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Porsche Love, WRX Smiles, MainStreet Doubts In This Month's Letter From Europe

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By Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

It is always nice to arrive at San Francisco Airport especially if you had the good sense to travel with hand luggage. A quick stroll, hello Park and Fly and where is my Subaru which old friends Page One Fleet Services have promised?! Shock horror, there was no Subaru in sight.

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I did, however see from the corner of my eye a bright yellow 911 Carrera GTS. A Porsche? Could it be for me after 12 years of waiting patiently? Yes! It turned out to be a practical joke. The kind Page One can play on me absolutely any time.

The folks with massive suitcases were still watching the carousel as I was heading home to Marin County. In style.

The 2011 911 Carrera GTS is, as the Brits would say, a serious piece of kit. In many ways it is meaner than a Ferrari 458 or Lamborghini Gallardo. Take the steering wheel for a start. It is what it is supposed to be. No dials, no knobs, just a brilliant horn in the middle exactly where it is supposed to be. Much as I love my good friends at Ferrari, the two indentations on the steering wheel for the horn are plain nonsense. No, this Porsche is all business, a mean machine. 3.8 liter horizontally opposed 6 cylinder engine, 408 horsepower engine, 310 lb-ft of torque.

What differentiates it from the Italian exotica-apart from the price which at 112 thousand dollars is half of anything from Maranello or Bologna is that there is NO auto button. The Italians are either very PC minded or just want to sell cars to young blond girlfriends of rich bankers. Either way all the Italians cars I‘ve driven of late-and one is better than the other -have this mamby-pamby alternative. The 911 most definitely does not!

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Consequently either you are a very good driver who knows how to handle a not always user friendly -stick shift or forget it.

The seats, the suspension, the handling are-to my mind-ready for some serious fun on a race track, all you need is a start number and a crash helmet and possibly a roll cage. I had huge fun with grandson Freddy drifting along Highway One. Would I buy one, possibly as a second car but in a somewhat different configuration. The paint work was exceptional, the minor controls less so. The guy next door has a dark blue convertible with Tiptronic instead of manual. Maybe that is the way to go. The fuel consumption worked out at just over 23.4 mpg, pretty amazing from such a mean, powerful machine.

Totally different but in a way similar in concept is the Subaru 2011 Impreza WRX STI.

Let me come clean. It was not designed with me in mind. The WRX is essentially a rally car which can driven on the highway as well. In bright red with a huge tail fin it is also likely to catch every policeman’s attention. It has all the trimmings and then some. 305 horsepower, 290 lb-ft 2.5 liter turbocharger/intercooled horizontally opposed Boxer engine, 6 speed manual transmission and so on. It offers race car handling with massive Brembo brakes, 4 wheel discs all round. Awesome stuff. Just not for me. Neither would I buy it for grandson Freddy. He would be in jail on day one.

Now as a rally car-that is an entirely different cup of tea. Just as with the 911 Carrera GTS all it needs is a roll-cage and a crash helmet. It even has heated seats for those freezing Nordic rallies. Old friend Dave Richards used to run a Subaru rally team with great success. The name percolated down to everyday folks who buy more moderate versions in huge numbers. Including a close relative. Incidentally the 4 door WRX STI can be yours for about 34 thousand dollars. Just don’t blame me for those speeding tickets please!

Happy to report that my neighbor’s much loved 1956 Bentley is chugging along happily in and around Marin County. We took it to Corte Madera to inspect Apple’s much talked about iPad2. Just as we were parking a lady walking by, took one look at the car and said “do you folks shop where the rest of us do?” Such is the aura surrounding this 55 years old machine.

As I write, my wife is busy packing for a trip to Lake Tahoe. That in itself in no major news except that for once we will be making the journey in her very own Toyota Prius. I know most of my colleagues will start chuckling at this point but they are wrong. The Prius (my wife’s second) climbed every mountain, kept up with traffic, got us to Incline Village in three and a half hours and kept consumption on the right side of 40. And the amount of stuff we’ve managed to squeeze into was nothing short of amazing. I will not pretend that it would have been my first pick for this trip but credit where credit is due. Well done Prius.

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I may well have received a speeding ticket within a mile of leaving home in the car I have been driving since our trip but in a way it would have been worth it. I am talking about Porsche’s Panamera Turbo S, a 450 horsepower, V8 flying machine. Let me get the bad news out of the way first. Good looking it isn’t. Not as ugly as motoring magazines have made it out to be, and at the end of the day there are two issues to consider. One, I am reliably informed that Porsche have sold 28 thousand of them in 2010 so it can’t be that ugly and undesirable. On the contrary.

Once you are inside the beautifully finished interior and start the engine you soon forget what it looks like. The sound of the engine, the “thank God I don’t have dentures “acceleration, the interior, all exceptional. I’ve tried very hard to find faults in it. Still looking. I assumed that even though it has four doors the rear seats would be for small children only. I was completely wrong and would have been happy to sit behind a 5ft 10in driver all the way from San Francisco to Los Angeles-400 miles away. I am not saying that at 135 thousand dollars a pop it is a bargain but if you don’t need 0-6 in well under 4 seconds and a top speed just short of 200 miles per hour there are less expensive versions including hybrids and diesels although not necessarily in the United States.

If you are in the market for a 4 seater grand tourer you owe it to yourself to put it on your shopping list.

Something very, very different and costing about as much as the stereo system in the Panamera is the Dodge Avenger Mainstreet. Please don’t ask me who came up with this ridiculous name, presumably one of President Obama’s speechwriters. Beyond silly. Never mind. You don’t have to mention it and luckily it isn’t on the trunk. As for the car itself, well there are two ways of looking at it. Is it “new” Chrysler? No. Is it a great automobile? No. Do you get an awful lot of metal and goodies for 22 thousand dollars? Yes.

Four to five seats, an excellent nav system as used by Ferrari (!), A/C, 6 speakers, 60/40 rear seat with trunk pass-through, tinted windows, you name it. Few cars give you this much for a relatively small amount of money. Which is precisely why it is a crying shame that the engineering stayed firmly in the last Century. I bet you any money that it is the same gutless 2.4 liter engine which they had in all those rental Sebrings which got you round Florida where it’s flat, but would have struggled reaching Squaw Valley. Ditto the steering, the ride, the handling. A pity and I can only assume that right now Chrysler have other priorities which I fully understand.

As a long time Maserati fan I cannot wait for fruits of that co-operation and like every other automotive enthusiast am hoping that Chrysler will bounce back. The commercials are brilliant, what we need now is the substance.

Well that’s it for this month…