Letter from Europe - Volvo, Saab, BMW, F-1 and other topics opinionized

Andrew Frankl European Bureau Chief

Twenty or so years ago I spent a lot of time in Sweden. My partner and I were running four magazines, two on big rigs and two on cars. Big rig makers par excellence –Volvo and Scania(Saab) - were and still are the absolute tops, producing trucks which are the envy of the World. Volvo Truck is still independent, but Scania Trucks and Volvo cars have been bought, Volvo Cars by Ford and Saab by GM.

It would be fair to say that this time Ford got lucky and GM didn’t.

I have been driving Volvo S60s and S80s as well as the 2003 9-5 Aero Saab. Regular readers know that I am very fond of Volvos and am on the record to the effect that if I had to pick one car it would be a Volvo S70 all-wheel drive. I know it isn’t a sports car, it isn’t exotic, but it will pick up the kids, take you skiing or surfing and is safe.

The Saab is just as safe but its image is on the wane. For sure it cannot be mistaken for anything else nobody will ever ask what is it, as the answer is obvious…Saabs have looked the same for as long as I can remember.

At one time when Bob Sinclair was the boss at Saab he managed to surround the marque with an aura of exclusivity and desirability, he even sold some to the Aspen police! Those days are regrettably over. Owners GM are pretty unhappy as are the people at Saab. They feel pretty unloved by this monolith and when they were told that they will be getting bits from Subaru to make improvements it didn’t go down too well in the land of the elks. GM has spent 300 million dollars on Saab in 2002 but has made it clear that unless things improve dramatically it could be curtains in 2004. What is more likely is that Saab will merge with someone else and, let me stick my neck out, Rover would make a perfect partner.

The British company is also a small car maker these days but with some bright people on board. Brits and Swedes have always had a natural affinity towards each other so I am sure they would get on fine on a human level and who knows even the mechanical synergy might or should I say could work.

(Editors Note SaabUSA has just reported that April 2003 was their best month ever).

In the meantime Saab’s new cabrio looks and sounds good as does the new 9-3, whether it will be enough to satisfy the bean-counters in Detroit remains to be seen. As for the 9-5 is it an OK car, don’t get me wrong but at $43,000 as delivered to me it is about 10 thousand more than some excellent Nissans and Infinitis. Who would have thought in the bad old days of Datsun, makers of rustbuckets to the World that one day I would be able to say that!? I am sure they will be teaching this astonishing turn round at universities for years to come.

There is great excitement in Munich concerning the launch of BMW’s new 5 series. To call it a vital product is certainly no understatement, the 5 together with the 3 series are the backbone of the company. That it will be great mechanically, I am certain of, how potential customers will react to the styling, I am not so sure about. If you like the look of the 7 series you’ll like it, if not then you may turn to something like an C or E class Mercedes where changes tend to be evolutionary and not revolutionary. At least BMW was listening when it came to the hated iDrive, the one in the 5 series will be considerably more simple.

BMW have been a phenomenal success story, the “old” 5 series is still one of the most desirable cars in the World, especially in its 530i guise. Letting Bangle do his iconoclastic design is certainly a brave move, whether it will go down as a success remains to be seen.

The WAJ-Western Automotive Journalists – test day at Thunderhill Park California was a success. The committee and esi-the organizers have done a good job and even stopped the rain if not the wind. Stars of the show were the new 760 BMW with an amazing 12 cylinder engine, the Chrysler Crossfire and Volvo S60R. On the road, as opposed to the track I had fun in a Corvette with a superb six speed gearbox, what a lovely car!

Apparently Corvette are going back to Le Mans, an event they clearly love. San Francisco has been the scene of a great deal of motoring activity lately. First we had the Gumball rally-you’ll be able to read my son Nicholas’ full report on that in the near future and a week later the California Mille. I would sum up the two as new money versus old money but in any case pots of money. The new money guys really went for it, the old money guys pretended that they were a bunch of goodie-two-shoes. Baloney! One thing is for certain, for lovers of cars old and new San Francisco has been the place to be of late.

If you follow the saga of Grand Prix racing you’ll be aware of the shenanigans between Bernie Ecclestone and the manufacturers. I won’t bore you with the details, there is a lot of money at stake, Bernie would like to keep it, the manufacturers would like to get some of it. This one will run and run until they can either agree or we may end up with two rival championships. I will try and keep you posted.

Cheers, until next month.

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