Oh, to Be in England . . .

American Driver

I’m fond of English stuff, and I love the British Isles. I like their cars, their men’s clothing, their shotguns, their approach to motorsports, their historic traditions, and their bookstores, and I even like a number of their restaurants. Great Britain discovered food-as-art not long after the United States did, and as good restaurants proliferated in London, ambitious young foodies migrated to the smaller cities and the countryside to take haute cuisine to the heathens. British roads gave us British sports cars, and British sports cars have been the jumping-off place for most of the good stuff that we now take for granted in fast, nimble cars from a half dozen automobile-producing nations. British sports cars were my jumping-off place for a life I could never have envisioned.

I recently drove the new aluminum-bodied Jaguar XJR for a week and loved every minute of it. In February 2002, I went to Scotland, to a shooting estate not far from Inverness which had been taken over by the Land Rover people to show off their astonishing new Range Rover for 2003. During BMW’s brief ownership of Land Rover, they had done a completely new Range Rover that beautifully combined BMW X5 componentry with Range Rover’s best-of-breed off-road capabilities and traditional Brit-ish luxury. I was so impressed that I went to a great deal of trouble and inconvenienced a number of British friends so that I might own one.

BMW’s fingerprints are all over the new MINI Cooper, which remains perfectly faithful to the English-country-roads school of automotive performance. This is a remarkable tour de force by exactly the same people from Munich who simply could not figure out how to get Rover and its English workforce into the twenty-first century. The new Mini is an absolute joy to drive, but its success goes far beyond the fairly straightforward business of developing a new product and taking it to market. Every single element of the Mini’s launch was as brilliant as the car itself. It was the best-conceived new-car announcement in memory, and they deserve every award they get.

While all this was going on, BMW somehow found time to save another British icon, Rolls-Royce. Most of the automotive magazines have now weighed in on the new Rolls-Royce Phantom, and it, too, can be viewed as a success. Its appearance is highly controversial, and I predict that it will be face-lifted some-what sooner than was originally planned. Nonetheless, it is an enormous accomplishment in terms of pure performance. It’s difficult to imagine any true car enthusiast who wouldn’t be deeply moved by the experience of rushing through two or three hours of twisting mountain roads in this very large, very commodious automobile. It is a test drive that I recommend be taken by every person reading this, even if you have to steal one.

Then there are Volkswagen’s adventures in luxury. In addition to the not very promising Phaeton—with its pie-plate-sized VW logos on nose and tail and its color palette that seems to be white plus five shades of black—there is the VW Passat with the W-8 engine, which represents a really good luxury-car experience for about $40,000. We drove a Passat station wag-on with the W-8 engine and 4Motion to New York for that city’s auto show, and the car is a paragon. Very fast, very comfortable on the ten-hour sprint across I-80, and yet capable of delivering surprisingly good fuel economy. We were really reluctant to give it back when we returned to our own driveway. With all this on its plate, VW is also readying Bentley to do battle with the other luxury leviathans. We’ve al-ready cast our vote for the Bentley Continental coupe-“an Audi TT in size 48-Long”-but the older Bentley Arnage sedan is still there, available for your driving pleasure at about two-thirds the price of the Rolls or a Maybach. The Arnage has been getting a lot of tender loving care from Volkswagen, but it still emerges from the former Rolls-Royce plant at Crewe with all of the panache and sport-sedan zing that have been startling first-time drivers since it was introduced in 1998. At the Paris show last fall, Bentley showed a very sweet Arnage with just enough additional length to enable rear-seat passengers to stretch their legs fully but not so much that the car’s elegant proportions were distorted. It was a peach.

A car-guy friend from Beverly Hills once told me that he decided to move to England one New Year’s Eve in the late 1960s when he was leaving a London restaurant around midnight. He was startled by a great automotive roar as two Mini Coopers came flying up the High Street at something like triple the speed limit, with an attractive female passenger in one trying to pass a bottle of champagne to an equally attractive female passenger in the other.

That was the era when some stern observer allowed that Great Britain seemed doomed to sink giggling into the sea. But then Margaret Thatcher came along in 1979 and reestablished the Protestant work ethic and a national sense of personal responsibility. Great Britain got its act together, and I wanted to live there, too.

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