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Tata Cheers, Mustang Jeers, GM and Nissan Here-Heres - In This Month's Letter From Europe

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by Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

What a difference a boss makes! Well, that is a slight exaggeration but what Ratan Tata has done to Jaguar/Land Rover is nothing short of miraculous. During the Ford days these companies (together with Volvo and Aston Martin) were never given the TLC they deserved. So when Ford’s newly recruited Alan Mullaly took over the reigns he decided-quite rightly-to concentrate on cars which bore the four letter word on the building in Dearborn

So it was farewell to all these fine but somewhat neglected brands with the for sale sign writ large over them. To cut a long story short Jaguar and Land Rover-both of which were about to close plants and sack thousands of workers- were brought back from the brink by Tata Industries.

Initially there were lots of silly jokes about the men from India taking over these British institutions but the truth is that they have performed miracles. Mr. Tata, a highly educated, very intelligent man achieved what the bean counters at Ford couldn’t. He motivated the staff, the designers, the dealers and also provided the key ingredient-money!

So when I went to a preview of Range Rover’s latest creation - the rather cleverly named "Evoque", it had star quality written all over it. Designed by a team led by sartorial Gerry McGovern they’ve actually created an automobile which looks radically different and yet an instantly recognizable Range Rover at the same time. I was particularly impressed by a rather clever marketing ploy. The company invited Victoria Beckham, wife of soccer legend David Beckham to get involved with the interior design. Being a mum several times over and half of one of the best known couples in World the impact was astonishing. Not only did the company get over 2 million hits on the internet during the launch but what is far more important-25 thousand orders as well. Talk about a field of dreams!

The test car that really did very little for me was Ford’s 2011 Mustang. With a 3.7 liter V6 engine and a six speed gearbox it sounded just fine on paper. It also looked terrific in metallic grey. At around 30 thousand dollars with all the extras it offers a great deal as long as you don’t have to drive it in San Francisco. I would go as far as to say that it was the least enjoyable drive in the City since GM’s Korean made Aveo which puts on par with the Yugo and East Germany’s Trabant.

Maybe somebody could tell me how to change gear manually on the hills of San Francisco while holding the hand brake with two hands?! Whoever signed off on that wretched thing should be washing dishes at Denny’s. A nightmare. Of course I could have made a huge detour via the Embarcadero sticking strictly with roads which were flat and maybe I would have made it to the old people’s home where my 100 year old Mother in Law resides. (No, I am not making this up.)

There is of course another solution. Perhaps this particular model should only be sold in Florida and the Netherlands both of which are flat. To be fair where no brakes were required it went along just fine doing just over 27 miles per gallon. So if you are a masochist on Fillmore or Webster in San Francisco do get one. But remember one thing. Before you start re-living your Bullitt fantasies this thing won’t stop downhill either. And before someone gets apoplectic in Dearborn let me point out that I’ve been driving Mustangs since 1969 including a Mach 1 on Michigan International Raceway so I think I have a rough idea of what I am talking about. The hand brake engineer is welcome to SF to see what the problem is, I’ll take him to the same hill and will have lunch afterwards. On me. I’ll publish his findings word for word regardless whether I am right or wrong.

Cadillac’s SRX AWD “Premium “was a much nicer experience. It also fitted in very well with Bob Lutz’s latest book- “Car guys vs. Bean counters”. In the case of the latest SRX the car guys eventually came out on top. Eventually. It is now a fine product with a more powerful, gutsier engine. It is quite expensive at nearly 50 thousand dollars but it does have every conceivable extra. I can also confirm the fuel consumption of 23 miles per gallon. Coming back to Bob whom I’ve known for over 40 years-at Opel, then BMW, Ford, Chrysler and GM-I knew that pulling punches were unlikely to feature anywhere within 232 pages of great reading.

I do disagree with his total “Volt” infatuation, at 41 thousand dollars it is simply bad value compared to Toyota’s Prius. But GM see the Volt as a way of getting people into the showrooms where they do have several highly competitive products. The jury on the Volt is out and will be for a while.

Nissan Murano is a workhorse. No frills, no gimmicks, just an honest to goodness automobile. It won’t win any prizes for anything in particular but does everything well. I found the cloth seats pretty horrid and the black interior gloomy and somewhat depressing but these are things that could be fixed for not a great deal of money. The nav system is the same as in Big Brother Infiniti and it is excellent. The 260 horsepower engine is an old workhorse which pulls well, albeit not very economically. These days it is difficult to justify a sub 20 miles per gallon Crossover and I am not sure that at 33 thousand dollars you cannot do better .The Subaru Outback comes to mind which at the same price has AWD and a fuel consumption of 25-29.

Little brother, the 2012 Nissan Rogue also suffered from the same, depressing all-black interior. Maybe the company should consider finding someone who could brighten up this otherwise very comfortable automobile. The 2.5 liter 4 cylinder engine is, I am afraid seriously gutless, the 170 horses were very reluctant to pull their weight, especially uphill. To be fair it was fine on Highway101 and did return a respectable 27.5 miles per gallon. At 23 thousand dollars -which includes the special edition package- it offers all the usual accoutrements one can expect in 2012 in this price range. It may not be the most exciting thing on four wheels but it was well put together. I was rather surprised to find that it only has a 3 year/ 36 thousand miles warranty while the admittedly totally and utterly anemic Mitsubishi Outlander Sport offers 5 years or 60 thousand miles, a huge difference.

Just to finish this Nissan festival I’ve left the best till last. The Xterra with a 4 liter 261 horsepower and 281-lb-ft-V6 is a riot! Together with Grandson Freddy and old mate-and major car buff- John we were like a bunch of schoolboys exploring it and discovering all sorts of clever ideas. The Xterra was obviously designed by young people who ski and surf. Or off-road. We loved the extra pair of headlights which looked awesome and would have come in handy to spot the Luftwaffe over London during the Blitz.

It is, as the Brits would say, a serious piece of kit. Depending on the specification prices range from 25 to just over 30 thousand dollars. The downside-the steering is heavy and on the huge Goodrich off-road tires it tends to float on the highway. A small price to pay for all the fun you can have off it!

That’s it for this month see ya next.