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VW CC,Honda Fit, BMW X5, Infiniti G37 and FF Publishing All In This Months Letter From Europe

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Letter From Europe
By Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

Had an old friend on the phone from Kuala Lumpur this morning. An Aussie, he’d spent most of his life in England working as press chief of an organization representing auto makers and suppliers. Yes folks, 25 years ago there were Austins, MGs (the real thing, not the Chinese remake), Rover (yet again, the original British version) just like there were Leyland Trucks and lots of suppliers.

In other words the SMMT was a big deal and it isn’t their fault that some of their members no longer exist. Well, my good friend John certainly does and tells me that Kuala Lumpur is quite a place, especially if you like curry which he loves. His middle name should have been vindaloo! Anyway, he reminded me of what one might call the good old days. The days when FF Publishing (I was one of the “F”s) had magazines like CAR and Truck, Truck & Driver and for a while a true gem called Supercar Classics. Quite successfully I suppose as another Aussie by the name of Rupert Murdoch will testify. He did, after all buy us!

We had some of the top auto writers in the World working for us. Take Leonard Setright for one. Probably the most cultured, best mannered, most respected writer who was so much more than an auto scribe. A musician, a scholar, a linguist who often sprinkled his articles with Latin, Leonard (and NEVER Len or Lenny) was also an exceptional driver. In fact he was so quick that they were threatening to throw him out of the Guild of Motoring Writers, the British equivalent of America’s Motor Press Guild or Western Automotive Journalists. Some great writers like Mel Nichols didn’t even bother to join, he believed it was too stuffy for him.

The funny thing about this august body is that very few members had the guts to go out on their own to start magazines. They didn’t have the courage to hand over the deeds of two houses to the bank manager in exchange for an overdraft facility! Well, what did many of them do instead? Bitch. “All right for some” as that awful saying goes.

To be fair some like Ray Hutton are excellent journalists while others made and still make a tidy living writing press releases for PR companies and speeches for company bosses who otherwise couldn’t put two sentences together. So maybe their envy is somewhat misplaced.

Moving on to a little car which many people envy is the Honda Fit. What a delight! Especially around town. In Ferrari red it caused quite a stir everywhere we went.

Even outside the Ferrari store in San Francisco. By the way if you are thinking of getting anything associated with the Prancing Horse you’ll find the US stores a lot less expensive than the ones in Europe.

I’ve been to stores in Maranello and in Bologna, everything costs at least 25-30% more.

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But back to the little red devil.

The Honda Fit’s 117 hp 1.5 liter SOHC engine will get you around the hills where Bullitt was filmed just don’t expect the same speeds. I wasn’t overly impressed by the brakes which felt spongy but the ride, the handling was just fine. I’ve always admired Honda’s integrity and am sad that they left Formula One just as their team came good, albeit with a Mercedes engine. Would love to have seen them winning after all these years.

The Fit-just to get back to reality-came with the finest air conditioning system I’ve come across in a long while. For some reason-global warming?- Northern California had a heat wave with temperatures in the 90s. The A/C was a God send. A great little car, predominantly for urban use. Wouldn’t be my first choice for a drive from San Francisco to LA on I- 5. Expect 27 miles per gallon in town an 33 on the highway. Price: just under 20 thousand dollars.

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On the other hand what Volkswagen call the 2009 CC Sport would be a joy on that road or on any other for that matter. It is essentially the latest Passat.

VW call it “the perfect blend of design and engineering” and for once even cynical old me cannot disagree. Let me put it this way- I’ve been Grand Prix editor of FORZA, the Ferrari magazine for over 10 years. Apart from a Bentley a while back this was the very first time Editor Jenkins asked to take one of “my” test cars car for a spin.

He was joined by Pete Stout-editor of Excellence, America’s Number One Porsche magazine. These gentlemen who normally drive cars with 450 horses and up reveled in the 200 horsepower VW! What neither they nor my partners at the Belvedere Tennis Club could understand was the price. Under 30,000 dollars.

Let me put it this way-everybody immediately assumed that it was at least 40. What makes it so different?

Well, drive a Chrysler car-any car-then drive this and you’ll see why one is in Chapter 11 and the other is Europe’s biggest car manufacturer . There is the build quality which is stunning. Then there is the engine made in Hungary. 4 cylinder, direct injection inline-it sounds good and it pulls well. The fuel consumption is all right as opposed to stunning, with a light right foot you are looking at around 28 miles per gallon.

Safety is assured with lots of airbags everywhere. The two tone interior is elegant, the seats are excellent both front and back. And what I like most of all is that there are no badges. No GTL, XL, AWD and all these other silly monikers which are completely meaningless at the best of times.

By now you must be wondering whether I am writing a press release about a perfect automobile. Of course there is no such thing and this is no exception.

The heating controls are positively awful, tiny number and letters, hard to see even with glasses on. With sun glasses on it is just a wild guess. Whoever designed it must have worked for Wartburg in what - until 20 years ago - was the East German Republic. Apart from that I would be nitpicking to find faults. A great product-new Chrysler please copy!

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The 2009 G37 Infiniti Coupe is a fine car but at 47 thousand dollars (with extras) it looks like a prime target for some hard- nosed bargaining. It does look beautiful and is does go like smoke. The 3.7 liter DOHC V6 is a great engine and it had been tuned in such a way that it sounds even better!

7 speed automatic transmission with sports mode added, manual shift mode, independent front and rear suspension, dual flow Path shock absorbers, you name it, the G37 has it. Of course what it now has is a new baby sister-the convertible. Let me continue the G37 story once I’ve had a chance to drive it!

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The BMW X5 is a very different beast.

The new 3.0liter advanced diesel engine is simply amazing. Does it sound like a diesel? A tiny bit. Does it emit tons of blue smoke? Certainly not! Does it go like smoke? Absolutely. Fully loaded with all the extras it does cost a pretty penny but at just under 70 thousand dollars it really does have everything with the exception of the kitchen sink!

I dare say that if you went to a dealer today and offered sticker price he would gladly throw in the sink and the cooker as well. On the other hand if you would just like the “basic” product you could get it for about 50 thousand dollars. It would still be rock solid, would still get 26 miles per gallon and the things you would have to sacrifice would be things like the premium package, the cold weather package, the sport package and the technology package.

You would still be left with a great engine, great seats, plenty of room, all wheel drive, 4 wheel anti lock ventilated disc brakes and lots of airbags. In this day and age when you’ll find CEO-s in economy on transatlantic flights what is the big deal about a sports leather steering wheel?

So my advice would be to go to the dealer, ask for the basic package and the chances are he’ll still give you an X5 with quite a few extras because car companies tend not to make basic cars. The money, the mark-up is on the packages. Trust me, I worked for one.