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Rants Raves and Prognostications in This Months Letter From Europe

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By Andrew Frankl
European Bureay Chief
The Auto Channel

I cannot pretend that the news from the world of automobiles is particularly good or that I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Clearly some manufacturers such as Toyota and Honda will survive as will the Koreans. Nissan also seems like a safe bet, albeit as a much smaller company. Their plant in Sunderland England is already on single shift and the workers who have made it Nissan’s best plant in the World in terms of quality are seriously concerned.

The only small morsel on the horizon-the pound sterling has fallen like a stone making UK built cars more competitive.

I wish I could say the same about the Chrysler cars I have been driving lately. There is such a thing as instantly forgettable.

Whereas I recall fondly the Mini Cooper I had some weeks ago the Avenger R/T AWD and the Sebring Convertible Touring are both in the adequate category. The Avenger was sort of all right and it certainly had a great deal of standard equipment for 31 thousand dollars but was I sorry to see it leave The Autochannel’s Californian HQ-no.

The Sebring convertible is the choice of millions of turists. I took it out in the season’s biggest rainstorm and the soft top didn’t let in a single drop of water. The car was certainly very well put together- a credit to all the hard-working men and women in Sterling Heights, Michigan.

The problem-they can only assemble what they’ve been given. They will fit the 2.7 liter V6 engine perfectly and it is not their fault that it is totally gutless. Noisy and gutless. Equally, the interior is beautifully finished in what I tend to call Detroit grey. In other words-uninspiring.

This is where I am caught in a bit of a dilemma. The company’s great-and I mean great-products tend to be big, tough and thirsty. I would love them to succeed but at the same time I would like fuel consumption figures to improve. Maybe a turbo diesel engine is the answer. In a great product such as the Jeep.

It is unusual for me not to like an Infiniti product but I positively disliked the 2009 FX50 AWD. Even though it is fully equipped with every modern convenience we just didn’t get on.

The massive, 5 liter engine is an absolute overkill. It hesitates and then lurches ahead in a most undignified way. It also has a sub-20 miles per gallon fuel consumption, even on the highway. I could list umpteen wonderful things about the FX and I am sure some people will like it but for me, even forgetting the 65 thousand dollar it is a non-starter.

As is the Mercury Mariner Voga. Let me explain my theory how this totally ridiculous name came into being. Some vastly overpaid consultant (aren’t they all?!)suggested to the hapless Mercury marketing manager that moving the brand up-market was the way to go.

I think they must have approached Anna Wintour-Vogue magazine’s brilliant editor to see if they could call this totally underpowered SUV “Vogue.” They were obviously thrown out of her office and with their tails between legs decided to do what I would call “passing off”.

By slightly changing the name of the magazine but by sticking with the type face they were hoping that Voga would look and sound like Vogue. They even stitched the word into the back of the seats.

Amazing. Well, I suppose desperate times call for desperate measures.

Imagine how bad the engine had to be if the man who delivered the Mercury apologized even before I had a chance to drive it. I am not sure it would ever make it to the Sierras with five people and luggage.

How immaculately coiffed Mark Fields ever let it leave the factory is beyond my comprehension. His luck and that of Ford Motor’s is that the European cavalry is on its way to rescue its bankrupt parent.

Small cars used to mean small profits but as Mini proved people will pay lots of extra money for mod cons such as a/c, good radio and navigational systems.

In the meantime BMW are about to launch diesels in the United States, quite a change for the makers of the ultimate driving machines. Fear not, having driven several of their diesels in Europe the only difference you’ll notice will be in the much-improved fuel consumption.

Mercedes are in the same boat but what I would really like to see would be small, inexpensive diesels. What would be so wrong teaching young people to learn to drive stick shift?

A good, small diesel with a well-geared 6 speed gearbox would easily exceed the 40 miles per gallon mark. At which point for some of our Middle Eastern friends it would be time to head off into the sunset.

While they are busy saddling up with a barrel of oil at 59 dollars at the time of writing I have been equally busy driving to and fro Los Angeles for the annual BAFTA/LA awards.

This is the British Film and Television Academy’s bash to give recognition to their stars. My part, I hasten to add, was strictly that of a spectator but as both my daughter Annabelle and son Nicholas were heavily involved it was a good excuse to take Volvo’s V70 for a proper run.

It seemed very appropriate as not only am I a Volvo owner and have been since 1997 but the Swedes were also one of the major sponsors of the event.

So the V70 was definitely the right car for the trip. Interstate 5 is long, boring and consequently dangerous. The Swedish car-legendary for its built-in safety was the answer.

The version I was driving could be had for around 30 thousand dollars, amazing value even in today’s hard economic times. Before you think I am sycophantic let me also mention that the 3.2 liter 6 cylinder engine is not a masterpiece. It is sort of all right.

It has all the requisite gizmos- alloy engine with double overhead camshaft, variable valve timing and all that but at the end of the day it is a far cry from BMW’s six cylinder unit.

The fuel consumption between 16 and 24 miles per gallon is worse than my 1997 S70’s ! And it isn’t exactly a powerhouse either. It definitely needs some fine tuning in a hurry.

In the meantime the V70 still represents tremendous value for money with a host of extras. When it comes to handling, well, it is a station wagon and not a sports car.

The little Johnnies in the back might not be thrilled but they will be safe. They will, I am afraid be let down by the radio but one can always fit a better one.

There are of course more expensive versions within the V70 range such as an all-wheel drive version but I think for 99% of the people looking for solid, safe transportation for a family of five with a budget of 30 thousand dollars I cannot name a better alternative.