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TACh 10th Anniversary Letter From Europe

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It’s 10th anniversary time!
Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief

Amazing though it may seem your humble correspondent has been bashing away at his computer for almost exactly 10 years.

Since then technology has improved by leaps and bounds and to be fair cars and trucks are also better than they were in 1995.

Highlights? Many. There have been some great drives, not all of them in expensive cars.

We had huge fun in a VW convertible, the build quality of which had to be seen to be believed. Quite exceptional. The sort of car people actually smiled at.

Equally inexpensive fun was had in various Subaru-s, mainly on trip to the Sierras. A quick glance around Safeway’s parking lot in Tahoe City confirmed what we suspected-sensible folk in the mountains buy sensible cars and Subaru-s are high on their shopping lists.

Jaguar took us to Colorado to show off the off-road abilities of their all-wheel drive X type. A fine car, which for some reasons hasn’t captured people’s imagination in the United States. Had they been able to sell the diesel version it would have been a different story.

Jaguar are about to launch their much-hyped replacement for the XK sports car. Having seen the prototype I think it will be a runaway success. Success the company desperately needs to take on Mercedes,BMW and Lexus.

Talking of Mercedes we’ve had some great drives in the E500 and also in the new ML500. Glad they’ve got it right, the previous one had bits falling off it right, left and center. Jurgen Schrempp got the push and was replaced by veteran ex-trucker Dieter Zetchke who did a fantastic job at Chrysler.

The problems facing him are pretty formidable, the Smart car division is losing a fortune. Shame in a way because it makes a lot of sense in urban transport, especially in Europe where streets by and large are considerably narrower than in the States.

BMW and I have an on-going love affair with one irritant-that ridiculous iDrive. So far nobody but nobody has said-yes, I love it, people are buying the excellent cars in spite of it.

The company are most definitely pig-headed, any other automaker would have changed them by now. Their biggest concession-in some cars it is a delete option.

Talking of the BMW group which includes Rolls Royce and Mini British TV personality Jeremy Clarkson got himself into deep water the other day. His hit show-Top Gear- was featuring the new Mini, which is essentially a German car. He half-seriously suggested that the navigational system only showed Poland while the fan belt was going to last 1000 year!

GM took me to the Borrego Springs where I had a chance to test the new Corvette 06. Truly sensational. The company are having terrible problems, their share price is in the doldrums are they are scrambling to get new, better products to the market. There are also major dramas at key supplier Delphi so all in all not a pretty pictures. I just hope they have enough money left in the kitty to weather the storm.

Ford are in a similar situation although their Mustang production line is on overtime and the new cars such as the Fusion are showing promise. Having Volvo and Mazda in the group also helps, most new designs are based on their cars and trucks. Which makes me wonder-exactly what have Ford’s own designers been doing for the past few years? Not a lot, judging by the signs.

Still, the good news is that they are incorporating Volvo’s legendary safety features into more and more of their cars and even more importantly-trucks. More importantly because roofs of Ford trucks have been caving in causing death and injury while you can roll a Volvo XC90 onto its roof and there won’t even be a dent! The best, maybe the only good thing former boss Jacques Nasser ever did was to buy Volvo.

In the meantime Toyota are marching ahead. With brilliant marketing they push the Prius as their salvation to the World’s ecological problems while selling lots of polluters such as the Camry as well. Still, in “Save the World” Marin county every second car is a Prius and such is the impact of this pretty amazing little machine that it is forcing all others to follow suit .

The silly thing is that the Prius only makes sense in city traffic, on a highway a similarly sized engine mated to a decent 5 or 6 speed gearbox would be more economical and if clean diesel were to be made available in the States then- on the highways- it would be a no contest.

The recent 3 dollar plus gallon certainly had a major effect on car and truck sales with big SUV sales falling like the proverbial stone. It would be huge if only people who had a genuine need for SUVs would buy them and not school Mums with one or two little Johnnies who would be just as safe-if not safer- in a Volvo wagon.

Trips and shows were numerous. Jaguar S type in Biarritz, Mercedes S type (the previous one) in Scottsdale, Arizona, Volvo XC90 also in Arizona, Passat in Texas and several local ones in Northern California.

The snootiest, most condescending staff were certainly at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, they made it crystal clear that they were doing you a huge favor, the nicest on the recent GM trip in Borrego Springs where 90% of the staff were from Eastern Europe.

The friendliest and most helpful person had to be the owner of the new hotel opposite the Ferrari factory entrance who handed us a perfect espresso even before we had a chance to put our luggage down.

A far cry from the staff of the vastly over-rated staff of the Cavallino restaurant where –just because Enzo Ferrari used to eat there- you are treated with total disdain with a price to match.

Just as bad was Ristorante Fini, the alleged star of Modena’s gastronomic scene. Talk about a monumental rip-off!

Still, none of all this mattered when I changed into 6th gear in the latest Ferrari 430 convertible at 150 miles per hour!

The only negative note of these years has been the rapid deterioration of that former icon-Car & Driver. Recently, in desperation, they’ve reprinted stories from the 70s and 80s which made the current offerings even worse.

Their idea of a caption competition recently included the less than funny caption “Don’t blame me, I voted for Hitler!”

A few pages later another journalistic genius offered the following gem: “there is nothing wrong with being a little bit sadistic”. I am sure Senator John McCain would find it hugely amusing.

Pity, as under David E.Davis it was a very fine publication.

Still, all is not lost. Sleepy old Motor Trend has really come into its own. They’ve had nothing short of a transformation under the new and brilliant Angus MacKenzie. Like many other exceptional automotive journalists before him Angus learned his craft in Australia, moved on to my old magazine CAR in Britain before being hijacked by some smart people at Primedia.

Luckily for us journalists some of the most helpful people in the automotive industry work for car companies. Tom Kowaleski of GM, Stuart Dyble, John Clinard and Don Hume of Ford, Roger Ormisher at Volvo, Dave Buchko at BMW, Lisa Holladay and Larkin Hill of Mercedes Benz, are just a few of the people who made these past 10 years such fun.

Finally thanks are due to my long-suffering bosses Bob Gordon and Marc Rauch for putting up with me. Hopefully they’ll do so for the next 10!