Thursday, 12 July 2012

Driven:- "Chrysler" Ypsilon 0.9 TwinAir

I've not read the CAR or Autocar reviews of the Ypsilon, but I know that those two most trusted of organs rated it at three stars, ostensibly that's half marks. I have one in my possession for an entire half an hour today; so here's an opportunity to see what counts for average these days.

And the first thing I'm going to do is to ignore the badging. If I could legitimately chisel those hilariously Aston-Martinesque bewinged Chrysler emblems off this car's snout and arse, I would. It's not a Chrysler, not even slightly. And, because the last time I drove a Lancia it was a Y10 Turbo, fifteen years ago, I'm not going to think of it as one of those, either. This car bears nothing in common with that Gamma Coupe that appears so frequently in my somnambulant daydreams

Firstly; some prizes are in order for the design team for imagination, ambition, effort and hope. Any milliners out there reading this, I urge you to send me a hat so I can take it off to them. In a footprint much less than four metres long, the team have done their level best to incorporate virtually every current Italian styling trademark. The chiselled nose with its crisp lines and artfully handled grille, the bonnet that narrowly escapes looking like it was stolen from a Chrysler PT Cruiser (a total coincidence, of course) yet looks absolutely at home here, and the dynamically upswept glassline a la Maserati. Only the concave treatment of the lower front door is slightly irksome but, then, they had to do something with that bit, didn't they?

They've even managed to give the damn thing a reasonable set of hips; muscular haunches over the rear wheels. Yes, thirty-nine out of ten for having a damn good shot, guys. Which makes it rather tragic that it hasn't really worked. Cohesive it ain't.

It's simply too small a form for all this exquisite detailing to sit happily. The design works, brilliantly, from the front three-quarters. Viewed from side on things begin to go awry when you look at the wheelbase and the overhangs, the bow being longer and a lot more visually dominant than the stern, giving a somewhat nose-heavy balance. 

You're also made more aware of the height of the thing, and the effectiveness of those concealed rear door-handles (to simulate a coupe appearance) are lost as soon as you glimpse those tell-tale shutlines and how far forward the B Pillar is. Maybe in the future, if they're still pursuing the four-doors-but-looks-like-two objective, it would be worth them stealing from the Mazda RX-8 copybook? Or maybe they should just be honest and not pretend that the Ypsilon is something it's not.

And then you look at it from the rear three quarters and it all suddenly looks properly ridiculous; those rear lights are lovely little things, but fail to look swoopy and elegant because the rear end they're nailed to is so upright and abbreviated. Seriously, if all the design ideas of this car were directly translated onto something the same height but two metres longer, it would look absolutely superb. So, part brilliant, part awful. I guess that makes it average.

How about the inside? Well, in my half hour I was unable to determine whether the driving position was any good (I have a feeling that, over time, my 6' 5" of gristle and fat would fall out with the Ypsilon in a big way ), but by no means does it seem a cramped place to be. Good news on the materials front; although you can find some scratchy bits if you let your fingers really search for them, the majority of the interior is made of stout stuff, and this is the first time I've felt able to say this of a small Italian car for a long while. 

Technology and equipment wise, the full shopping list of amenities is ticked off here, but a demerit goes to the appearance of the Microsoft Blue & Me integration that only Fiat-group companies seem to be bothered with, and it's the Microsoft button on the steering wheel that gives the game away that this Chrysler is about as American as Mussolini bathing in olive oil. Oh, and the ever-so-Fiat "City" button is present and correct, selectable to add more steering assistance for the limp of physique. I didn't bother, of course, being outrageously muscular as I am.

The seats seem comfortable, upholstered though they are in a material that I'd expect to wear were I to go skuba-diving. Distressingly, there's nothing in here I really hate; except for the fact that I still vehemently disapprove of centrally-mounted instrument clusters. Burn them all; the bastard things. I just don't see how they're not regarded as ergonomically ridiculous. Especially as, with this particular car, you have to keep at least one eye on the rev-counter at all possible times.

You see, the Ypsilon can be equipped with Fiat groups 0.9 litre, two-cylinder turbocharged engine, dubbed TwinAir. It's fitted to this one. I've long been intrigued by this diminutive mill, and when I twisted the key the novelty factor didn't take long to materialise. Indeed, the engine noise was so alien that I had to run through mental lists of what it reminded me of, and I came up with a mixture of golf buggy, quad bike and twin-engined Go-Kart. Most amusing of all is the overrun when you switch off; you get the phut-phut-phut of the last fuelless decompressions as the engine spins to a halt against the presumably quite heavy flywheel. It sounds a bit like farting in a bath.

So, It's safe to imagine that the Ypsilon's performance would match the ride-on-lawnmower nature of its powerplant. Well, I eyed the sequential shifter suspiciously before tipping it into automatic mode, It's a similar transmission set-up to the one you find on a Smart, but the stick action is pull back to go up through the gears, tip forward to go down. So for ease of introduction I made sure that the display said "1 Auto" and pushed firmly on the accelerator... and nothing happened.

I pushed it farther, still nothing, but the exhaust note changed, deepening as if put under load. Then I pushed a bit more, and gradually the car heaved itself forward slightly. Suddenly the Go-Kart metaphor was flagged up as the most appropriate from my list because that's exactly what pulling away feels like. The car behaves as if it's using a scooter-style centrifugal clutch, the revs rising, the drive gently catching and the whole plot only moves forward when it's excited enough.

Then I pushed the accelerator farther still, and suddenly all hell broke loose. Genuinely, I was pinned back in my seat with a sudden and wholly unexpected force. Next gear (which engages itself with a pause and a violent nodding sensation, just like in a Smart) and then comes another brief rush of acceleration, then yet another long, lingering gearchange, then another rush, and before you know it you have accumulated serious velocity. By which I mean that I had effortlessly been catapulted into the outside lane of the local "Big Fast Road" and was doing a speed a hefty percentage over what was legal, within four gear changes of a standstill. It's a very strange experience.

It's made stranger when you listen to the engine note, which is low-pitch enough to make gearshift-points almost impossible to guess without reference to the rev-counter. Four thousand RPM in this sounds like two thousand in a regular four-cylinder car. Indeed, at urban-road speeds two thousand revs feels like the stall point, and even though Auto mode may insist on fourth gear at 30mph, the engine sounds like it's labouring to a degree that surely isn't a good idea. Auto seems to be rather ambitiously calibrated; manual gives much better results. If you're aiming for minimum economy, maximum giggles, DO NOT allow the revs to stray below 2k or north of 5. Nothing of interest lies outside those parameters.

But, keep it in third gear across country, occasionally dipping to second for bursts of serious acceleration out of hairpin corners, and the Ypsilon will cover the ground at an indecent pace. It's completely counter to the whole design brief of the Twinair, which I suppose must have been "half the engine for twice the economy" or somesuch, but the feeling of driving this car rapidly using the available power is , I imagine, a bit like riding a Supermotard, one of those very trick trial-bike-turned-track-weapons , typically with a big stump-pulling single cylinder engine. Of course, this is a Twin, and it's everything I can do to avoid revving the poor thing to death.

I quickly develop a technique which sees me dedicating my left foot to braking duty, with my right in charge of acceleration. This is also my usual technique in conventional automatic cars, but in those it's because I'm a man of habit and my left foot always wants something to do. Here, it's extra necessary, just like it is when driving a Go-Kart, where a cheatsome trick is to hold the accelerator slightly open while braking, especially in hairpins, as it reduces throttle lag on the way out of the bend. On a Go-Kart it also promotes lurid powerslides, an extremely unlikely occurrence in this little front-wheel-drive trolley. Oh, dear. This engine is the very embodiment of perky. I'm having quite a lot of fun, here.

My fun is rather more to do with the engine than the handling, it feels like a Fiat 500 crossed with a paper dart, such is its propensity for ploughing straight on in extremis. The little twin feels like it's a long way forward in the hull; it certainly feels like there's a lot of weight in the nose.  It grips to the road gamely, though, with little roll, but is prone to the exact same mid-corner skittishness on broken road surfaces as the 500 does. This point was cemented when a particularly cavernous pothole saw me briefly airborne and launched right across the carriageway.

The thing is, it's all very fun, I'm sure, but it would be even more fun in, well, something that wasn't an Ypsilon. This engine also appears in the Fiat 500 and Panda, which are far more youthful, pared-down, joyful cars. The Ypsilon styling (or the intent of its styling, anyway) hints at grace, luxury and class. Pelting around the countryside like I was really isn't a classy, luxurious or graceful thing to do. I can't help but think that the Twinair might be a bit, well, highly strung for this application.

It's all starting to make less and less sense, this car. There's a daft American badge on it, for a start, where there should be an Italian one. The styling is right, and then goes terribly wrong. The interior is smart and quite well put together, but with a bafflingly located instrument binnacle, and the engine feels like it really wants to be in a dune buggy. 

What a weird car; but a likeable one, definitely. It's the kind of car I'd like my parents to have in replacement for their fourteen year old Ka which has corroded to the point that it's only held together by paint and birdshit, and whose stereo is probably the last remaining structural element. The Ypsilon is roughly the same size as the Ka, and has the added flexibility of two extra doors. The boot is smallish, but not rubbish, and the fuel economy ought to be something in at least the vague region of the 50mpg that the Ka delivers. As long as the Ypsilon is reasonably priced, then the case is a reasonably compelling one.

Guess what, though? This car costs £13,500..

WEIRD ALERT!!! Seriously, nearly fourteen grand. For a tiny "Chrysler". Or, if you happen to be An American Person, for added shock and awe that's $22,000 of your dollars.

Suddenly everything I have written becomes irrelevant. It matters not if this car is good, bad or indifferent, because you'd have to be certifiable to go out and spend your money on one. Certifiable as in I've-Just-Eaten-A-Hundredweight-Of-Scotch-Eggs, Come-Join-Me-On-The-Trampoline levels of lunacy. Absolutely nuts. Stupid. Daft and idiotic. Silly.

Half brilliance, half hopelessness, about five grand too expensive.

Half marks it is, then.