Thursday, July 12, 2007

OCD - Obsessive Clarkson Disorder

So for the last three days or so I've been deep in the YouTube soup, watching every episode of the "new" (since 2002 anyway) BBC "Top Gear", 9 minutes at a time.

I lived all over euroland for a few years (mostly in Ireland), and honestly one of the things I miss the most is the cars.

Let's face it, other than the pickup truck, and a couple of sports cars; pretty much every American car made since 1974 is shit. Not just objectively shit by todays standards (I mean even a 70s Mercedes is shit in comparison to a Toyota Camry today) ; American cars were shit in comparison to other countries contemporary cars. A 1977 Ford Grenada is even worse than a 1977 Morris Marina (and for those of you who don't know, that's really saying something).

In fact, American passenger cars are so bad, I'd still rather have a 70s Mercedes today than a brand new Ford Galaxie (and isn't THAT a blasphemy against a classic name), or aChevy.. well, anything really 'cept a 'vette.

The shtick of Top Gear, is that it's three real car guys; Jeremy Clarkson, James May, and Richard Hammond; thrashing the hell out of every kind of car their is, from 70s econoboxes (which they usually destroy in fun and funny ways) all the way up to million dollar hypercars.

I absolutely love the show. It's fun, it's funny, it's irreverent... it's brilliant.

...but it has one major problem; they are all deranged America haters, especially Jeremy Clarkson (in fact, Hammond quite likes American muscle cars - he collects them; he just doesn't like America).

Now, I really like Jeremy Clarkson. You know me, I think sarcasm is the highest form of humor; and nobody brings the snark better than Jezza. Thing is though, he has a pathological hatred of America, and all things American. He's actually said, on the air "I absolutely love this car, it's brilliant in every way, except it's American"... and he wasn't joking... or at least no more than anything else he says.

They did a series of episodes in America, and Jeremy pissed people off so much with his nastiness that they were actually physically attacked by a bunch of good'ol boys down in Alabama.

It's kind of sad really, you can see him, any time he actually likes an American car he has to desperately grasp for things to hate about it to outweigh it's good points. Sometimes he just flatout makes stuff up, or contradicts stuff he said in other shows.

Now, often he makes a lot of very good points. American cars, even high end American cars, tend to have interiors that you wouldn't find on a $10,000 micro hatchback made in Germany. Also, we seem to want cupholders far more than we want road feel.

...But heres the thing, American cars feel cheap, because they ARE cheap, at least in comparison to European cars.

Here's an example, look at this Alfa 156:












It's just gorgeous. Every inch of it, even though it's just a mid level managers sedan, is just beautiful. Of course it's an Alfa so it loses 50% of it's value in a year, and compared to other European cars the quality is shite; but it's just amazing, and moving, and sexy, and incredibly fun to drive.

I know, because I used to own one; the earlier model 156GTA that was even sexier actually; though I wasn't stupid enough to buy one new. I bought it for half price 18 months from new; then sold it for 3/4 what I bought it for after a year (I replaced it with an Opel Astra - a big step down).

I LOVED this car; but most motoring journalists thought it wasn't very good... because in comparison to the other European (mostly German) competition, it wasn't.

But in America, this would be it's competition:


That's a Buick Lacrosse, the closest market segment competition to the Alfa that America has to offer.

They have a similar trim level, similar size, similar straight line performance, and they are aimed at the same target market... at least in theory.

The problem is, the Buick is, quite frankly, shit. In fact it really ISN'T competition for the Alfa, because if you were looking at an Alfa, the cars you'd be comparing to wouldn't be American, they'd be German: the Audi A4, BMW 3 series, and Mercedes Benz C-Class.

The Alfa is the slowest, lowest spec, lowest power, lowest quality of the European bunch, and it's still MILES ahead of the Buick.

BUT...

I started off saying American cars were comparatively cheap; and so they are. That Alfa, turnkey cost in the UK today (well, last year. They've just replaced it with a new model, the 159) would be approximately $64,000.

The Buick?

About $25,000.

For $64,000 in America you can buy a Cadillac CTS-V; a much better car than the Alfa (actually, the CTS-V is a spectacularly good car in it's own right):

... and still have enough left over for two years worth of gas and insurance.

Or you could buy the Buick, and another one for your mother, and still have enough left over for a nice sport bike... and two years worth of gas and insurance for all three of them.

So yes, American cars ARE cheap nasty shit compared to the European cars; if I were paying $65,000 I wouldn't want the equivalent of the Buick either (Actually, I very well might buy the CTS-V... but honestly I'm more likely to buy an M3).

But for 16,000GBP you get what exactly?

Wait a sec, that's about $4000 more than the cost of the Buick... what the heck? The problem is, anything cheaper in the UK would be a small hatchback. You don't get very much at all for 13,000GBP.

But, for 16k, you get a Ford EUCD platform car. Over here they've just renamed the larger version which was the Ford 500 (from the old Galaxie 500) to the new Taurus (it's also the base for the much higher end Volvo S60). They sell a slightly smaller version in europe, and call it the Mondeo:

Which is not a bad car actually, but I wouldn't pay that much for it... 'course I wouldn't pay that much for the Buick either (oh and in America, you don't pay that much. The larger Taurus runs right about the same as the Buick here which is one of the reasons why I used it).

The Ford is probably still the better car actually, but that's because Ford interiors are on the whole a hell of a lot better than GM interiors... and because Buicks suspensions and transmissions are set up for 70 year old golfers with a hot coffee in each cupholder and a self imposed speed limit of 45mph in the middle lane with the left blinker on.

The point being, the difference in quality there is relatively small. TO offset the worse interior and suspension the Buick is probably a fair bit faster, though it doesn't handle quite as well; and it has a bit more room... and is a better looking car.

Or, if you want to keep it in the GM family, you can get an Opel/Vauxhall Vectra, which is sold in this country as a Saturn ION and which sells for pretty much the same as the Mondeo in Europe, and pretty much the same as the Galaxie (now Taurus), and the Buick here in the US.

Now, let me just say, I still think American cars are mostly shit. I wouldn't buy that Buick, fully loaded, for $10,000 never mind the $25,000 I could take it off the lot for (which is about $5000 less than list. Car buyers are almost being paid cash to take them off the lots).

...BUT

Dollar for dollar, American cars are just as good as European cars; it's just that our cars cost a lot less dollars than theirs do. The price they pay for an economy hatchback is what we expect to pay for a medium sized family car.

If I were spending $30,000 on a Chevy Cavalier, I'd want it to be as nice as a Volkswagon Golf GTI too... but to do that I'd have to pay for the Golf GTI; about twice the cost of the Cavalier.

So Clarkson, next time you want to start complaining about how awful our cars are, remember the Z06 Corvette is nearly as fast as the Porsche 911gt3 (both in a straight line, and on the track), costs 1/3rd the price, and gets twice the gas mileage to boot (we... if you keep your foot out of it. )

A funny thing though...

Clarkson...

D'ya know what he drove until a few months ago?

One of these:

An American Ford GT; which on numerous occasions he's called the greatest sports car ever built...

...unfortunately though he also called it the most unreliable sports car ever built; because his electrics failed repeatedly... which coming from an Englishman is a bit of a laugh really. I mean after all, this is the home of British Leyland, and Lucas. For those sins alone no Englishman should ever be allowed to complain about a cars unreliable electrical system ever again.