After nearly seven years living in England, I’m back in the US, and I have to shop for a car. To tell you the truth, the pickings look mighty slim. I don’t much fancy SUVs or other trucks, so my options are limited right off the bat.
I prefer something more frugal but big enough not to be swallowed by the holes in Detroit’s roads. At the top of my list of requirements are interior space flexibility and a manual transmission. There don’t seem to be many cars with stick shifts sold here anymore - about 95 percent are automatics. In most European countries, that percentage is reversed.
For my tastes, European cars offer more value and versatility in smaller packages. I can think of about 20 cars I’d love to have, but most aren’t among the 1,590 light-vehicle models offered here this year.
I was spoiled by the numerous product offerings in Europe, where national automotive style and character still count for something. Engineering ingenuity is required to make cars fun, practical, economical and friendly to the environment at the same time.
And I have to laugh when Americans complain about gasoline prices. British fuel prices are almost four times as high as in the US, more in keeping with the real cost of vehicle use and fuel consumption.
Practicality and versatility
Here in the US, I can’t buy my favorite affordable European car – the stylish Alfa Romeo 156 Sportwagon. The ingenious little Renault Modus five-door is not available, nor is its competitor, Fiat’s clever new Panda.
I won’t be able to buy the forthcoming Citroen C6 - Citroen’s gorgeously decadent “Lounge on Wheels.”
The Peugeot 407 won’t be sitting in my driveway either. Ditto Skoda’s award-winning Fabia and its bigger sibling, the Octavia. An Octavia RS, a hot rod for people with sensible budgets, would have looked good in front of my house.
My favorite car at this year’s Geneva auto show was the Ford SAV concept. The SAV, which is expected to be produced, epitomizes what I like about European cars – sportiness combined with practicality and versatility.
The compact minivan or “multispace” category, introduced in 1997 by the Renault Megane Scenic, has turned the European industry upside down. But such vehicles are rare in America.
Give me a five-door hatchback any day. When I last lived in the US, I owned Honda-bred hatchbacks for 15 years – first an Accord three-door, then two Acura Integra five-doors. In a flash I could pop down the rear seats and throw my bicycle or cross-country skis in the back. My Integras both had the same sweet, high-revving, 24-valve, four-cylinder engine. Neither Acura nor Honda offers a five-door hatch these days.
Even Saab, the former hatchback champion, dropped its hatches in favor of the GM-imposed three-box sedan concept.
There are some encouraging signs. The Ford Focus and Mazda6 now come in five-door versions, and the Audi A3 five-door is now imported. Otherwise, the Volvo V50 T5 and Audi A4 wagons just about round out my short shopping list.
A final word about diesel. I’m a convert.
See the wisdom
Diesels offer fabulous fuel economy and great performance. But a Volkswagen Golf TDI is the only car I can find in this category.
Working with its partner PSA/Peugeot-Citroen, Ford makes some of Europe’s best diesels. Ford, stuck for so long in a reactive mode, could become proactive by beating its competitors to the punch and bringing diesel engines like the superb 2.2 TDCi to the US.
I’m hoping high fuel prices will make American consumers see the wisdom of small, versatile vehicles.
That would sure make shopping for cars a lot more fun.
Automotive News reporter Bradford Wernle can be e-mailed at [email protected]