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July 2004 Letter from Europe: VW, BMW, Nissan, F1, Jaguar Troubles and Much More

By Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief

Having written a long and-hopefully constructive letter to Volkswagen CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder about Phaeton it is only fair that I should tell you about the reply. In it Karin Sonnenmoser-General Secretary of Volkswagen explained that the brand strategy of VW is to provide the best car in every segment from Lupo (a very small car) to Phaeton.

The General Secretary is honest enough (how very refreshing instead of some PR clichi) to admit that it will of course not be easy to place the Phaeton in the upper market segments successfully, in the USA and even in Europe. In other words the badge will stay. Badge or no badge, the Phaeton is an exceptionally fine automobile and deserves to succeed. After a few months in California it always amazes me just how much smaller European cars are and yet families still manage to travel, go to the mountains and generally have a good time without 10 miles per gallon monsters. Mind you with petrol at 1 pound a liter- that is $1 dollar 80 cents folks! making a gallon over 7 dollars, I could understand if they all had bicycles.

The Mini, which is a huge success in the States is also a massive hit in Europe but over here rivals are two a penny from Nissan Micras to small Renaults and the Mercedes Smart car to name but a few. Diesel cars are also very, very popular over here and these engines are becoming progressively cleaner all the time. From what I understand Mercedes and BMW will be selling diesels in the States as well soon. That dreaded clack-clack which greeted neighbours first thing in the morning is very much something of the past.

A lot of people gave Jaguar a hard time for going into diesels-what happened to the racing heritage and all that- but they were realistic enough to realize that heritage does not pay the rent. All sorts of things have been happening chez Jaguar lately, some good, some not so good. They scored huge PR points in Monaco with the crew of the forthcoming film Ocean’s 12. George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon stopped F1 in its tracks; I’ve never ever seen so many photographers in my life.

Jaguar also got involved with a diamond dealer by the name of Steinmetz and got some more publicity when someone stole one of the diamonds from the nose of the crashed racing car. Yes, I am afraid that is the downside of the story…the Grand Prix team is doing amazingly badly with young Klien smashing cars right left and center and very much in over his head. Pity. One final Jaguar story.

Normally when people leave a company there is a warm handshake, maybe a watch and that’s it. Not for someone called Colin Cook. Much to his total surprise well over 100 people gathered at Browns Lane to give him the sort of farewell he richly deserved. Now he is off to Florida where he thinks he can learn how to play golf properly. Poor guy, why not leave it to his lovely wife Mary?

While on the subject of matters social I have to tell you about a chance meeting by the pool in Monaco during the Grand Prix. I wondered down bleary eyed after yet another long evening when I spotted a familiar face. Standing there in his natty red swimming trunks was none other than Daimler/Chrysler CEO Jurgen Schrempp. We’ve known each other for years through his days in the truck industry (I had a magazine called TRUCK in those days) so there was plenty to reminisce about. Bearing in mind all his problems with Mitsubishi and Chrysler he was in great form, clearly enjoying an opportunity to talk without PR lackeys or photographers. Pity his F1 team is doing so badly thanks partly to the manager’s incompetence.

I was greeted at San Francisco Airport by Saab’s new 9-2, a car they proudly advertise at 23 thousand dollars. This was suspicious to me as most Saabs over the years have always been in the 30s or 40s. One gentle slamming of the door was like a tell-tale sign: it isn’t the sort of Saab generations of undergraduates drove at Berkeley and Yale. It simply lacked the traditional Swedish toughness and ruggedness the marque has been famous for over all these years. When rally legend Erik Carlsson rolled the unforgettable Saab 96 time after time he always emerged unscathed. I am not sure how he would feel in the 9-2. Apparently this car is part of a consolidation deal within GM. A bit of Subaru, a bit of Saab, a bit of a mess if you ask me.

The BMW X3 that followed the Saab was a very different proposition but so was the price as well. With extras it had a sticker price of well over 40 thousand dollars. Propelled by the same 3 liter engine we have in our trusty 530i, the X3 did everything it was supposed to do but still left me with a feeling of missing something. Maybe I’ve been spoilt by the amazing 4.6 liter engine in the X5 or maybe I felt that the car could have done with a bit of extra power, either way I came to the conclusion that the BMW to buy is the amazing new 5 series wagon. It does everything the X3 does and more. It is also very beautiful, something I haven’t said about anything associated with that man Bangle before.

It was very nice of Nissan to have a huge party just down the road from where we live in Sausalito, across the bay from San Francisco. They called the party 360, mainly to point out just how far they’ve traveled in a very short pace of time. As I was driving a 350Z convertible at the time I needed very little convincing. A sheer delight even if the dash is bit of a flimsy mess. What matters- the engine and the drive train are perfect. It also brings a smile to people’s face wherever I go. Renault have really hit the jackpot with Nissan, clearly one of the few successful partnerships in the world of motoring.

Luca di Montezemolo is the new boss of Fiat, what the Ferrari people are afraid of is that he will get tangled up in industrial disputes and all sorts of plant closures leaving him with precious little time to look after Michael and the all-conquering team. I desperately want to be wrong.