TACH European Bureau Chief Andrew Frankl 2001 Year End ReportIt is very difficult indeed to talk about things purely automotive in view of the Sept 11 atrocities because apart from the appalling human tragedies the events also had serious ramifications for the auto industry as well.
Don' t get me wrong-nothing but nothing was, is and will be as important as those totally innocent lost lives so if I carry on writing about cars it is most definitely not out of callousness nor because I am going to get paid for it. I am not getting one solitary cent for this article but frankly that is my problem.
As far as automakers are concerned I am sure many of them would be happy to forget this year.
As for leading lights within those companies...well, who could have predicted the fall of Jacques -the knife-Nasser?!
I've always admired him for being a visionary, his purchase of Volvo and Land Rover certainly pointed to that but at the same time he did get involved in some stuff which seems truly silly such as motorized bicycles and exceedingly ugly plastic cars from Norway.
Talk about deviating from the matter in hand!
On top of that he should have realised that he was not the right person to appear on television to explain the Firestone tire fiasco.
This is where captains of industry get it so wrong, they-not unlike Stalin- believe their personality cult aided and abetted by their lackeys who are too terrified of losing their job to tell the boss that he might be great as a car man but totally unsuitable for appearing on the TV screen. He certainly left a pretty tough job behind him for the charismatic Nick Scheele and the ultimate boss-Bill Ford.
As regular readers know I used to work for the company and I would like them to get into good shape again.
I should add that the culprit, namely the Ford Explorer SUV is vastly better in its latest form. We've recently driven it under the most treacherous conditions and it performed superbly. The fuel consumption is also a lot better, with a little bit of care on the loud pedal one could drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles on one tank of fuel!
Motor Trend award of Car of the Year 2002 for the Thunderbird will also come as a very welcome morale booster. I've driven the car and whilst it is no Porsche or Ferrari from a pure engineering point of view in terms of presence, all-American presence it scores 10 out of 10.
The Premier Automotive Group seems to be going from strength to strength under the stewardship Dr Wolfgang Reitzle who is wasting no time luring away some of the best brains from his old company-BMW.
Under his meticulous devotion to detail Jaguar are now rolling out cars which are near the top of JD Power's list instead of languishing at the bottom. And, naturally, the more S and X type appear on the streets-certainly of San Francisco- the more people become convinced that the bad old days are over. For 2002 the best selling S type will be offered with an optional 4.2 liter V8, pushing out 400 horsepower, which incidentally is the same as the number of ponies in Ferrari's 360!
Also part of the Premier Group is newly acquired Land Rover. Whilst in BMW ownership the company started to develop a new Range Rover. As a result of the change in ownership the new 75 thousand dollar flagship will have a 4.4 liter BMW engine for the foreseeable future in direct opposition to BMW's very own X5 sporting the very same engine. Personally I could never understand the hype associated with Range Rover but I've yet to drive the new one so maybe my opinion will change.
Volvo-again part of PAG-are getting stronger and stronger; especially at the upper end, their V70 and its cross country sister have been some of the most enjoyable cars I've had a chance to drive this year. Their new X5 challenger will be launched in 2002 and should do well as it is based on well-proven mechanicals.
Incidentally my very own S70-now four years old-keeps going across Europe year in year out without missing a beat. Comfortable, quick and innocuous-policemen tend not to associate dark blue Volvo-s with 110 miles per hour cruising-I intend to keep it for several years.
I am not in love with the "little" Volvo which was a joint effort with Mitsubishi-as that partnership is now ending I am sure something more exciting will be with us in the not too distant future.
There can be no doubt about the major contribution made by Hans-Olov Olsson, Volvo's CEO. He sold over 400 thousand cars in 2001 and looking at a rather stiff target of 600 thousand units although he may not achieve it until 2005. Yet again, the more school mums see the rest of class collected in Volvo wagons the more they will want one. It really is astonishing how the Swedes have succeeded in making their cars totally synonymous with safety!
DaimlerChrysler has had a very tough year. Luckily in Mercedes it has one of the finest brand names in the World and certainly the three pointed star cars I've had a chance to drive did not disappoint.
The little 25 thousand dollar coupe was a blast to drive and it also attracted a great deal of attention from people who-until now- were under the impression that Mercedes cars were well outside their budgets.
At the other end of the Mercedes spectrum the 5 liter S class in black was very CEO, very ministerial and it was treated with reverence in every car park, even in Los Angeles. I cannot think of a more pleasant way to do 400 miles in 5 and a half hours with four people and luggage. I still cannot work out the navigational system but as Interstate 5 is straight mercifully I didn't need to.
I saw a couple of the new SL-s the other day in Europe, I am sure there will be a waiting list once they hit the shores of California. No self-respecting film star will want to be without one. It was a neat touch at the LA Show to have Jay Leno to unveil it!
As for boss man Jurgen Schrempp-whose head was on the line when the shares collapsed- he managed to stay in the driving seat, thereby faring better than Nasser at Ford.
I am totally and utterly confused by what is going on at Volkswagen. Now under the command of former BMW boss Bernd Pischetsrieder it looks like a big, confusing mess.
On the plus side he is certainly inheriting a hugely improved Skoda brand which really is going from strength to strength. I drove a Fabia last summer in Hungary to and fro the Hungaroring and it was just great.
On the other hand I cannot understand the logic of the big VW.
This mega-luxury car is allegedly going to be on sale in the spring of 2002. Exotic W8 and W12 engines may sound awesome but honestly-would you pay the sort of money for a Volkswagen as for a big Mercedes or a 7 series BMW. Will the valet rush to the door cap in hand when he sees the same badge as the one on his Father's beat up VW from the 60s? I don't think so.
Pouring money into Bugatti and Lamborghini seems just plain stupid and a ridiculous waste of funds needed elsewhere. Rumour has it that Mr. P. wants to crack the 250 miles per hour barrier with the 1000 (!!) horsepower Bugatti Veyron, could someone please tell me why?
If I were a shareholder in the Volkswagen Group I would be very seriously cheesed off watching this farcical waste of money. There is some clear thinking needed at Wolfsburg and maybe Bernd is not the man to provide it.
One man who does stand out as a savior/hatchet man is Nissan's Carlos Ghosn. I cannot quite understand how one man can make such a difference to a huge company, especially a Japanese one but the results are there for all to see.
When he arrived from Renault in June 1999 he offered to quit should he fail. Amazingly Renault were at one point the sick car maker of Europe , making some of the worst cars known to the World such as the infamous 9 and 11 which resulted in the company's hasty retreat from the States. But, led by some brilliant designers and especially stylists Renault turned the corner to such an extent that is was ready for an alliance with an ailing company 10 thousand miles away!
Yet, Monsieur Ghosn succeeded. What really impresses me-having been to Japan-is that he managed to get his message across and furthermore he managed to get it accepted.
So, after only two and a half short years Nissan are getting rave reviews for the new Altima and the soon to be launched 350Z. Their excellent engines will also find their way into Renault cars and trucks and it does look as though this is one partnership which will really flourish against all odds.
As for reliability.., well, the other day I crawled for 8 and a half hours from Marin County to Truckee in the Sierras and Nissan's up-market Infiniti QX4 never missed a beat. The 240 horsepower 3.5 liter engine seemed to suffer a lot less than I did and Mr. Bose's audio system made the whole thing just about bearable.
The whole range is going through a major and remarkable metamorphosis from the once humble Sentra all the way to the top of the Infiniti range.
Mercifully the Renault-Nissan relationship is turning out to be a far cry from the "get the knife out of my back" Daimler-Chrysler and BMW-Rover fiascos.
Honda and Toyota continued on their merry way, the Accord remaining the staple diet of millions whilst Toyota's Corolla kept many people going who just about knew the door handles from the trunk… Still, it did get them from A to B relatively painlessly which is all what they cared for.
Now that Toyota is entering Formula One, things might be changing to improve the highly successful company's, somewhat sleepy image.
Why they bother when they are far and away the most profitable automaker in the World I have no idea, especially as F1 is not only very frustrating but it is also very public. Their chances of winning or getting anywhere near the podium for at least two years I would put at NIL. Especially with the charming but not especially brilliant Mika Salo and Scotland's McNish at the wheel.
The GM trucks I drove during 2001 convinced me that when it comes to things such as Suburbans these guys really know what they are doing.
The company is also increasing market share albeit via a very painful process, namely O% finance. Now that my old mate Bob Lutz is back-he was there 30 years ago when I first met him-there will be "Ghosn' like changes in Detroit. The bread and butter cars seem more and more like margarine to me but I am sure that Bob is already on the job.
GM also had the good sense to buy into Subaru-currently every auto writer's darling. The ugly ducking WRX is probably the only car in America for which there is a waiting list and the technology is already on its way to Bob's engineers. I am really curious to see what Fiat and General Motors will make of their relationship, so far very little from what I gather.
Alfa Romeo-part of Fiat- seems like the most obvious candidate for re-entering the States but what should GM do? On the face if it selling Alfas through Saab dealers would seem to be the most logical idea. But when?
Peugeot, the giant French automakers are also thinking of returning to the States but don't expect to see them any time soon.
BMW-makers of what they justifiably call the ultimate driving machine-are going from strength to strength. Many so called analysts-arguably the most opinionated and ignorant people in the whole wide World predicted the Munich firm's imminent demise in the wake of the Rover fiasco instead of which they came out with a brilliant new Mini which is already selling like hot cakes and the fascinating but controversial 7 series .
Apparently you don't have to be a mathematics of physics professor to work the controls but it is certainly a great advantage. I just hope BMW are not banking on selling lots and lots of cars to highly qualified dotcoms because they are-as we all know- a rapidly disappearing breed. The current joke: what is the latest status symbol in Silicone Valley?- a job.
So that just about wraps up this automotive year.
2002? More basic cars at the one end-there are lots of ugly square boxes in the making from Ford to Honda and lots of super cars at the other.
I am sure there will be more mergers and some great names will probably disappear. Happy motoring. Thanks For TACHing With Us This Past Year, Andrew.