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K900 Rave, VW Rant, Acura Rave, MB Confusion and Ferrari No Show In This Month's Letter From Europe +VIDEO


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Andrew Frankl
European Bureau Chief
 The Auto Channel

You have to take a step back and look around the house before you realize that South Korean products are everywhere. The Samsung TV, the mobile phone, the fridge, so I suppose we should not be surprised that the South Koreans are also moving rapidly upwards in the world of automobiles. Take the Kia K900, the car I have been testing of late.

Quite clearly the company are aiming at Mercedes and BMW buyers with Infiniti  budgets. It certainly has a lot going for it apart from the name hence calling it simply K900. A clever touch.

More to the point-what’s  it like to drive? All right. The steering is most definitely not razor sharp a la BMW but then in this respect the German machine is in a class of its own.

What it does have or not have depending on how you look at it is almost total silence. 420 horses, a 5 liter direct-injected engine V8 and yet hardly sound. Remarkable. And yet it propels 4550 pounds from 0-60 in 5.5 seconds, no mean feat.

While the ride and handling are not top of the automotive tree, in terms of luxury stuff the K900 would be hard to beat. Acres of nappa leather and an amazing array of jingles and bells. On that subject could we please have fewer bells, especially the one that greets you when you enter the car. Silly and unnecessary.  Just like in some Japanese restaurants in LA. I would call it a delete option as in please drop it. Soon.

I don’t blame the South Korean for taking the best bits from other automakers but to pick the shift wand-probably the worst bit of BMWs is baffling. Confusing to say the least. Mind you, Maserati are just as bad in this respect.

The list of standard items is simply never ending. Would you believe the huge sunroof, a 900 watt surround system with 17 speakers, subwoofer, satellite radio, rear cross-traffic alert (more useful than in sounds) and so on. You would need several days to figure it all out. 

Luxury or no luxury 60 thousand dollars is still an awful lot of money. It might appeal to Lexus drivers because it is very comfortable, silent and has a huge trunk. Perfect for cruising down to Palm Springs in January when the weather is iffy in San Francisco. The fuel consumption of around 18-20 miles per gallon is good for such a big car, on a long run you’ll get nearer to 25.

All in all a very good first try at breaking into “big boy” territory. A pretty tough field with the German makers plus Jaguar and  Cadillac under new, aggressive  management.

There can be no doubt that it is an image builder for Kia who will only sell it from upmarket , specially designed showrooms. Let’s face it 30-40 years we all thought Japanese cars were cheap and nasty, 20 odd years ago the same sentiments applied to cars made in South Korea. No more.

I had two huge disappointments the other day. First I tested a VW Jetta TDI. Essentially it felt very last century and in desperate need of an update. The company are working very hard to increase sales in the United States, I am afraid they’ll have to find something more exciting to do so.

The other disappointment was more personal. I flew down to LA  specially to say good-bye to Luca di Montezemolo, the departing President of Ferrari. Luca and I go back a long way to the days when he was team manager of the Scuderia and helped to mastermind Lauda’s world championships back in the 70s. He sent out an invitation to join him on Rodeo Drive and enthusiasts drove from all over the United States to pay their respects. In fact it was the biggest gathering of Ferrari's ever with about 1000 cars (see video of event and specs of 2000-2014 Ferrari's below my letter). Some had to be parked elsewhere as Rodeo Drive was full! There was a podium at the end of the road and at noon there were some speeches and the unveiling of a special car, the limited edition F60. Just 10 will be made and all are spoken for at around 2 million dollars a pop. Does look good, it was clearly Montezemolo’s swansong.

So far so good except that the man responsible for it was a no-show! A massive disappointment. What made it even worse was that  there were no references to him whatsoever. Not even a “ and we would like to thank Luca for all he had done for our company.” One sentence. Full stop. Regrettably not a peep. I am sure big boss Marchionne is an excellent businessman but he just does not come across as the charismatic, dashing leader Montezemolo was. I hope to be wrong and wish him all the best. Not that Montezemolo wasted too much time getting himself another job-he just became boss of Alitalia, the Italian airline in serious need of TLC.

Talking of the best, I got into Honda’s Acura  RDX at SFO and after leaving the VW at LAX could not help but celebrate. Chalk and cheese. Honda/Acura are in the middle of  important launches both on the road and on the race track.

For me the race car engine is of particular interest as the company will link up with McLaren, one of the great names in Grand Prix racing. The partnership is not new, they were together during the halcyon days Ayrton Sienna and Alain Prost. This time round they are facing a formidable challenge from current champions Mercedes and previous champs Red Bull with a Renault engine.

But coming back to the road car the new NSX also promises to be a stunner. The original was fine-tuned by the legendary Ayrton Senna, the finest moniker an automobile could possible have.

In the meantime the RDX was great and at 40 thousand dollars tremendous value. And that 40 thou included every conceivable extra from pedal shifters to AWD to ABS to a power moonroof to a superb sound system.

Downside- the company suggests 22 miles per gallon, I for one got an easy 25. A great car, a great buy.

Having said that I am not sure I would spend 63 thousand dollars on the new Mercedes C400W4 Sedan. It just isn’t me. Put it down to old age.  For a second opinion I’ve asked Aaron Jenkins, Editor of FORZA Magazine- a magazine on Ferraris- to take it for a test drive.

Well, in his hands it really flew. In fact he loved it. For me it was too radical, especially inside. How other old folks figure out the various knobs and dials I will never know, I couldn’t. By all means  if you are looking for an automobile with a 3 liter V6 bi-turbo engine delivering 329 horsepower go ahead. I prefer my sedans a little bit  more sedate.

I also like the idea of turning on the radio without going crazy. It isn’t the car’s fault that I am a product of the 20th Century and that my Volvo S70 which I had for 12 years was simplicity itself. But if you are taking Centrum silver I would suggest a teach-in with someone who will have the patience to teach you. Let me go a stage further-tell him to write it down. Step by step. Keep it with you and ultimately you will figure it out. One outstanding safety feature-a red triangle appears in your wing mirror when another car is about to pass you. Top marks. Visible even in the California sunshine.

There is nothing wrong with the C series, I would just go for a less exotic, more simplified version for a lot less money. What I found particularly interesting is the build quality. Final assembly is in Vance, Alabama. Exceptional is the only word I can use.

There was a time-back in the 20th Century when almost all Mercedes cars were assembled in or around Stuttgart. The MD of the day-the great Erich Krampe said during lunch that they were thinking of having some cars built in Bremen, near Hamburg. He seemed a bit concerned about the build quality .  After all  he said it was at the other  end of Germany! How the World has changed, the company has plants all over the place from Kecskemet in Hungary to Vance in Alabama. And, thanks to modern technology the build quality is excellent regardless. If you are a Silicone Valley geek who likes all the fine qualities Mercedes Benz stands for and can figure out all the things I couldn’t and you have 63 thousand dollars do take it for a spin. Which you won’t because of the numerous safety gizmos that have been built into the car. I could list them but trust me-they are all there.