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WAJ, Jeep, BMW, Kia, VW, and Buick In This Month's Letter From Europe


From Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

Life has been somewhat hectic of late. The WAJ (Western Auto Journalists) test days in Monterey are always huge fun and lots of driving as you would expect.

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Star of the show for me was KIA’s K900. You could call it Grand Theft Auto because it really is a collection of the best bits from Audi, Mercedes, BMW and Jaguar. Still, what matters is the end product which is amazing. Apart from the snob value of having a three pointed star on the front, everything else is up there with the big boys once you are in sports mode. At around 60 thousand dollars it is a bargain if you can call anything a bargain at that price. In Mercedes terms it certainly is.

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Our test day is always a well-organized affair in the capable hands of Page One, a truly excellent, highly professional organization.

After the test days it was time for a brace of BMWs. To be honest I should have had the cars in reverse order. I had the exceptional 2014 435 xDrive Coupe first followed by the 328 diesel wagon. Interestingly enough the base prices were little different-just 5000 dollars between them. Then the coupe takes off! $3100 for M Sport, $2200 for a premium package and so on. Mind you, the end product is great.

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I am a huge fan of BMW’s 3 liter engine, one of the best in the business. The 2 liter is not really my cup of tea.
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I didn’t expect it to sound so “diesel-ish” if you excuse this somewhat labored expression. It was on the other hand a sports wagon, very useful indeed for family holidays or for moving furniture. The fuel consumption came to 33.3, nice but not exceptional. According to the company it does 43 miles per gallon on the highway, sounds a bit optimistic to me. Of course both cars have BMW DNA so when it comes to ride and handling I can understand why the company is so successful all over the World. It is of course possible to have a 4 cylinder engine in the new body in which case you can get one for about 42 thousand dollars. One of the most appealing thing about Bimmers remains the 4 year maintenance program which means zero expenditure on oil change, brake pads drive, belts and a myriad of other things. By the way the new colors such as the one on the wagon are outstanding. Metallic blue I think, shades of blue are not really my domain.

Dislikes. Well, unfortunately the company insists on having that silly speedo with about 100 confusing lines on it and I am still not crazy about the audio system. Mind you I have been on my hand and knees at Ferrari to put the horn back into the middle of the steering wheel where it belongs. You win some, you lose some.

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Still, what matters at the end of the day are the dynamic qualities and here BMW still leads the field in spite of all the opposition. Their plant in Spartanburg in rapidly expanding, good news for American workers.

Buick’s Lacrosse did not have BMW’s dynamic qualities but it was a fine automobile nevertheless. I was a bit surprised at the sticker price of 49 thousand dollars, the company is learning from a German songbook, namely kicking off with a price of 39 thousand and ending up at 49! I would certainly drop the ultra-luxury package which is the best part of 2500, what I would not drop is the confidence pack . Silly name but very useful. What I love is the gizmo that shakes the driver’s seat when there are objects in the way. Yes, there are warning lights and all sorts of safety features but you may miss some of them. You will never miss the one that starts shaking your seat.

The company is in the middle of a major advertising campaign, trying to lower the average age of their customers. With a stiffer suspension and a price nearer to 40 than 50 thou they may well success. They will also need a more fuel efficient engine, the current 3.6 liter V6 is thirsty. I always get amazing fuel mileage figures, driving to Half Moon Bay without a single hill or traffic jam I could do no better than 18 miles per gallon. In fact when the car reached me it was showing an average of 16.7. In 2014/5 you have to do better. Still, a much improved automobile with rapidly increasing sales, especially in China.

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Volkswagen’s 2014 had a bit of a hammering in the Wall Street Journal and I can see why. It is a nice car which is a far from exciting. You can get into something less expensive such as the new Mazda 3 and have a lot more fun.

I was disappointed in the fuel consumption of 22 miles per gallon, the 1.8 liter turbocharged 170 horsepower unit is no great shakes. The VW group has more great engines than I’ve had hot suppers, this is not one of them. On the other hand VWs tend to go on forever. The VW group, the World’s largest produces some amazing automobiles from Bentley to Lamborghini and from Audi to Skoda. (Yes, Skoda.) The 2014 Passat SEL Premium is nice and it will get you there every time. Just don’t expect a fun, exciting ride on the way. The suggested retail price is 30,895 dollars which includes absolutely everything; the extra is the obligatory destination charge. All credit to VW for that, makes a wonderful change.

The Fiat/Chrysler group is one of the success stories of the automobile industry. Bearing in mind that in 2009 Chrysler had to be bailed out by the US Government the transformation is nothing short of miraculous. There are lots of common platforms on which the cars are built, some from Detroit, some from Turin but quite frankly who cares where they come from as long as the product is desirable in the showroom. It so happens that 70% of the Jeep Cherokee is built in Ohio and it is selling like hot cakes. The company can use existing Fiat/Alfa Romeo dealers overseas where Jeep previously did not have a presence. The name has a special meaning as it is closely associated with the Americans coming ashore in Normandy 70 years ago.

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The 2014 Cherokee 4x4 is of course a very different proposition but it is still just fine on the shore, or in the mountains. The one we had for test had a base price of 30 thousand dollars, which with extras ended up being 37 thou. A lot of SUV for the money. It has a 3.2 liter engine which is OK without being brilliant, with an overall fuel consumption of 22 miles per gallon, a figure not easy to achieve. As far as the extras are concerned for once I have to agree. The technology packet with blind spot and cross path detection is a blessing as is the forward collision warning system.

If you don’t mind a somewhat sluggish acceleration-especially when the Jeep is fully loaded go for the 2.4 liter version which does 31 miles per gallons and has the range to get you from San Francisco to Los Angeles without stopping.

One niggle. The fuel and temperature gauges are side by side and are tiny. Silly. Plenty of room to make them bigger.

See you’all next month.