Monday, October 5, 2015

More Euro Envy

When conservatives accused Americans who favor European-style high-speed rail of "Euro envy," I happily pleaded guilty.  I still have Euro envy, made all the more acute by my conclusion that the United States will never, ever have high-speed passenger rail service - probably not even in California, where a rapid-rail project is underway but will probably be stopped.  But the French TGV and the Eurostar aren't the only transportation forms that make me envious of Europe.
For decades, Europeans, laboring under more expensive gasoline, have made small, versatile fuel-efficient cars.  Many of these cars are smaller than the compact models you find in the U.S. and Canada.  I love small European cars, which is why I own a Volkswagen Golf.  But many of those cars aren't for sale in the States; after all, most Americans prefer not to buy those kinds of cars unless there's an energy crisis.  A lot of them aren't available in Canada, either.  
I'm one of those guys who, upon looking at a picture of Notre Dame in Paris or the Colosseum in Rome, would immediately notice  and be drawn to the small quirky cars parked along the street.  If there's a Volkswagen Polo in a picture of the Eiffel Tower, you can expect me to notice the Polo first and think, "Ooh!  I want one!"
You all know already about my desire to own a Polo, or even one of VW's cute little up! cars.  But there are other European cars that you can't buy in America, any of which would make a fine second choice if I couldn't own a VW - and the diesel scandal has certainly made that a possibility.  The trouble is, these European cars are from brands that don't operate in the U.S. or Canada any more or never did operate in either country.  Here's some of the forbidden fruit we Americans - and Canadians - can only wish we had the opportunity to buy.
This is the Peugeot 308, a sleek hatchback that has been on the market since 2007.  Now in its second generation, this French family car features a choice of engines ranging from a 1.2-liter three-cylinder engine to four-cylinder powerplants displacing 1.2 and 1.6 liters.  A six-speed manual transmission is standard, with a six-speed automatic as and option.  Base price in France: US$20,848.  A high-performance GTI (called the GT in Britain) has a 200-horsepower 1.6-liter engine that propels the car from zero to 100 km/h (62 mph) in 7.5 seconds.  It's too bad that Peugeot quit the U.S. market in 1991, but then again, even when it did offer (if not necessarily sell) cars in America, it never offered its small, mass-market-priced hatchback models - only its upscale sedans.   
And here's another little French cookie we can't get a bite of.
The Renault Clio comes courtesy of the same folks who bring you Nissans. That's right, Renault owns Nissan, though I'm certain I have pointed that out in the past on this blog.  The Clio, first introduced in 1990, replaced the 5, the car we Americans knew as the LeCar when Renault was doing something resembling business here.  It's one of the most popular cars in Europe and is the only car other than the Volkswagen Golf to be declared European Car of the Year twice (1991 and 2006).
The current, fourth-generation Clio, riding on the same platform as the Nissan Cube (no longer sold outside Japan), is a hot little number with advanced rear-camera equipment and Renault's R-Link infotainment system (if you like that sort of thing) and a six-speed double-clutch automatic transmission (I like that sort of thing), along with a long wheelbase (more leg room) and a choice of two straight engines, either a 1.2-liter, 75-hp sixteen-value four or an 898 cc, 120-hp twelve-valve three.  (Pretty powerful for a three-cylinder engine!)
A base Clio starts at the equivalent of US$16,905.  The sport version features a 1.4-liter turbo four producing 197 hp.  0-100 km/h (62 mph)?  Yes, in under seven seconds.  Want one?  You can't have one.  Although it gives us its boring ol' Nissans, Renault has no intention of bringing its namesake brand, which most Americans associate with crap cars back to the U.S. - even though Renault quality has improved dramatically since it quit the U.S. market in 1987.
Want something a little hotter from the other side of the Pyrenees? Then, won't you take a SEAT?

This is the SEAT (actually pronounced SAY-ott) Ibiza, from the Spanish car company that has been a part of the Volkswagen Group since 1990.   Named for the Mediterranean resort island, the Ibiza is the Polo's spicier cousin, available in three-door or five-door hatchback styles. Its innovations include a system to monitor fatigue while you drive and a system that slows down the car after a collision.  The suspension has been recently re-tuned to give it a more sporting feel than it already has, and there's a choice of a 74-hp one-liter three-cylinder gas engine with either a 94 hp or a 104 hp one-liter three-cylinder Eco TSI engine. 
There’s also a 148-horse 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine that shuts down half of the the cylinders while the car is at higher speeds to conserve fuel - an idea Cadillac tried with its trouble-prone 368 V-8-6-4 in the early eighties.  Except that SEAT's 1.4 works.  But, unless you plan to travel to Ibiza itself, or maybe Barcelona (I have a friend who lives there), you, my fellow Americans, won't be able to experience this car for yourself.  Since it's a Polo-based car, and since Volkswagen won't even sell the Polo here, do you honestly think VW - which, remember, is in crisis mode right now - is going to take the trouble to introduce the SEAT brand here with the Ibiza?  Too bad; at the equivalent of US$19,484, it's a good deal.   
Honorable mention goes to the SEAT Leon, which is essentially the Volkswagen Golf with a Spanish accent, but its stylish, sporty look feel gives it its own identity.  It starts at about the equivalent of US$24,000.  The Cupra - which comes with orange wheels - is the equivalent of the GTI.  It can take you to 100 km/h (62 mph) from a standstill in under five seconds. 
If it sold here, you'd need forty-two grand to buy one.
And the equivalent of fifteen grand will get you this hot little hatchback if you get lucky enough to get a transfer to Germany and thus be in the position to buy one.  
This is the new Opel Corsa, the German GM brand's entry-level car.  Now in its fifth generation, it's a feisty little performer, available with either a 1.2-liter four with 68 horsepower and a five-speed manual transmission or a 1.4-liter with 89 horsepower and a five-speed manual, a five-speed automated manual, or a six-speed torque-converter-style automatic gearbox to go with it.  Opel has actually employed German supermodels to sell the Corsa; Tatiana Patitz appeared in an ad for the 1992 Corsa, and Claudia Schiffer participated in the unveiling of the current Corsa at the 2014 Paris Motor Show.  But Opel doesn't need a supermodel to turn my attention to this car.  At the equivalent of US$15,000, it certainly is more enticing than a Chevrolet Spark.
Sadly, Americans have never appreciated small Opels, the Saturn-badged Astra being the latest failed attempt by General Motors to get Yanks interested in its European compacts.  I'm glad a Canadian-made Insignia sedan is available here as a Buick Regal, and Opel's new Cascada convertible will appear in Buick showrooms soon enough.  But if I could get any Opel, the Corsa would most likely be it.    
Even if all of these cars were available in the States, though, I'd still want a Volkswagen.  But, as I've already tried to make clear, I'd certainly consider, say, an Opel Corsa or a Peugeot 308 if they were available and VWs weren't.  My worst fear is that neither VW nor any of these brands - especially VW subsidiary SEAT, of course - may be available in time thanks to the Volkswagen diesel scandal.  Because what would be left?  Mini?  The Fiat 500? Oh, they're nice, although if I were to get a Fiat, I'd prefer something other than a 500 (Fiat's non-500 models, like the Punto hatchback, are not available in the States, but that's another post).  But the most likely outcome of a U.S. auto market devoid of Volkswagen and the cars I have discussed here would lead me to settle for a Toyota or a Honda.  In other words, I'd have to drive a mundane appliance like too many Americans already do.
And then my Euro envy would really get bad. :-(
Then again, we do still have the Ford Fiesta . . .. ;-)         

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