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Reviews: Ford Expedition; Infiniti Q45A ; Halle Berry's Dress - Opinion - F-1; All In This Months Letter From Europe

SEE ALSO: Ford Buyer's Guide

By Andrew Frankl European Bureau Chief

With the LA and Detroit shows behind us and with Geneva just round the corner the auto industry is in full swing. It may not be making too much money but that is another story.

Certain trends seem to be emerging. Even though currently SUVs form something like 50% of sales I can’t help feeling that it will soon change in the direction of cars or at least what the industry calls crossovers. You could say that these are neither one thing nor another but bearing in mind the huge amount of clobber Americans tend to carry over long distances this new breed does make a certain amount of sense.

Also, the well-publicized, “What Would Jesus Drive” campaign, had some effect and it was certainly a huge amount of free publicity for Toyota, makers of hybrid cars. The price of oil was 32 dollars a barrel the other day and rising, so petrol/gas prices are bound to be on the up yet again. All the more reason for seeking alternatives to gas-guzzlers such as the one I’ve been driving.

The Ford Expedition

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A massive great truck with room for 7 people, and a fair amount of luggage, DVD for the little Johnnies in the back, and comfortable seats for grown-ups.

On my test run it was raining, snowing and there was ice at Truckee in the Sierras, but the Expedition just stormed up the hill, admittedly doing 12 miles per gallon. It was very susceptible to cross-winds and also had major fault which surprised me bearing in mind that it was designed in Detroit, not exactly a tropical spot in January. The huge headlamps were covered in ice and snow and that is how they remained until I cleaned them. In the meantime I was driving at seriously reduced speeds due to lack of visibility.

In my humble opinion the Expedition is too much truck for 90% of the people who buy them. Get a Volvo XC90 with lots of room, better dynamics and better fuel consumption. You’ll still be making a contribution to Ford’s 100th birthday party as Jacques Nasser in one of his brighter moves purchased this great Swedish companies a few years ago. I just hope Ford leaves them alone to produce excellent cars and trucks without bastardizing them with American engines and God knows what else. This is one golden goose I would hate to see killed.

Interestingly enough there are no Volvos in Motor Week’s annual awards. This TV show came up with some interesting winners, some of which make sense. Nobody could deny the excellence of the Mini Cooper or the Mercedes E class. The new Mazda6 is also a gem. The waiting list for the convertible Nissan 350Z must be forming outside dealerships now bearing in mind that it won’t be launched until late April. I certainly have no quarrel with their choice of the Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG as their dream machine, it is quite outstanding and by dream machine standards not that expensive. I totally disagree with their choice of the Saab 9-3 as the best family sedan; the marque is a pale shadow of its former self. The only problem with these awards is that every magazine and TV station has them. The manufacturers-desperate for some good news, will of course grab them with two hands but after a while the awards tend to merge into one big yawn. all of which does not distract from the excellence of some of the cars above.

Interestingly enough BMW did not get an award either; I suppose the judges are still trying to figure out the infamous iDrive on the 7 series, just like the rest of us. My spies at the factory tell me that the bosses were astonished by the avalanche of adverse comments and have modified things considerably for the forthcoming 5 series.

The Infiniti Q45A

A fine car that I’ve been driving lately is the Infiniti Q45A. With a $62 thousand dollars price tag, it is certainly not cheap, the price is very much on par with the more expensive German cars such as Mercedes, BMW and Audi. The question is: does it match those yardsticks in anything but price? The answer has to be yes.

The 340 horsepower engine of the 4.5 liter DOHC 32-volve V8 engine is good for about 150 miles per hour which would even prove too quick for the CHP’s slow-flying planes above Interstate 5. I still would not advise trying it.

The 5 speed auto transmission works well, the manual shift-mode less so. It is cumbersome and has a mind of its own. The brakes are better than they feel, there is a little bit of hesitation before they bite. Once they do, it is for real. The weakness of the Q45 seems to be in the handling. It just isn’t as razor sharp as a BMW would be.

Inside it is a tech nerd’s dream with lots of buttons, a huge screen and lots and lots of functions. It is better than BMW’s infamous iDrive but not as neat as the system in Jaguar’s X-type.

There can be no doubt that Nissan’s-Infiniti’s parent company threw everything at the Q45 with the exception of the kitchen sink. From voice recognition to a tire pressure monitor, from an in dash 6-disc CD changer to possibly the finest Bose speakers I’ve every come across. When the pianissimo can be as clearly heard-due partly to the exceptional soundproofing of the car itself, as at San Francisco’s world famous Davies Hall, then you know that driving hundreds of miles would be a pleasure and a not a pain.

The Q45 only has one problem, known as the “what is it” factor. There might be some people who would be happy to pay 62 thousand dollars to drive a fine , anonymous automobile…most, I am afraid will want to be recognized as someone who has arrived.

Still, there is light at the end of the tunnel. With Infiniti winning lots of awards-some more important than others- I am sure it will rub off on Big Brother. One other thing I’ve mentioned in previous letters. In today’s World sometimes it is better to be driving just another, boring looking automobile. The bad guys who hang around the gates of major corporations to follow the CEO home only to rob him or worse will-unless they are very car savvy – will just yawn at the sight of another Japanese car, however excellent it might be .A blessing in disguise.

As some readers are avid Grand Prix followers let me give you a bit of an update.

The season will start in a few weeks time in Australia and for once it promises to be a closely fought affair. Yes, Ferrari will still be very strong but McLaren and Williams are getting quicker by the minute. The dark horse are Toyota, who after a pretty dismal year are beginning to get their act together. Qualifying will be more exciting as drivers will only have one lap to produce their best instead of 12, so the margin for error will be very small indeed. Most of the other changes will not come into effect until the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in July , after that the really great drivers will get a chance to shine as skills as opposed to computers will be at a premium.

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Eddie Irvine
The sport lost one great character in Eddie Irvine, the controversial Irishman could not agree with Team Jordan so he will not be racing in 2003 unless some gets injured-like Michael Schumacher some years ago and he is called in as a substitute. We will miss his outrageous remarks and the gorgeous girls who were always surrounding him.

Expect more arguments between Montoya and Ralf Schumacher, those two guys really don’t get on. Ditto Villeneuve and Jenson Button. Still, at least it won’t be boring. One great track-Spa- was dropped for 2003 but there is hope that it might be resurrected for 2004 while it is auf wiedersehen to the emaciated Austrian track from next year. The Hungarian track was also in a spot of bother, lots of people-drivers, journalists- hated it So after years of prevarication the Hungaros finally made a commitment and all being well will have a modified track for the 2003 race. Not a minute too soon.

Finally…even hard-working journalists get some perks occasionally. Several weeks ago a very dear friend of mine offered me a ticket to the premiere of the new James Bond film in Los Angeles.

Well, the trip itself in the latest Mercedes E series was a pleasure in itself. To my amazement the latest 3.2 liter engine got me there in record time and without a stop! Over 400 miles on one tank and no, it wasn’t a diesel either.

By the way Daimler/Chrysler have recently announced that their latest, non-smelly, non-nasty diesel engines are about to reach these shores. But I digress.

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There I was at the end of the red carpet, waiting for one of the most glamorous actresses in the World, the one and only Halle Berry. As luck would have it she could only afford half a dress but it I wasn’t complaining. We had a brief chat and proceeded into the auditorium.

Was it unforgettable? Yes. Was it my duty to share it with you?