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Two New Great European Luxo-diesels; Ford's Shelby Mustang GT in This Month's Letter From Europe

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Letter from Europe
Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

Hello and apologies for the delay in my newest Letter From Europe, but things have been rather hectic during the Summer.

After my recent Maserati/Lambo/Ferrari extravaganza( see it here) it was time for a quick dash back to San Francisco and then back London. I am on first name terms with the lady at Virgin Atlantic so you can imagine why I was beginning to feel a bit like George Clooney in “Up in the Air”. Pity I don’t look like him…

Anyway, back to automobiles. After leaving BMW’s stunning new 740 at SFO it was quite a change to re-visit my old Volvo S70 in London. It may be 12 years old but runs like a dream, does 24 miles per gallon and after a good cleaning, looks like new. Not that I had a chance to drive it too much.

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Just like last year Jaguar once again very kindly offered me a test car for the weekend of the British Grand Prix. I am sure I’ve said the same thing last year but there is something special about driving a car made just up the road. And, may I add, not just any old car but the latest singing, dancing XJ which is already a runaway success.

It looks dramatically different from the previous XJ and it really is very 21st century with one exception, the navigation system. It is not worthy of the car and I am sure it will be changed.

Interestingly enough upon my return to the States I went to see the local Jaguar dealer who confirmed to me that whilst he loved the XJ the feel of the screen was a huge disappointment after the iPad.

The reason why it upsets me is because the rest of the car is exceptional. First of all it looks great in an understated, elegant way. It is also amazingly comfortable with umpteen adjustments making sure that anyone driving it would be relaxed. The instruments are easy to read and the XJ is also very easy to drive.

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The model I had is as yet not available in the United States as it is a diesel which will need years of homologation by which time thanks to rivals Mercedes and BMW customers will be ready for a diesel Jag. Diesels used to be smelly, messy affairs-no more. Unless you were told that this was a diesel you would only find out at the pump, hopefully before you start filling up as gas could make it very costly. The silence is golden and the consumption is phenomenal. I must have done over 400 miles before filling up and we are not talking about a Mini.

But the thing that sets this Jaguar apart from all-and I mean all-other big cars in the ride and handling. The company has on its staff a gentleman by the name of Mike Cross and he has to be in a class of his own. He must also live somewhere in Oxfordshire in England. I know because only a local could have set up the suspension the way he did.

It so happened that a great mate needed a lift back Gloucestershire. Having done the trip a thousand times he knew all the back doubles which enabled us to A: have some fun and B: to avoid the jams round Oxford. I am not a great passenger but he is a very fine driver and I must say the new XJ and his Range Rover very much looked the part standing side by side on his gravel drive. I also rather enjoyed passing a truckload of new XJs on the M40 en route to their owners.

What I love more than anything else that Mr. Ratan Tata, boss of Tata Industries had the faith-and the money- to enable Jaguar not just to survive but also to flourish. The XJ just went on sale in the United States and I would certainly take a trip to the nearest dealer before automatically ending up at one of the more obvious German makes.

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There were two amusing moments during the Silverstone weekend. The first was a trip round the circuit courtesy of Renault who let me have one of their bicycles. Huge fun. The humiliation part came when I was beaten 10:0 in table football by double World Champion Fernando Alonso. Still, at least I wasn’t beaten by an unknown...

The second car of the summer came my way courtesy of BMW Hungary. It was a bitter-sweet occasion because when the car was offered to me the last year in the BMW motorhome the team were still part of Formula One. Not just part, probably the most decent and honest part. Their F1 boss, the much-missed Mario Thiessen went back to Munich along with his team and in the cold light of day I can understand their decision.

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In any case, being the good guys that they are the offer still stood so when my BA flight landed from London there was Mr. Szucs, their fleet manager with a brand new 530d. Couldn’t have asked for more- a car I’ve never driven and one which is not yet for sale in the United States.

This European model (not for the U.S.) BMW has a straight-six 3 liter diesel engine with aluminum crankcase, a turbocharger with variable turbine geometry and common rail direct fuel injection, 398 lb-ft maximum torque , a 0-100km figure of 6.3 seconds, a top speed of 155 miles per hour and an average fuel consumption of 44 miles per gallon. To give you some idea my wife had a 530i in the United States for a number of years, same size, more or less the same weight and a fuel consumption of 20 mpg. Roll on clean diesel!

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Two things struck me immediately. The car has the clearest instruments panel I’ve come across in 40 years of automotive journalism. Stunning clarity and simplicity. Bravo. The other is that after years and years of nagging by all and sundry, the navigational system is now easy to use. I loved it. The one niggle remaining is of course the indicator which still goes from left to right and right to left refusing to stop in the middle and thereby confusing everyone. The silly thing is that the necessary component-a stronger spring- would probably cost half a euro if that.

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On the road the 530d was as silent as its Jaguar rival in England and did absolutely everything I’ve asked it to do. An old friend who bought his 530 in England and drove it across to Hungary tried the latest version and regretted that he didn’t specify the diesel engine.

We both admired the subtle styling changes which made the car even more elegant. By now you are probably saying that I am singing for my supper and cannot find anything wrong with the car but quite frankly I can’t, and there is little point in trying to find some just for the sake of it.

BMW is a best-seller world-wide and as the saying goes you can fool some people some of the time but not all people all the time. The sales volumes speak for themselves. As do profits. The company is selling more BMWs, more Minis (with huge profit margins thanks to add the extras) and even Rolls-Royces. As boss Norbert Reithofer said:” we expect that earnings will grow dynamically over the course of the year”.

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After several days of celebrating the 25that the Hungaroring it was time to meet Mr. Szucs once more at the airport, this time to hand back the car. There are of course several petrol and diesel 5 series cars on sale in Europe, the one I had for test was the most expensive of the diesel range with all the bells and whistles. The price is in excess of 70 thousand dollars bearing in mind that cars in Europe invariably cost more than in the United States. I am sure one day the 530d will reach these shores and I am equally certain that it will be a massive success.

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What a difference a day-in the air-makes. Goodbye Europe, hello SFO and what do I have waiting for me in politically correct California? A Prius? A Mini? A Smart? Well, not exactly.

How about a 550 horsepower Ford Shelby GT!?! Holy Moses. 6 speed stick shift, all those ponies and all that jet lag. Never mind, last time I’d driven a really quick Ford was a Mustang Mach 1 back in 1969 when I had a blast round Michigan International Raceway. Well, Highway 101 is somewhat different and on the way home I had to be really careful to avoid the men with the flashing blue lights as the white car with the huge red stripes stood out like, oh, well, you know what I mean.

A few days later we went with grandson Freddy to Stinson Beach (what a sad place that is) and then on to Bolinas. With that amount of horsepower the Shelby Mustang GT packs, we had to be a bit careful not to take a quick plunge into the Pacific, but common sense prevailed, well, most of the time.

It is a silly car? Of course. Is it more suitable for race tracks? Absolutely. Could you get to LA from SF without refueling at least twice? Out of the question. On the other hand according to 16 year old Freddy there isn’t another car which would attract girls like this white and red monster at any price! And surely, to youngsters that is all that matters!

That about catches me up…more soon.