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Letter from Europe - Old Friends in Geneva; Test Drives Odessey Honda ; Hyundai Tucson

By Andrew Frankl, European Bureau Chief

Geneva 2005

It was snowing in Nice and it was snowing in Geneva. The line for taxis in sub zero temperatures was long and when I eventually got into something I can only describe as Eurotrash the driver nearly spun into the Lake, Michael Schumacher he most certainly was not!

Still, I got to the Show and it was fascinating as ever. Lots of old friends such as Clay Regazzoni, Jochen Mass, Nina Rindt, the great Austrian driver’s widow and many others. Ferrari boss Luca di

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Montezomolo was sporting a scarf, clearly suffering from the unusually long and cold Italian Winter. Still, his new car the 430 convertible was certainly warming hearts all round. Frank Stephenson, certainly the most charismatic and approachable designer I’ve ever come across did a superb job. I understand he maybe moving on to Fiat cars and Iveco trucks, that will be a interesting challenge for sure.

Back at BMW I congratulated Dr Goschel on the new 3 series BMW. It looked considerably more restrained than the 5 and the 7 series and I am sure it will, yet again, be a runaway success. We also discussed the future of Formula One which looks, shall we say, interesting. The good Doctor is the leading light within the proposed break away group, the outcome is very much up in the air.

I detected some quiet optimism on the Ford stand. Realising that they owned under utilized assets such as Mazda and Volvo-two companies with better ideas than Mother Ford, management finally agreed to make the most of what they’ve got. New Fords are coming down the line based on Mazdas and Volvos and much better they will be too! On the exotic front

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Ford are also making a splash with their amazing GR-1. The top brass in Detroit were genuinely surprised by the huge and very positive coverage their Ford GT got. It was on the cover of just about every major motoring magazine in the World very much in the Ferrari’s chagrin, especially when some writers dared to suggest that they preferred the Ford to the million dollar (black market price) Enzo.

Full of brilliant ideas it has a 6.4 liter V10 engine with a 200 miles per hour top speed and a projected 0-60 figure of 3.9 seconds. My spies in Detroit tell me that the proposed sticker price might be as little as 140 thousand dollars, very reasonable indeed when one talks about supercars.

In fact Ford seems to be on a bit of a roll with its various supercars. The Jaguar Advanced Lightweight Coupe is virtually what the new XK will be like-launch date-2006.

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The Aston Martin Vantage was shown to us in Geneva, another up-market product which was a huge success with journalists and public alike. It shares a block with Jaguar but quite frankly-who cares? All major manufacturers use the same or similar components in their cars, just look at Nissan’s venerable and brilliant 3.5 liter V6 engine which must be in at least 10 different cars and trucks by now.

Aston’s turn-round is nothing short of amazing. In 1993 they sold 42 cars in all,

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in 2005 they are aiming at no less than 5000! Furthermore, they’ll sell the lot. Just to give you an idea of Aston’s current popularity the local dealer, about 2 miles from where we live sold 13 (!) DB9-s since November. His name is Tom Price, a legendary auto racer. His latest showroom is the way all car showrooms should be- clean and well-designed. He has several racers to liven things up, such as a DB1 and a Jaguar 220-plus of course all the latest Jaguars, Astons, Range Rovers and Volvos. If this is the new face of the Premier Automobile Group- I like it!

Mercedes were somewhat on the defensive at Geneva, their products have been hammered by all and sundry. A bit of a bandwagon if you ask me, Merc-bashing is all the rage. Of course they have had some problems, mainly because like BMW they were trying to be too clever by half with their fancy electronic gizmos. The new top man Eckhard Cordes is one tough guy who recently sorted out the heavy truck division so he is no softie, that is for sure. It will be interesting to see whether he or another old trucker Dieter Zetschke will get Jurgen Schrempp’s job when the father of the Daimler-Chrysler merger finally retires.

Certainly the new product range looks very strong, all they need to do now is to get the quality right. If anyone can- Cordes can.

There was some good news from the Alfa camp, it looks as though that great marque might come back to the

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United States on the back of Maserati. Maser have been detached from Ferrari and moved over to Alfa to give it more muscle. Renault on the other hand have decided that the States is better left to Nissan who do a brilliant job. People with long memories still remember Renault 9s and 11s the way they remember Yugos.

General Motors were making a big song and dance about Cadillac and rightly so. The latest ones are as good as the best Europe can offer, it is just a shame that poor Bob Lutz only has one pair of hands and can only fix one GM brand at a time.

All in all a very interesting show with cars for every possible customer, be they small, tall, rich or poor (well, within reason). The trend in Europe is very much towards diesels, maybe once the sulfur content is eliminated these engines will also arrive to the United States where gas prices are rising rapidly and where a 30% improvement in consumption would be very welcome indeed.

Back in California, having recovered from digging cars out from under the snow I finally had a chance to try Honda’s much acclaimed Odyssey 5dr touring.

Sometimes I am a bit suspicious when anything on four wheels gets this much

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praise but this time I have to agree. The Odyssey really is a fine machine. Powered by the familiar 255hp 3.5 liter SOHC 24-valve I-VTEC engine it provided excellent acceleration and at the same time a perfectly respectable 27.8 miles per gallon fuel economy.

The list of safety features in highly impressive, no wonder several of our neighbors swear by the Odyssey. Front air bags, side air bags, side curtain airbags, roll-over sensors, stability assist, the list is endless. Interestingly enough for a “Japanese import” its US/Canadian content is 70% with Japan supplying a mere 20%.

The driving position is

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fine as were all the controls. I wasn’t too keen on the radio, in fact having recently driven three Hondas I must say that the audio systems seem to be the weakest link. Rather that, than anything else quite frankly.

What impresses me about Honda is just how versatile they are-cars, lawn-mowers, bikes, quad bikes, even Formula 1 engines! The company recently purchased a 45% share in BAR, a team which came second in last year’s F1 championship. With Brit star Jenson Button at the wheel ably supported by Japan’s favourite son-Takuma Sato they stand every chance of clinching the team’s first, elusive victory.

Some years ago it was easy to dismiss Hyundai as a maker of- shall we say- modest automobiles. No more! I‘ve just spent a week in the Tucson GLS and found it perfectly fine. It will not go down in history as the

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greatest automobile ever built but it will certainly be remembered as remarkable value for under $20,000. The 2.7 liter V6 engine was perfectly adequate and as for the list of options which are NOT options-well, it really is amazing. Let me put it another way…there are no potions… everything is included in the price. The warranty is nothing short of extra- ordinary, 60 thousand miles on the new car and 100 thousand or 5 year warranty on powertrain. Talk about confidence in your product! I was particularly impressed by the fact that the Tucson had six airbags.

On the down-side there are silly things such as a steering wheel made out

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of shiny plastic which would be ridiculously slippery in cold weather and a sub standard radio with fiddly buttons. The ride and handling were not the greatest but at 20 thou, something has to give. Getting into my wife’s BMW from the Hyundai made me realize instantly just what precise steering is all about. To sum up-if you need a not particularly exciting but reliable SUV for under 20 thousand dollars head for the nearest Hyundai dealer. I don’t think you could get more value for money elsewhere.

Well that’s it from Europe for this month.