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Sensible Sentra, Scintillating SRT8, Sexy 650i and So-So Acura In This Month's Letter from Europe

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by Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

I cannot pretend that the Nissan Sentra is the greatest automobile in the World. It isn’t. But, having said that it is a willing work horse millions would be happy to own. First and foremost it is priced well under 20 thousand dollars and you do get a pretty complete package for it. 2 liter DOHC engine pushing out 140 somewhat reluctant ponies, independent strut front suspension, lots of air bags, traction control system-although I would have huge problems breaking traction with the horsepower provided-, a/c, 6 speaker-somewhat iffy -sound system-even a totally unnecessary rear deck-lid spoiler which only attracts attention from the cops.

It is certainly worth putting on your shopping list as one of the sub-20 thousand dollar alternatives, just don’t look for miracles. It is what it is. An honest to goodness automobile which I would describe as adequate. No more, no less. By the way fuel consumption is in the low 30s, sort of all right. I am sure Nissan have better more economical engines in the pipeline.

If the Sentra was OK, then the 2012 Dodge Charger was definitely something else.

The nearest thing to a rocket ship. SRT8 probably means very little to those who regard cars as household appliances on 4 wheels but to those in the know SRT8 means to be treated with respect. 6.4 liter V8 HEMI, 0-60 in well under 5 seconds –all it needs is a more attractive body. When the mechanicals were done and tuned to the nth degree the styling department went on an extended leave. I am sure they will be back one day once more important matters have been attended to. I am delighted by the Fiat/Chrysler merger, seems far more obvious than the previous marriage to Daimler. Never forget a wag telling me how to pronounce DaimlerChrysler. Answer: the Chrysler bit is silent. And so it remained until recently.

In the meantime the Charger has an exceptional “Uconnect” navigational system. The company realized that with the proliferation of iPhones and iPads touchscreen was the way to go. Interestingly enough the car which followed the SRT8 was BMW’s stunningly beautiful 650i came off second in this respect.

But before I move on to Munich’s finest I must just point out that carefully driven the Dodge got 23 miles to a gallon. Naturally, those with leaded right feet can expect something a lot nearer to 14. And probably a ticket or three. The SRT8 is not a car for the environmentalists and I did get some dirty looks in the PC capital of the World (Mill Valley near San Francisco) but it is nice to be a hooligan sometimes. At 50 thousand dollars the SRT8 is not exactly a bargain but is has a unique niche in the market with some unexpectedly delightful touches. Hands up all those who expected a heater/cooler cup holder?! Have never seen one before in my life and certainly the last place where I would have expected it was in this mean machine. Guys-thank you for the ride. It was awesome.

The afore mentioned BW650i is very different indeed from the Dodge. Not just because of the price-just over 100 grand with extras but in looks and execution. The styling is beautifully understated the way it says money. To give you an example I had to park the car in a hurry in the financial district of San Francisco on a Friday evening. Most car parks close at 8 p.m. so in desperation I pulled up outside the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The valet’s smile made it crystal clear that the 650i was very welcome. It is that sort of a car. Whereas the Charger will let you know loud and clear what is was intended for, the 650 coupe’s 4.4 liter V8 engine with twin power turbo technology will whisk you to your destination in silence and total comfort. Just don’t regard it as a 4 seater which it clearly is not. Not behind a 6 ft tall driver.

I have to be honest-there are several BMWs which offer better value for money although none are this elegant.

The disappointment is the way the company seems to be in the 20th Century with regards to the navigation system. They must have heard of iPads in Munich, after all the third version is launching as I write these words. I come back to what I’ve been saying for years. You fly first class on Lufthansa to Frankfurt and you rent one of these cars from Sixt. Then go ballistic. After a 12 hour flight from Los Angeles and being in showbiz rather than the geek business in Silicon Valley you’ll probably storm back to the counter and ask for a VW Golf. Let’s be honest-you shouldn’t have to. Having made some enquiries I’ve been told that yes BMW have heard of the iPad and are working on a system but they are trying to come up with a solution. What has not changed over the years is what is underneath, the bits you can’t see; the turbine-like silky smooth engine, the handling, the ride-still in a class of its own. And of course if you own the 650 then you learn to figure out the various silly little foibles.

I had a spot of trouble with 2012 Acura TL-SH-AWD Advance to give it the full name owing to a flat battery. Now this sort of thing can happen to any car but there were one or two things that struck me as silly. It so happens there was bright sunshine so we were able to spot the black positive sign on the black engine cover. Had we been in the dark or in a snow storm we would have no chance. I’ve had a chat with various colleagues who have since confirmed that Acura’s are so full of electronic gizmos that the battery has a tendency to go flat rather quickly.

Anyway, both the TL and the RL Tech-seem overpriced to me at 45 and 52 thousand dollars respectively, Certainly the navigation and radio systems are not up to par with rivals such as Infiniti and the styling is something that is impressing very few people indeed.

Both cars were adorned in metallic bronze and looked terrific but somehow felt a little bit dated.

The engine, the well-known 3.7 liter V6 pulls just fine even with 5 people and a trunk full of suitcases. The consumption in both cars was around 21 miles per gallon.

In conclusion I think for most people the less fancy and considerably less expensive Honda alternatives will be just fine. The company is clearly aware of the fact that they have fallen somewhat behind in the styling/image stakes which is why I see the forthcoming NSX as the beginning a new much needed dawn.