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Letter From Europe-BMW 6 Series Convert, Mini Cooper Convert and Other Hair Raising Thoughts

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Letter from Europe
Andrew Frankl European Bureau Chief

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for BMW

Even after driving cars for over 40 years it was exceptionally nice to get into BMW’s 645i convertible. While there are several car companies in trouble it is easy to see why BMW are not! Just look at the line-up: BMW, Rolls Royce and Mini, not a weak link in sight. The 645i was certainly no let down. First of all it had that amazing 4.4 liter DOHC V-8 engine , four wheel ventilated disc brakes with electronic brake proportioning, traction control and just about every conceivable driver aid to make the 645 a memorable experience. Not an inexpensive experience mind you, 85 big ones is not exactly small change but for well to do car nuts it has to be near or at the top of their wish list.

The driving position is perfect, as is the nice, chunky steering wheel. The roof, which is brilliantly sound insulated opens at the press of a button, the sort of disappearing act people stop and stare at. Wind noise is negligible under 80 miles per hour with the roof down and non-existent with it up. Our old nemesis, the iDrive is getting less complicated although we would still rather have other ways of finding radio stations and adjusting the temperature. Like all manufacturers big and small BMW will never actually admit to having made a mistake but that is not to say they don’t react at all. One only has to look at the styling of the new 3 series to realize that Chris Bangle’s controversial styling of the 7 and 5 series have been toned down for the company’s bread and butter car.

I don’t think the 645i would be most people’s first car as luggage space is pretty limited as is room in the back. It reminds me of the story a Lamborghini salesman told me the other day about their new car, the Gallardo. Asked what people traded in he smiled and said “people who buy a Gallardo don’t need to trade in anything, it is usually their third, fourth or fifth car.” This is how I see the 645i- a wonderful car to have in the garage for a special occasion although having said that I am sure lots of well-paid executives drive it to work every single day.

Faults? Two minor ones. It is impossible to see the indicators with hands in a 10 to 2 position, the way most people drive. It is also almost impossible to sound the horn unless one pushes exactly the right spot, not very clever in an emergency. Not a huge problem if the dealer takes the trouble to explain it upon delivery. Would I buy one? Quite frankly no. We already own an excellent 530i and if we were to buy a convertible it would be the BMW Group’s jewel in the crown- the Mini Convertible. It is a cool 60 thousand dollars less than the 645i and a lot more fun!

I cannot recall so many waves and smiles since I first drove a Mini a mere 45 years ago. It was a very, very different experience. The shape was similar, the name was the same but the engine, all 850 cc’s of it, was sluggish, the gearbox a nightmare, the electrics iffy and yet it was exciting, different and fun. Well, the good news is that the fun is still with us albeit in a slightly different form.

Frank Stephenson, one of the World’s best and certainly most pleasant styling directors produced the Mini’s latest version, somewhat different but still instantly recognizable.

The latest version is certainly expensive. The one I drove was costing just over 25 thousand dollars but the paintwork was immaculate, the gearbox a delight and the soft top did not let in one solitary drop of rain even during one of those huge storms we’ve been having lately. The roof opened at the press of a button, just like in the 645i and took just as little time to shut. Someone somewhere gave a lot of time, thought and sweat to get it this right. Is it a four seater? Certainly not. Possibly a three seater-assuming a 6ft tall driver although four smallish people would be OK. Just. The front seats are exceptionally comfortable and the instruments are clearly visible. Fuel consumption? In view of recent price hikes I’ve been watching it more than ever and got a very respectable 37.8 miles per gallon even though at one point the needle was firmly stuck on 90 miles per hour.

The ride is certainly firm as one would expect but people who buy this little jewel already know that. Faults? Well, in this Cooper version the engine was sort of all right, I had to use the gearbox all the time as torque was definitely on the modest side. I understand from friends who own the Cooper ‘S’ that it is much, much better in that version. The Mini will get a diesel engine in due course which will be hugely popular in Europe. It is nice to be able to report on a car company where production is actually on the increase. The factory in England, literally a stone’s throw away from Rover dying plant is taking on extra workers to cope with World-wide demand. Several new versions are in the works so it would be safe to assume that the Mini in its various form will be with us for many, many years to come.

After the 1.6 liter Mini the 4.8 (!) V8 X5 was a somewhat different proposition. If anything it had too much power and fuel consumption to match. The finish as first class, the boys and girls in Spartanburg are doing a superb job. As was the handling and the ride. It was highly practical, when step daughter Cathy needed some help transporting a rather beautiful mirror we dropped the tailgate and hey presto, within seconds were on our way. If there was one underlying quality to the X5- it was solid. Rock solid. Downside-well, the instruments are in urgent need of a face lift. Grey on grey for the background and the letter is about as silly as one can get. Rather vastly better ones in the parts bin in Munich. The other is the price. 72 thousand dollars is an awful lot of money. I suppose BMW will say that the Range Rover people ask even more but, strangely enough for once the BMW comes second in the “cachet” stakes. In Hollywood and certainly for London’s and Moscow’s gangland bosses black Range Rovers are almost obligatory. With tinted windows, bodyguards , walkie-talkies and the odd gun or three I hasten to add. Have I seen too many movies? No, dear reader, I’ve seen them in London. Pretty scary actually if you ask me.

But I digress. Just as the 72 thousand dollar X5 left, so the Infiniti FX45 arrived. Also with immaculate paintwork, great ride and handling, an equally uninspiring dashboard (Nissan Corporation’s weakest link) but with a sticker price of under 50 thousand dollars including all extras. V8 engine, ferocious acceleration -the works.

Much as I admire BMW I simply cannot see a 20 thousand dollar difference.