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Rants, Raves and Kudos in This Month's Letter from Europe

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By Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

Had an interesting experience the other day. Our adorable neighbor wanted to buy a new car. So we got into his 1956 Bentley to see what Marin County’s finest dealers had to offer. It was illuminating.

The first thing that struck me was that none of them offered us a glass of water or a cup of coffee. Yes, I know that there are coffee machines inside but how about making people feel welcomed the minute they step into your showroom? And we weren’t talking second-hand Aveo-s. What struck me was the appalling arrogance, especially at Sonnen BMW.

Even former chairman and old friend Tom Purves admitted that yes, when a dealer makes tons of money there is a tendency not to be modest. To put it mildly.

Classic case of a local monopoly. Anyway, in the end we came home somewhat chastised but it was fun in a masochistic sort of way.

So imagine my surprise when my wife decided to trade in her 4 years old Toyota Prius for another one and within a stone throw of the dealers whose names escape me. The original car came from some truly professional people up in Petaluma but the long drive for parts or service was not in their favor. Still, it all depended on Toyota Marin. They are under new management. And it shows. The same owner-a man who is happiest when racing his 250 Maserati F (worth at least as much as any of his dealerships!) has done a good job. We were uncertain to begin with but were completely blown away by their employees. The attitude was right, the price was right and the car is vastly better than the previous one.

I’ll keep you posted.

There are two types of Auto Shows, the so-called "A" show such as LA, Paris, Geneva, Frankfurt, Detroit and Tokyo and the "B" shows such as the one currently running in San Francisco. I have been to a great many of the "A" show bit I must say this year's SF Show is truly excellent. Of course the GM and Chrysler revivals help a great deal but overall it really is worth a visit. I particularly liked the little Fiat 500 which will be a massive success on the Coasts, the Volt of course and also the exhibit by the local Art College. That alone is worth a trip.

Two cars which, with respect , are just sort of all right are the Mazda 3 and Mitsubishi’s Lancer Sportback. Around 20 thousand dollars these offer basic comfort, A/C and everything you would expect at this price. I know that there are millions of people who would love to have either of these but would miss that wonderful three letter word: fun! For that you either have to pay a lot more for a MazdaSport or a tweaked Lancer or spend a lot less and get a Mazda 2.

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The new Mazda2, what a delight! I cannot remember the last time a car, any car has attracted this much attention. In lime green it stood out like, well never mind, let’s leave it that. Friends, colleagues couldn’t wait to drive it. To be honest the car is a lot more fun standing. The five speed gear looks very appealing after all the automatics but to get it into reverse gear you have to be very skillful and this is from someone has been driving manuals for over 40 years. The other, even more important downside-it is gutless. Big time gutless. The 100 hp 1.5 liter engine with 98 lb ft of torque is simply not up to the task. Give it a 1.8 liter engine, fix the gear box and you’ll have a great little car on your hands. After all it does have all the basic amenities which 20 or so years ago would have been extras. And it looks good. So can we have a little bit more oomph please!

And a little bit oomph is what Nissan’s 2011 Versa has. Not tons more but enough to merge onto highways without too much fear or trepidation. At under 20 thousand dollars it has oodles of extras which would have cost a small fortune not that many years ago. Let me give you an idea. Go back 20-25 years. Air bags- didn’t exist. Now standard. A/C? Only in very expensive cars.

Electric windows as standard? You must be joking. Disc brakes? Once more, go back to the Jaguars and BMWs, certainly not on Datsun’s which are known as Nissan today. Power locks, fold-down seats, radios (yes, these were extras!) are all part and parcel of 20 thousand dollar motoring in 2010.

Navigation systems? Unheard of at any price. And the exciting thing is that there is so much more to come!

Admittedly driving will become more and more like cooking or watching TV. But rest assured-there will always be some funs cars to be had, even at reasonable prices.

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Stand by for the new Fiat 500 at your Chrysler dealer in 2011. Small it might be-huge fun it is. What is going to be a massive hit in the cinemas is a film entitled” Made in Dagenham”. It hasn’t got as far as San Francisco but I know what it is about. You see I’ve worked for Ford Motor Company in the 60s. In Dagenham. Alongside the production lines ladies this film is about were sewing car-seat upholstery.

The film is “R” rated as it contains “strong language”. I can vouch for that. Any health inspector in 2010 would have a heart attack at the conditions that existed at the time but I loved it. Seeing and later meeting Mr. Ford II, running into legends such as Colin Chapman-legendary founder of Lotus Cars-I loved it.

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Staying on the other side of the pond I had a wonderful time in the 2011 Range Rover. One thing I really like about it that nobody has to ask-what it is. The shape, that box-like appearance hasn’t changed since day one. Everything else has. First and foremost the build quality which for a long while was the company’s weakest link. Not anymore. The build quality, the welding, the paint, the total lack of rattles and the commanding seats set it apart from all other contenders. No wonder Royalty and bad guys alike choose it above anything else.

How can you tell the difference? The Royal ones have escorts, the other ones which you do not want to go near to have blacked-out rear windows and are full of rather mean-looking thugs.

For either clientele it certainly isn’t sluggish. 5 liter 375 horsepower V8 aluminum alloy engine, 375 ft lbs torque will certainly satisfy most customers and there are even more powerful options available as well as armor plating of course.

Bearing in mind that I am about to drive the automobile industry’s saviors-the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt maybe I should feel guilty about loving the Range Rover. It does about 18 miles per gallon (I’ve managed to get 20 by not being lead-footed) and as it costs 87 thousand dollars it will clearly not save the World. (Any more than a few electric cars will but that’s another story.)

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I've asked a very distinguished colleague about getting to Squaw Valley for the holidays in a Tesla. Well, he said, first you stop in Sacramento for several hours while it recharges and then you’ll have to find another recharging station in the mountains.

Forgive me if in the meantime and hopefully for several years to come I stick to the Range Rover. Even if the nav system/radio, etc is still very 20th Century exactly like it is in the latest and brilliant Jaguar XJ. Same company of course, now owned by Tata of India, two great cars, one bad design. Come on chaps, why not talk to someone in Bangalore? They’ll fix it in no time!

Next month I’ll tell you about my adventures in Cape Canaveral and about a fab new GM car-the Caddy Coupe plus my traditional end of year summary of the good, the bad and the ugly. I have to laugh at some of these instant automotive internet sites, when I talk to their guys they ask how long we’ve been around. You can hear their jaws dropping as I say oh, just 15 years…Happy Holiday’s top all.