Year in Review, Olympic Sidebar, Nice and Not so Nice Observations in This Month's Letter From Europe

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By Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

I had an interesting trip to London recently where Olympic fever is mounting by the minute. It will of course be complete chaos as in an already busy city there will be special lanes for members of the so-called Olympic family.

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Miles and miles of them. There are some very fine members of this family as well as some sheep herders from various countries I will not name. They will stay in the best hotels which will make a change from their Yurt, which is a bit like the American Indian’s wigwam.

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The Olympic family will be “whisked” to various functions in a fleet of BMWs, but they will be lucky if they get there without the locals throwing eggs at them en route. How much good it will do for official transporter BMW remains to be seen, certainly there is nothing wrong with their products, on the contrary. It is the association with some of these funny guys that I cannot see as good PR. Still, their sales are booming so they are certainly not complaining. And like most “regular” people I will get to where I am going on the Underground, as always.

As for automobiles, well, I have had some great ones and some lesser ones in the course of 2011.

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In Europe the Ferrari 458 and the McLaren were the highlight of the year in sports cars and the Jaguar XJ among the limos. The Jaguar people were exceptionally proud of the fact that the royal couple- William and Kate-were taken to Westminster Abbey in one of their cars for their wedding.
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Talk about positive exposure! I loved taking the XJ to Silverstone, home of the British Grand Prix. The company are on a roll under Tata Industries with the Evoque, the latest Range Rover which is a huge hit. And having India as a home base it opens up vast territories previous owners were simply just looking at as places on a map at the other end of the World.

Fiat’s 500 was eagerly awaited in Marin and I was really looking forward to driving it. The one I had for test was sort of all right, nothing more, nothing less.

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One size too small for most people. There of course various versions on the way such as the ultra-quick Abarth but it still one size too small just like the Mini. A niche market pure and simple.

Having said that there are thousands of them in London where parking spaces are often at a premium. To me the 500 will always be synonymous with Fiat boss man and legendary playboy Gianni Agnelli. His version on the beaches of Europe had no doors, four seats and normally three nubile ladies within. Way to go!

From frivolities to Volvo, the S60 T6 AWD R SR. The car is a lot better than the silly name. Can you honestly expect someone at a dinner party to recite all this when asked what he was driving?!

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Honestly. Anyway, the S60 goes like smoke and is probably the strongest car on the road. Solid as a rock. No wonder the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety named no fewer than 5 Volvos as top safety picks. Glad that the Chinese owners left it well alone. There is one bit they could improve upon-pay for a more modern, more efficient engine. 21 to a gallon, global warming score of 6 and a smog rating of 5 is definitely 20th Century. The price is a hefty 46 thousand dollars but what you get is known in England as a Q car. It looks like an innocent Volvo, at least until you hit the loud pedal. With 325 horsepower this is definitely not your Mother-in-Law’s Volvo. No Sir! Positively in BMW country with amazing road holding the “R” was built for those 30somethings who wanted to challenge the best of Germany and Japan but in a more subtle, Swedish fashion.

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Dislikes-well, the dashboard is still a mess, falling into the too clever by half category. Annoying because my 12 year old S70 has a minimum number of switches and they all work perfectly well without all the hocus pocus. I would probably not get it in bright red because Volvo or no Volvo that is the most obvious color as far as the cops are concerned. The exciting news is that Volvo are definitely not sitting on their laurels, there is a V60 Plug-in Hybrid on the way which is certainly the most advanced Volvo ever and which will reach shores hopefully within a couple of years.

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Infiniti’s FX35 AWD is a fine automobile. The most remarkable aspect-unlike with all German manufacturers-there are no extras. So apart from delivery charge which all cars carry what you see is what you get! Wish more manufacturers would embrace this high desirable policy. Nothing worse than going to a showroom where the salesman with the shiny denture shows you the car and the price bears no relationship what you’d assumed it would be.

Apart from a 3.5 liter V6 engine giving you 303 horsepower and 262lb-ft torque the FX seems like a maiden’s prayer if you happen to be a skier. I ain’t no maiden but I’ve been up very snowy mountains in various Infinitis and can confirm that their AWD does work. Even in deep snow. In the meantime I took a couple friends in it to see Kevin Buckler’s amazing racing facility in Petaluma. A great character who works 18 hours a day and is hugely entertaining to boot. Kevin also has a wine cellar where I would like to seek political asylum. Permanently.

But back to the Infiniti. The company is clearly on a roll, so much so that they are now involved with the World Championship winning Red Bull Formula One team. And instead of some PR puff they gave a car to my old magazine CAR in the UK. The boys took off for Outer Mongolia and the Infiniti never missed a beat. That is the sort of testimonial I believe.

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Back home in what is known as the West Wing of our apartment block the search for a fine automobile to replace the 1956 Bentley continues. This good old British machine is fine for ceremonial occasions but as a practical car, well, not quite. At the top of the short list is Audi’s brilliant A7. After a recent road test I’ve sent a message to the company’s boss in the US. Apparently he drives one as well. I rest my case.

Thanks for the view, see you next month.

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