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WAJ Report, Goodbye Tom, Expensive Cars, Yea's and Nays in This Month's Letter From Europe

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By Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

The Western Automotive journalists’ test days are always the highlights of the year. About 60 auto writers gather in Monterey, California to drive the latest offering from the manufacturers.

Brilliantly organized by Page One-a specialist company closely associated with the automotive industry-we had a feast.

The list is far too long to mention all the cars but one I cannot leave out is the Rolls-Royce Ghost. Encouraged by a brave RR employee we saw 110 miles per hour on the clock accompanied by the gentlest of roars. Full credit to my colleague who was at the wheel at the time, to avoid a knock on his door I will skip his name.

This is as good a time as any to say good-bye and happy retirement to old friend Tom Purves. Having started at RR as an apprentice 40 years ago Tom recently left as CEO.

Apart from his great managerial qualities Tom is famous for his sartorial elegance. I’ve only ever seen him once without his Saville Row suit and the obligatory Hermes tie and that was at Indy some years ago.

Of the cars at the WAJ day the most pleasant surprise was Nissan’s Cube Krom. It is so ugly it’s cute. I will never ever be able to persuade grand son Freddy to drive one although I think a lot of girls would find it far more fun than some souped up sportscar. I was cruising along in it at 75 miles per hour. Huge fun.

More Freddy’s cup of tea would have been Jaguar’s venerable XKR convertible, a car I’ve always loved. Comfortable, quick, a delight to drive. There is a new version on its way, the sensible thing is to buy the last of the current model which will have a discount, all so called “run-out” cars do.

I was due to drive the new XJ but circumstances prevented me to do so here in California, however, all being well I hope to catch up with it in England. There is something special about taking a Jaguar to the British Grand Prix.

Audi’s A3 was also at the test day. Apparently our local dealer had an allocation of just 8, seven of which were pre-ordered. It is great but black on black is a bit depressing.

I had a great old time in Lincoln’s MKT. The drive to Tahoe was pleasant, relaxing and comfortable with a fuel consumption of exactly 20 miles per gallon. Pretty amazing for such a big beast. It looks huge but once on the road it feels a lot less so. A major complaint about a truly silly oversight-you cannot have a virtually invisible hazard light. How it got past all those planners and engineers I will never know.

The MKT moniker is of course hugely confusing with all the various MKX, FX, MDX and God knows how many other similar names, it is probably sensible to call it just Lincoln to avoid confusion.

The MKZ –just to make the name game even more confusing - is very nice to drive once you figure out what it is. Imagine going into a dealer who’ll then try and explain that you can have a 3.5 liter engine or an Ecoboost or two wheel drive, four wheel drive, one that parks itself, the other which doesn’t, one with pedal shifts, one without, I do think some simplification is called for.

In the meantime the MKZ had four wheel drive, went like smoke and did a very respectable 24 miles per gallon. It struck me as very good value at the list price of 36 thousand dollars. Less so with all the extras which pushes the price well into the 40s.

I do love the story about a very good friend of mine who’s been at Ford Motor Company for what seems like forever. He had some shares in the company which quadrupled in price. Went out and bought a new car for his wife from the proceeds!

Moving swiftly on to BMW I made an interesting discovery. You can t buy two for the price of one and-outside extreme circumstances-without having to make any sacrifices at all. I am referring to the X5.

I had two for test one after the other and it struck me what amazing value the X5 xDrive 3.Oi turned out to be.

The three liter engine is excellent, the interior is exactly the same as the X5M, the price is something like 40 thousand dollars less (!) and the consumption improves from 12/17 to 15/21.

I understand that the Russians and the Chinese are queuing up for the M, so quite frankly let them have it. As for the price you have to pay for -we’ve just had a letter from old friend Jack Pitney (VP of Sales) and reading between the lines it looks as though there may be some serious opportunities for haggling.

There are several BMWs in our parking lot and apart from the odd minor grumble all the punters seem happy. They not too enamored with the local dealer so many of them prefer either driving to BMW of SF or across the bridge to Wetherfords.

Just after the BMWs came a brace of Mercs. I found the GLK a bit of a disappointment. The steering is wishy-washy and the interior is in desperate need of a face-lift. I am also wondering whether one could order Mercedes cars without that badly placed cruise control lever.

I’ve yet to meet anyone-including people manning the stand at the LA Show who disagree with me. It is what is known in the trade as a delete option. People often ask for badges to be deleted. To fool-at least some of the bad guys -lots of people will put 2.4 diesel on the back of a 550. Trust me, I am not making this up.

And I am certainly not making it up when I say that driving the new S400 hybrid was a great experience. The venue-the Auberge du Soleil was just the right destination. Very beautiful, as a food guide rather cleverly described it very pre-Lehman.

In other words very expensive but they were very accommodating when we stopped for the view and a glass of wine. This was the first time the valets had seen the 400H so I’ve spent more time with them then at the bar!

For the record it is 295 horsepower, 3.5 liter 24 -valve Aluminum V6 Mild Hybrid. The fuel consumption is an amazing 19/26 miles per gallon. I can testify to getting around 24 without hanging around.

It would be fair to say that Mercedes threw the kitchen sink at it-you would be very hard pushed to ask for anything it doesn’t have.

On the mechanical side the only disappointment is the rather leisurely 0-60 in 7.2 seconds which owners of 550s will find somewhat sluggish. The top speed is 130 miles per hour, I will take the company’s word for it.

The car is amazingly silent-we are talking Rolls Royce silence here. The build quality is superb, everything about this car says money no object. Actually it might be if you are planning to buy one. We are talking about 110 thousand dollars including all extras or 88 thousand without them.

I suppose you could do without 8 way power adjustable rear seats and a 2 and a half thousand dollar rear seat entertainment package but I do see this as essentially a chauffeur driven expense account car, most definitely more Wall Street than Main Street! Must say in sparkling white it looked more Palm Springs then Belvedere but let’s face it-it does come in other, more subtle colors.

As for as Mercedes are concerned this is a very clever car for two reasons. On the one hand CEO-s with a conscience can point out that they are green (ish) and on the other hand the company’s overall fuel average will get a great deal nearer to what the American Government quite rightly expects. That’s it for this months Letter From Europe, Happy Derby to all my friends in Louisville KY.