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2004 New York Auto Show, Steve Bagley, Toyota Honda Nissan Partnership - Auto News

More Than A Century Of Vehicle Showcasing

Aug 18, 2004
Epcp_0408_02_z+2005_saab_9 7X+front_three_quarter_view Photo 1/1   |   2004 New York Auto Show, Steve Bagley, Toyota Honda Nissan Partnership - Auto News

While New York City is thought by many to be the center of the world (especially by New Yorkers' standards), it's not exactly the focal point of the automotive realm. So, would you be surprised to learn that the Big Apple has been hosting a car show for more than 100 years? It's true. Despite popular myth, people do drive in NYC and they do appreciate the finer aspects of self-guided transportation. This annual display, held at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, is an important one within the U.S. show circuit. This year's show had more than three dozen world debuts and several first-time U.S. appearances. Here's a look at what the European's brought to the venue.

2005 Saab 9-7XThis one is much more Saab-looking than the recently released 9-2X (the Saab-aru). The 9-7X obviously borrows components-V8 engine, platform-from its corporate mate, but the styling is distinctly Saab (ignore the jokes about it being the Saab Blazer). From the outside in, from the front grille to the taillights, right on down to the air vent knobs, the all-new all-wheel-drive SUV looks like it came from Trollhttan, which should be a welcome relief to Trolls everywhere. Power comes from two engines, a 300-bhp 5.3-liter V8 and a 275-bhp 4.2-liter inline six, both mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. The 9-7X will go on sale in the U.S. and Canada the first quarter of 2005. To date, Saab has no plans to offer the SUV to Europe.

2005 Land Rover LR3Long beloved by off-roaders and country clubbers alike, the Land Rover Discovery II's halo was starting to dim, as its styling and technology became more and more outdated. Thus, many sighs of relief were heard when the all-new LR3 was unveiled. Wearing design cues from the new Range Rover (front fascia, side panels, tailgate), the LR3 hosts new levels of luxury and a plethora of technological innovations. Most significant is Land Rover's Terrain Response(tm)-first showcased on the Range Stormer concept vehicle-which controls and adapts ride height, engine torque response, electronic traction control, hill descent control and transmission behavior based on which of the five terrain settings is selected. The powertrain is courtesy of Jaguar: Its 300-bhp 4.4-liter V8 was re-tuned specifically for the SUV. Another major change is the addition of a "real" set of third-row seats, replacing the previous model's incredibly uncomfortable rear jump seats. The Land Rover LR3 goes on sale later this year.

2005 Jaguar XJLAt 205.3 in., this is the longest Jaguar ever built-it's 4.9 in. longer than the short wheelbase XJ-and it looks it; the car seems to go on forever. The good news is that even with the longest wheelbase in its class (124.4 in.), the XJL is a relative lightweight, weighing just 53 lb more than the SWB version. The more-than-full-sized sedan is also a wee bit taller (0.28 in.), providing increased headroom for front and rear seat occupants. As with the standard XJs, the LWBs have the expected comprehensive range of standard amenities. Engine options are also the same: the 300-bhp V8 and the 390-bhp supercharged V8. It wouldn't be an XJ8L without a Vanden Plas edition, and for those desiring the utmost in luxury, the Super V8 model returns after a 2-year hiatus as well. Both high-end versions will have a list of creature comforts comparable to a five-star hotel.

2005 Mercedes-Benz SL65 AMG & CLS 500You knew it had to happen: Where there's a CL65 AMG, an SL version is sure to follow. With 604 bhp and an astounding 738 lb-ft of torque on tap, the SL65 AMG is destined to bring g-force-induced grins to the lucky few who can afford one. The AMG-tuned engine (twin-turbo'd V12), suspension, transmission and brakes, along with the special AMG 19-in. twin-spoke wheels, turn the SL into an even more coveted ride. Pricing has yet to be announced, but think near the $150k mark.

Aside from the fact that a four-door coupe is a contradiction in terms, there is nothing wrong with the looks or features of the all-new Mercedes-Benz CLS500. The outward appearance blends equal parts E-Class and CLK-Class, giving the sedan a coupe-like silhouette. Inside, the CLS500 has everything you've come to expect in a Mercedes: soft leather, exquisite wood, high-end electronics, etc. As the nomenclature implies, the "four-door coupe" is powered by M-B's well-known 5.0-liter V8, outputting 302 bhp and 339 lb-ft of torque. The CLS500 will reach U.S. shores in 2005.

2035 Audi RSQNo, that's not a typo. The Audi RSQ is a visionary sports coupe designed for commuting in the science fiction world of "I, Robot." A Twentieth Century Fox production based on the novel of the same name by Isaac Asimov, "I, Robot" is set in a futuristic Chicago and features the RSQ as a special police vehicle driven by lead actor Will Smith. In keeping with the high-tech theme of the film, the RSQ doesn't ride on wheels but on spheres, and hosts an amazing array of technologically advanced, computer-aided functions. Audi emphatically stated the RSQ is a film vehicle only, and even if it were to be built, it wouldn't appear until 2035. "I, Robot" opens statewide on July 16 and in Germany in August.

Volvo Britto & XC90 LegoShowing that Swedes do have a light side, Volvo unveiled two "concept" cars that will obviously never see production. The Volvo Britto is a V50 that received a major makeover from world-renowned artist Romero Britto. The brightly painted station wagon gives additional meaning to term "pop art."

For those who didn't know, Lego is as Swedish as lutefisk and aquavit. Thus the recently announced sponsorship agreement between Legoland(r) California and Volvo was a natural deal. And the resulting tribute, the XC90 Lego, a natural result. The bright-blue bricked SUV will take up residence at the Carlsbad, Calif.-based theme park. Don't you wish you had as many Lego pieces when you were a kid.

Notes From EuropeDamn Tasty MachineOn the back of its latest entry in the German touring car racing series DTM (Deutschen Tourenwagen Masters), Mercedes has decided to unleash a limited run of only 100 autobahn blasters onto the unsuspecting public. Marketed through the company's AMG division, the CLK-DTM will push out a mighty 580 bhp using the race-tuned version of the 5.5-liter V8 from the SL55 AMG. Weight has been taken out of the setup by the application of carbon fiber in the door panels and race-style bucket seats, meaning that the overall package weighs in at 1,640kg, some 75kg lighter than the CLK 55 AMG. Unlike BMW, which chose to strip its M3 CSL of all luxuries, the CLK-DTM is blessed with air conditioning.

The short run is being built by HWA, Mercedes' DTM race department.

Thirty-somethingFor most of us, turning 30 is something of a trauma, involving life's first retrospective and the realization that, perhaps, not everything has gone according to plan. For the VW Golf, it means it now has the right to carry a German "H" plate. An "H" at the end of the license plate doesn't only signify that your vehicle is now officially an "oldtimer" (that's the word the Germans use, folks), it also qualifies you to cheaper insurance and lower vehicle tax.

However, for those of us with vivid recollections of the very first Golfs to hit the streets, it's simply another reminder of the years racing by.

U.S. fans have another 4 years to wait to celebrate the Golf's 30th anniversary stateside, as it didn't make it over the pond (as the rather stupidly named Rabbit) until 1978, by which time 2 million units were already in circulation.

No More Free PhoneEarlier this year, Germany added its name to the list of European countries where it is illegal to use a hand-held cellphone while driving. Failure to comply will cost you EUR40 and one point on your driving license. But the places that driving phone jugglers really need to watch out are Greece and Holland, where an illicit hand-held call could cost you a spot-fine of EUR147 and EUR136, respectively. For those travelling to the Olympic Games in Athens, I would try learning "but officer, I am but a humble tourist unaware of the rules" in Greek. Or, better still, "I am a member of the IOC currently checking up on the construction backlog and infrastructure problems, and I must inform you that cellphone reception in this area is below standard."

X3 PlusDemand for BMW's new X3 is so high that the company has had to increase output at Austrian subcontractor Magna Steyr from 300 to 400 per day.

Bugs-a-PlenttiFor those of you who haven't already spotted it, the Bugatti Veyron is rapidly becoming a colossus of a white elephant within the VW Group's top brands.

"I have never seen a car that had so much technology in so little space. You'd have to go to NASA to find something else like it," is how new boss Thomas Bscher sums it up.

The question must surely be-is it all worth it. Delay after delay has seen market launch put back repeatedly-it's now scheduled for fall 2005. And VW has poured so much money into it that there's no way it can make anything approaching a profit on planned volumes of 50 per year.

Bscher reckons that Bugatti was given too much design and technical freedom in the early stages of the project, resulting in a great deal of backpedaling and rework. However, the Wolfsburg giant has a rep to protect, it has poured so much dosh into the French brand that it has no choice but to bring the product to market, and to make sure that it's 110% right. While Ferrari owners might forgive the Italian brand the quality quirks and idiosyncrasies of the Enzo, VW has set its standards for the Veyron around typical German perfectionism. The Lamborghini Murcilago and Bentley GT Coupe have proven that this is a worthy target, but is the Veyron a perfectionist step too far?

In order to claw back the undisclosed sums thrown at the Veyron, Bugatti is already planning a smaller, higher volume model that will share a large proportion of its technology and components with other group brands, such as Bentley, Lambo and Audi. According to Bscher, the new model will appear in 2008 and, with volumes of around 2,000 per year, will bring the business into profit by 2009.

Panda AlessiNo, it's not a new fragrance, nor a gift from the Chinese government to an Italian zoo; the Panda Alessi concept is the result of the latest automotive lifestyle partnership to hit the show stands.

If your kitchen boasts those now familiar design icons from the Milan design house, prepare yourself for a matching driveway. However, don't expect to see any of those little cut-out men motifs or Alessi faces.

Fiat has given lifestyle design brand Alessi the chance to reinterpret the little Panda, launched last year to much acclaim. The exterior of the car is relatively unaffected, with just a few new styling and color details on the front grille, door moldings and wheel arches. The only noticeable Alessi signature is in the form of a red bobble on the end of the radio antenna. As you might expect, a good deal more influence has been exercised inside, with a rework of the fascia and gearshift, as well as astigmatism-inducing neon-green upholstery.

Right now the design is merely a prototype. However, Fiat has indicated that the partnership may well develop further.

Personally, I'm looking forward to the Peugeot 307 Chanel.

Coventry Transport MuseumAny car nut planning a British tour this summer should go here"You can't just put horse dung on the floor," said Barry Littlewood, the chief executive of the Coventry Transport Museum, as we inspect the blacksmith's shop. "But there are off-the-peg solutions that help you create the right effect." Littlewood is clearly proud of his "special aromas," and as we swing right into a 19th-century pub, the smell of horse is replaced by the sickly scent of cigarette ash.

"It's important to use all the senses to create an accurate picture of the time," he continued. "The days are gone when a transport museum looked like a big garage. Visitors today want to feel like they're participating in history, and we wanted to get away from the idea that car museums are just for guys. The cars provide a backdrop for a social history of the time."

As chief executive, Littlewood has overseen a 7.5M ($13.4M) redevelopment scheme that has created the UK's biggest transport museum. Its remit is simple-all the models must be connected in some way with Coventry. This sounds horribly restrictive until you remember that, until the 1970s, this industrial city in the heart of England was known as the workshop of the world.

Only three companies still build cars in Coventry-Jaguar, Peugeot and London Taxis International (makers of the black cab)-but Littlewood reckons that over the last 100 years, the city has been home to 136 car and commercial vehicle builders. The sheer scale of the museum is certainly impressive-it is twice the size of the UK's next largest transport museum, and the 240 cars, commercial vehicles and buses are insured for 25M.

Visitors are led through a chronological history of the city's transport industry, and during peak times live performers recreate life in a bygone age. Anna Lewis plays Annie Johnston, a metalworker in the Shadow factory, the forerunner of Jaguar Cars. "In 1942 Shadow was supporting the war effort, and I work at a lathe machining aeroplane parts," Lewis explained. "I had to research the part, and visitors can ask me questions about my life in the factory." Lewis will "stay in character whenever possible," but there are limits to her role. "If someone asks where the toilets are, you're not allowed to say there aren't any," she said with a laugh.

The historical set pieces are entertaining, but some of the best stories are told through the exhibits. "Some of the cars have had incredible lives," said Littlewood, who has worked at the museum for more than 20 years. "We have a 1907 Standard that was found in a tobacco farm in Australia in 1957. It was being used as a chicken coup, but the Standard factory recovered it, brought it back to England and restored it."

A 1931 Singer Van was found in a derelict barn. "It had a tree growing up through it," recalled Littlewood, "and we had to cut the tree down before we could rescue the car."

Steve Bagley has been the museum's curator for the past 5 years, and he's spent the last 18 months enlarging and enhancing the vehicle collection. He reckons there are four ways in which a museum acquires new artifacts: "Some people just dump them and run; some people loan them and want to be acknowledged; some people sell them to us; and some people donate them as bereavements."

What does he mean by "dumping and running?"

"Sometimes people just turn up at the back door and leave old bicycles," he said. "We also get lots of spares. Cardboard boxes arrive full of radiator hoses, hubcaps and lamps. We don't always know what to do with them."

Even some of the museum's more valuable exhibits have arrived under strange circumstances. "My favorite car is a 1962 Triumph Italia," continued Bagley. "I got a call in my office one day telling me that there was a guy downstairs who wanted to loan us his car.

"He'd shipped the Triumph over from Canada, and after driving it around Britain, he'd decided that he wanted to leave it on display. The Customs officers couldn't understand why he didn't want to take it back to Canada, and it took me 6 months of negotiations to sort it out." The car has been faithfully preserved, and even his teddy bears still live on the back seat, exactly where he left them.

Some cars are so historically important that the museum is prepared to buy them. Its purchases include a red Austin Mini Metro. This is the so-called "courting car" that belonged to Lady Diana Spencer when she first went out with Prince Charles. "Somebody rang up one day and asked if we'd like to buy it," recalled Littlewood. "We already had one of Queen Mary's cars and George VI's state car, so we thought it would make a nice contrast. That was before they divorced." The Metro is incredibly spartan-it doesn't even have a radio.

The museum's most prized assets were also purchased. "In 1985 we won a competition to display Thrust 2, Richard Noble's Land Speed Record car," explained Littlewood. "Then in 1992, when he decided to sell it to finance the Thrust SSC project, we managed to raise the 200,000 ($359,000) needed to buy it." A few years later, the museum paid almost 700,000 ($1.25M) for Thrust SSC, which remains the only car ever to break the sound barrier.

The presentation of both Thrust models is accompanied by a video depicting the record-breaking runs. In the case of the SSC, there is also a simulator ride that seeks to recreate the sensations of travelling at Mach 1. A computer-generated image of the run is accompanied by in-car footage of the driver, Flight Lieutenant Andy Green, applying corrective steering at 700 mph. "Andy Green helped us develop it," said Littlewood. "He reckons it's 98% accurate-the other 2% is adrenaline, and you can't simulate that."

The museum is free to enter (although visitors are pointed towards a large shop), and Littlewood is hoping to attract 250,000 visitors each year from across the world. Coventry is close to Oxford and Stratford-both of which are popular tourist destinations for American visitors-and the city also boasts a magnificent modern cathedral, which was built after German bombs destroyed the original. Any car nut planning a British tour this summer could do worse than schedule a trip to the museum-if only to sniff the artificial horse dung.

European First Look: Smart forfourRemarkably and disappointingly conventionalAfter a desperately troubled conception, smart has become DaimlerChrysler's prodigal son. The range, which 2 years ago compromised no more than a tiny city car, has expanded to include a funky new roadster and a sensible five-door hatchback. The latter, called the forfour, has just gone on sale across Europe and aims to pinch sales from both conventional hatchbacks, such as the VW Polo, and "lifestyle" alternatives, such as the ever-popular MINI. Significantly for U.S. buyers, it will also form the basis of the upcoming smart formore SUV, which will be sold in North America.

The arrival of the forfour presented smart's marketers with something of a problem. Until now, the brand has been built around novelty and innovation-the city coupe (newly re-christened the fortwo) is a tiny two-seater that can be parked lengthways to the sidewalk, while the roadster offers low-budget sporting thrills. But the forfour is different-this is a front-engined, front-wheel-drive hatchback from a conventional mold. It will not seduce with its innovation.

Instead, smart's boffins reckon that buyers will fall for its premium image and distinctive design. smart has become Mercedes' answer to MINI and is now described as the funky, youthful arm of the DaimlerChrysler empire. This "image" is reflected in the design. The forfour builds on smart's trademark use of a visible "Tridion" safety cell, on to which contrasting plastic panels are hung. The styling is bold and contemporary, and it neatly avoids the trap of looking too feminine. smart claims 30 different exterior color combinations, which should keep the fashion set happy.

The interior is, to these eyes at least, even more of a success. Decent quality plastics, clever use of fabric and a charming design combine to create a fascia that's good to look at and ergonomically efficient. It feels a cut above other European superminis and rivals the MINI for designer chic. But unlike the MINI, it's also spacious and practical. There's plenty of space for four people, and the rear seat splits, tumbles or slides to the benefit of passenger or parcel.

Smart salespeople will also be making a big noise about the car's "lounge" facility. The front seats can be folded down to merge with those in the rear and form a makeshift double bed. There are even a couple of cushions that can be propped against the doorframe. The idea is hardly new-the Renault Twingo offered this facility years ago-and it smacks of a desperate attempt to offer some novelty value. At least the adolescents will like it.

Three petrol engines are available for now-a 75-bhp 1.1 liter, a 95-bhp 1.3 liter and a 109-bhp 1.5 liter-all of which are brand-new and sourced from Mitsubishi. The two three-cylinder turbodiesel engines (which were unavailable for test) are Mercedes-sourced, boast 1.5 liters and generate 68 bhp and 95 bhp, respectively. Next summer will see the launch of a Brabus version with a 150-bhp, 1.5-liter turbo engine.

Suspension is by MacPherson struts at the front and a twist beam axle at the rear, and there's a choice of standard or a more stiffly sprung sport tune. It handles competently, and there are plenty of safety features including the standard-fit Electronic Stability Program (ESP), but it could never be described as a sporting choice. The ride is choppy on uneven surfaces, and this problem is exacerbated by the sport pack, which does little to improve the body control or steering feedback. Anyone stepping from a MINI to a smart will be disappointed, and if the company really is going to build its DNA around some youthful, vibrant appeal, then it definitely must do better.

The engine line-up is also something of a mixed bag. The 1.5 is peppy but tuneless, while the 1.3-which is expected to be the best seller-is neither refined nor brisk. By far the best option is the entry-level, three-cylinder 1.1 liter. Its 0-to-62-mph sprint time of 13.4 sec. sounds tepid, but on the road it feels as rapid as the 1.3, and it sings a happy, high-pitched tune. Standard on this car is a slick five-speed manual gearbox, but a six-speed sequential box called Softouch Plus is available as an option. The latter is common to the fourtwo and the roadster, but smooth progress still requires a deliberate and exaggerated driving style. The manual is the better choice.

The success or otherwise of the forfour may owe much to the pricing strategy. German prices range from EUR12,990 ($16,361) to EUR17,120 ($21,563), which is significantly more than the equivalent VW Polo or even the MINI. smart will point to its "premium" quality as ample justification, but this can only go so far. While the interior and exterior are worthy of the tag, the dynamic package is no more than so-so.

Underneath the marketing spin and funky styling, the forfour is remarkably and disappointingly conventional. It remains to be seen whether the smart brand is strong enough to handle this transition from innovative alternative to fashion accessory.

European First Look: Megane Renault SportIt retains its poise when others would be feeling nervousIt is difficult to know where all of this will end. A few years ago, a 150-bhp engine was enough to call a hatchback "hot," but now anything with less than 200 bhp is called tepid. Renault is the latest manufacturer to up the ante with the launch of the Megane Renaultsport 225. As its name suggests, the hot Megane boasts a 225-bhp engine and does battle with the Seat Leon Cupra R (225 bhp), Honda Civic Type R (197 bhp) and the Alfa 147 GTA (250 bhp).

The Megane sits between the smaller Clio 182 and the eccentric Clio V6 255 in the Renault line-up and is billed as the "mature" choice. It costs 19,500 ($35,783) with three doors or 20,000 ($36,700) with five. The Megane is supposed to be a sensible everyday option, rather than a raucous road racer, but this has not stopped Renault's stylists from imbuing it with a bold body kit.

The front fender is new, and the gaping air-intake is framed by a pair of front driving lamps that emerge pimple-like from the body. Eighteen-inch alloys fill wheel arches that have been extended to clothe the wider front and rear tracks. The tailgate now comes adorned with a spoiler, and the twin exhaust pipes are centrally mounted in a new and purposeful rear valance. In sum, these modifications help to transform a pretty, cutesy French hatchback into something with a more determined sense of purpose.

The interior treatment, by contrast, is relatively subtle. There's a de rigueur aluminum pedal set, a leather-wrapped wheel, some jet-black instrument surrounds and a pair of heavily bolstered sports seats. Customers who feel the need to emphasize their sporty credentials can also opt for some orange stitching, at no extra cost. The latter actually looks much better than it sounds, and it helps to lift what is otherwise a fairly somber cabin. The dull, cheap gray plastics do it few favors, but the driving position is good, and air conditioning, cruise control and a six-disc CD autochanger are all included in the list price.

The Megane's power comes courtesy of a 1998cc turbo engine that delivers 221 lb-ft of torque through a six-speed gearbox. Putting so much thrust through the front wheels causes all sorts of physical nightmares-even if you can achieve decent traction, there's still the torque steer to worry about. There are two traditional solutions to this: fit an aggressive front differential, such as the Quaife unit used in the now deceased Ford Focus RS, or rely on a sophisticated electronic stability control system (Seat Cupra R and Alfa GTA).

Renault's solution, though, is rather more ingenious. The front suspension has been completely reworked with the introduction of an independent steering axis, which separates the steering from the damper unit. This reduces the hub-level offset (the distance between the wheel center and the intersection of its rotation and steering axes) and, in theory at least, alleviates the problems of torque steer.

And it works extremely well. Torque steer has not been eliminated completely, but the problem is a mild one, and there is none of the awkward steering tug that compromises the appeal of the fast Ford. The Megane also puts its power down much more successfully than the Leon Cupra R, which scrabbles awkwardly for grip.

These characteristics also make its performance much more accessible. Renault claims a 0-to-62-mph sprint of 6.5 sec. and a top speed of 147 mph, which places it among the class leaders. The nature of the power delivery is equally impressive-turbo lag is noticeable by its absence, and there's a welcome wave of torque from as little as 2500 rpm. In contrast to the 2.0-liter VTEC in the Civic Type R, this is not an engine you need to thrash.

The only black mark against the powerplant concerns the soundtrack. The exhausts may look purposeful, but the noise they produce is strangely muted. Renault's boffins reckon that this is in keeping with the car's character, but there will no doubt be a roaring trade in aftermarket exhaust kits.

This subdued character is also evident in the chassis setup. Anyone expecting a hard-riding, edgy hot hatch in the manner of the Honda or Ford will be disappointed. The ride is both better controlled and more supple than the standard Megane's, and the Renault flows through bends when some of its rivals will dart. But it is undoubtedly capable. There's plenty of grip, and it retains its poise when others would be feeling nervous. The steering also provides adequate feedback, although mid-corner bumps cause some kickback.

The Megane Renaultsport offers a subtly different proposition to its rivals. As a quick, practical, capable and handsome GT, it has much to offer, but traditional sport compact fans may miss the lack of a raw edge. As the old adage suggests, you pays your money and takes your chances.

Life At The Limit"It Shouldn't Happen To a..."In the UK, we have a series of TV programs called "It Shouldn't Happen To a..." Everyone from vets to chefs is trouped in front of the camera to air their professional nightmares. And now I'd like to offer my own contribution: "It Shouldn't Happen To a Motoring Journalist."

According to popular legend, muttering rotters live a life of unbridled luxury at somebody else's expense. We swan around in the best cars, grumble if the hotel is "only four star," and throw a pink fit if a member of the great unwashed gains access to "press day." But it isn't always caviar and Chateau Neuf du Pape.

Sometimes things go badly wrong, and when they do the effects can be embarrassing. For example, I was working for Autocar magazine on the day when the senior staff writer smashed a brand-new Porsche 911 Carrera 4 into the back of a still warm Ferrari 360, just a few miles from Modena. The Ferrari PR man didn't even know that we were carrying out a twin test, which made the call to Maranello even trickier.

Not surprisingly, it caused widespread amusement and the UK's top selling national newspaper devoted a whole page to the fiasco. It was a cock-up maximus, but we still got the story. Look closely at the eight-page feature and you'll spot that it only contains pictures of the front of a Ferrari and the back of a Porsche.

It would be easy to spend this column ridiculing others. Recently, for example, an English hack smashed up a Renault Clio V6 on a test track because he had "sneezed" at an inappropriate moment. On another occasion, a work-experience boy managed to write off a Mitsubishi Evo VIII before he'd even been offered a job.

But it would be wrong of me to highlight the folly of others without recalling a few "incidents" of my own. Take, for example, the time when I decided that I'd impress my girlfriend by going off-roading in a Vauxhall Frontera on a Sunday afternoon. I'd progressed about half a mile along a muddy track when I entered a puddle and... got stuck.

We had to walk 2 miles to get help, during which time my girlfriend lambasted her "man." Vauxhall sent a 4x4 expert who arrived a day later and drove the Frontera out. He then revealed that what I thought was a legal "green lane" was actually the grounds of Blenheim Palace, Winston Churchill's family home.

Two weeks later I confirmed my status as the office muppet by getting myself locked in an Audi A6. I was at the Millbrook test track north of London and I'd accidentally shut the trunk door with the keys inside. "Don't worry," I said to the work-experience chap, "I'll open it with the central locking." So I clambered inside and closed the door, only to hear a telltale kerchunk as the deadlocks snapped shut.

Everything seized up and I was left knocking helplessly on the window. The work experience guy stared back and asked why I had a job and he didn't- was this really "work experience?" All I could do was to call the Audi press office on my cell phone and beg them to send the spare keys. Then I called my boss to say that I was stuck in my test car, that the keys were locked in the trunk and that it really wasn't my fault.

That was years ago, and I was beginning to think that such incidents had become a thing of the past, until I visited the Swedish Rally. Pausing for photography, I was asked to turn my Peugeot 307 CC in a tight lane. I tugged at the handbrake and the car slid through 90 degrees before I applied the brakes. Then, in a moment of pure slapstick, the ABS kicked in, the car slipped forwards and I ended up face down in a ditch.

The photographer remained surprisingly calm, given that we were in the middle of nowhere without a shovel, food or water. We set off walking and a after a few minutes met a red Volvo containing an elderly German couple. "Patrick has tractor," they said. Who Patrick was I had no idea, but he sounded like manna from heaven.

We returned to the car and the couple reappeared to announce that "Patrick komme." Five minutes later, Patrick and a tractor did indeed "komme" and hauled us out.

The car was undamaged and my embarrassment was alleviated by news of the plight of a Norwegian TV crew. They'd parked their helicopter and gone off to film the action, only to return to find a chopper-shaped hole in the ice. The pilot had unwittingly parked on a frozen lake and they'd lost the lot. As I said before, it really shouldn't happen to a motoring journalist.

We Hear...Kemp Automobile Museum Coming to Chesterfield VillageBeginning this fall, one of the largest collections of vintage Mercedes-Benzes in North America will be on display at Chesterfield Village in the new Kemp Automobile Museum. Located in metro St. Louis, Mo., the new museum will showcase more than 40 Mercedes from the Kemp Collection, including a working replica of the 1886 Benz 3-Wheeler and a 1931 Mannheim Cabrio (both pictured), plus other luxury vehicles from Italy, the UK and Germany. Chesterfield Village: 16955 Chesterfield Airport Rd. along Hwy 40 (I-64), St. Louis, MO.

Quattroporte Wins Red Dot Design AwardThe new Maserati Quattroporte has received one of the most sought-after design prizes in the world: Red Dot: Best of the Best. This seal of quality is awarded every year by the Design Centre of North Rhine/Westphalia in the international "Red Dot Design Award" competition for exceptional design quality. The Design Centre received a record number of 1,673 submissions from 148 designers and 449 manufacturers in a total of 32 countries in this year's competition. Thirty-three products received the "Red Dot: Best of the Best" award for being the top contenders in their category.

Smithsonian Journeys Offers English Motorcars TourDuring this grand survey of English motorsport, participants will trace the English motorcar from its historic roots to modern forms, visit some of the world's finest automobile collections and experience the exhilaration of racing at its best on this 10-day tour with Smithsonian Journeys from September 3-12, 2004. Travelers will enjoy private VIP and behind-the-scenes tours, and meet the people who create and design the motorcars of today, while enjoying luxury accommodations, fine dining and intriguing, informal lectures by the Smithsonian Study Leader (and ec contributor) Ian Adcock. The tour travels to Brockenhurst, Goodwood, Beaulieu, Broadway, Gaydon, Malvern, Coventry, Sparkford and Castle Donington.

The tour cost is $5,950 per person, without airfare, based on double occupancy; and $6,500 per person, including roundtrip airfare from New York. For reservations and info, call (877) EDU-TOUR (877/338-8687) or visit www.smithsonianjourneys.org.

BMW Participates In Research Project with Hydrogen-powered 7 Series CarsThe U. S. Department of Energy has awarded a grant to a partnership, which includes BMW and is led by Air Products and Chemicals Inc., for a combined research project titled "Controlled Hydrogen Fleet and Infrastructure Demonstration Project." The goal of the project is to study hydrogen as a fuel in real-world driving conditions. The 5-year program will use Federal funds, as well as donations from partnership members, to finance construction and testing of 24 hydrogen filling stations in California. Due to the nature of the project, the stations will vary from using renewable resources such as wind power to using a hydrogen pipeline.

Partnership members Toyota, Honda and Nissan will contribute a total of 65 fuel-cell-powered vehicles to the project. BMW, as the leader in hydrogen internal combustion engines ,will provide up to 15 7 Series cars, the only test vehicles using proven internal-combustion engines.

Volvo Names Bronx Woman America's Greatest Hometown HeroEarnestine Russell-Drumgold, a New Yorker who for 20 years has run a youth center that has improved the lives of more than 3,000 children in a crime-ridden area in the northeast Bronx, was named "America's Greatest Hometown Hero" at the second annual Volvo for Life Awards ceremony. Held in Times Square on April 7, the "Volvo for Life Awards" ceremony capped off the largest-ever national search for and celebration of everyday heroes, providing $1 million in awards and financial contributions.

A panel of eight judges reviewed the finalists' nominations and selected a winner in three categories. Russell-Drumgold, 54, was the winner in the quality of life category, for her work founding and running the Bronx-based Baychester Youth Council. To recognize Russell-Drumgold's efforts, Volvo presented her with a new Volvo car every 3 years for the rest of her life and $50,000 to be donated to the Baychester Youth Council.

The other top hometown heroes, Rosamond Carr, 91, of Gisenyi, Rwanda, and Kristen Stryker, 18, of Canton, Ohio, were category winners, in the safety and environment categories, respectively.

We Hear...from Over ThereCheap and CheerfulIf the Gumball Rally's collection of Lamborghinis, Ferraris and assembled exotica is just that little bit out of your league, then the Staples 2 Naples Banger Rally is for you.

Starting in Calais, France, on October 1, the rally is open only to cars costing less than 100 ($185), so survival is clearly the most important aspect of this gathering and only two out of 20 cars made the distance last year. It's hardly surprising, though, when cars costing 2,000 times more often fall by the wayside on the more glamorous Gumball.

Daily challenges should include a full day of action in the Alps, and there is a 1,000 ($1,850) prize for the winning team that makes it all the way to Napleswith the most points.

The full route has not been decided yet, and is variable to allow competitors who will cover at least 1,500 miles to travel through extra countries and mountain passes; but competitors will cover at least 1,500 miles on this odyssey.

Check www.staples2naples.com for more information and some pictures of clapped-out cars that really don't look up to the job in hand. Favorites include Austin Montegos and Maestros, as very few cars come that cheap-whatever their condition.

Merc is Murder?Pressure group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has launched an international campaign targeting Mercedes. The group wants the marque to offer non-leather upholstery across its range in every country. Mercedes has already bowed to pressure in India, and now the group wants global domination.

Multipla Owners Know the TruthThe Fiat Multipla may have won countless car of the year awards in the U.K., but there's no getting away from the fact that it's less sexy than your grandma's rear. Now the very people that bought the car have confirmed that at least they know by organizing the first annual owner's club meeting-the Ugly Bug Ball.

While the attendance might not have been huge, as those that drive the Italian MPV tend to have large families and spend their weekends at school events or garden centers, but it was still penciled in for May 22 to 23 (at press time) anyway.

Taking its TollBritain's first toll-paying highway has been reduced to a snarled traffic jam and an accident blackspot after opening a few months ago.

The $1.5 billion stretch of road, 27 miles long, was sold as a congestion-free alternative to the nightmarish M6 motorway for those willing to pay almost $4 for smooth and fast passage.

As Britain's first paying road, it needed to be the very best, but drainage problems have left huge puddles of water at two areas, necessitating the closure of two lanes. This has resulted in huge tailbacks and the water on the road was a contributing factor in at least five accidents.

Ironically, the toll road easing the pressure left the M6 running freely, which could scupper the program for economic reasons alone.

Toll stations on France's autoroutes are an everyday and accepted sight. The French do not then charge a separate road tax, though, and there is a growing feeling in Britain that the motorist is funding other shortfalls. London now has a"'Congestion Charge," which means every driver going through the capital's center must pay 5.

With the huge tax levies on fuel and the ongoing row over speed cameras acting merely as revenue collectors rather than targeting dangerous areas, the UK is an expensive place for the motorist right now.

Rolls-Royce Launches in RussiaFollowing hot on the heels of Land Rover, which recently introduced its bulletproof Range Rover, Rolls-Royce has now arrived in Moscow and expects the nouveau riche Russians to flock to buy the British company's armchairs on wheels.

Ostentatious displays of wealth are commonplace among Russia's entrepreneurs. In Eastern Europe the car is even more of a status symbol than here and CEOs with more money than taste are prevalent. The Flying Lady should go down well in a land where chauffeurs and armed guards are all part of the standard equipment.

Rolls-Royce's contemporaries, Bentley and Ferrari, are already safely ensconced and selling cars. Now Rolls-Royce expects the fast-moving luxury Russian economy to provide a welcome addition to the sales figures for the Phantom.

Button's Delicate HandsThe view commonly offered by NASCAR racers about their F1 counterparts' manliness might be right after all, as it has been revealed that Briton Jenson Button insisted on a hand double for a recent commercial shoot because his own weren't "manly enough."

Button, who took his first podium in the Malaysian Grand Prix, had to handle a remote control as part of his commercial for the BBC. He refused to do close-up camera work, though, and the producers had to find a double with butcher hands.

The 24-year-old has described his hands as "quite dainty" in a previous interview, and it's not really the stuff beer-swilling racing legends. are made of.

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