For nearly half a century, Kjell Bergh has been thinking about cars, writing about cars, selling cars, and -- of course -- driving cars. He came to the United States from his native Norway in the mid-1960s as a freelance journalist specializing in automotive writing. He stopped to visit a brother in Minneapolis and stuck around, taking a job at Borton Volvo and eventually rising to become CEO of the Minneapolis- and Golden Valley-based dealership. We asked Bergh, 2012 president of the Greater Metropolitan Automobile Dealers Association of Minnesota (which sponsors the Twin Cities Auto Show), about topics ranging from his own vehicles (past and present) to the cars of the future.
What was your first car?
A $500 Volkswagen minibus. It had 115,000 miles on it. A friend and I drove it through 43 states, and Mexico and Canada, and put 18,000 miles on it. Then we sold it for $350. So that was a cheap trip.
What do you drive now?
A Fisker Karma [a $100,000 hybrid luxury sports sedan, sold locally by Borton]. It's a phenomenal car -- a brand new car with brand new technology. Most people think it's an Italian sports car; they say it's someplace between a Ferrari and a Maserati. There's nothing like it on the road. You can go up to 50 miles on the battery pack, then it seamlessly switches over to a small gasoline engine, which drives a generator making electricity. It's an electricity-producing power plant. You can get a total of a 300-mile range on the car, and as long as you can find a gas station you can go from coast to coast, if you like.
This is not a car for shrinking violets, because you get so much attention. People stop me at every stoplight, every gas station, wherever I go. Young, old, male, female -- they're all over this car.
What's the most important feature of a car, to you?
For me personally, because I've been a licensed and competition driver for many years and used to test cars, handling and performance are everything. A car has to be fun to drive.
How do you foresee cars changing in the next five to 10 years?
Various forms of the hybrid electric will come on very strong over the next five or 10 years. Hydrogen-fuel-cell technology has great promise. You can generate hydrogen from a whole lot of sources including seawater -- which, the last time I checked, we're not running short of. But in the short term it's not going to happen because there's no distribution process for hydrogen right now.
Around the rest of world, about 70 percent of the cars on the road are diesel. Over here, I haven't seen the numbers lately, but I'd be surprised if it's more than 3 or 4 percent. We have this frozen notion that diesels are slow and smelly and don't start in the winter time. None of that is true -- it used to be true. We tax diesel higher than gas; it's short sighted, because diesel is more fuel-efficient than gas. We're slowly coming around, as more of the manufacturers are taking the risk of bringing diesel cars in. It's a very logical extension of the current engine technology, because it doesn't involve changing the infrastructure. You can always find diesel, in any town.
When will we have cars that drive themselves?
There are serious tests of something like that going on in Europe right now. It's called a highway train: The lead car controls the speed of every car behind it. You're literally hooked up like a train, without touching the car ahead, and you move along at the most efficient speeds. As long as you leave one hand on the steering wheel, you can read the newspaper if you like. You can do your makeup, check your e-mail -- all those fun things.
How about flying cars?
They're actually available now. There's one now that has fold-up wings [the Terrafugia Transition] that's in the final stages of getting FTA approval. It will be certified for both air and ground, but it's actually flying now in tests. It's not a terribly practical car on the ground, unless, say, you have a cabin on the Canadian border 50 miles from nearest airport. They're not practical for someone who does a 10- to 15-mile commute in the city.