Text size


Cars That Were Game-Changers

Cars That Were Game-Changers


Every now and again a car comes along which changes the whole playing field; here are three that motoring journalist, John Swift, drove and knew that things had changed forever.

6 Cars That Were Game-changers

Some cars come along and change the whole playing field; some don’t, but they should. Here are 6 that were all game-changers in their own way:

  • Hyundai FCV – proved hydrogen fuel call cars were viable,, but where are they?
  • Mercedes-Benz A Class – created a whole new sector for up-market superminis.
  • Honda Insight – led the way for hybrids, but not all its’ lessons were learned.
  • Land Rover Freelander - created the mid-sized SUV sector.
  • Skoda Octavia - put the Skoda brand on the map.
  • Kia cee'd - changed public opinion of south east Asian cars.

Every so often a car comes along that is so radical, but also, so good, that you think - wow, this is going to change way we drive. Some prove to be just too radical for the market, just too far ahead of the curve, but  still know that the car industry has just been changed by them. Here are six that Motoring journalist, John Swift, has driven over the years.

Hyundai FCV

Several years ago Hyundai invited the motoring press pack to Waddesdon Manor, an impressive mansion and estate in Buckinghamshire and once home to Baron de Rothschild, where it wanted us to drive its FCV, Fuel Cell Vehicle.

At the time electric vehicles, EVs, were a bit of a joke, hamstrung by their laughable paucity of range and lack of recharging infrastructure. The FCV promised a solution to both and to this day I wonder why it hasn’t caught on as it should.

Hyundai FCV hydrogen fuel cell car on the moveLet’s keep it simple. Fuel cells run on electricity, but the critical difference between this and a normal EV is that it is generated on-board by hydrogen being passed through a sort of glorified chemistry set. You don’t have to worry about plugging into a recharger for several hours; you don’t even have to worry about running out of juice before you find the next one. It’s easy, you store hydrogen in tanks at a filling station just as petrol and diesel is, you put the nozzle into the car just as you do with those and hey presto, within a minute you have enough energy for another 300 miles of driving.

In terms of everyday practicality and ease-of-use, what’s not to like?

In the context of global resources, hydrogen makes up around 75% of our environment and unlike fossil fuel, is limitless. You need power to separate it from water (which consists of two molecules of hydrogen and one of oxygen) but if you have a fuel cell farm, you can have as much energy as you want.

The Hyundai looked, felt and drove just as any other car would except that there was no noise apart from a slight whine from the electric motor, and had no vibration other than that from the tyres going over the road. It was cool to know that we were motoring along in a car powered by the ultimate in renewable energy and emitting nothing other than water vapour.

Filling up a Hyundai FCV with hydrogenSo, why might you ask, has it not caught on?

I have theories, but no definitive answer. Perhaps one reason is that having invested so heavily in hybrids most car makers don’t want to throw that on the scrapheap.

Perhaps another is the public reaction to the thought of sitting on a hydrogen tank. After all, as someone said at the press event, hydrogen is very explosive. If you have ever seen those images of the Hindenburg air ship going up in flames, you know how fast hydrogen can catch fire.

Well yes, I thought, but how many of us know that one unit of petrol contains around five times the energy as a unit of TNT…and no one minds driving around with 10 gallons of petrol under the back seats, do they. TNT explodes somewhat faster, granted, but even so I don’t see a reason to fear hydrogen from a safety perspective.

Fuel cell cars are indeed now coming on stream from Hyundai, Honda and Toyota but in tiny numbers. So far.

Mercedes-Benz A Class

How many industry watchers scoffed when Mercedes-Benz introduced the A Class back in 1998? The `baby Benz’ as it was quickly dubbed, challenged most people’s perceptions of what a Merc should be and certainly what one should look like. Challenging in size, in looks and in marketplace the A Class was a car like no other at that time.

Here was Mercedes setting off in a completely new direction and daring other prestige marques (Audi, BMW, Jaguar and Lexus for example) to expand beyond the markets for professional drivers or wealthy customers and make a car that brought the magic and kudos of their names into the family hatchback market.

You may recall that the Merc very quickly fell flat on its face – literally – when a Swedish car journalist flipped one onto its roof during a routine manoeuvre called the Elk test, designed to replicate the sudden swerve if one of said animals stepped out in front of you. The centre of gravity was too high for the relatively narrow track and it turned over.

Old red Mercedes A Class on a country roadThe problem was fixed and as I discovered, soon afterwards, when driving it safely through a tight slalom at around 60 mph on a test track, the electronic fix provided by Bosch and Merc was very effective at keeping the A Class shiny side up. If your car has electronic stability control (which it most probably has), you can thank the work electronic supplier Bosch did on rectifying the A Class problem.

So, here we had a front wheel drive hatchback that was roomy, roomier still when you used the MPV-inspired feature of removing the individual back seats, which rode well (not quite so well post-elk test fix), which sat the driver a little higher than usual off the road giving them an excellent view. It was about the same size overall as a Ford Fiesta but as big inside as a good saloon and offered a completely different ownership experience (and price tag!).

Adults could enjoy the space in the back seats, it was family-friendly, practical, easy to park in supermarkets and suddenly Mercedes found themselves pretty much the only player in a market it had created – the posh supermini.

Others looked at the sales figures and were it led, they soon followed.

In response BMW brought us the 1 Series and the MINI, Audi the A1 (true, it had the complex aluminium A2, which was a great car, but that was too expensive to produce for the volume sold) and Lexus tried its hand with the CT200; all followed the Merc formula of bringing the quality and kudos of a top brand into the family supermini sector.

And looking around you on today’s roads, you’d have to say it worked rather well!

Honda Insight IMA

This car was the curtain raiser to what we now know as hybrids, but while its petrol/electric powertrain is becoming mainstream in the car market, two of the lessons it offered seem to have been overlooked.

The Insight IMA (Integrated Motor Assist) was unlike anything I’d previously driven when I first slipped behind the wheel back in 2000. The bright metallic green two-seater looked weird with a pronounced tear drop shape from the windscreen back, not just from the roofline sloping down but also inwards because the rear wheels were a little (4 inches) closer together than those up front. Odder still, they had body panels over them.

Nothing else looked like it or drove like it and now I think of it, not much does even 18 years on.

Metallic green Honda InsightThe first oddity was the little 1.0 litre, three cylinder engine, which stopped when the car was stationary, such as at traffic lights, but the electric motor joined to the crankshaft would instantly fire again when you took your foot off the brake. Today stop/start systems are commonplace on many cars, but back then it was novel.  I could also feel the strong force of the regenerative braking as the motor was reversed to channel energy back into the batteries as the car slowed, another first for me.

But, what stood out, and what I remember so clearly now, almost 20 years on, is the sense it gave of effortless progress.

The thing is, it was both light and aerodynamic.

It was light because it was made from aluminium, magnesium and plastic rather than steel. It weighed less than half (around 850 kgs) of a Honda Civic of the time, yet was much more rigid and removing weight introduces you to the virtuous circle effect. A lighter car needs a smaller engine, smaller brakes, smaller driveshafts and being smaller all these components are lighter. It can do this because it’s not accelerating, cornering and trying to brake an awful lot of weight. A lighter car needs less power which is the foundation of fuel-efficiency.

It was aerodynamic, having a drag coefficient of 0.25 which may not mean much to the casual reader, but that teardrop shape cut through the air causing as little turbulence as possible. Turbulence, or the chaotic wake of air caused by the car pushing aside the air as it moves, by the rotation of the wheels, by the door mirrors, the exhaust pipe under the car, the blockage of the radiator to the air flow in the engine bay, is all dragged behind the car like an anchor.

Reduce that drag and you make a vast difference to how much energy a car needs to move through the air.

Honda’s Insight IMA gave us three lessons, two of which we seem to have ignored.

Two Honda Insight cars driving towards you with wind generators behindLesson one: Cars can be more efficient by capturing and storing energy which would otherwise be wasted; heat generated by the friction between the brake discs and pads when braking was converted into electrical energy and pushed back into the battery. This much we’ve taken on board, as the growth of hybrids proves.

Lesson two: Reducing the weight of the thing being moved reduces the amount of energy needed to do so.

Lesson three: Reducing the drag of the thing being moved reduces the amount of energy needed to do so.

So, why do I say we have only taken the first lesson to heart?

Well, look on the road and you’ll see plenty of very large SUVs, vehicles which are (a) heavy (b) intrinsically less slippery aerodynamically than a lower car. We fit hybrid engines to SUVs when, if we were really serious about cutting fuel consumption and emissions, we’d be encouraging people out of them and into the modern successors of that little Insight – a car which turned out to be very aptly named.

Honda only ever intended the Insight to demonstrate, and prove, a new combination of technologies. Aluminium and magnesium are hardly cheap metals to work with in terms of volume production and yet it gave us valuable lessons if only we cared to heed them.

You want to know how economical this car was? Officially it averaged 83 mpg but in an RAC challenge run from Brighton to London it returned 97 mpg. Not bad for a car you could happily use every day.

Land Rover Freelander 

With apologies to Suzuki, Toyota and others who already had 4x4s of this size, it is the Land Rover Freelander which can lay claim to kick-starting the SUV market we see today.

It had the cachet of the Land Rover badge and tough, go-anywhere styling but was engineered for suburbia rather than the Sahara. The original Freelander was the first really cool, chic urban SUV and from the time it was launched in 1997 to its facelift and mid-life overhaul in 2002 it was not just the best-selling 4x4 in Europe for each of those years but also the best-selling Land Rover ever by the time second generation arrived.

Not bad for a car which began life on an Austin Maestro chassis….

At that time the Rover group was owned by Honda, but after being sold to BMW the project, codenamed CB40, had a much needed injection of cash and what some feared would be a lashed up vehicle from the corporate parts bin, became something very much more and a genuine trend-setter.

It may have been built more for the school run than for the Serengeti, but Land Rover insisted that any car wearing its badge had to hold true to its’ tradition of being a car equally at home on or off the road. It was, but whereas traditional Land Rovers and Range Rovers had those fiddly low ratio selectors and diff locks and all the other stuff 99% of drivers would never want, need or understand, the Freelander had an extraordinary ability to get you safely into and out of the rough stuff thanks to electronics. 

Land Rover Freelander on rough terrain

It had 16 patented technologies, including the Hill Descent Control, which made driving in terrain that would challenge many old-school 4x4s no harder than selecting some buttons. I know, I tried it at the press launch in Spain and again later in the remotest parts of Scotland, and the ease of use and what it could do were extraordinary.

Land Rover uses a place called Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire as one of its test grounds and the factory drivers assured me it went around there with no problem. Eastnor Castle is strongly rumoured to be used by the SAS as one of its training grounds which gives you some idea of how rugged it is. Perfect Land Rover country, in other words.

The Freelander made mid-priced 4x4s sexy, you didn’t have to pay Range Rover money to get a car with an image that you had an action-packed lifestyle but which was as practical, family-friendly and as simple to drive as a hatchback. The rest is history.

Oh, it gave the world one other thing – the curry hook.

This a true story, at least it is as it was relayed to me by one of the factory development drivers. In the passenger side of the central transmission tunnel between the front seats was a little plastic hook, there so the test team could collect a curry on the way back to the factory in Solihull and let it swing there instead of tipping over as they drove presumably quite enthusiastically (they are very good) back to base. It became a bit of a joke among them until someone suggested asking management if they should keep it on the production cars. 

And when management said `yes, let’s do it’ the Freelander got one of its most quirky and talked about features.

Skoda Octavia (1996 onwards) 

Let me be accurate if a little unkind. Before this car came along Skoda was not a brand many people wanted to be associated with. A lack of investment during its years under Russian rule and poor build quality meant a Skoda was an object of ridicule (how do you double the value of a Skoda - fill it up with petrol) rather than desire.

Then in the mid-1990s it was taken under VW’s wing and with access to their engines, chassis and all the rest, plus the luxury of a VW development budget; the ground was laid for a truly remarkable transformation which is arguably one of the biggest in recent industrial history.

In 1996 Skoda invited me to its new factory at Mlada Boleslaw, outside the beautiful city of Prague in the Czech Republic, there to drive what weren’t quite production ready versions of the first fruit of its incorporation into the VW empire, the Octavia.

Silver Skoda OCtavia on the roadOne would have to be very incompetent at the job indeed if within the first mile of driving it there was not a blinding revelation that this car was a game-changer for the marque. Even driving on their rock hard tyres, not destined for the UK market, the development cars handled and steered precisely and rode well, powered by their VW engines and with VW build quality inside and out. It was clearly something that would transform both the image and the fortunes of the company. Since then more than five million of successive generations of the Octavia have been sold in more than 100 countries.

VW used to employ a phrase, `the democratisation of luxury.’ What that meant was that as it got the economies of scale from buying, making and fitting components in their millions instead of the hundreds of thousands, it could afford to equip the models throughout the group with higher than usual levels of sophistication in every sphere; engineering, safety, comfort, reliability and the rest of it.

Under VW’s grand plan, Skoda would become its value brand, SEAT its sporty one and Audi would move upmarket while its own badged cars would remain as always, the gold standard for quality and value in the mid-market sector. By and large you would have to say it’s worked pretty well – and it was this car, the Octavia, that underpinned Skoda’s role in this play.

Kia cee’d 

Before this car arrived, in 2007, south east Asian cars were sold as being cheap, if not especially cheerful, but that all changed with the Kia cee’d which sent as clear a message as can be that it no longer wanted to be a poor relation to European makes.

So, on the basis that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, Kia recruited top European talent and moved production to a new factory in Slovakia. It secured the services of former VW head of design, Peter Schreyer, to look after the styling inside and out and when, after a couple of years, the car had a mild facelift Porsche and Lotus helped on the engine and suspension respectively and it is hard to think of any better credentials than that.

The best Euro cars of the time were taken apart and analysed in infinite detail and the cee’d benchmarked against them. It is a largely meaningless test in engineering terms but how often do you hear of people giving the doors a `thunk’ test, seeing and feeling how solid the car feels when you shut it; in the cee’d it felt as solid as a bank vault. People pull at the plastic trim and listen for any squeaks or rattles; unmoveable and silent on the Kia. Enough adjustment in the driving position? Anyone from a dwarf to a giant could get comfortable in there.  You could go on and on, but whatever the question you asked of it, the new Kia had an answer.

Silvery Kia cee'd driving at speed on a rocky roadTrue, it had a strange name, the cee’d, and many thought it was a misspelling of `seed’, as in the seed from which a revitalised Kia could grow. In fact it was a contraction of `C and D, the designations given to cars of this size. Not quite as evocative but true.

Anyway, what Kia delivered to a stunned motoring world was a hatchback and estate (joined by a coupe in 2008) that had mature, mainstream styling that could just as well have worn a Ford badge and not looked out of place.

The interior was well finished, well equipped and spacious. With its five-link rear suspension it handled and rode perhaps not quite as well as a Ford Focus, then as now the standard setter for driving dynamics, but if there was a gap it was tiny and noticeable only because as a road tester you look for such things.

But, that didn’t matter in the face of the Kia’s overall impact. In one key area it offered something no other car, of any kind, had because it came with what was then an unheard of seven year/100,000 mile warranty which was transferable with the car to the next owner. No wonder it was as big a hit in the used car market as it was in the new!

Few cars have managed to transform the manufacturer’s image as immediately and fundamentally as the first cee’d did for Kia. This wasn’t a car bought on price and practicality alone, because it was a match for anything else produced at that time.