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September 18, 2009

EXCLUSIVE: When tuning makes a virtue of necessity

Developing niche performance versions of mainstream models might sound like a taboo subject in the current economic and environmental climate.

Developing niche performance versions of mainstream models might sound like a taboo subject in the current economic and environmental climate.

But what if it can turn a tidy profit for the automaker and help eliminate what Prodrive’s director of  performance parts, Roland Cherry, describes as “pirate chippers” – tuners who, for a fee, will boost the power of a customer’s pride and joy and, when it all goes wrong and the overstressed engine blows, revert to the original set-up and suggest to the customer a claim for the damage under warranty?

Far better to have the job done properly with homologated parts and in partnership with a trusted and respected company, suggested Cherry.

There is also another side to this which helps make a virtue out of necessity. Few sports cars are developed specifically for Britain’s notorious road surfaces. Make a few inexpensive tweaks to the suspension and a car can be transformed.

Cherry points to the success here in the UK of cars like the 500 Abarth and the Renault Clio Sport to highlight the demand that exists.

Prodrive started developing limited edition specials based on the Subaru Impreza, mainly because of the close links it had with the factory rally team.

It has since developed the Mazda RX-8 PZ. The GBP2,000 premium that customers paid for that car included a driving day in the package.

“It blows people’s minds when they learn how to get the most from the car,” said Cherry. The special editions also drive customers into showrooms and help build brand loyalty.

These limited edition models also do well in the used car market, becoming very ‘sought after’ and holding their values.

Developing global cars means automakers have to compromise and producing low volume niche models is, generally, uneconomical for them or their importers, Cherry said.

Most recently, Prodrive developed the S version of the Alfa Romeo Brera which, in factory specification, was criticised by UK media for its poor ride quality on local roads.

The heart of the S is suspension with optimised spring rate, ride height and damper tuning to achieve a ride/handling balance and steering response that work well on the often bumpy, mixed camber roads that are common in the UK. Roll and pitch are reduced and the new settings work together to provide confidence-inspiring steering that gives the driver plenty of feedback.

“We wanted the vehicle to feel as if it shrinks around the driver. It should be nimble with lots of driver involvement on twisty roads, yet also provide refined motorway cruising and a composed ride over challenging British road surfaces,” said Cherry.

“It’s the best of Britain and the best of Italy.

“Modifying it after type approval, however, presents an interesting set of challenges as we have a very limited range of options available to us.”

“Ride quality is another area with significant regional variation and highlights the importance of understanding how a customer evaluates a vehicle,” Cherry said.

“In the UK, a firm ride is one of the tactile interactions with the driver that many sports car buyers associate with excellent dynamic performance. The ability to deliver this while also accommodating poor quality road surfaces is a good demonstration of the level of expertise that we have at Prodrive.”

The transition from standard Brera to Brera S takes place at Alfa Romeo UK’s dedicated import centre, near Bristol, and is overseen by Prodrive.

Cherry said Prodrive’s approach makes economical sense on volume of a few hundred to 5,000.

Tony Lewis

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