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The Prince, Parties, Bimmers, GP, RR, Rovers, Maserati, Nissan, Cadillac, A Good-bye in This Month's Letter From Europe


From Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
The Auto Channel

Somewhere Over The Atlantic August 1, 2014; I am in Seat 12K of Virgin Atlantic's venerable 747 on my way back to San Francisco. Seems like the right time to send you a report on the Summer which was anything but boring!

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It started, as it has for the last 40 odd years with a trip to Monaco and the Grand Prix. A madhouse, as always but I still would not miss it for the World! The highlights-apart from the race itself-were the usual round of receptions and parties. The Friday evening party organized by the My Yacht group is a must , well run , with great food, amazing drinks and a fun crowd.
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Prince Albert, whose family owns this little piece of real estate came along which added glamor and several security people. Strong they may be but discreet at the same time looking after "The Boss". Great guys, I got to know them over the years.

"The Boss" was kind enough to invite me to his pre- race reception on the Saturday evening , an invitation money can't buy. There is a greeting line with the Prince and Princess Charlene and with various dignitaries such as old friend Michel Boeri, president of the Automobile Club of Monaco. He and his team do a superb job, every year organizing everything and putting up miles and miles of Armco barriers which are carefully numbered and stored once the race is over.

But much bigger news than the barriers came from the Palace the day after the race: the Royal couple are expecting twins!.

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But how about some automobiles I hear you ask?

Well, how about Maserati's amazing Quattroporte? An exceptional car with just one problem. The gearbox. Don't ever try to do a three point turn in a hurry because it's not going to happen. On the other hand once you are on the road cruising at 110 miles per hour on your way to Modena there is nothing to touch it.

The company were kind enough to invite me to a very special function to celebrate Maserati's first 100 years with Luca di Montezemolo and racing legend Stirling Moss. It was an invitation that was very hard to refuse as it was held in the home of the great, late Luciano Pavarotti. I am told it was amazing, very sorry I could not get there. I simply couldn’t make it.

Milan to Budapest is one of those odd destinations which are only served by a Southwest type airline-Wizzair . To be fair it was perfectly fine and took just an hour.

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I cannot pretend that Nissan's Note -a European version of the Versa- is a Maserati but it is a fraction of the price as well. The little Nissan was perfectly comfortable and posed proudly outside the Hungaroring . I took it round the track very slowly of course but it was huge fun. The gearbox ,a manual worked well in Budapest's busy streets , the nav system is exceptional.

On top of it all the Nissan had Czech number plates! A very clever move indeed as Hungarians tend to take a lenient view of foreign motorists so they readily forgave my indiscretions. I did not expect such an excellent nav system and all the home comforts at such a reasonable price.

Funnily enough a very similar 2015 Verse Note SR just arrived at The Autochannel’s California offices just yesterday. Very similar, except for the auto box. Americans are not very good at stick shifts. Either way at just under 20 thousand dollars the little Nissan is exceptional value. If you think back just a few years it would have been unimaginable to have-for under 20 thousand dollars (!) air bags, anti-lock brakes, traction control system, anti-lock braking system, tire pressure monitor and an AM/FM radio just to mention a few things.

I remember the days when you had to pay extra for the wing mirrors.

I wish I could love the CVT-continuously variable transmission – but I can’t. The 1.6 liter engine is what most journalists describe as adequate and I have to agree on that score.

But the company does have a sense of humor, the speedometer runs to 140 miles per hour. In their dreams..

While in Hungary I also had a chance to drive BMW's flagship SUV, the X5 diesel. BMW Hungary are a very successful company and for the well to do in the country the 3 series is like the good housekeeping seal of approval.

I miss their presence in Formula One, they were a class act among the sharks. When Robert Kubica was racing for them you could not move near the Hungaroring from his adoring Polish fans.

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The BMW X5 took us all over the country in total comfort and was much loved by all the passengers who came all the way from San Francisco. An amazing combination of speed, silence, economy and comfort. I cannot think of another SUV which could carry this many people and this much luggage with the exception of the Range Rover. It would be fair to describe these two as deadly rivals, competing for customers with at least 100 thousand dollars to spare. In diesel versions both offer exceptional fuel economy and either would be perfect for a quick dash up into the mountains.

I hate journalists who sit on the fence in case they upset a manufacturer. So. In Hungary I would go for the Bimmer, there are so many dealers around the country and in neighboring Austria and Croatia I think any problems would be resolved more rapidly. The handling is great, the streering is razor sharp.

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In Britain the Range Rover is in a class of its own. Packing it full of bags for Oxfam while emptying a large apartment in London it was perfect for the occasion. It is amazing how it evolved from a rugged but pretty basic SUV 30 years ago to the height of luxury. I am still not in love with the navigational system, maybe I’ve spent too much time in the 20th Century! But for my trips to the Goodwood Festival of Speed and to Silverstone for the British Grand Prix there was nothing to beat my RR. The quality is better than it has ever been and the “lads” as British workers are known could not be happier. Sales are up, new markets are opening up in the Far East, it really is a happy story.

The same goes for Jaguar who are part of the same company and are about to launch a rival to BMW’s legendary 3 series. My good friends at Car and Driver describe the Range Rover as an SUV with a rare sense of occasion. I really cannot argue with that, testing it in Britain near where it was built was rather special.

Those who admire the interior should say thank you to a certain Mrs David Beckham, formerly Posh Spice. Not bad going ..taking care of one of the great football icons of the World , bringing up 4 children and lending a hand to Range Rover.

When you fly with 6 pieces of luggage there is nothing as welcoming as the sight of a Cadillac Escalade at San Francisco Airport. I've never done it before and will probably never do it again but with the help of those good guys at Park and Fly we’ve managed to pack it all in.

The big Caddy looks very impressive with lots of bells and whistles but instead of a huge 6.2 liter engine it is crying out for a good diesel engine. Having driven the X5 and the RR-both excellent diesels-this has to be the way to go. Especially at a price of 86 thousand dollars!

The Belvedere Tennis Club is a funny old place. They’ve seen it all before with big Mercs, Audis and BMWs. They don’t often see a Ford.

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Well, the new Focus in what the company calls Ruby Red turned several heads and quite rightly so. It look sharp, does over 30 miles per gallon and for 25 thousand dollars offers great value. Furthermore what you see is what you get. No low sticker price and another 20% on top for often unnecessary extras. On the Focus the only extra is the brilliant nav system. I must salute the company on the tremendous safety ratings, an over 5 star is no mean feat. A big well done.

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Talking of Ford I have to mention my old friend and colleague Nick Scheele whom we lost just a few days ago. We started work under the same senior buyer-Wally Johnson- in the purchasing department of the company in Dagenham, England. He moved on to wuthering heights within Ford, all the way to the top. A lovely, unassuming guy without an enemy in the World. If he had bodyguards they must have been very discreet, he just wasn’t that kind of a person. We all remember him with great affection.Rest in peace my old friend.

I am now getting ready for a brace of Toyotas-big and small. Stay tuned!