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Letter from Europe - Geneva; Land Rover; European Marques; Nissan Quest and Other Over the Pond Thoughts

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Letter from Europe
Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief

I went to my first Geneva car show way back in the 60s . In those days it was in the middle of Geneva where it had a very special atmosphere. Now it is in a purpose built new exhibition center next to the airport and the railway station. Hard to fault their logic even if the new place is seriously antiseptic.

Still, the Show was great as always. If I were to say that hypocrisy ruled I would not be too far out. On the one hand we had all these manufacturers going on endlessly how they are about to save the World, on the other one just had to look at the fuel consumption figures and the engine sizes to realize that a lot of what the CEOs said was, in fact baloney. H3s and huge Dodge trucks are a pretty far cry from the Toyota Prius. Not that Toyota are little angels, their trucks drink gas like a camel in the desert. As do all the others. At the same time it is undeniable that there is a trend towards so-called crossovers which are more less aggressive than the big SUVs and satisfy most people’s needs.

Of course Geneva is full of cars most readers of The Auto Channel have never heard of.

Take Skoda for instance. This Czech company has been around for the best part of 100 years and are currently owned by VW. The Czechs have always been very good at engineering and assembly so what we have are cars which are just as good as their VW sisters but for less money and often better built. New, small diesel engines, clever styling but regrettably Skoda will never make to these shores.

One make which has been and will definitely return is Alfa Romeo. Owned by Fiat, just like Ferrari and Maserati the company is on a huge rebound making excellent cars with looks to match. When the new cabrio goes on sale-probably alongside Maserati- it will be a sure-fire hit. There are still lots of the original running around and there is a great deal of goodwill towards Alfa.

The same cannot be said about Renault, whose 9 and 11 were arguably the worst cars ever made apart from the Yugo. Their name really stinks in the States which is a pity because their latest offerings are excellent.

They and another name from history –Peugeot- are at the forefront of diesel technology. Diesel, like Renault has a bad name which was fully justified. Once. Now with sulfur levels at a minimum diesel is making a huge come-back.

Lack of performance did I hear you say? Well, the latest BMW 3 series with a diesel engine will do well over 130 miles per hour and well over 30 miles per gallon.

The little Renault Clio I was driving in France was of course even more economical at 40 miles per gallon. According to all the experts I’ve been talking to the future is going to be a diesel/hybrid combination.

In the meantime not only do SUVs get awful fuel consumption, exotic cars are just as bad. Ferrari’s glorious looking 599, the latest Astons, Jaguars, Porsches, GM’s amazing Corvette 06 are going to be with us for a long time.

If I say thank God then I am an anti-environmentalist, if I say outrageous then I am a liar. How much I polluted the World last Summer in a new 430 Ferrari spider I have no idea but at 150 miles per hour it was an unforgettable blast on the Italian Autostrada.

Talking of a blast I dropped into the local PAG-Premier Automotive Group- dealer the other day in the latest supercharged 2006 Range Rover and he wanted to buy it off me!

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In all the years of testing cars this has never ever happened to me. After explaining that the it did not belong to me I’ve asked the reason for his enthusiasm. “I could make at least 5000 dollars on it with just one phone call he said, over and above the sticker price.” In fact in LA the top of the line Range Rover is such a hot item that dealers are asking for 10-15 thousand dollars on top of the not exactly miniscule 90 thousand dollar sticker price! This at a time of cash-backs, zero financing from other, pretty desperate manufacturers.

I’ve known Range Rover since day one, been round the infamous –and always muddy-test track in Solihull and feel that after all these years Range Rover have finally arrived into the home port. It is better than ever, better put together than ever and is more desirable than ever.

What is so special about it? Well, first of all the legendary ruggedness. It is impossible to switch on a nature program without some intrepid adventurers standing on top of a Land Rover or Range Rover in the middle of Africa. The marque is synonymous with the jungle and at the same time the one I’ve been driving is just as synonymous with the Opera House .

Interestingly enough I was raving about the Range Rover to PR supremo Debbie Sandford admiring everything except the fuel consumption when she invited me to attend their press conference. OK, it isn’t available just yet but their e-Terrain Technology Concept is truly fascinating.

The target is a sub 150g/?km CO 2 figure and a combined fuel economy approaching 50 miles per gallon. Running on bio-diesel the new Land Rovers and Range Rovers will gradually move towards these truly amazing figures in the years to come.

Jaguar attracted a great deal of attention with their new XK range, the reviews so far have been nothing short of astonishing. Personally I don’t think that their production target of 12 thousand units per annum will be sufficient, they may end up like Ferrari-with an enviable waiting list. That is something Aston already have on all their cars .

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Volvo’s S80 will appeal to executives with common sense. No, it isn’t a Mercedes with the 3 pointed star or a big BMW but it is honest to goodness rock solid Swedish engineering. Comfortable, fast and understated. If I were a dot-com tycoon I am sure I would have one for several reasons. One-it is safe, two, it will be reliable and thirdly no bad guy will follow me home as they will be too busy looking out for Bimmers and Porsches. If you think I dreamt all this up, just ask the cops in and around Silicone Valley. Or Beverley Hills.

GM are trying very hard to stay in business in Europe and the new GT-based on the Solstice will no doubt help the otherwise pretty uninspiring range of Opels. Competition is fierce between them Ford, Fiat, Renault, Peugeot, Honda, Toyota, Nissan and the rest. There are new plants springing up in Russia, Slovakia and elsewhere, I just hope there will be enough customers to buy them all.

Talking of Nissan I’ve been testing the latest version of their Quest. The previous one was, frankly, quite awful. An apology on wheels if I’ve ever seen one.

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The new one is a huge improvement. The 3.5 liter 24 valve V6 engine is exceptional, as is the 5 speed automatic transmission. The looks are certainly different and are a matter of taste. I like them. The driving position is very comfortable, the instruments are fine but it is the additional safety items such as the rearview camera with a 7 inch color monitor that I particularly liked.

I was less keen on the navigational system as it was hard to read. Big brother Infiniti has a much better one. At 39 thousand dollars with all the bells and whistles the Quest is definitely not cheap. I am sure deals can be had, some options such as the navigational system could be left out and at around or just under 35 thou it would start being a good buy Fuel consumption would depend very much on your style of driving and the number of little Johnnies in the back. 25 miles per gallon is manageable or rare occasions, 21 would more likely to be the norm. Well that’s it for this month…enjoy the springtime here in the NH and autumn down-under.