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Knocks, Knocks More Knocks and Some Nice, in This Months Letter From Europe

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Letter from Europe

From Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

Europe is great but I cannot pretend that flying over the Golden Gate bridge on my way back to San Francisco isn’t always a bit special. Especially after some unfortunate developments in England as far as motoring is concerned. The police and the local authorities have declared drivers Public Enemy Number One.

There are Gatso cameras every few hundred yards and London itself is full of parking meters on top.

The traffic wardens are an especially nasty breed of people who wouldn’t know how to spell goodwill or humanity. You might be running towards your meter which is about to expire and they will be standing there, pen at the ready and at the millisecond the time is up you’ll be ticketed even if you are only yards away.

The other day a huge tree fell on a car, the driver was lucky to escape. By the time she got back from a nearby house where she was seeking assistance there was a ticket under the tree on what was left of the windscreen! And no, I didn’t make it up.

I would go as far as to say that driving in England is well worth avoiding. Take the train, get on the bus but don’t drive.

Things are only marginally better in France and what is really horrible is that a speeding ticket in France can now be collected in England under the latest European Union rules. So I am afraid if you do want to have some fun with your car I would advise going on to one of the many European race tracks to get it out of your system.

Having said that I did have huge fun in Italy but maybe I was just lucky.

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It was a great relief to see an immaculate BMW X5 waiting at SFO courtesy of those good guys at Page One Automotive. With the amount of luggage we had, it had to be an SUV and these days the ones coming out of Spartanburg are every bit as good as the ones from Germany.

With all the extras the price came to a pretty hefty 56 thousand dollars, leaving most of it out would reduce the invoice to about 47 thousand dollars. The 3 liter DOHC 24 valve six cylinder engine is an old friend from my wife’s former car so I wasn’t the least bit surprised to get 19.9 miles per gallon, exactly what we were getting from her 5 series 530i. There is of course a bigger engine option but frankly this one is perfectly satisfactory unless you are determined to deplete the World’s resources even faster.

Only complaint-those dreaded BMW bells which will be familiar to all owners by now. Returning to the 5 series for a moment the big news is that BMW’s sensational diesel engine will be coming to the United States sooner rather than later. Will it break down the stigma attached to diesel? Only time will tell. If they can’t, nobody can.

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I wish I could be equally enthusiastic about Ford Motor Company’s Mercury Mariner Hybrid FWD. Oh dear. I could turn the steering wheel 20 degrees to the right or left and it would carry on in a straight line. The ride was enough to make me sick and all in all the company will have to do an awful lot better if it wants to succeed.

It was pretty and some features were nice. The A/C worked OK, the radio-with its modest speakers made a sound, the stations were easy to find. My old complaint about the lack of grab handle on the passenger’s side remained unanswered, just how people are supposed to be hanging on round corners I do not know.

There is certainly plenty of room in the back and there is plenty of trunk space. My complaints are first and foremost about the very modest dynamic qualities of the Mariner hybrid. As for the engine, well, I’ve known sewing machines to sound better. I can only hope that the company won’t run out of money before the European cavalry arrives with vastly improved products.

The Mercedes GL550 is a very different proposition indeed. It costs a great deal more and consequently it has all sorts of features that the Mariner engineers only dream of. Paddle shifts to name but one.

Having said that, the Merc is huge and is probably too big for most people. I took grandson Freddie to a football match and the GL was certainly the envy of the car park. That said at around 15 miles per gallon I would love to have the diesel version which, I understand, is coming soon.

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In the meantime I had huge fun in the latest Mini Cooper S. With all the extras it certainly isn’t cheap at just under 30 thousand dollars but if you can live without the leather steering wheel, the central armrest and all the other goodies then 22 K is what you’ll have to come up with.

With or without extras the Cooper S is huge fun! The new- and much needed- 1.6 liter engine pushes out 172 ponies which is more than enough to be a bit silly on race track or deserted car parks. I am not a great believer in 0-60 figures as these just tend to ruin someone else’s clutch but my colleagues tell me that they’ve got 6.2 seconds which is pretty reasonable.

0-60 is not what the Mini even in its cheapest version is about. It is about quirky, it is funky, it is different. Either you are a Mini person or you are not. It will zip in out of traffic, it will get into tight parking spaces, it will leave you with a permanent grin on your face. It is exceedingly well built and is solid as a rock. At the same time they call it Mini for a reason. It is small. While there is ample room for a 6ft tall driver with the seat pushed back we are talking about small children and I mean small passengers in the rear. Room for luggage is pretty limited as one would expect. All in all a car to enjoy, especially if you are young or at least young at heart!

After an absence of at least a year I’ve had a chance to drive a Chrysler.

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The Caliber R/T to be precise. It came unto the market under the DaimlerChryser regime and at under 20 thousand dollars it is worthy of a test drive. It certainly isn’t a great automobile, the sound of the engine alone guarantees that much but it shouldn’t be rejected out of hand either.

It has four- wheel anti-lock disc brakes, a perfectly nice 5 speed manual gearbox, a simple but functional radio without all the BMW type nonsense, comfortable seats and tons of room with folding rear seats. In fact the instruments are some of the finest around as are the heating controls. Good, old-fashioned stuff which work without a degree from MIT.

What it lacks is the wow factor.

I cannot, with the best will in the World cannot see guys walking into a bar and brag about the Caliber. The least attractive feature would be the cheapest to fix: the truly appalling, totally unacceptable horn. To think that a grown-up engineer signed it off shows just far Jim Press and Bob Nardelli have to go to fix things. Apparently they were horrified by the cheap interiors on the Sebring to mention but one modest product.

Having said all that, I do hope that they can turn the company round. I am just astonished that the German owners allowed things to deteriorate to this extent.

Put a decent engine into the Caliber, improve the “Detroit” grey plastic interior –which anyone straight from Art School could do in five minutes flat-chop the number of dealers, create some excitement and watch the rejuvenated Chrysler cars walk out of the showrooms.

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Having recovered from the Caliber, I drove Ford’s latest and much improved Explorer. Consumer Report magazine was absolutely right in praising the company’s efforts as far as quality is concerned. Everything fit, the color scheme was right, the seats, the controls, a very satisfying experience. I just hope the money won’t run out before the new cars arrive from Europe.

Well, not so much the cars as the designs. I am also delighted that they managed a deal with the unions.

Right now I a driving a Nissan Sentra, a pretty modest offering from a company that can do so much better. Their recently unveiled 480 HP GT-R looks pretty amazing and pretty irrelevant at the same time.

Next month I will be reporting on the LA Show and on all the exciting and not so exciting cars that keep coming my way.