Letter From Europe-The Highs and Lows of 2008


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By Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

Who could have guessed back in May that by the end of the year the Worldʼs auto industry would look like a train wreck?

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There we were in sunny Italy with my son Nicholas cruising along on the A1 autostrada in the latest, grandest Maserati Quattroporte at a steady 140 miles per hour looking forward to dinner at The Autochannelʼs regular haunt in Modena. Sitting down to some prosciutto from nearby Parma with a glass of local red, words such as sub- prime and financial meltdown were not even in our dictionary!

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Our biggest problem was getting up in time to make the 9 a.m. meeting with our friends at Ferrari. We did of course make it to spend the day in the fastest 430 ever. The Scuderia was developed by a certain Michael Schumacher, one of the greatest racing drivers of all times.

Consequently our feeble efforts were a far cry from what this amazing automobile was capable of. Still, it was huge fun to take it to the hills of Tuscany where once again we were in awe of the engineering skills of the boys from Maranello.

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Whereas years ago you had to be a real macho man to drive a Ferrari things have moved on so much that these days anyone can drive it. Whether they can afford it or not is an entirely different matter, Ferraris start at around 200 thousand dollars a pop. The new California is already a sell-out even though it wonʼt come to the USA until the Summer of 2009.

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Having fulfilled every schoolboyʼs dreams at Maranello we then moved on to automotive heaven called Lamborghini. Not just any old Lambo-if there is such a thing-but the 640 horsepower bright orange colored Murcielago. The chances that you or your son has a poster of a Murcielago somewhere around the house or in the garage are-I would say-pretty high. It looks amazing on posters and even more amazing in real life.

Lamborghini Murcielago (select to view enlarged photo)

We took off for Florence and caused a traffic jam. Several in fact. All we had to do was to stop and fans-young and old surrounded this amazing projectile. Thanks to my son Nicholas we headed towards some deserted roads in the hills where we proved-if proof was needed- that we were and will always be schoolboys.

Lamborghini Murcielago (select to view enlarged photo)

First he would roar up the hill and I would take the picture then it would be my turn. I donʼt think Iʼve ever had this much fun in an automobile. How much does it cost? Well, if you have to ask you canʼt afford it, it is as simple as that. It is practical? No. Would it be fun in the middle of London/New York or Paris? No. Would it be massive fun in Colorado or Montana? Absolutely. By the way Lamborghini have just opened a shiny new showroom in Beverly Hills. Times might be hard but judging from the number of well-heeled enthusiasts who attended the grand opening I am sure Lambo-s will still sell well in California.

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Returning briefly to our Italian extravaganza let me just mention that after taking thousands of pictures finally made it to Rimini on the Adriatic. After an excellent dinner it was time to head back to Lamborghiniʼs world-wide HQ in SantʼAgata just outside Bologna.

Iʼve mentioned a great dinner in Rimini and yes it was great but nothing compared to the barbecue Lamboʼs PR supremo Rita Passarini and her husband produced in their garden the following day. These Italians certainly know how to live! Now you would think that it cannot get any better or at any rate more exciting.

Well, nothing can beat a Murcielago for sheer presence but imagine my surprise when we went to see Pagani Zonda the following day.

If you donʼt know what it is ask your son, heʼll tell you! Nintendo, X Box, no video car chase game would be complete without it. As for the real thing, wow! Weʼve just been driving the Murcielago with 640 horses said we as some sort of an introduction at which point Signor Horacio Pagani just smiled.

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He walked me over to the engine and pointed at the figures. 650 AMG horses! Holy mackerel! And all that for a mere 2 million dollars! We found out that the company only makes 20 cars a year and that there are only 40 employees including the boss. When he suggested a brief test drive we just nodded like the afore mentioned schoolboys.

The test track? How silly of me to ask. It was the street round the back where the locals are used to the sound of 650 horses, in fact they quite enjoy it. Plus, wonder of wonders, it had a six speed manual gearbox, none of this pansy levers of the steering wheel nonsense. No sir, it was the real McCoy, for big boys only. I was most anxious not to stall it in front of the factory test driver and mercifully I didnʼt. Neither did Nicholas .

This was the end of our 4 day Italian dream trip and I fear that similar trips will have to go on to the back burner for a while.

Now that I am back to Earth let me talk about some of the highs and lows of the year leaving exotica reluctantly behind.

For fun in America nothing comes close to the photo shoot with old friend Justin Bell. Yes, the very same guy youʼve seen racing at Le Mans and yes, his father is the Derek Bell, one of the finest long-distance drivers in the World.

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We were in BMWʼs new 335d-what a great car. As it was a video rather than a straight static shoot it called for some spirited driving which I absolutely loved! Twists, turns, passing Justin without knocking the camera out of his hands at 80 miles an hour-magic.

There is a great deal to be said for working with old friends, especially if they happen to be great drivers as well. I just hope the American public will accept this car, especially as the price of gas will go back to 3-4 dollars a gallon and then theyʼll really appreciate the fuel savings in one of the truly excellent cars on the roads today.

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For pure showing off it would be hard to beat the Mercedes SL, especially in glorious sunshine. A classic shape with several engine options, for a stint down Rodeo Drive this car is it. Certainly one of the highs. Canʼt imagine Julia Roberts without it.

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In its own way although for tens of thousands of dollars less the 2009 Jetta TDI was also a star. Unbelievably well screwed together it returned an amazing 40 miles per gallon. It is also deceptively quick. At around 24 thousand dollars-before some serious arm-twisting-it definitely falls into the highs and also into the remarkable value category as well.

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I loved Jaguarʼs new FX which I drove at the launch in San Diego. Superb handling like all Jaguars but can it survive in this very harsh economic climate. Does new owner Ratan Tata have the deep pockets this will require? I certainly hope so. If they can keep going then stand by for a fabulous new sports car which is currently in the works.

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The Hondas Iʼve been driving have been predictable, reliable and just fine. I didnʼt tremble with anticipation at driving them but I knew they would get me where ever I wanted to go. Toyotas-well Iʼve only been at the wheel at our familyʼs Prius which never stops to amaze me with the 45 miles per gallon fuel consumption. One thing that is a problem-the cost of spare parts.

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Lows, well it is easy to knock companies which are down but they are not down by accident.

Fordʼs cars have by and large been pretty ordinary with a bit of chrome added. Mercuryʼs trim designer should have been retired long ago.

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GMʼs cars are better but the Aveo has to take the biscuit for the least desirable car Iʼve driven all year.

As for Chrysler, I am sorry. The cars are so bad that they should just throw the key away and keep Jeep. You can fool some of the people some of the time (mainly unsuspecting tourists) but Sebring-please take a pink slip and leave the scene.

So ends another year of-mainly-happy motoring. I fear we are facing a rocky road in 2009 but it will not stop me from telling it as I find it. All the best for ʼ09

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