicle in Europe for 40 years, and in some countries the term “Transit” has passed into common usage as a generic term applying to any light commercial van in the Transit’s size bracket. While initially designed for European consumption, the Transit is now produced in Asia, North America, and Europe for worldwide buyers.

After an almost 30 year gap the Transit has been released in South Africa in both panel van and bus (Tourneo) forms. The car is made in Turkey and uses South African built 2.2 litre diesel engines also found in the Ford Ranger. The panel van also comes in short and long wheel base versions with three versions of the engine from 74kw to 92kw and a sport version with 114kw of power. Despite a large engine fuel economy is around 7 litres per 100KM so it’s efficient and powerful enough to get you around town. In addition you’ve got technical benefits such as ABS with EBD as well as hill climb assist and roll-over mitigation if you try take it around a corner too quickly.

The Transit Custom is available in a choice of short wheelbase (SWB – overall length 4.97 metres) and long wheelbase (LWB – overall length 5.34 metres) versions, so that customers can select the amount of load space which best suits their business. It’s not cheap with the five models costing the following:

  • 2.2 TDCi Ambiente Low swb – R302 700
  • 2.2 TDCi Ambiente Hi swb CVT – R306 400
  • 2.2 TDCi Ambiente low lwb – R309 700
  • 2.2 TDCi Ambiente Hi lwb – R317 400
  • 2.2 TDCi Sport swb – R364 600

The Toyota Quantum panel van costs around the same so it’s competitive. The interior is fairly decent and you can fit a fortune in the back.

As mentioned, I drove the Tourneo bus and I was surprised at how good an experience it was. Again there is a short and long wheel base version although both offer eight seats.

Tourneo Custom models offer twin side sliding doors as standard, with running boards below the doors for improved low level step access, as well as a strong visual differentiation. A liftgate is fitted as standard at the rear.

The seats in the two rear rows can be easily folded into multiple configurations and removed in segments or completely – in total there are over 30 seating permutations to suit any occasion. All seating positions provide integral three-point lap and shoulder style seat belts. The Tourneo Custom comes with a four-year or 120 000km comprehensive warranty and a service plan covering five years or 90 000km (service intervals of 15 000km).

What surprised me was how the interior feels exactly the same as a car. So much so that you get standard Ford features such as a USB port, Sync Bluetooth connection with voice command abilities combined with a very light steering wheel and a very slick gearbox. Besides for the exceptionally high seating position you’d never know you’re in a panel van. It’s easy to drive, easy to park and has enough power to overtake on the highway.

I drove the bus no differently than I would a normal car. I took it on a highway, on windy roads at reasonable speed and around traffic circles with absolutely no issue at all. So much so that I forgot I had four passengers and luggage in the boot.

I’m personally not in the market for something such as the Tourneo but it seems a lot more stylish than a Toyota Quantum and vastly cheaper than a Mercedes Viano. If you’re in the market for a vehicle to transport a crowd or are breeding a soccer team or just happen to be gangster enough to want a car for drive by shootings then I reckon the Ford Tourneo is a great choice.

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The time I got punched in the childhood

Everyone wants an Aston Martin; it’s the Bond card and on the outside it’s very sexy. Unfortunately, it’s kind of crap.

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Pretty car, goes like the clappers but looks like absolute crap on the inside.

Here’s the fundamental problem with the Aston Martin:

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See those dials on the dash: pretty low quality dials, crappy plastic and a GPS system from 2004. The door handles feel flaky, the leather was worn about a couple of thousand kilometers and there was a shelf behind the seats where you could store parcels or you could pick up the shelf and see into a mass of electronics. In addition, things such as the stalks for the indicators seem to be pulled out of a Ford. The interior of my five year old Audi is vastly better.

This brings me to the original point of my post: I feel like I’ve been lied to. For two million rand I could buy a Porsche and have some spare change. I could even buy a Jaguar XKR; a vastly better looking car with similar power and have enough for a 4X4 of some sort.

Then I opened the bonnet:

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Fix your interiors Aston Martin; your engines are amazing.

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The time I got sent to review a car

My good friend Justin who runs SA Motoring News needed a quasi-journalist to fly down to Cape Town to drive the latest Fiat. I was that quasi-journalist. In the spirit of self promotion here is my review:

The last twelve months have been pretty great for Fiat in South Africa. As with international trends, operations merged with Chrysler and sales are up 17% in 2012. As part of the merged operations there are now eighty dealers countrywide meaning that the brands previous servicing related problems are a thing of the past. Speaking of services there is now a standard 3 year, 100000 KM warranty on all Fiat vehicles.

We’re here to talk about the newly launched Qubo (pronounced “Cube-oh”) MPV, a vehicle aimed squarely at young family buyers looking for a vehicle for a low cost mom’s taxi or dad’s weekend DIY endeavors. Built on a similar platform to the Fiat Punto, the Qubo is aimed directly at competitors such as the Toyota Avanza, the Nissan Livina X-Gear and to some extent a second hand Honda Jazz. All marketing material speaks heavily about the car being “simple, practical and durable”. So far not so sexy but that’s hardly what the potential buyers of this car are looking at. Qubo buyers want something their kids can mess all over but still has space for a bike and suitcases when going on holiday. The Qubo does, on paper, fit these criteria.

Features

Powered by either a 1.4l petrol engine (54kw) or a 1.3l diesel (55kw) engine options are fairly limited. Mated with a five-speed gearbox the car is reasonably frugal although you’ll be changing gears often due to power constraints. The consumption figures of 8.2l/100km for the petrol and an impressive 4.9l/100km for the diesel belie the fact that the engine is under-powered for the car. The diesel has enough low down torque to get the car moving but it’s unrefined and loud. The petrol engine requires you to take the revs to within an inch of the cars life and any car at over 5000rpm is going to be heavy on fuel. The diesel should theoretically get around 1000KM on the 45 litre tank although you’ll want to drive very slowly.

The car is very well spec’d with the great Fiat “Blue&Me” media interface that works with any of the latest mobile phones and music players. I plugged my iPhone in and it worked without any issue, showing track names on the radio display. It’s a great system and it’s a shame Fiat doesn’t spend more time punting it. There’s a really excellent multifunction steering wheel, which we will touch on later. Other niceties such as a trip computer are standard and there’s cruise control for when you take the Qubo on a long distance drive.

The car requires services only every 30000 kilometers. Driver and passenger airbag as well as ABS and EBD are also standard features.

Design

Bearing in mind that design is a fairly subjective concept I actually really like the look of the Qubo. It’s not instantly striking or immediately jaw dropping but compared to competitors from Toyota or Nissan it’s got an appealing design language. The front bumper has some interesting curves giving the car some character an while the back of the car initially looks like a massive slab of metal but the subtle Qubo and Fiat logo’s give it some subtle quirks that make you look twice. Roof racks give the Qubo a muscular stance while the rear sliding doors add convenience and practicality. The Qubo comes in some, to say the least interesting colours and while white is the standard it’s worth the extra money to get either the bright red or pastel blue colour. As a whole if you want to stand out as something less than anonymous on the road then you’ve come to the right place.

Interior

I remarked to fellow journalists at the launch that Fiat must have some amazing photographers as they’ve managed to make the interior look extremely upmarket in the brochure. Reality is akin to a model not being allowed to use Photoshop. It’s not ugly inside but the hard plastic gives the Qubo an air of cheapness. Seats are firm and generally comfortable but won’t support you around fast corners (not that you’d be going fast in this car). Families will appreciate the durability of the cloth seats. The steering wheel is the highlight of the cabin; it’s heavy and covered in what feels like leather or a very good approximation.

The rear seats fold flat, although this is hardly a defensible position as all the Qubo’s competitors have this feature. You can however remove the rear seats completely, which is useful when transporting something big and messy. The Qubo accommodates a class average beating 2500 cubic liters and the loading bay is up to 1.7 meters, higher than any competitors.

For me the best part of the interior was how roomy and bright the cabin is. You find yourself in a space that is filled with light and even the largest occupant won’t get anywhere near touching the roof. Space in the back isn’t huge although I managed to fit comfortably in the back after pushing the drivers seat into a comfortable position for my millimeters short of six-foot frame. The driving position is great with the ability to height adjust the seat as well as the steering wheel.

The most divisive design decision of the Qubo is a lack of fully opening rear windows. There is a clip that pivots open the back of the window slightly however for a car aimed kids you’re going to be cleaning the inside of the Qubo when they can’t spew chunks out of the window.

Ride

It’s the ride of the car where things get a little hairy. I drove the car in Cape Town and I can’t imagine what these engines would be like up in Gauteng. The 55KW of power simply isn’t enough to compensate for the weight of the car. I drove with one passenger and the petrol especially struggled. Add in kids and luggage and you’re in for a less than fun experience. There was some serious body roll going around corners and the infamous Cape Town crosswinds led to some shudder on the road. In town driving was perfect as long as you don’t need to go anywhere quickly. I’d pick the diesel over the petrol every time.

Conclusion

At R177, 990 for the petrol and R199, 990 for the diesel the Qubo isn’t expensive but it certainly isn’t cheap. The car is well spec’d and a comfortable with a great interior however the underpowered engines let it down. If you consider the vastly duller Toyota Avanza has over 70KW you’re looking at a 50% improvement in power at the expense of driving one of the most visually unappealing cars ever produced. There’s something strangely endearing about the Qubo although it’s a tough sell compared to a second hand Honda Jazz that has a better interior, a powerful enough engine and even an automatic option. I think Fiat is missing a trick trying to appeal to families when small business owners or adventure junkies looking to cart around bikes and surfboards would take to a cheap, functional car such as the Qubo without a second thought.

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The downward diffusion of tech

Ford have recently launched the Sync system in South Africa and what’s totally fascinating about the system is you can now get the technology in your car for voice dialling on a car that costs R160,000. According to the press release:

Using the hands-free technology of SYNC, powered by Microsoft, customers can connect almost any mobile phone or digital media player to their Fiesta via Bluetooth and USB connection respectively. Drivers can use either steering wheel-mounted controls or voice commands to manage the system’s features.

Ford’s open platform approach to mobile device connectivity has helped SYNC stand out in the industry for its ease of use, allowing for continuous improvement of the user experience. Unlike embedded connectivity systems SYNC does not allow access to the user’s stored contact information unless his or her phone is connected, hence ensuring a high level of privacy.

 

Web206743_Full_HiResUsing Bluetooth technology, SYNC can wirelessly connect up to eight different mobile phones to the new Fiesta through a process called pairing. Once paired, SYNC will automatically transfer all the names and numbers in the phone’s contact list to the in-vehicle system.

A microphone inside the cabin allows drivers to use their mobile phone hands-free while driving. Making a phone call is as simple as pushing a button and saying someone’s name. SYNC also enables Fiesta customers to continue their mobile phone conversation as they get into the car – without the need to hang up – as the system will instantly connects to the Bluetooth-enabled phone once the car is started.

By seamlessly integrating with the mobile phone, SYNC includes the same features offered on the phone, including caller ID, call waiting, conference calling, a caller log, contact list, a signal strength icon and a phone battery charge icon – all conveniently shown on the new Fiesta’s centrally-located display screen.

SYNC can recognise the user’s ringtone on supported phones and play it when a call comes in. If unique ring tones have been selected to identify specific callers, SYNC will automatically play those too.

When connected to a compatible phone, SYNC can even retrieve text messages and read them aloud, including popular abbreviations and emoticons such as LOL (laugh out loud) and 😀 (smiley big smile). Using voice activation, the driver can also send a reply from a predetermined list of 15 responses while on the move.

Other than making and receiving calls, SYNC gives the driver full hands-free control over portable media players and USB storage devices. Users can browse their music collection by genre, album, artist, playlist or song title using voice commands. SYNC can even put together a playlist of the music the driver is in the mood for with the “Play similar” command. The SYNC USB port also simultaneously charges the player as the music is being played.

Additionally, SYNC can wirelessly stream the user’s music collection on the mobile phone to the new Fiesta’ sound system via Bluetooth. All music played through SYNC is high-resolution digital quality.

I think the exciting thing is that five years ago voice commands in a car were something you’d only find in a top end Mercedes S-Class. Plug in your iPhone, call people using the button on the steering wheel and you’re safe and sound rather than fumbling for your phone. Genius.