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A Princely Cocktail Party, A Race, FAST!Test Drives, Diesel Jaguar Kudos, Maserati Love, Ferrari and McClaren - In This Months Letter From Europe

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By Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

Let me start at the end. I've just said good bye to Jaguar's hugely popular XJ, the car members of the British Government use as well as various members of the Royal family. Apart from anything else it looks the part. Understated elegance is the best way to describe it.

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Well, it looks understated everywhere except in the International Press car park at the British Grand Prix where there were numerous suggestions concerning my wealth and friends in high places.

The 3 liter diesel short wheel base XJ is not exactly inexpensive, in Britain it will set you back 66 thousand pounds which translates to over 100 thousand dollars. It does have of course everything bar the kitchen sink but what is more important-you would never know that it was a diesel unless someone told you. The 0-60 acceleration figure is an impressive 6 seconds and they had to limit the top speed to 155 miles per hour, sufficient for most of us I think. I drove from Central London to Silverstone, from there to Warwick where I got completely lost as always in the one way system, eventually on to Claverdon, back to Silverstone and finally to London. I can vouch for the fuel consumption figure of 41 miles per gallon.

Jaguar were always in a class of their own when it came to handling, it was the build, the association with Lucas that was the problem. Mercifully those days are over. It amazes me how Mr Tata (a lovely man) managed to transform the company and how sales are increasing the World over.

The one thing the company has to rectify-and they know it- is the navigation system. Whilst they are ahead of their rivals in many areas in this respect they are seriously behind. I will very surprised if something isn't done in the near future. Now for the more than 64 thousand dollar question-would I buy it? The answer has to be no. It is one or maybe two sizes too big for me. Give me the XF or maybe the "little “one that is supposedly in the works. On the other hand if most of your driving is on motorways , autobahns or autoroutes then drifting along at around 100 miles per hour listening to Mozart or Mahler in total silence courtesy of Bowers& Wilkins the XJ is probably the way to go.

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I deliberately said probably because it has a serious rival in Maserati's latest Quattroporte. It is a very different proposition in terms of propulsion, the 4.7 liter Ferrari engine underneath the hood is a far cry from a 3 liter diesel but cruising in either is a piece of cake. Both have what I call presence although the Jaguar is more subdued. When that Maserati grill appears in your rearview mirror and you hear the music of that Ferrari engine you know it is time to change lanes rather rapidly.

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Certainly in Monaco the QP is a smash hit every time and the policeman always salutes when I go up to the Palace for Prince Albert's annual cocktail party the evening before the Grand Prix. This year it was a little bit different as the topics were not so much the race as the forthcoming wedding which you will have read about by now.

The other topic was a soccer game which was taking place between Barcelona and Manchester United for a major European trophy at the same time as the reception. Now don't get me wrong, drinking Tattinger champagne in the Palace whilst munching on delicious canapés is not exactly awful but not when the biggest game is on. What can one do other than ask the Prince for help. Leave it to me he said, I would like to watch the game as well. So, a few minutes later we were ushered into a room which had a huge color TV and a fully functioning bar. Ask yourself-how do you beat watching the European Cup Final in the Palace with the Prince in charge of the bar behind the counter?!

The room has a grand piano and a complete drum kit, apparently this is where the late and much loved Princess Grace used entertain old chums such as Frank Sinatra , Dean Martin and other members of the Rat Pack. Beats testing a Toyota Corolla every time! Not that I've had to endure that too often thank God.

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So, game over we were off down the hill in the Maserati with a police escort. Not for my benefit but for the Prince who decided to pop down to the harbor to join the festivities.

I've never been in a high speed convoy with two police outriders complete with flashing lights but as you would expect the Maserati coped admirably with the curves designed for 30 miles per hour which we most definitely exceeding by a considerably margin.

The race itself was just getting interesting when it had to be stopped and restarted because of an accident. Nothing major I hasten to add.

So finally it was time to head back to Modena courtesy of the Maserati which, in its latest form is a vast improvement on the previous one. First of all it looks great, goes like smoke and is very comfortable. Without wishing to offend my good friends at Ferrari should they get the Jaguar's excellent 3 liter diesel into the QP it would also treble the fuel consumption. Allegedly Fiat's bosses are fully aware of this and the next Quattroporte may just surprise us.

This seems like the right moment to say thank you and good luck to our old friend, Andrea Cittadini, who has just moved on after many many years of hard work.

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We also moved on, this time down the road for our annual pilgrimage to Maranello, home of Ferrari. Last year the test car had a spot of trouble, this year the 458 was just perfect. It is very very quick, stops like a racing car, handles like a dream and is quite exceptional in many ways.
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Complaints-they've known at the factory about my beef concerning the positioning of the horn for a long time. They insist that two indentations on the steering wheel on the 10 to 2 position is all you need, all I can say is try it in an emergency. Then compare the time it takes with hitting the middle of the steering wheel where every other car its horn. I think this is an obsession of someone high up and nobody dares challenge him. Pity. Still, apart from that it is an exceptional automobile.

Whether I would buy it or not I will answer after the next part of the story as it concerns the 458's latest deadly rival.

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The new McLaren MC-12. This new supercar is built in a brand new factory in Woking, England the car has racing heritage written all over it.

I am sure many of you are familiar with the BBC's Top Gear Program. The show comes from an old World War 2 airfield about 50 miles from London. It is a massive success, syndicated to over 100 countries .

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There are two parts of the show which are particularly successful, one of them being the star in the cheap car. Last week it was driven by the current Formula One World Champion Sebastian Vettel who duly broke the lap record. The other is a man named Stig. He is a professional racing driver whose identity is not revealed at any time. he goes round in very fast cars which are then ranked in order of speed.
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One of the fastest cars ever has been the new McLaren MC-12, a direct rival to Ferrari's 458.

As European Editor of The Auto Channel I got a chance to drive. Same car, same track as the Stig. Did I beat his time? No, I didn't. He was three seconds faster but as you can see from the photos I didn't hang around.

An amazing experience. Coming from a company with an amazing racing pedigree it is everything you would expect in terms of speed, handling and surprisingly enough comfort as well.

Would I buy it or would I buy the 458 instead. Quite frankly neither. Living in California the only sensible fast cars are convertibles, preferably with steel folding roofs. So until the 458 and the McLaren take their tops off I will stick with the Ferrari California. Hardship it most definitely is not!