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2009 BMW X3; Mini Cooper S Clubman; Honda Insight and Other Thoughts in This Months Letter From Europe

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Letter from Europe
Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

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You only discover the advantages of a solid automobile when you get hit. Luckily it took me a long time to find out the hard way and even more fortunately I was in BMW’s 2009 X3. The lady behind me was obviously distracted-and was the first to say so-but when you sit at the traffic lights and you hear and feel this loud bang it is pretty scary, even at 4 miles per hour. Especially as it was totally unexpected.

I’ve had my driver’s license since 1959 so I suppose one hit in 50 years is not a bad. After inspecting the damage which was pretty minimal I proceeded to Lake Tahoe as planned. The X3 with its familiar 3 liter dual overhead cam inline 24 valve engine is an old friend, my wife had two Bimmers propelled by it.

I tired very hard to get over 20 miles per gallon-and I succeeded. The best, at a steady 75-80 miles per hour worked out at 21.7, had I been cruising at 60 I dare say it would have been nearer to the 24 miles per gallon as suggested by BMW. They go even as far as to suggest that you might get 29 miles per gallon, I wonder where, how and at what speed.

Surely to achieve it you would annoy the living daylight out of everybody, especially in “The Ultimate Driving Machine”.

On the road I just cruised along serenely admiring the scenery. As always I’ve felt that what really mattered was already standard on the X3, the rest, if not exactly fluff would have been nice to have but it would have pushed the price up by 8 thousand dollars. What really mattered, such as the excellent hill descent control, the dynamic stability control including brake drying (what an excellent idea!) were already included in the price. I was able to put the xDrive to the test in the snow, it came through with flying colors. The X3 also started on the first turn of the key in temperatures well below freezing.

What I didn’t test were things such as acceleration from 0-60 which seems awfully passť in these hard economic times. I’ve always felt that it was for boy racers only and I stand by that. Just like the tests on skidpans by some of my colleagues.

Honestly, did anyone ever buy an X3 for reasons other than price, economy, safety , practicality and comfort? You can just see a lovely school Mum with two little children asking –what in auto parlance is “what will it do Mister?!” I doubt it somehow.

Complaints? Very few. The instrument panel, the speedo in particular is confusing, I think it was designed in the 1950s if not before. The seats are a matter of taste, I did find them somewhat on the hard side. What really impresses me apart from the exceptional build quality –and suppose the two are linked- are the service warranties. You pay nothing, as in zero, for the first 4 years or 50 thousand miles for servicing. All in all an excellent product which does most of what the 4.4 liter X5 does for a great deal less money.


Something very different came my way in the shape of the new Mini Cooper S Clubman. I think quirky is the best way to describe this little red monster which caused a huge stir wherever I went. People would come up to me in car parks, other owners would wave, it was all very different from most cars that I drive. Bearing in mind its tiny size, there is lots of room for-let us be honest-relatively small people. But I am six ft tall and that left precious little room behind me.

As far as oomph is concerned-there was plenty. The turbo charged, direct injected 1.6 liter 16-valve inline 4 cylinder engine was good for 172 horsepower. The 6 speed Getrag transmission helped to make the most of it.

The first Mini I drove in Sheffield , England was very different indeed but that was precisely 50 years ago. Badly put together, with a tiny engine it was nevertheless revolutionary in many ways and one can definitely trace some of today’s features all the way to Sir Alec Issigonis whose brainchild it was. The handling was already exceptional and a far cry from other automobiles that were running on the streets of Great Britain. The whole thing cost about as much as the navigation system in the new 2009 Clubman!

Yes, I am afraid that is the downside. The basic price of 23,700 dollars is perfectly reasonable but by the time you fit all the extras-which you don’t of course have to of course the total comes out at a mind-boggling 35 thousand 950 dollars. What price is cuteness?! The fuel consumption is all right without being exceptional, careful drivers (who tend not to be in a Cooper S..) might get 33 miles per gallon.

Annoying features? The minor controls. Tiny little levers all over the place for people with tiny little fingers. I am afraid I don’t qualify. Would I recommend it to relatives? Not in this version. The “working-class” version without all the extras but with the folding top and the automatic transmission would be great, especially for zapping around town.

Finally I have to salute the lads in Oxford. The British car industry was famous for strikes and badly assembled cars. Well, this Clubman couldn’t have been better put together in Stuttgart or Tokyo. Impeccable is the way to describe it. By the way there is a famous story from the 60-s relating to striking auto workers in England. “Brothers” said the shop steward proudly, I’ve done a deal with the bosses. From now on we will only work on Wednesdays. Voice from the back: “every Wednesday?”

Unfortunately the lads at the UK Honda works are not working at all at the moment, the economic decline took its toll so production won’t be resumed until May. In the meantime in California I had a chance to drive their latest offering, the 2010 Insight.

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My colleagues have been getting terribly excited about it, I am not quite sure why. Yes, the fuel consumption is very good indeed, I got 44miles per gallon but then I’ve got similar fuel figures in Civics without all the hocus-pocus of the hybrid.

Quite frankly I found it gutless. Just like Chevrolet’s Malibu it is fine as long as you are either in town or in Arkansas. Once you started doing a Julie Andrews and climb every mountain you’ve got problems.

Whine, whine and more whine from the engine and precious little performance. By trying to make the least expensive hybrid Honda cut some corners and it shows all round.

Then there are some truly silly things. If you are 6 ft tall you cannot see the speedo so you are guessing. Not good. As for the horn…as John McEnroe would say: they cannot be serious! East German Trabants made 40 years ago had better ones. It is truly, utterly, 100% pathetic.

There are of course lots of pluses as well. The styling is great and there are a hosts of what on other cars would be listed as extras. So things such as the navigation system with voice recognition which would be a 2000 dollars extra is included as is an excellent 6 speaker radio and myriads of other goodies.

So in the end we have a perfectly viable alternative to the Prius which of course is the by-word for economy and almost a pre-requisite if you are moving into Mill Valley.

Prius, latte, foreign films, sandals, iPhone and you’re nearly there. Oops, I nearly forgot the undeclared maid from El Salvador!

By the way, like zillions of others I have also joined twitter which is huge fun. andrewfrankl. Just like that.

That’s it for this months Letter From Europe