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Letter from Europe: Mini John Cooper Works, Mercedes 550SL , 2008 BMW 650i and lots more

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Andrew Frankl
The Auto Channel
European Bureau Chief

Mini John Cooper Works

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For once the title is true. This Mini is literally the works! Nobody could call it inexpensive at 30 thousand dollars but boy, does it go! For a start it now has a proper engine which replaces the load of rubbish that propelled not that long ago. Instead of Brazilian botch it is now a 1.6 liter 16 valve inline, turbocharged, direct injected little gem pushing out over 200 horsepower.

Consequently it is NOT for your 16 year old as a first car. This baby needs very careful handling as the torque steer is pretty ferocious. Once you get used to it or just learn to accelerate less aggressively then it is just fine but do take care.

I would suggest that less powerful version would be probably more suitable for most people. This one is tailor made for autocross and rallying. Reminds me of the halcyon days when Paddy Hopkirk won the Monte Carlo rally in one of the early ones back in the 60s.

Whether I would have the bright orange with the black stripes in debatable, a friend at the tennis club thought it was a Hertz special..

I don’t know about Hertz but the Getrag gearbox is very special and is very satisfying provided one uses it properly. The 17 inch alloy wheels very much look the part and the red Brembo front brake calipers just add to the macho image.

Anti-lock brakes, dynamic traction control, electronic differential lock all add up to a great package. Inside you have six airbags, a very good A/C (once you manage to figure it out) an AM/FM system which is pretty modest and a host of goodies such as remote keyless entry a very nice leather steering wheel and cleverly designed folding rear seats.

What it does not have is an awful lot of room for four grown-ups but then the Mini wasn’t designed for that purpose in the first place. Would I buy one? Yes, but probably not this one. In sunny California the convertible Mini would make more sense. As for fuel consumption-very much depending on your right foot-one can expect anything from 24 to 33 miles per gallon.

As for the sheer fun factor-10 out of 10!

2009 Mercedes-Benz SL Coupe

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Considerably more expensive and equally desirable is the 2009 Mercedes SL coupe. It is a two-seater convertible with a presence and aura only certain automobiles possess. In other words it is solid, good taste assuming of course that you have 100 thousand dollars to pay for it.

This class of engineering does not come cheap. On the other hand leaving every other consideration out of it you know that if you have to have a crash the Mercedes is the car to have it in.

Having just seen how maniacs jump red lights in LA trust me-it is not a minor consideration. If you think I am making this up just stand on the corner of Ventura and Laurel Canyon for 5 minutes and you’ll see what I mean. Terrifying. Anyway, back to the SL.

On the plus side you have a magnificent, powerful V8 as well as an excellent navigational system which took us to Sebastopol –in Marin- without missing a turn and only taking to us when it was necessary. The metal roof disappears into the trunk in well under 20 seconds, it is very comfortable and great to drive. Of course it does not zig-zag like a Mini but it isn’t mean to.

On the minus side the only problem I can think of would be the lack of room in the trunk. Yes, there is a bit of room behind the seats for the odd Kate Spade shoes and maybe a new handbag from Prada but on a somewhat more practical front I had great difficulties squeezing two Whole Foods bags into it.

Would I buy one? Probably not. With grandchildren and other practical matters to be taken into consideration I would still stick with one of the E class models, preferably with the latest diesel engines. On the other hand, as a second car to take Granny for a week-end in the mountains-perfect.

2008 BMW 650i

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I didn’t think the SL would have too much competition until then BMW 650i came along. My goodness, what an automobile! Although the basic price is 82 thousand, by the time you add all the extras it comes out to more or less the same the SL.

I hate automotive journalists who are so afraid of the advertisers that in every comparison they invariable end up sitting on the fence but this is a tough one.

The Mercedes is the grand touring car strictly for two people whereas the Bimmer does offer some room for small children in the back. Not a massive amount but enough for two ten year olds. A major consideration unless you want to upset the kids.

On the engineering side the 650i is definitely on par. A massive, but quiet 4.8 liter V-8 engine , a race-bred sports suspension with active roll stabilization, dynamic stability control, traction control, the works. Even has a brake fade and a brake drying system!

I didn’t measure 0-60 figures as I fail to see why I should abuse someone else’s automobile but let us say that the power is more than sufficient. For anyone. If you need more than a 4.8 liter BMW engine get yourself a dragster!

The inside of the 650i is sheer luxury. Press a little button (if you can find it) and hey presto you have yourself a beautiful convertible in which you become the envy of the tennis club. I did, anyway.

What the BMW does have is lots of room in the trunk even with the top down so in this respect it is definitely up on the SL. Oh, and something else. I locked the car with the roof still open and reached inside to fetch my racket from the back seat.

Suddenly I had people running around wondering what was going on. The siren that went off was powerful, terrifying and very effective! Far and away the best I’ve ever heard.

Does all this make the 650i perfect? Of course not. Some old faults will –it seems- be with us forever. Take the tiny little green arrows for the indicators. You cannot see them from the steering wheel any more than you can hear the ticking noise in traffic.

The speedometer still has well over 100 silly little lines on it for reasons I will never comprehend. But having said that if that is the worst feature of an automobile-I can cope with it.

Was I sorry to see it go? Yes. Would I buy one? Probably not. 90% of what I need I could find in the 3 series. A great deal less money but without sacrificing BMW build quality, reliability, handling and ride.

2009 Kia Borrego

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An entirely different kettle of fish is KIA’s Borrego. This 7 seater SUV is remarkably good value assuming you know how to haggle. The one I had for test had a sticker price of 36 and a half thousand dollars but admittedly it included every conceivable extra such as a 2 position memory for driver’s seat-not exactly a must in this day and age.

With the industry being hammered and dealers going out of business right, left and centre I am sure you could get this 4.6 liter machine for under 30 thousand dollars.

For that you would get a great deal. Apart from the big and pretty thirsty engine (between 15 and 22 mpg) there is a fine 6-speed automatic suspension, front and rear disc brakes with ABS (which didn’t impress me too much), double wishbone suspension at the front and multi-link suspension at the rear.

As far as safety is concerned there seem to be airbags just about everywhere! Dual front, driver’s knee, 3 row side plus rollover sensors.

There can be no doubt that the Koreans have come an awfully long way during the last 10-15 years. Just like Toyota who were the butt of auto jokes 40 years ago so the Koreans are most definitely not to be laughed at either.

Nothing shows their confidence more than a 10years/100,000 miles warranty, far and away the best in the automobile industry.

2008 Kia Amanti

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During the Summer I had a chance to drive the company’s Amanti, the one people often mistake for a Mercedes because of the similarity of the grill. Well, they certainly wouldn’t mistake the price of about 26 thousand dollars!

Tons of room, plenty of oomph from the 264 horsepower V6 engine and while I would be the last to suggest that it was a thrill a minute, well, it wasn’t supposed to be.

It waited for us outside the offices of the Boston Globe (as luck would have it with a California number plate) and it provided solid, economical transport to Camden, Maine and back. Why, I hear you ask , is it lucky to have a California number plate on the East Coast?

Well, I found people more tolerant when I got things wrong. Even Officer Johnson who stopped me for doing 84 miles per hour instead of 65 was charm personified. He looked at the license plate, looked at my California license and wished me a good trip as somewhat reduced speeds.

Neither the Borrego nor the Amanti missed a beat so all I can conclude is that while neither is at the cutting edge of automotive engineering both are reliable if somewhat dull modes of transportation.