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Andrew Frankl's "Letter From Europe" June 2010 - VIDEO ENHANCED

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The Maserati GranCabrio is so beautiful it earned us the "place of honor" parking spot at the Monte Carlo Casino

Apple iPad, MINI Cooper S, Maserati, Ferrari and More

By Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief

After 14 years of working for The Auto Channel intially on typewriters (!), old Toshibas and early Macs, the time has come to send you my very first report on Apple's new iPad. It is very, very exciting. I wasn't too sure about it but after a day I was sold. Sitting at Milan Airport and playing scrabble, reading newspapers, it is amzing. Mind you, having a great bunch of people at Apple's Corte Madera branch makes all the difference. They went to a great deal of trouble to get me the little camera connecting gizmo at a time when these simply were not available. Unfortunately, Apple's PR department is as bad as Corte Madera is good; their idea of PR is to look after David Pogue of the NY Times and that's all. Pity.

"Anyway," I hear you say, "never mind about your iPad, what about the cars?" Well, while still in California I had a chance to drive two great British cars, the Mini Cooper S and the latest, singing, dancing Range Rover. The Mini was a bundle of energy. Much, much better built than the ones 50 years ago, and under BMW's guidance it's become a world-wide success. I still find the engine more rough than ready and some quirks remain, however. The silliest thing is the key, which has to be inserted horizontally into a dark hole. Why?

The MINI's fuel consumption worked out at 29.5 miles per gallon, respectable but a long way from my wife's Prius at 44.9. On the other hand the Mini's build quality is far superior. The price is a pretty frightening $30,000; which I am sure you could negotiate down by dropping something called the "Mayfair Package."

The supercharged Range Rover is the top of the Land Rover tree; it's the King of SUVs. It really is equally at home in Aspen as it is outside the San Francisco Yacht Club. We took a quick trip up Mount Tam and it had such presence that even the mountain lions left after taking a look. London's Chelsea is also full of them - a sign that unlike lesser SUVs the Range Rover is here to stay. Soon it was time to say good-bye and head for San Francisco's International Airport. The Gods and the captain of Virgin's 747 were with us as he successfully managed to circumnavigate the Icelandic clouds. Then further miracles, the Captain of the British Airways flight to Bologna managed to do the same thing.

Meeting old friend Sergio and his 525 BMW was no miracle - he has been looking after us for years. We had a quick trip to Maserati's HQ in Modena to be greeted by the truly delightful Claudia whose smile makes the Mona Lisa look like a non-starter. Her boss, Andrea Cittadini wasn't quite so thrilled when he saw the amount of luggage we had with us. What he didn't know was our secret pre-trip recce of the GrandCabrio in San Francisco with the help of local boss Alex Lawson. He very kindly came round to Belvedere where we road-tested the back seats(!) with suitcases. So we knew these would fit.

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Just enough space and luggage

Claudia very kindly got two huge blankets to cover the pristine leather and we were off. I did the first stretch, daughter and fellow MPG member Annabelle did the second stint with the tunnels. Three and a half hours later we were greeted by the one and only Raymond Viano outside the Meridien Beach Plaza, our traditional home during the Grand Prix.

A couple of words about the car. First of all let me say that this is a highly biased report, I loved it and would be happy to have it tomorrow. Regular readers know that I don't often say this.

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Maserati GranCabrio
The GranCabrio has Ferrari's 4.7 liter engine delivering 440 horsepower. It revs to 7200 rpm and has a top speed of 274 kilometers per hour with the top down (I have to take the factory's word for it). I did see 220 on the speedo which was just fine with me. Even though the Italian police do tolerate a bit of excess speed it makes sense not to tempt providence too much. By the way I didn't test the 0-100 times either as I think that is school boy stuff. Whether it is 5.3 or 5.4 is quite immaterial. What does matter and I can vouch for is the 100-0 figure of 35 meters. Phew! The interior is drop dead gorgeous. It will seat four people comfortably for a leisurely lunch somewhere in Malibu. Just don't expect to take anything beyond hand bags, swimming trunks and maybe tennis rackets. It really is a case of 'either/or.'
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We drove with all the suitcases on the back seats and with the top down. It was sensational. The navigational system - for a long time Maserati's weakest link - was simply superb. The voice was reassuring, only spoke when it was necessary and didn't get hysterical when we took the wrong turn. As for the styling, well, let me tell you a true story. During the Grand Prix weekend - and obviously not when the race is on - only certain cars can be parked outside the Casino. The man in charge, Monsiuer Jean Paul is the decider. He does know his cars. Porsches and 90% of Mercs are sent to the nearest underground garage; 348 Ferraris ditto. He took one look at the GranCabrio and asked us to leave it just by the main entrance. The scene was a bit like the Vanity Fair Oscar's after party with flashing cameras everywhere. A very happy scene indeed. Prince Albert very kindly invited us to his annual cocktail party in the Palace where the policemen in white gloves (!) immediately found a place for the Maser.

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Ferrari 458 and Lamborghini Gallardo Balboni

Then it was time to leave for Modena. Did we do a full road test? No. Any more than potential customers would. It is not a racing car, not a Ferrari Scuderia or a Murcielago. Having said that we were soon driving Ferrari's new 458 and Lamborghini's Gallardo Balboni, a tweaked special in honor of their legendary test driver. In fact, we were very lucky to get into the Ferrari at all, a hapless journalist wrote of the other 50% of the test fleet leaving the hard-working Press Department with thousands of requests and just one car! We took it rather quickly and headed for the Ceramics Museum in Castello de Spezzano.

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Hearing Ferraris going round the test track while taking pictures in a 12th century castle was a pretty amazing juxtaposition. All this happened thanks to our good friends at Piemme Ceramics. They went to a great deal of trouble to get the cars into the court yard for the photo shoot. They also very kindly treated us to the excellent lunch during which their charismatic chairman asked for a decent bottle of wine claiming quite rightly that Lambrusco was Italy's answer to Coca-Cola. How very true. Tourists who visit Maranello by the thousands all duly drink it at local tourist traps where they are told that it was Enzo Ferrari's favourite drink. If it was, then he had better taste in cars than in wine!

Regarding the 458 and the Lambo, I must come clean and express a preference for the Ferrari. It is astonishingly quick yet truly easy to drive. When the cabrio comes next year I am sure there will be an order book a mile long. The interior does take a bit of figuring out. It is, to use a good scrabble word, quirky.(66 on a triple.)

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The Lambo is a bit too much car for me. Yes, of course I can drive it but it is a bit twitchy... what the French call "nervous." Certainly looks great and goes like smoke. The 458 looks a lot better in real life: the pictures don't do it justice. But at the end of the day for me it was the new Maserati that I look back upon with a huge smile on my face. On the Monday after the race I took it through the tunnel in Monaco. In sports mode. Alone. With the top down. If there is automotive heaven this was it.