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Geneva Motor Show Observations; Chevy Malibu Accolades; Lancer Rocket; The Italians Are Coming; Audi, Lincoln; Opel and VW in This Months Letter From Europe

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MORE: 2009 Geneva Motor Show Coverage

Letter from Europe
Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

The 2009 Geneva International Auto show reminded me of the band playing while the Titanic was sinking. The champagne-heavily subsidized by governments from all the over the World-was flowing, the pretty ladies on the various stands were smiling as broadly as ever but underneath it all business was definitely not as usual. GM Product supremo and old friend Bob Lutz was visibly upset at what he was seeing.

Opel –a GM subsidiary- were proudly displaying their European Car of the Year, the Insignia and at the same time there were very serious concerns that Opel may just go under without the help of the German Government. Hundreds of thousands of jobs were and remain at risk. It was sad to see Bob, a veteran of the auto industry at a time when a lot of his work was there for everyone to see. Not just to see but to admire.

For reasons far too complicated to go into GM's products are a lot better than the perception surrounding them . Take the 2009 Malibu Hybrid for instance. I got 35 miles per gallon on a recent trip to Point Reyes . My wife, a pretty severe critic liked the looks, the comfort. We both liked the handling and loved the little “ECO�?? fuel economy indicator. As she is the proud owner of a Prius like most ladies in Marin fuel economy and fuel economy indicators are frequent topics of conversation in Whole Foods car parks.

I was impressed with the amount of room, the size of the trunk and the brave 5 year/100.000 mile warranty, unheard of just a few years ago. My biggest complaint was the lack of power when it was most needed. Let me put it another way. Unless there is tons of room don’t even think of passing a truck doing 65 miles per hour.

There are of course more powerful Malibu-s for sale but for those who are looking to buy American and save gas at a reasonable initial outlay the Malibu Hybrid is a perfectly viable alternative to the Prius. On the other hand if you would like the least expensive Malibu which would still come with lots of air-bags, traction control and the same comfort offered by the Hybrid the LS might be an attractive alternative. At just over 21 thousand dollars-before horse-trading- it is a very attractive package indeed which I am sure can be had for around 19 K. And it still does 30 to a gallon.

Back in Geneva and just across the isle from GM, Volkswagen/Audi seem to be in a much better position. They are perfectly poised to face the latest environmental challenges. Rock solid , economical cars with minimal CO2 emissions VW and Audi are here to stay. The 3.2 liter A5 I’ve driving lately is just another example of the build quality.

It was bucketing most of the time but the Quattro never missed a beat, never put a wheel out of place. Some of the minor controls did drive me mad, even tech savvy grandson Freddy had great difficulties with the heater controls.

A trip to Volvo is what I would suggest to all other manufacturers who are determined to make minor control configurations into a major headache. It was a trend started by BMW, unfortunately others followed.

One thing you have to watch when buying an A5 are the extras. The difference between the base price of 42 thousand and the price of the test car at 56 thousand is nothing short of staggering! I am sure there is some scope for negotiations but for my money there is nothing wrong with the base model which, at 32 thousand is great value.

Audi are also very smart in having a state of the art driving school. Situated in California Sears Point it offers an opportunity for keen drivers to improve their road and race track craft in cars as special as the R8. It isn’t cheap but if you can afford it is huge fun. to

Of course if the World’s economies pick up the VW Group are singularly well- placed with powerful Bentleys and even Lamborghini, where the profit margins are huge. Talking of the group I nearly forgot Skoda, formerly the butt of jokes across Europe. No more! The century old company makes truly excellent cars with the small Fabia offering exceptional value.

Seat-another part of the company aims firmly at the sporting fraternity with looks very reminiscent of Alfa Romeo. Talking of which don’t be too surprised to see Alfas in the United States in 2011 sold by long-suffering Chrysler dealers. And, as a bit of icing on the cake Fiat 500s as well. Positively cheeky looking and a massive success in Europe. The Abarth version will cause quite a stir-the ultimate pocket rocket. Makes the Smart look positively silly. It will certainly be up against some serious opposition.

I’ve been testing every schoolboy’s dream-the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution MR. Just off Virgin Atlantic ‘s London-San Francisco flight this amazing object of desire was waiting for me just round the corner. Not quite what anyone should be driving after a 12 hour flight but the adrenalin got me home.

It isn’t cheap-40 thousand dollars is a lot of money but for thrills per dollar I don’t see how it can be beaten. A 2 liter DOHC engine, a turbocharger without a turbo lag (!), huge ventilated Brembo brakes, well-designed paddle-shitfters that fall readily to hand, Bilstein shocks, rear air diffuser, the whole nine yards. The drawback-it looks really, really naughty. The sort of car the police would automatically go after as they would expect some energetic driving . That is putting in the politically correct way.

The looks, the sound-it isn’t your Grandfather’s Buick! So, to keep my license clean we took off for The Auto Channel's secret off-road test track in California. Had I been wearing dentures I am sure they would have fallen off from the smile on my face. Awesome in every way. Except one. In the wrong hands in view of the temptation it wouldn’t be very difficult to have a massive crash.

I was taunted by youngsters on Highway 101 to race them which of course I didn’t. But I would not be happy for my grandson to have one on his 18th birthday.

The so-called comfort/convenience package seems almost surplus to requirements. With the massive fun factor I doubt if cruise control would ever be engaged! With specially designed Yokohama Advan tires and 18 inch BBS forged light-weight alloys cruise control somehow just doesn’t enter into the equation. All in all, assuming that the economy recovers sooner rather than later my advice would be to get a second-hand one , fit a roll-cage and do some racing. Off road, rally cross, whatever. As for the road, unless you have the patient of a Saint get something more mundane. That way you can have your cake and eat it!

One car 18 year old will not be dreaming about is Lincoln’s MKS. It wasn’t designed for them. Very big, very comfortable, stunning looking in black I do hope the MKS will replace those awful limos that clutter up airports all across America. There is plenty of room in the back and you don’t have bend over yoga class style to get into it. I am not a huge fan of the Duratec engine and would therefore describe it as adequate .

I know there are better engines on the way. In the meantime at 43 thousand dollars-with extras I think the Lincoln is a bit on the pricey side but I suppose the chauffeur has to have the 3000 dollar voice activated navigation system to get the customers to their destinations. Consumption at around 22 miles per gallon is OK for such a big car, I am sure that just like Mercedes-Benz at some stage the Lincoln will also be offered with diesel/hybrid options. As it is, while this Lincoln is a huge improvement on previous ones there is still room to refine it further.

That's it for this month...thanks for visiting

MORE: 2009 Geneva Motor Show Coverage