The Auto Channel
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
Official Website of the New Car Buyer

A Goodbye, A Leaf, A Kia, A Jolt to Volt, A Laugh or Two In This Months Letter From Europe

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

From Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

Let me start this Letter from Europe with a tribute to old friend David E. Davis. We lost him to cancer a few days ago. There is no doubt in my mind that he and the ailing Brock Yates were the most influential American auto writers I’ve ever met.

In the 70s and 80s we were busy running FF Publishing in the UK and David was a frequent visitor. He loved CAR Magazine in general and the late LJK Setright in particular. We had long and detailed discussions about launching CAR’s American edition but regrettably it didn’t happen. Let’s put it this way-it wasn’t for lack of trying by either of us!

In fact when we were together in New York for the launch of a rather leisurely re-run of  Cannonball (that wonderful, truly illegal race from Sea to Shining Sea) he very kindly gave me a copy of his latest book with the dedication: “Andrew, we should have been partners” . I wish we had been.

It is rather difficult to write about mundane matters such as things on four wheels after such a loss but David would most definitely have expected the show to go on. So I must. Things have been rather hectic of late with cars  coming and going at rather a rapid pace.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

I only had  the Kia Optima EX for three days but I am now beginning to understand what all the fuss is about. The Koreans have made giant strides in a very short space of time. The Optima is a classic example. Step one: offer an awful lot of money to a top designer from Europe. Listen to what he says. Step two: spend even more money to get his entire team over from Germany. Step three: do what they tell you. Result: from underdogs to Westminster Show winners in a matter of years.

Clearly the interior of the Kia is a clever imitation what Audi has to offer but at a fraction of the cost. If you were led into this car with your eyes shut you would never guess where it came from. And while you may think that it is a heavily subsidized giveaway-far from it!

The  Optima with all the extras came to 27 thousand dollars, bang in the middle of Ford/GM/Toyota/Honda country. While maintaining the eye-catching and reassuring 100 thousand mile limited power train warranty they also offer a 60 thousand mile limited basic warranty as well, way beyond   the rest of the industry..

Before you think that this is some sort of Optima commercial let me point out some shortcomings. You drive in a straight line, turn the steering wheel 10 degrees to the right or left and the car goes straight on. Not good. The engine, a 4 cylinder 2.4 liter unit is all right rather than outstanding. A pity that the guy who designed the Optima didn’t get a chance to bring with him the Audi engine gurus as well. On a scale of ten I would give the interior 10, the styling 9 and the engine 6. Oh, marketing-such as sponsoring the Australian Tennis Open-a big 10.

The Optima shows the current Mitsubishi is a less than favorable light. I had a chance to drive the new Outback. Modest to the nth degree. Great pity as it looks really nice from the outside. I’ve been in touch with their people who assure me that they are aware of the deficiencies and will attend to them when their new production facility comes on stream in the United States.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

The Lancer GTS was a lot better. Whilst not a huge hit from the stylistic point of view I would describe it as an honest work horse. A very long way from the Kentucky Derby winner but it gets you there all the same.

The fuel consumption worked out at a very respectable 30 miles per gallon, we went from Tiburon to Carmel and back on one tank of gas at a steady 70 miles per hour. The frustrating thing with the Lancer is that it is nearly there. 

To be fair it is cheaper than the Optima at 24 thousand dollars with all the optional equipment but is not a great buy. There are a lot of cars out there which offer better value. Maybe it is time to see if there are good designers left in Germany who could be lured to Mizushima in Japan. It will be a hard sell but worth a try.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

A 2011 Honda Accord is a bye-word for everything that is honest in automobile engineering. No wonder it keeps winning awards year after year. Somehow you know that whatever your destination the Accord will get you there, something that is reflected in high used car prices. At 32 thousand dollars with extras it isn’t a bargain in the pure financial sense as there are several other cars offering most of what the Honda has but the emphasis is on the “most”. Or nearly. Or maybe. One day.

The fuel consumption worked out a respectable but not stunning 28.6 mpg. I can’t help feeling that the V6 engine needs some cleaning up, a smog rating of 5 out of 10 is nothing to write home about. The global warming score of 7 was also below average.

It still didn’t stop us from acquiring the 2011 Odyssey which is busy transporting the twins, the 3 year old  ballerina to be and the 100 pound dog as well as prams and all the usual paraphernalia that Mums know so well.

Had a good laugh the other day. Ford Motor Company got hysterical because Ferrari-to celebrate 150 years of Italy’s independence called their new  racing car Ferrari F150. This-thundered Ford Motor Company could cause irreparable damage to the reputation of  our truck, the Ford F150.

Ferrari made a minor alteration to the name and  the following week  Ford recalled over 200 thousand of the trucks for faulty airbags . It is clearly all Ferrari’s fault.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

Had an interesting day testing cars in Monterrey a couple of weeks ago. Organized by our group, the Western Automotive Journalists, there were automobiles for every taste.

My highlight was driving the Mercedes SLS, a serious Ferrari/Lamborghini competitor. Tested and signed off by 7 times world champion Michael Schumacher it was an amazing experience. Lots of power, gull wings, gorgeous red interior-the works.

Equally enjoyable was the Lotus Evora. I had a chance to drive it in England a couple of years ago, it got better with age. Great gearbox, a reliable Toyota engine, amazingly agile handling-fun!

One car I positively disliked was GM’s Volt. A case of media hype and hysteria over value for money. At over 40 thousand dollars it has to be the worst value in cars I’ve ever encountered. As to why the Government should subsidize it God only knows.

When the batteries go flat it does about 27 to a gallon on the regular engine. Maybe it will get better  but right now stick with a Cruze for half the money.

It was good to see Jaguar’s much-loved Ree Hartwell on the West Coast. She is everybody’s favorite PR person, bit like a Mum to us all. She had a horrendous time health wise so welcome back!

Her colleague Wayne York Kung was with us last year as well but  at  that time with a huge Rolls Royce. Apparently in the meantime he had one of those “Hi, why don’t we have a coffee” telephone calls out of the blue so he came back this year with  Jaguar .  Can’t say I blame him, the company is doing very well indeed. The XF and the XL are exceptional.

The Mitsubishi people were particularly understanding about my recent remarks and readily admitted that some of their engine and drive trains are in need of an update.  . As I‘ve said before it is wonderful to have bosses who allow me to write things as I see them and not as the manufactures and especially the dealers would me to write  about them. Thank you B & M.

PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)

Having just said good-bye to the Leaf-in three words: I love it! Might sound strange from someone who spends most of his time either driving or writing about exotica such Ferrari , Maserati and Lamborghini but now, after the Japanese tsunami and resulting tragedy I am rapidly becoming a convert to wind and solar power.

The Leaf-on clean electricity which I am sure will come one day is definitely the answer for millions of gas-guzzling Mums and Dads. My stomach positively turned as I was watching little Johnnies being dropped off at playschool in things which do 10-12 to a gallon.

But what it’s like to live with? As long as your commute or everyday life does not necessitate anything in excess of 75-80 miles between  recharges-a dream.

100% electric with a truly soothing interior with all mod cons such as  Bluetooth, a good audio system, an intelligent key you can leave in your pocket, reverse camera, you name it.

On the road it is pretty quick and cruising at 70 miles an hour on Highway 101 with the traffic is easy. You just feel more relaxed than the other guys. Every single person who saw it wanted to drive it, something that has never ever happened to me in 40 years!

As soon as I’ve mentioned that it was standing outside friends were literally running out into the rain to take it for a spin. And they all came back grinning as though they’ve seen the future of motoring. Right now there is a waiting list all over the World which will of course get smaller in time just like the one for the iPad2.

The price is over 30 thousand dollars which with subsidies will come down to around 25 grand. Yes, there are lots of perfectly good cars at that price but there is something about the Leaf that got to me. Hard to describe-you must drive it to understand it.

By the way one thing you can forget about forever is waiting in line at a gas station. You drive home, pop the charger into the wall socket and   enjoy the rest of the evening. Incidentally you can also check on your iPhone how the charging is coming along-  all very 21st Century.

I am also certain that the range will improve over time. Assuming that you are a two car family of course you should have a cross-over as a first car for long distances but if your needs are truly local and you really care about the environment then the Leaf is the car for you.

That's it for this month.