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October 2004 Letter From Europe:Jaguar XJ8L; Ford Focus; Smacking a Smart; Chrysler Magnum; F1 Follies; and Other Outrageous Thoughts

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)
2005 Jaguar XJ8L
By Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
October 2004

There is growing animosity towards SUVs in Europe. Driven-just like in the States-often by Mums on the school run there is a major difference. Whether people like SUVs in the States or not, by and large the roads are pretty wide. In Europe, in cities like London and Paris the streets are far too narrow. You take Chelsea, a part of the British capital which is full of expensive schools for little boys and girls with names like Jeremy, James, Lucinda and Sophie and you can expect the totally obnoxious -my husband is a banker-Mums to charge around in massive Toyotas.

Not only do they behave as if they owned the place (which I am afraid they often do) but Heaven help a lesser soul in a Mini or a small Renault if they happen to be in the way. Now the mayor of London is thinking of doubling certain charges for SUVs and the French are thinking along the same lines. Not a minute too soon.

Interestingly enough Daimler/Chrysler are about to launch the Smart in the United States , a brave move. I’ve driven these little and by American standards totally under-powered cars and regardless of the number airbags they may have I would not like to sit in one as it is being T boned by a Dodge truck.

Something else the Europeans haven’t been too happy about were the eulogies regarding the recent Chinese Grand Prix. There is no doubt-it was a major event, so much so that that august publication, The New York Times ran a story on it on page three of the news section, an unheard of happening! As the author, Howard W. French points out these things are pretty easy in a country where the Government can do whatever it wants.

Try explaining to the American or British public that the race track, any race track will cost 300 million dollars, as Howard says “at a cost of about $100 million per mile no one could be blamed for expecting a pretty special roadway. “ Special it certainly is and for once the racing was pretty interesting as well. Now of course the spoilt little brats, I mean the racing drivers, are all moaning about the lack of similar facilities at European tracks. Amusingly enough, the one thing even Bernie could not fix were the choppers… there are no private helicopters in China any more than there is free Press.

The one driver who stood out from all the vastly overdone tributes, etc to the track and to China was Spain’s Fernando Alonso who said: “Yes, it is very nice, great facility but let us not forget Europe, our own countries, our own fans, our own traditions”. It is one thing to buy 75 thousand tickets for party members telling them to go to the race (try refusing) and it is an entirely different matter to stand hours on end in the pouring rain at Silverstone or Spa. The bosses, several of who are from very humble beginnings indeed, are now expecting the Red Sea to open every time they step outside an air-conditioned room. There is nothing wrong with having been a moderately successful bank clerk or a so-so mechanic but it would be nice if they could keep their feet on the ground once in a while.

From what I can gather, while the track is great, the transportation was less so, partly because the locals make Sao Paulo’s kamikaze drivers look like kids from the nearest kindergarten.

Of course a Chinese Grand Prix is a good thing but as Lancet, that highly respected British medical journal pointed out-with 340 million smokers the GP was an invitation to the nearest lung cancer ward through the “good” offices of British American Tobacco and Marlboro. The TV producer lingered somewhat suspiciously on the Ferrari’s rear wing which was no more and no less than a mobile cigarette ad. The sooner these are banned the better. It is equally untrue that the cigarette companies could not be replaced, Williams are already tobacco free and I am certain that there would be a steady queue of suitors should Ferrari drop Marlboro.

Ford Motor Company have been getting a lot of stick lately over the closures at Jaguar and also because they are pulling out of Formula One. Several journalists were busy putting the knife in, conveniently forgetting that Ford, through Cosworth have been the mainstay of F1 since that memorable day back 1967 when your reporter had the honour and the pleasure of watching Jim Clark blow everybody into the weeds at that great seaside track of Zandvoort in Holland. Clark, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Emerson Fittipaldi, Michael Schumacher (94) all became world champions thanks to the genius of Keith Duckworth and the money from Ford Motor Company. If only engines could be made for the same money now! Ford were persuaded to cough up a grand total of 100 thousand pounds, call it 180 thousand dollars, it wouldn’t pay the annual insurance on one of the private jets F1 tycoons are circulating in these days!

Which is not to say that everything Ford does is wonderful.

I have been driving their Focus ST, a nice enough car, but one I left without being too upset about it. Yes, at around 18 thousand dollars it offers great value for money but I would describe it as a nearly car. Take the engine. From a 2.3 liter DOHC power unit I would have expected a lot more. There was virtually no torque, making overtaking quite an experience. The handling was fine but there were little details such as the truly appalling radio which was worse than useless. Why do I go about a radio and not the road holding on the limit? Simply because not too many drivers will buy the Focus for tearing around, but everyone will listen to the radio, or would if they could.

It was the same in the Escape. Same appalling radio. Having been in purchasing myself I have a rough idea about cost-cutting and so on but please Nick Scheele (a colleague from purchasing back in the 60s in Ford of Britain) try and do something about it. Even though you have reached the top of the tree within the company I am sure you’ll still know who to ring.

There are of course a great many nice features as well, such the very reassuring disc brakes all round, a good a/c and a huge trunk. It was a case of either or, namely lots of room in the back or having a huge trunk, Ford chose the latter. It certainly swallowed up the golf clubs with great ease.

All in all a nice car which I am sure could be had for a lot less than the manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $19,410 dollars. After receiving all those cash backs I am sure that there would be plenty of change left for a decent radio.

Also part of the Ford Motor Company but preferring to keep quiet about it are Jaguar. I’ve already mentioned their problems, I haven’t mentioned the fine cars they make. After an 800 mile round trip to Santa Barbara I suggest to all those readers who can afford seventy thousand dollars for a car to have good look at the Jaguar XJ8L or the Jaguar VDP, which is the “posh” version with all sorts of goodies such as folding picnic trays in the back and lots of genuine wood everywhere, even on the steering wheel. Not very long ago two CEOs met at a reception. One was none other than my old chum Tom Purves of BMW USA, the other Mike O’Driscoll, boss of Jaguar NA. Before they got into their respective cars Tom said to Mike-you know, maybe we’ve changed the 7 series too much, to which Mike replied, and we too little. Both of them are right of course but that is not to say that the 7 series and the new 2005 Jaguars are not very fine cars. I’ve written about the 7 series before so let us concentrate on the Jag. The problem of selling such a fine car is partly to do with what O’Driscoll said; “it is virtually impossible to distinguish the 2005 from the 2004 or even the 2003 model”. Consequently having forked out 70 big ones the neighbors will think you are driving a three year old car! In the leafy suburbs that is bad news. Pity, because the car is lovely. Great to drive and very economical. At a steady 70 miles per hour one could get well over 30 miles per gallon. As, however I am not a saint I still got 23.6 miles per gallon and it included two massive traffic jams outside Watsonville and San Jose. The long wheelbase Jag is extremely comfortable and while the 294 horsepower V8 is not a rocket it still had plenty of power for my needs. (There is an “R” version which has enough power for anybody’s needs!) Jaguar’s advertising slogan many moons ago used to be “Grace, space and pace” and I certainly would not argue with any of that.

Dislikes, well some, but nothing major. Personally I found the suspension a little bit on the soft side. The navigation system and I had problems with each other, let us say it was not love at first sight or even at last. The excellent sound system was ruined by the myriad of stations fading in and out like an oft washed pair of Levis. Surely this car deserves a satellite radio system?! Minor problem-the positioning of the cup holders. These are placed in the center under a flap. If the flap is opened to place the bottle of coffee or mineral water into it you cannot change gear. So there are two options-either stick it into D and then open the flap for the bottles or shift to your heart’s content but forget about drinking.

Back in 1969 I was part of the British CAR magazine team which proclaimed the XJ Car of the Year, a title much bastardized since by all and sundry. It was a fine car then, it is even finer today.

Now for something completely different as they say- a Dodge Magnum! Yee-ha! You should see the strange looks I am getting in genteel Marin County! Little do they know how good it is. Not just the awesome hemi engine but the whole concept. Like all Chrysler/Dodge cars and trucks of late the quality is vastly better. The Magnum looked mean and was mean. It went like smoke and attracted a great deal of attention, all the guys loved it. The instrumentation was just perfect, the dials on a white background were probably the easiest I’ve ever come across. The instruments were easy to reach and even easier to figure out! All in all I see the Magnum as part of Chrysler’s gradual climb back into respectability. The plant churning out the new 300 series just put on an extra shift-how many other car manufacturers can claim that?!