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October 2005 Letter from Europe

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By Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief

The annual automotive extravaganza at Pebble Beach is tiring but fun. There are tens of thousands of people and hundreds of truly exquisite automobiles. 2005 was the year of Alfa Romeo which was particularly apt as there is a Nuvolari film which may start shooting early next year featuring the great man. His victory in an Alfa over the German teams in 1935 was one of those very special races which people will talk about as long as there is motor racing.

It so happens my colleague and I drove to Monterey in a German car, one which was not racing back in ’35. It was an American assembled 2005 4.4i X5, a fine machine indeed. It has a great deal of presence which helps in tricky situation with regards to parking. It was nice to know that it would not get stuck and indeed it didn’t. Aaron Jenkins, Editor of Forza, the Ferrari magazine found the ride a bit harsh, personally I thought it was fine, as was the driving position and the instrumentation. We were not pushing it, just cruising at a steady 70 miles per hour, consequently consumption worked out at an agreeable 20.7 miles per gallon. Europe of course is full of diesel BMWs, even the little 1 series comes with an optional diesel engine.

The X5 with sports package and cold weather package (a must in San Francisco in August!) came to just over 58 thousand dollars which may seem like a lot of money but it is very much in line with main rivals from Lexus and Mercedes Benz. It felt very solid and would be fun to try during the Winter under more difficult conditions.

The Nissan Maxima which came to us just after the X5 was exactly half the price! Amazing value. I am not a hypocrite and will not pretend that it is as rock solid as the BMW but it has a lot going for it. First of all that remarkable 265 hp 3.5 liter DOHC 24 valve V6 engine. It seems to propel at least half of Nissan’s fleet of cars from the Z to the Infiniti but it is so good that no one is complaining. Nissan of course are one of few car companies making money under the brilliant leadership of Carlos Ghosn, I wonder what he could have done with one of the big American manufacturers currently suffering horrendous financial problems. Being avid-if hopeless golfers-the first thing that struck us was the size of the trunk. It simply swallowed three bags full of clubs, something we could not achieve in the BMW 530i wagon!

Consumption- a key consideration in these $65 dollars a barrel days- worked out at a respectable 23 miles per gallon and it did not have to be premium fuel either, a further saving. The steering we found somewhat wishy-washy and there was considerable brake judder which sounded bad but did not prevent the brakes from stopping the car. The SkyView bits on the roof were truly silly, meaningless and unnecessary. How it got past management is beyond me.

Of the various “packages” all manufacturers offer to make more money I would do without some of them to reduce the price from $34 thousand dollars to nearer to the $27 thou which is the price of the basic car. I doubt if many people need heated rear seats or a power rear sunshade. The one package definitely worth the money if you into music is the outstanding 320 watt Bose system, which is quite brilliant. All in all a nice car at 34 thousand, exceptional value at 27.

Over the years I have been championing Subaru-s, especially in the snow but this time, in sunny San Francisco I found the Forester –in manual version- a bit of a disappointment. The gearbox was a bit iffy and I felt that given steep streets with 4 way stop signs the clutch would need replacement sooner rather than later. On the highway there was a lot of wind noise over 70 miles per hour and the heating/cooling dials were not as simple and logical as they should have been. On the plus side the trunk was perfect, after struggling with the 530xi it was great just to drop everything in without any problems. Strange, because on the face of it both are car based wagons.

All in all I know that there are better Subaru-s out there and also I may have had one which someone-possibly with limited knowledge of manual gearboxes-abused it somewhat. Maybe the automatic gearbox with the bigger engine is the way to go. Just as I finished my thoughts on the so-so Forester I had a chance to take the new B9Tribeca for a spin. Well, not exactly a spin because driving in the Canyons above Malibu called for serious discipline. One wrong move on those twisty road and we would have been off. Not just off but a long way down…Thanks to the firm suspension and those huge tires all was well. I did find the central console somewhat confusing, next time I’ll have to drive it in the daytime get to know the very different looking B9Tribeca better.

Had a fascinating chat with the Nissan/Infiniti people recently. The company have decided to go global with the Infiniti brand so we may see them in South Korea, Russia and China soon. They are also jazzing up their dealerships to look more like the spic and span ones that sell BMWs. Unlike most of their US based rivals they are actually making money and they are doing so without the current self-defeating rebates.

Certainly, as I’ve mentioned earlier, the Maxima is tremendous value and so is the Xterra which has been improved beyond recognition. Bigger engine, better instruments, perfect paintwork and solid as a rock. Nice touches such as pre-wiring for satellite radio, 9 speakers, MP3 CD capability, in dash 6 disc changer . A great buy at under $30 thousand dollars . Before I forget-the new 4 liter engine –265 hp / 284lb-ft torque is excellent. Wish I could say that about the Infiniti Q56. Dear, oh dear.

I had a whale of a time. It wallows, it sways and it is huge. Simply intimidating. Of course it has plus points. The leather seats are comfortable and the rear view TV is the best of its kind. Wish other manufacturers would adopt it as well, would save many, many lives. Day after day one reads about fathers reversing over their children who were playing behind their cars or trucks unseen. The temperature dials are confusing, the radio is so-so and the navigation panel is a mess. Regular readers know how much I admire Nissan/Infiniti and their products. The Q56 is definitely not their finest hour.

Nor is the 77 thousand dollar Mercedes’ new flagship, at any rate not in my book. Interestingly enough few days after I had a chat with one of the nicest PR people in the automotive industry during which I’ve explained why I didn’t like the CLS 500 Consumer Report came out with similar conclusions. Let me explain. Most “buff” magazines are staffed by young, enthusiastic drivers to whom 0-60, 60-0, 0-100 miles per hour figures are of paramount importance. Many of them tend to thrash the cars as they are young and the cars are not theirs! I tend to look at it differently. While I may not be geriatric I am certainly not as young as they are. I also tend to look after other people’s property slightly more than they do. In Marin County there is a great deal of money and there are an awful lot of expensive cars. Some of these people know that I write about cars and many ask for my advice, for what it is worth. Consequently I tend to look at it from their perspective and as many of them play golf there is hiccup number one.

Because the car is beautifully shaped, Mercedes call it a four door coupe, it will not carry two full size golf bags unless the woods are take out and placed on top of the bags . In other words for 77 thousand dollars –which includes all the extras, base price 65 thousand- you will not carry four people plus luggage plus golf bags anywhere. Period.

It is of course a different kettle of fish if you are a tennis or bridge player or if you keep your clubs at one of the vastly expensive golf clubs in Northern California. On the other hand if you were to play at that most famous of public courses-Harding Park- you would have the problems I’ve described above. In case you are not a golf me explain. John Daly missed a three foot putt which cost him first place and 500 thousand dollars. The V8 engine in the CLS has been around for an awfully long time and it is fine rather than outstanding. I understand there are new engines in the pipeline. The dynamics are as one would expect from a company who started making cars over 100 years ago. I’ve heard of various quality problems but this car ran perfectly for several hundred miles while in my possession. Fuel consumption worked out 19.6 miles per gallon, the same as what my wife gets in her 3 liter BMW 530.

I hated the bells which were quite unnecessary. Different chimes which drove me crazy. German automakers seem to have a bell fetish, BMW are just as bad. Amazing. Still, if they have to get something wrong , rather the bells than anything else. What I missed were the reversing aids, where those bells would have been welcome! They have them on cars costing half the price. All in all a very beautiful body but with enough minor, irritating problems to hand the keys back without any regret. Something that has never, ever happened to me during all the years of driving Mercedes cars and trucks. I am sure the new S class will be a very different proposition!