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Letter from Europe - Bad Times, Good Cars and Big Concerns

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Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

I’ve been driving Honda’s 2009 cars and for the life of me cannot understand that these excellent products are not selling better.

The Accord is a by-word for reliability while the Civic is probably the best buy under 20 thousand dollars. Even the 140 horsepower 1.8 liter 4 cylinder engine gets 36 miles per gallon on the highway and the hybrid does even better. It is very well equipped with disc brakes on the front, a well-tried and tested MacPherson strut suspension at the front, multi-link suspension at the rear.

My wife, who is a total Prius addict pronounced it a fine alternative. And yet, compared to last November Civic’s sales are down 29.6% and the Accord a staggering 38.1%.

Another car I’ve been driving lately is Chevrolet’s 2009 Aveo5 2LT. Excuse the farcical name, all manufacturers believe that unless it is GTXYZ on the trunk link the product in question isn’t even worth a second look.

Well, to be fair the South Korean made little car is not a masterpiece of engineering but at around 14 thousand dollars it is good value for the money. The 1.6 liter engine is modest as even the hapless PR people would agree but it gets you there. Certainly the basic package is very complete.

There is air conditioning, tilt column steering, cruise control, an AM/FM radio and last but not least a 5 year, 100.000 mile powertrain limited warranty. A great deal for under 15 thousand dollars.

Does it feel less than rugged? Certainly. Would it be fine as a commuter car from Marin County to San Francisco? Absolutely. Would I like to cross the United States in it? Not unless I had to.

Although, to be fair at 34 miles per gallon and at under 2 dollars a gallon it would be very inexpensive indeed although I have to admit that it wouldn’t be my first choice.

The real money for GM and the dealers would of course be in the extras such as 925 dollars for the automatic transmission and 375 dollars for the leather-wrapped steering wheel/leatherette seats and shift knob.

I would certainly take the Honda Fit for a spin before parting with 15 thousand dollars.

What is interesting in the middle of all the save Detroit hysteria that both the Accord and the Civic are assembled in the United States, in fact the US content of the Accord is no less than 60%! And it is coming down the line not a million miles from Detroit in Marysville, Ohio. Just as the Accord is assembled in Greenburg, Indiana.

And yet, earlier today this very fine company announced that they are pulling out of Formula One , the pinnacle of motor racing. I can understand their CEO, Takeo Fukui, with the UK factory shutting for several weeks and F1 costing hundreds of millions of dollars it just became untenable.

I’ve been pretty near to Grand Prix racing and the excesses were becoming truly hideous. Most team managers and drivers wouldn’t know a commercial airline if they tripped over-it was a private jets all the way. Anything other than a five star hotel was unthinkable, unacceptable and unworthy of these great intellectuals who would be garage mechanics at 50 dollars an hour were they not skillful at turning the steering wheel. I don’t want to take anything away from Lewis Hamilton or Felipe Massa but even if they were offered a humble million dollars a year wouldn’t they accept it?! Of course they would.

Yes, the time of wake-up call is upon us and I am sure it will affect Nascar as well.

First of all the manufacturers will have to survive otherwise what will propel these 200 miles per our racing cars? Sponsors such as ATT&T are letting people go by the thousands so coughing up millions, whether in the States or in Europe would seem like very bad form indeed.

Interestingly even cinema hype doesn’t help. You would have thought that the James Bond connection would have been sufficient to sell Aston Martin’s production for years ahead and yet they’ve just sacked 600 workers. The only company with an order bank is Ferrari and even that is a lot shorter than it used to be. Think of all the banking executives who are ditching their 100 thousand dollar plus automobiles all over the World.

The only company doing really well in the United States seems to be BMW’s Mini.

I recently had a chance to drive their electric car, more a prototype than the real thing but very exciting all the same. The 156 mile range would be more than enough to go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s-the new in place for the nouveau pauvre.

Where will it all end I hear you ask? Well, I refuse to become yet another uninformed punter, an occupation I leave to the hapless editors of automotive publications.

What I would like to point out that Detroit, for all its faults produces several million cars and trucks and year and provides employment to millions of people. I tend to agree with those who suggest that if the totally incompetent banks and insurance companies can get 700 billions of dollars then 30 odd for REAL people would be reasonable, sensible and worthwhile.

Having said that apart from window dressing such as 1 dollar a year salaries to guys who have millions in the bank the companies do have to put their houses in order real fast. As the private jet saga to Washington showed there is still a staggering amount of ignorance, arrogance and detachment from the real World in Detroit. This really is the last hurrah, the last chance saloon. I just hope they grab it with both hands!