Rain, Reviews and Raves in This Month's Letter from Europe

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Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

As anyone living in California will tell you we've been having horrendous weather in January. Storms, land slides, houses falling into the sea, people being evacuated, truly awful. Consequently I haven't had a chance to drive the test cars on our usual routes given that half of them were blocked by falling trees. Under the circumstances it was a matter of avoiding the floods and the newly formed potholes. So all I can say about Mazda's 2010 CX-9 is that it is a fine product.

I've mentioned at the end of €˜09 just how much Mazda's quality has improved and the CX-9 is no exception. The interior is bright, the seats are comfortable and the trunk easily swallowed a huge armchair which was on its way to the American Cancer Society.

I particularly liked the ease with which seats could be dropped and raised without breaking nails. The CX-9 came fully equipped and at 30 thousand dollars it certainly offers great value for the money. Clearly the weather prevented me from doing a full test of the CX-9, hopefully I can give it another go when the chances of trees falling down are somewhat smaller.

Why, I hear you ask, didn't I go out in the mud, storm and rain? Well, it isn't my car, there were no emergencies so it seemed more sensible to look after someone else's property than to prove that it can survive in 3 feet of water.

The same applies to Nissan's 3.5 liter 2010 Maxima. The company calls it a 4-door sports car and I cannot disagree. It certainly has a great deal of oomph from the 3.5 liter DOHC 24 valve V6 engine. Not that I was able to take full advantage of it as the above-mentioned rain was still bucketing.

Before you think I am some pansy who will only go out in bright sunshine -trust me. I've driven in Africa, in Eastern Europe when it was full of Trabants and Wartburgs, in Australia when it was 115 degrees and in snow all over Scandinavia.

But what I did have a chance to admire were the very comfortable seats, the excellent instrument panel and the overall finish. My complaint-the Maxima is just fine but it doesn't seem to have any outstanding features, in other words it seems to miss the wow factor.

On the other hand that is something the Mazdaspeed 3 seems to have plenty of. It is one of the boy racer specials every 15 years old dreams of. It is small, it is red and it is mean!2.3 liter turbocharged and intercooled engine, 6 speed manual transmission -slightly worn courtesy of some over-enthusiastic colleagues who've had the car before me-limited slip differential, independent suspension all round, high-performance tires, namely the works.

The seats were firm as was the suspension. This is definitely not the car for a spin with your Granny. On the other hand if you do enjoy driving hard and fast, going on mountain passes instead of boring highways, if you enjoy controlling the noticeable torque steer a well as risking the occasional ticket because you simply couldn't resist the temptation this could well be your car.

Just don't look for entertainment from the radio, probably the weakest components of all the Mazdas I've driven of late . A few extra dollars would cure that. The base price of 23 thousand will give you a pocket rocket. Do you have to handle it care? Absolutely. Huge fun in the right hands? Unquestionably.

When it comes to the right pair of hands the new and amazingly good-looking Chevrolet Camaro is the case in point. But beware. It is big, it is powerful and it will catch you out if you are not careful. 3700 pounds is a lot of metal in the wrong hands. Having said that if you are careful it is huge fun! Attracting envious looks like few other cars the "retro" Camaro is comfortable, quick and amazing value for money.

You get an awful lot of car for 26 thousand dollars. A 3.6 liter V6 engine, 6 speed manual gear box, sport suspension, airbags, 4 wheel disc brakes, dual exhaust exhausts, an excellent audio system and to top it all if you drive it gently-which might be asking too much from the target audience- 30 miles per gallon is on the cards. After 50 or so miles the needle had barely moved on my test car, I thought there was something wrong with it.

As for the 6.2 liter V8 engine with over 400 horsepower that really is a car and a half. Definitely NOT for little Johnny as his first car.

The race is on inside this very exciting niche market between the Camaro, Ford's Mustang, the Dodge Challenger and Nissan's 370Z as well as Hyundai's Genesis Coupe which I've yet to drive.

There is something to bear I mind which people tend to forget. When it comes to spares or problems relating to cars exotics are likely to be more of a problem. You will always find GM and Ford parts in the remotest part of the United States. No laughing matter if you need a fan belt in a hurry.

Something far more mundane but considerably more practical is the 2010 Golf GTI. They haven't changed the packing too much over the years, it was winner from the word go. It still is.

We had fun and games with our delightful neighbors the other day. They are in the process of giving their 11 year old bright yellow Beetle to their grand daughter and are thinking of a replacement.

We took the GTI for a spin round the block and they were seriously impressed. I just hope we can find a decent dealer in Marin, by and large auto dealers in this part of the World seem so full of themselves that it is almost silly. Nothing do with the car of course which my wife described as sturdy. Solid as a rock in my book. Quick, economical, logical (!) with all the various buttons in places where you would expect them to be.

One interesting aside. Did you know that insurance companies check on your children's and grand children's grades before setting a premium? Neither did I. Must say it is a terrific incentive to study, especially if it is a matter of getting insured or not! So maybe it is bye-bye Facebook and hello textbooks! Not such a terrible price to pay if it is the difference between a Beetle and a bicycle.

That's it for this month's Letter from Europe

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