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Matt Prior: Sometimes being a car journalist is a pain in the back

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“Have you booked a chiropractic appointment because of the ride?” wrote a wag when I said that I would be running a Toyota GR Yaris, shortly to appear in the Our Cars section of the magazine.

Little did my correspondent know that I always have my next bimonthly chiropractic visit booked. But, dear reader, consider this a public service announcement: ride harshness has nothing to do with it

No, you could put a car on square wheels and give it shock absorbers from Thrust 2 and my spine still wouldn’t complain in the slightest. What it hates – and I mention this because, if you’re a high-mileage driver, it could be that yours does too – is quite simply the amount of time I spend sitting, not quite straight, pushing a pedal with my right foot.

If I’m on a circuit, sometimes I’ll be pushing pretty hard. And on some days, I’ll be pushing for hours. Different pedals, different bulkheads and different forces but much of the time, the same leg and an askew driving position to do it.

This isn’t great for my pelvis, it took a chiropractor to diagnose. If I imagine pushing a wall with the same arm for hours, I can conceive getting a shoulder ache. I’m not sure why, then, I spent so long oofing and wondering: was it muscular? Was it a disc? What had I lifted badly?

Nothing: I’d just sat and winced as my pelvis drifted out of whack. Semi-regular chiropractic, plus more focused stretching between times, has kept my slide into middle age rather more graceful.

Yes, chiropractic is considered a complementary and alternative medicine, but it and osteopathy are the only CAMs that are regulated the same way as conventional medicine and ‘manual therapy for lower back pain’ is one of the limited CAMs that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has recommended.

I wonder, mind, what difference will be made by the rise of automatic and electric cars with only two pedals. As in karts, in most race cars and on simulators, if the pedals are set up correctly, you can transfer braking to the left peg. Driving is as sedentary an activity as it gets, but maybe evening out the forces will help.

■ To the GR Yaris, then. I’ve made two videos on this hot hatch and provided some scores for our 2020 Best Driver’s Car contests but otherwise not written a bean about it.

I’m still waiting for the inevitable mild backlash that comes – as it did with the Toyota GT86 and Alpine A110 – where some tester will tell you that, yeah, sure, they liked it, but not quite as much as everyone else said at the time.

Toyota GR Corolla to avoid electrification push

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Toyota’s Gazoo Racing banner is set to buck the electrification trend with the upcoming GR Corolla.

Although it has yet to be confirmed and is unlikely to be launched until 2023, Toyota filed a trademark for the GR Corolla name last year. Insiders have told Autocar that such a car will “inevitably” be offered alongside the rally homologation special GR Yaris, introduced last year to critical acclaim, and the the straight-six petrol GR Supra.

This would make it the second Japanese manufacturer to skip electrification for a new performance model, with Honda set to retain a high-output turbocharged petrol engine for its next Civic Type R. 

A hot Corolla would also allow Toyota to leverage its substantial investment in the bespoke chassis and powertrain used in the GR Yaris, which makes use of some platform elements from the Corolla. If that is the intention, expect the 1.6-litre three-cylinder turbo unit to return with a similar (and reportedly understated) 257bhp claimed output and a four-wheel drive system with rear-biased torque distribution. Limited-slip differentials on both axles could also be an option.

It remains to be seen if such a car would be priced in line with full-on 4WD hot hatch rivals such as the Golf R, given the high-spec version of the GR Yaris already tops £33,000. Another direction Toyota could take, to allow the car to compete on price with cars such as the Ford Focus ST, would be to ditch the rear driven axle and retune the chassis and sophisticated multi-link suspension of the existing Corolla. This would make it slower than its sibling but reduce complexity and boost both profitability and customer affordability.

While some car makers are scaling back their combustion-engined performance operations to avoid CO2 fleet average fines, Toyota’s strong hybrid sales mix has enabled it to reduce its average emissions.

This, Toyota Europe executive vice-president Matt Harrison previously told Autocar, allows it to make more “CO2-heavy” cars that serve the brand by adding desirability and performance credentials.

READ MORE

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New 2021 Nissan Qashqai: hybrid-only powertrains detailed

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Shoulder room and rear knee room are said to have been improved substantially as a result, as have ease of passenger ingress and egress.

The boot now offers over 500 litres of space, with a lower boot floor enabled by the new platform, plus underfloor parcel shelf storage and wipe-clean surfaces. A powered tailgate is offered for the first time, too, with the ability to open it by waving your foot under the bumper.

Further practicality changes include a redesigned centre console with additional storage, extra adjustment for more ergonomic seats and a capless fuel filler cover that can be opened externally, replacing the old driver’s footwell release. A new space-saving ‘shift-by-wire’ automatic gearbox shifter is said to replicate the physical action of a traditional lever, which customers prefer. 

Cabin tech has been overhauled, too, with a new 9.0in high-resolution touchscreen offering wireless Apple CarPlay and, Nissan claims, “just about everything that’s available on the market” in terms of connected and app-based services. 

That’s joined by a 12.3in instrument display on top models, plus a 10.8in head-up display claimed to be the largest in its segment. A 15W wireless phone charger plus a combination of USB-A and USB-C ports will feature, alongside Bose audio packages.

Nissan’s ProPilot driver assist tech, which includes level-two semi-autonomous lane-keeping assistance, will be “democratised” by becoming standard on mid-spec trims and above. 

A number of premium touches have also been brought into the new Qashqai despite its mass-market intentions. These include massaging seats controllable via the touchscreen, ambient lighting and an “extensive” emphasis on tactile, high-quality materials. Top models feature nappa leather that takes 25 days to produce, with an embroidered 3D diamond quilting. 

Exterior design, chassis and platform

The third iteration of what the brand terms its “pioneering” crossover aims to build on its segment-leading success, with more than three million examples of the first two generations sold across Europe and five million globally.

It will use a new platform, is designed, engineered and built in the UK and, for the first time, won’t feature a diesel engine. The Japanese manufacturer has released only disguised prototype shots and a preview image zoomed in on the headlight detail of the new model. However, the prototype images show that the overall profile of the new car is familiar. The front end has been inspired by the design of the new Juke, albeit with a less radical interpretation.

Analysis: UK kit car makers sales buck trend

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When the extent of the pandemic lockdown became apparent, understandably there were concerns among the kit car community about the effect it would have on the long-standing industry. Manufacturers, too, were anxious about customers cancelling orders or not making them at all.

As it turns out, the kit car industry has been one of the few to prosper this year. What actually happened was that we ‘garagistas’ got busy in our workshops and cracked on with modifications, repairs and builds. People who were thinking about buying a kit car ‘one day’ found they had much more time and bit the bullet.

As a result, the industry is currently flat out. Some manufacturers have waiting lists of over two years for fully built cars, and kit packages could take six months for delivery in some cases.

It might surprise you to learn that there are well over 100 kit car manufacturers in the UK, so narrowing down this round-up to seven was extremely tricky. We’ve omitted household names Caterham and Westfield (which now also produces the popular Chesil Speedster replica), which both also have strong order books. So, in no order of importance, here are seven worth checking out.

AK Sports Cars

This Peterborough-based, family-run company has been making its glorious AK427 AC Cobra replica since 1991. The firm can build a car for you if you don’t fancy doing it yourself and its product is first class. Power mainly comes from General Motors LS V8s, although many other V8s can be used. A more recent launch is the AKSS, a recreation of the iconic Jaguar XKSS from 1957 powered by Jaguar’s 4.2-litre AJ V8.

Gardner Douglas Sports Cars

Located in Grantham, Lincolnshire, Gardner Douglas celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2020. The pandemic certainly hasn’t put the brakes on its order book: as with AK’s Cobra replica, it will take you a couple of years to take delivery of a GD427. LS V8s are again the usual choice of power these days. Alongside the Cobra replicas, Gardner Douglas also makes a stunning Lola T70 Spyder replica that puts out 450bhp in stock LS3 V8 form.

Opinion: Youthful confidence – that’s De Meo’s secret

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People say the “Renaulution” planned by the French giant’s new CEO, Luca de Meo, draws simply and directly from what he learned from the previous six successful and profitable years at Seat, and that may partly be true. But I reckon the experiences that equip him for this job go back much further.

Even 20-odd years ago at Lexus Europe, which is the first time I encountered him, it was obvious that De Meo was heading for stardom, and that’s what happened. He switched the lights on and opened the windows in a notably stiff organisation, and for a while the company did quite well with cars like the IS200. But then De Meo was attracted back to the Fiat Group, not far from his Milanese birthplace, and Lexus returned to type.

You’ll read a lot of stuff about De Meo’s brand knowledge and his acute perception of the value of heritage — and it’s all true. He was successively at Lancia, Abarth and Alfa Romeo and he warmed up the modern performance of them all by making clever and selective use of heritage. His work at Abarth continues to bring success, in particular: he was first to decide this could be a stand-alone marque, and against the predictions of doubtful pundits it continues to do rather well in developed markets, including the UK.

His move to free Cupra at Seat is starting to look inspired (we’ll see) and in France he’s already saved Alpine and given it an exciting new F1 purpose. Both that drifting sports car company and Renault’s wavering F1 commitment have received the boost they badly needed.

But to me, De Meo’s biggest secret is benign, youthful, confident leadership. He talks sense. He acts fast. People enjoy his company. He doesn’t throw his weight about. I’m sure there are some who’ll say he can be the soul of toughness behind closed doors. But when I spent a day with him at Seat a few years ago he radiated what I called “geniality, restless energy and a deep love of cars and the car business”. He’s also an instinctive simplifier; a bloke who cuts through complication to find what’s really needed.

One quote from that 2017 meeting sticks in my memory. “People say I’m pretty good at sharpening businesses,” he told me, “and maybe I am. But it’s usually relatively easy to see what’s needed. The real job is to get to know the 80 or 90 people responsible for moving the machine.” De Meo — the Italian who chatted to his Renault interviewers in fluent French — won’t just “get to know” that influential 80 or 90. He’ll attract them to his way of thinking. This Renault gig may be “the job from hell” in some opinions, but I predict success.

READ MORE

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Grey was most popular colour for new cars in 2020

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Grey was the most popular choice for UK new car buyers in 2020 for the third year running, adorning nearly a quarter of all cars registered. 

Of the 1.63 million cars sold in the UK last year, 397,197 (24.3%) were painted grey, new figures released by the SMMT show. Black was the second most popular choice, accounting for 19.9% of new cars, while white was third, with 17.4%. 

Elsewhere, the chart makes for familiar reading, with blue in fourth, followed by red, silver, orange, green and – in reverse order to last year – yellow and bronze. 

The biggest shift was in red cars, of which just 147,222 examples were sold in 2020, compared with more than 200,000 every year prior since 1997.

Yellow, however, increased its market share by 50%.

The SMMT data also reveals correlations between fuel type and colour. While grey was most popular for conventionally fuelled cars, it was white that won out for EVs and plug-in hybrid buyers favoured black. 

Overall, grey dominated nationwide, even in Scotland and the Channel Islands, which bucked the trend in 2019. There were pockets of colour, however, with blue cars topping the sales charts in the Isle of Wight and Strathclyde opting for white. 

Pink didn’t feature in the top 10 but was most popular in Leicestershire, which accounted for 23.7% of all UK cars painted in the colour. Orange cars were mostly destined for the West Midlands, by contrast. 

Of the 106 different colours registered throughout 2020, maroon was the least popular.

The last time a non-monochrome colour topped the sales charts was in 1999, when blue found favour with UK buyers. After the millennium, silver dominated for eight consecutive years, before black, white and grey began to battle for the top spot each year. 

The most popular grey car was also one of the biggest-selling overall, the Volkswagen Golf, while the Mercedes-Benz A-Class held the title for white and black. Blue was found mostly on the Ford Fiesta, red and orange were most popular for the Vauxhall Corsa and Mini variants took the majority of silver and green paint.

Kia rebranding: further details released of “bold transformation”

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Kia has further detailed its revamped brand strategy following on from last week’s debut of its new logo design and brand slogan. 

The Korean firm intends to “break away from its traditional manufacturing-driven business model”, instead expanding into “new and emerging business areas by creating innovative mobility products and services to improve customers’ daily lives”. 

The move is part of Kia’s long-term ‘Plan S’ strategy, which will also see a focus on new dedicated EVs – seven of which will be launched by 2027. The first will be a coupe-crossover sitting on the company’s new Electric-Global Modular Platform (E-GMP), and is set to be unveiled in the coming weeks. 

The seven new models “will include a range of passenger vehicles, SUVs and MPVs across several segments, each incorporating industry-leading technology for long-range driving and high-speed charging.” Darkened preview images hint at these seven models, one of which will be a large SUV. 

The preview shots also show a number of what Kia calls “Purpose-Built Vehicles” (PBVs) for corporate customers. Built on flexible ‘skateboard’ platforms with modular bodies, they will include car-sharing vehicles and delivery vehicles. Kia has partnered with firms Canoo and Arrival to produce these vehicles, for which Kia claims demand will increase five-fold by 2030. 

Further to that, the company will diversify into “eco friendly mobility services, centred on electric and autonomous driving across major global cities”. Among the partnerships to facilitate this is a car-sharing joint venture in Madrid with energy firm Repsol, dubbed WiBLE. Launched in 2018, the service operates 500 Kia Niro PHEVs and has 130,000 members registered. 

Kia President and CEO, Ho Sung Song, said “We believe that transportation, mobility and movement represent a human right. Our vision is to create sustainable mobility solutions for consumers, communities, and societies globally.”

Kia is the latest in a number of traditional car making companies to reposition themselves as a provider of mobility solutions as the industry looks beyond the classic car sales approach in the longer term. 

BMW 4 Series

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Enough time should have passed since the arrival of the latest BMW 4 Series in UK showrooms in October for those who objected to its styling in pictures to have seen the car in three dimensions on UK roads.

So now, as the hostile social media reception is softened slightly by familiarity for some and no doubt set in aspic for others, comes our time to get beyond the styling and interrogate the engineering substance of this car as only the Autocar road test can.

The second-generation 4 Series is, for now, on sale in two-door coupé (codename G22) and two-door convertible (G23) bodystyles, with the four-door Gran Coupé (G26) set to arrive later this year.

There’s the option of four-cylinder turbocharged petrol and diesel engines and just one six-cylinder motor for the time being. By March, 430d- and M440d-badged straight-six diesels will be available, too, and a full-fat M division M4 won’t be much further behind.

The car is, of course, the lower, wider-striding, meaner-looking alter ego of the G20 3 Series that arrived last year. Like the 3 Series, it offers a choice of ‘mild-hybridised’ engines, but here they complement a car with stiffened, extra-tantalising handling poise and an air of exclusivity about its two-door cabin, the combination of which has been the BMW coupé calling card since the early 1970s.

And rather than any recent forerunner coupé, it’s a 1970s antecedent of the 4 Series that BMW’s designers were referring to with the new car’s oh-so-contentious, upright and in-your-face radiator grille: the Wilhelm Hofmeister-penned E9-generation 3.0 CSi. Read on to find out if the new range-topping M440i xDrive can do justice, on the road and against the timing gear, to such a celebrated ancestor.

Buy them before we do: second-hand picks for 15 January

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It seems only yesterday that we were waving goodbye to our long-term Stinger, the first Kia ever to conduct a credible burnout on these pages.

Such wanton displays of exuberance have hardly been intrinsically linked to the South Korean brand since it was launched in the UK in 1991 with the misleadingly named Pride hatchback, but the Stinger (aside from being much more suited to its moniker) is a bit of a departure from normality. For starters, there’s the method of propulsion: a 3.3-litre turbocharged petrol V6 sending a useful 365bhp and 376lb ft to the rear axle, which is good for a 0-62mph time of 4.9sec and a top speed of 168mph.

A genuinely fast car, then, and one that doesn’t fall apart at the sight of a sharp bend, either. After five months with our long-term test car, we deemed it more a grand tourer than a bona fide B-road weapon, but it didn’t come away all that red-faced from a battle with the Jaguar XE S and BMW 440i, which is testament to its well-roundedness and segment-leading value for money.

This last factor really got tongues wagging following the Stinger’s launch in 2017. Little more than £40,000 bagged the top-spec V6 car, and anyone who baulked at the prospect of a cut-price sporty exec with a Kia badge was quickly silenced by its laudable build quality and remarkably well-appointed cabin.

There were flies in the Sunset Yellow ointment, though, among them the car’s dim-witted gearbox and limited array of drive modes, but little really to discourage the discerning driving enthusiast on a budget from taking the plunge.

The appeal only becomes more intense when the price gets lower, too, such as on the 2019 car we found. Its Ember Orange paint will prove polarising, but given how rare the Stinger is, it’s likely to turn heads whichever the colour. At just 18 months old, it has fewer than 6000 miles on the clock and packs every goodie in the box. Give in to the buzz and add it to your hive. Sorry.

Seat Ibiza Cupra Bocanegra, £5750: Blistering pace is not a top priority for the Bocanegra, but you’d struggle to find a sporty hatch that offers a drive so refined for the money. A fresh MOT, rebuilt gearbox and new front brakes on this one mean it’s certain to leave a ‘buen gusto’ in your boca.

Opinion: Elfyn Evans is this year’s WRC title favourite

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The bad news for rally fans in 2020 was the most disrupted (albeit fascinatingly unpredictable) season in recent history. However, the flip side of a year that finally dragged to a mid-December finale at Monza (who would have predicted that last January?) is the shortest off-season we’ve ever seen.

In just a matter of weeks, the 2021 championship will get under way with Rallye Monte-Carlo. While most of the key players stay the same, there are some fascinating new variables to get on top of.

One of them is Pirelli tyres, with the Italian firm exclusively supplying the WRC’s top class for the first time since 2010. How will the drivers adapt?

We won’t see Rally Sweden, which has decided to give 2021 a miss due to the real protagonist of last year: the coronavirus. But there are 11 more events planned, including the first in Croatia in April, based out of Zagreb.

The pre-season 2021 favourite? You might say seven-time champion Sébastien Ogier, but how about Elfyn Evans, the driver who was all set to win the 2020 title after heading into the final round with a 14-point lead? He lost that chance by slithering off the road in Monte-like conditions – caught out by a change in surface and grip that was hidden by snow.

But the reason why the Brit is our title favourite for 2021 lies in his response to that crushing disappointment. “No excuses,” he pointed out instantly. “As a rally driver you’ve got to be good everywhere, so you can’t go round blaming the conditions.”

Evans was already the best of the rest in 2019, despite missing three rallies with a back injury. Last year, he was beaten only by Ogier – who was first to agree that his team-mate deserved the title. Evans himself isn’t so sure: “There are lots of things I could have done better,” he said. But the page has already turned.

Evans was one of the quickest on the Monte last year – actually eclipsing Ogier in terms of fastest stage times – before winning in wintry Sweden. “That’s probably when I first realised that we had a real chance,” he says. And that chance is even bigger now he’s fully up to speed with his new Toyota Yaris.

Get ready for a year to remember – this time for all the right reasons.

Anthony Peacock

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