A locus for eccentrics (hopefully)

Saturday, March 08, 2008

American Gladiators

Wherein, as an official Traveling Businessman, I drive an assortment of compact and intermediate-size American cars so you don't have to.

Week One: 2005 Chevrolet Impala SS

This is the worst car I have ever driven.

Luckily for the Impala, I happened to be at the Chicago Auto Show last month, so it can't lay claim to being the worst car I've ever experienced -- even stationary, that honor is still split between a number of Chrysler entrants, including the Caliber and Magnum.

When it comes to motion, though -- sitting down, starting the engine, and then transporting yourself to your destination, the Impala is an utter disaster.

The SS comes with a supercharged V6 that produces 240 hp... with 3.8 liters of displacement, if Wikipedia is correct. I didn't even know that a V6 could be that large until I read the article. Putting aside the abysmal power-to-displacement ratio, you would think that'd make for a pretty responsive ride... until you remember that the Impala weighs, roughly, 7500 lbs. What this means in practical terms is that you spend about 3 seconds wondering why the hell you aren't moving anywhere when you hit the gas, and then the supercharger kicks in and you lurch forward, hurtling your 27-ft long car down the road and praying that there's not anything fragile or vulnerable in any of the series of blind spots and thick, oversized roof pillars that will obstruct your view.

The interior makes no sense at all. Despite its 53' by 17' footprint, the cavernous interior somehow manages to feel small, with a cramped backseat and unintuitive controls. The finish of the materials is not quite bottom of the barrel, but seemingly out of place given that the private consumer would have bought the SS because it's the "better" version. Road noise was cacophonous, which I didn't understand both because this would seem to be a certified Highway Cruiser, and because it's louder than my own car, which is both six inches taller and equipped with a roof rack. Grade: D

Week One, Part Two: 2007 Chevrolet Silverado

To my utter dismay, the people I was working with were headed off-site a day before I was, meaning that we were to return the Impala to the airport and that I needed to get my own ride for the rest of the way.

It turned out that Tuesday, February 26th was a hopping day for the Knoxville scene -- every single rental car agency at the airport was fresh out, except for Enterprise, which had... two brand new pickups available. I arrived at their desk at the same time as one other guy, and I happened to get the Silverado rather than the Dodge Ram. I hope that he was on business too, because I can't imagine actually having to pay the $120 retail price for one day with a rental pick-up out of pocket.

As it turned out, the Silverado is superior to the Impala in almost every regard. Smoother ride, more nimble, better visibility, quieter, better acceleration. I suppose that the ride had something to do with driving it without any load and a full 9 inches to spare on the shocks (see wheel wells in picture above). The fit and finish of the interior wasn't spectacular by any means, but it seemed more appropriate in a work vehicle than in a family sedan like the Impala.

It also got a serious reviewer's tilt by virtue of getting to drive around in a Confederate state in a pickup truck, which gave me the same kick as what I'm told "eco-tourism" is for really rich lefties -- immersing yourself in this quaint, ridiculous social fabric, if only for a moment. Grade: B

Week Two: 2007 Pontiac G5

I returned to Knoxville last week completely on my own; I thought I was being responsible by reserving a "compact" car with National, but apparently that "compact" is American for "spoiler" these days.

In all honesty my curiosity was piqued when I got this one, because I had just assumed that it was the 2-door version of the G6 which, as I vaguely understand it, had gotten relatively reasonable reviews as one in a small but growing stable of GM vehicles that aren't a complete embarrassment.

It turns out that the G5 isn't related to the G6 (which is a rebadged Australian car from Holden, if memory serves) at all. It's a rebadged Chevy Cobalt, which little else to distinguish itself from that line beside the Pontiac grill and some red lettering on the dashboard. Oh, goodie.

The car sits extremely low, and having not spent a lot of time in 2-door coo-pays I didn't realize just how enormously impractical they can actually be until I tried to mount this one while wearing a suit. I ended up settling on a sort of barrel roll for most of the trip, where I planted my left hand on the running board and one foot on the floor, and then sort of launched myself into place.

The biggest shortfall, I thought, is the driving position. No amount of experimentation (and there was experimentation -- although the adjustments weren't electric, I was able to go up and down, forward and backward, and adjust the lumbar support in the seat itself) yielded a position that felt reasonable and provided a good view of the road. Overall, it seemed to exhibit this disasterous pattern of American cars that are somehow derived from a reversed Harry Potter's magic tent in the last novel -- gigantic on the outside, tiny on the inside. With proper direction, I'm sure that a dedicated group of designers could use that expertise to deliver cold fusion.

In the G5's defense, the act of driving itself was surprisingly rewarding. The output from its 2.2L, 145hp is reliable and effective; I'm obviously not an expert driver, but I could definitely tell the difference between the G5 being propelled by the entire powerband as compared to the Impala only lurching into action halfway through its gearing. Road noise was minimal, and it felt pretty well glued to the road. I dare say that it was actually fun to drive through the rolling hills outside of Knoxville, though I have to admit that part of it was probably due to seeing sunshine for the first time in several days after arriving there. Grade: B-

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Blogger steve said...

Quality contribution dude. The thought of you in the Silverado made me laugh my ass off.

10:25 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pick-up trucks prove that SIZE MATTERS!

8:44 PM

Blogger Jefe said...

Dude, if you ever get a chance, rent the Nissan Altima. Driving that thing was like driving a slice of heaven. It all seems to be a matter of chance though...

11:24 AM


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