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Betta-Jetta, SLK OK, Infiniti QX56 A Plus-Sized Beauty, Foxy Boxty, All In This Month's Letter From Europe

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By Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief

Auto Central March 1, 2012; It is a small world.

Many years ago Mark Gillies, big cheese in VW’s PR department and yours sincerely were colleagues at Britain’s award winning CAR Magazine. These days we are both living in the States, albeit several thousand miles away from each other. Mark, for the benefit of those who don’t know is one of the finest exponents of pre-WW2 racing cars in general and ERA-s in particular. But back to business.

I have been testing VW’s latest Jetta, the 2012 GLI. Well built, good looking and very expensive. The best part of 24 thousand dollars. The blurb which is always sent with the test cars points out that Kelly’s Blue Book named the Jetta one of the coolest cars of 2011 under 18,000 dollars. And here is the rub. At under 18 thou it is indeed remarkable value. How do I know? My step daughter Cathy drives one and has been doing so for about 8 years. It has done over 50 thousand miles, has all the dings one would expect from a car parked on the hills of San Francisco and is as reliable today as it was on day one.

So instead of extolling the virtues of the GLI at 23 thousand plus let me tell you what the far more sensible basic model would offer. 2.0 115 hp engine, five speed manual gearbox (at $16,495 ) an automatic at $17, 595.

You get all the usual goodies which are obligatory these days-A/C, 6 way adjustable front seats, 60/40 split rear seat, in fact everything you need for sensible motoring without fancy trimmings. There is a more expensive TDI version which would give you 40 miles per gallon on highways instead of the basic version’s 34. The question is-with diesel prices being considerably more expensive than unleaded gas which one would make sense for you.

My next test car 2012 Mercedes-Benz 320 SLK, was a very different proposition...considerably less practical and three times the price. Mercedes did not have me in mind when they’ve built it. All I have in common with Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian is that we are all the same height. In my case without a pair of Jimmy Choo-s. If ever there was a car built for babes in Bolly or Hollywood-this is it. Striking in off white and a hardtop which becomes a convertible at the touch of a button, it would melt every valet’s heart at the Oscars Vanity Fair after party.

It certainly did not melt the heart of that drunken idiot who took aim at the 320 SLK coming out of the 49ers –NY Giants game at Candlestick Park. Ok, he was upset. Very upset. But why take it out on the poor Merc? I did manage to avoid his pick-up truck but the wheels took a bit of a hammering in the process.

Still, it got me there and it got me home in spite of the excellent V6 engine idling for hours on end. Roll on the new stadium in Santa Clara, this one is well past its sell buy date. Not so the SLK. I readily admit that it is one size too small for me. Also, roof up or roof down it will not take even one set of gold clubs. Yes, I could take the clubs out of the bag and put them in one by one but somehow I doubt it would it impress the starter at Pebble Beach.. Tennis rackets, small overnight bags yes. Anything beyond-no.

Mercedes tried to make the SLK look like the SLR’s younger brother and I would describe the face lift as a partial success. I know my good friend Randall, Hollywood’s No 1 man with the scalpels would not be overly impressed.

Performance is more than adequate for all would be American Idol participants, probably more than most of them could handle. Especially on the limit where handling is not the SLK’s forte. If on the other hand it is merely a matter of trying to get away from the paparazzi Lohan style than the 0-60 figure of 5.1 seconds should do the trick. Just don’t overdo it on Mulholland because it is an awfully long drop before you hits the rocks.

On the other hand if you are talking Harry Winston type rocks than this is a perfect automobile for it. For 67 thousand dollars it will look the part on Rodeo Drive nearly as much as its considerably more expensive rivals. Which seems like a good time to finish on a joke. Two guys talking and one says to the other- guess what, I am going to buy an emerald ring for my wife. The other: I thought she’d asked you for an SUV. True, but they don’t sell fake SUVs.

The Infiniti QX56 4WD is an old friend from 2011 when we zoomed up to Squaw Valley and back a few days later. Never missed a beat any more than the recent one did. 400 horsepower, 5.6 liter engine, massive torque, the works. And just with other Infinitis it has a wonderful habit. What you see is what you get. You hand over 75 thousand dollars and that is it. No extras. Nothing, as in zero. It never stops to amaze me. I just wish other auto makers would come in line. It saves an awful lot of surprises at the dealerships. Not surprisingly there seems to be total agreement among auto writers on the QX56. For towing, for comfort, for luxury it is very hard to beat. But do bear in mind that it is big. Very big. Could be a nightmare in the supermarket parking lot and of course there is always the consumption. You have to be very light footed indeed to get over 20 miles per gallon. If you have a large family it would make sense, otherwise it wouldn’t. And let’s face it, not everyone has 75 thousand dollars for an automobile even for one as good as the QX.

A very different kettle of fish (old English expression) is the 2012 Porsche Boxster. Strictly a two seater sports car. Positively no compromises, the “entry” level Porsche is very far from being an “entry” model in most enthusiast’s book For most it is a dream at anything between 48 and 56 thousand dollars.

What you get is a rattle-free, superbly built sports car. Roof up, roof down-solid as a rock. And sometimes feels like it. You will feel every rattle on California’s badly maintained roads. And the noise level is not conducive to conversation because while the Boxster is a fine car, it was not built for a quiet discussion at 70 miles per hour. Which of course makes the radio somewhat surplus to requirements as well unless you are doing 5 miles per hour commutes on LA’s infamous 405.

Now for the good news. Sunshine, open roads, not a soul or even a cop in sight. You change gears at 4500 rpm and listen to the music. Of the mechanical kind. Glorious. The steering wheel is what it is-a steering wheel. There are no fancy buttons on it, it is strictly business. As is the whole car. With limitations. It will take several soft bags in the front and back luggage compartments but if you are a golfer you will have to get another car or go on your own with the clubs just about squeezing into the passenger seat. One of my neighbors has an old Boxster, when washed it looks as good as new. No wonder. Porsche’s 12 year corrosion warranty says it all. You have to very confident in your product before you can afford to stick your neck out this far.

All in all a great car for true enthusiasts who will endure 5 days of commuting in it for the joys, the anticipation of the forthcoming weekend blasts to come.