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Eastern Europe; Ford Fusion Bio-Fuel; Ford Plaudits and Pundits; Jag Diesel and a Mother-in Law All in This Month's "Letter From Europe"

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Letter from Europe
Andrew Frankl, European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

No letter can equal the excitement of Modena, Monaco and Cannes but things haven’t been too boring since then...

In spite of the rain and floods the sporting season in England has been in full swing. Silverstone was a huge success even though local hero Lewis Hamilton only managed third and at the same time we also had Roger Federer’s master class at Wimbledon.

The British Open golf was nail-biting until the end of the play-off with the hugely popular Irish hero Harrington snatching the trophy away from Spain’s Sergio Garcia.

On the automotive front we’ve had the bids in for Jaguar and Land Rover so it seemed only right to take the big Jag for a spin before some hedge fund moved in.

I was promised an XJ diesel but believe it not I had to look at the fuel cap to see whether it was yellow or green. Yes, the diesel was so quiet I could not tell the difference. The XJ itself is still a great, albeit ageing lady ready for a face-lift after the launch of the eagerly awaited FX at the forthcoming Frankfurt Auto Show.

At the time of writing I don’t know where these two companies will end up but I was mortified to learn that two former Ford bosses, Nasser and Scheele are part of the rivals bidders.

Honestly, have they no shame? Tom and Jerry, Laurel and Hardy, Beavis and Butthead are the names that have been bandied about lately about these two gentlemen who-between them-have done more harm to Ford Motor Company than anyone else.

Total lack of forward planning, total failure to think of crossovers, missing out on Ford of Europe’s best designs such as the Mondeo, the C-Max and the S-Max, incompetence on an unprecedented scale.

First we had Jacq Nasser in San Francisco explaining with Steve Ballmer of Microsoft that the days of car dealers were over as customers will simply click on the buy button having looked at the car on the computer, then we had Nasser appearing in a Ford TV commercial dressed like someone from The Sopranos and talking in an accent 90% of Americans couldn’t understand, amazing.

The only good thing he did was to buy Volvo.

As for my old friend Nick Scheele, well, he is the sort of guy one for a would invite for a drink at the Royal Automobile Club in London to talk about the good old days at Ford back in the 60s. But that would be it.

During his stewardship at Jaguar things started to go seriously wrong with the Coventry firm and when he moved to Detroit he, unfortunately, just wasn’t cut out for the job. Let me put it another way-I wouldn’t touch any potential purchaser with a 9 ft pole if either of these gentleman were involved.

Way past their sell buy dates. Which is definitely NOT the case with the product. Land Rover quality is much better than it used to be and Jaguar is at or near the top of the JD Power list. Whoever gets these companies will be picking up a serious bargain.

In the meantime I’ve been to Romania for the very first time. The reason? My Mother-in Law was born there 96 years ago when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For the record she is alive and well in San Francisco. A great lady.

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As you’ll see from the pictures it isn’t exactly an easy drive. Would have been even more difficult had I not been at the wheel of a Ford Focus with BIO Etanol written on the front and the side of the car.

The reason? The Hungarians are very active in this area having lots of corn and lots of private enterprise. So far there are only two ethanol pumps in the country but luckily Ford’s energetic and enterprising Central European PR Supremo George Madarasz took the trouble, went to a place called Babolna and filled the Focus up with E85.

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To tell you the truth I couldn’t tell the difference and the consumption was just as good as later on when I filled up the car with in Romania with regular gas. The 1.8 liter Duratec engine was fine but more to the point I loved the steering and the brakes more than anything else.

Let me explain. Imagine crossing the border from Hungary to Romania and stepping back into the Middle Ages. Not in every aspect but certainly in some. When did you last drive on a road shared by trucks, horse-drawn cart, pigs, sheep and the occasional cow on a lead?

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An exotic mix calling for tremendous concentration and reflexes, especially when the dogs started chasing all before them!

The Focus –which incidentally is the best selling car in Russia- took everything into its stride and when I returned it to Ford in Budapest it looked pristine.

Complaints? Only one. The excellent 6 speed gearbox which Ford have in several in their cars and crossovers was not fitted to this particular model. Shame as on the truly excellent Hungarian toll roads the consumption would have improved further. I forgot to mention that the Focus also survived the ducking and diving which is part and parcel of getting in and out of the Hungaroring before and after the Grand Prix.

Talking to old chum Tim Holmes at Ford’s European HQ he assured me that more and more of the European technology is making its way across the pond and one can only wonder why it has taken so long.

Otherwise the great excitement of late has been the launch of the new Fiat 500, definitely the shape of things to come. Just like the Mini it is small but perfect for European roads. It will be built in Poland where Ford’s KA (based on a similar design) will also be built in 2008. In some cities such as London these small cars will be able to enter the so-called congestion zone while other, bigger cars will have to pay well over 15 dollars a day and rising!

It is hard to explain the tremendous environmental protests in Europe and the word automobile is certainly taking on unwelcome connotations. CO2, carbon footprints, more and more bicycle lanes are the story of the day so the car companies are doing their level best-and not a minute too soon- to make their products more acceptable in the 21st Century. Even Porsche and Ferrari are talking about fuel consumption! Have I driven fast cars? Yes. Was it fun? Yes. Would it be the end of the World if we all had to find other ways of having fun? I doubt it. Even the latest James Bond movie-currently filming in Italy- will have its final great chase on horseback!

That’s it for this month’s Letter From Europe.

Ciao Andrew.