Thursday, March 14, 2013

Ain't Life Grand?

You may not know that I have Terminator Vision. It's like a heads-up display in my brain that activates whenever I'm in the presence of cars. Makes, models, and manufacturing trivia flood my head as I absorb data from all of the cars within my field of vision. It often spills out of my mouth in a torrent of factoids which I find fascinating, but bore most of those around me to tears.

Did you know the Chevy Captiva is a rebadged Saturn Vue, only sold to rental fleets so that GM can sell more Equinoxes and Terrains to real people? No? Well did y... HEY! WAKE UP!

As the taxi from ORD mounts the rise in front of my regular Enterprise franchise (recognize that poetry and move on; not intentional) it takes all of three seconds to scan and digest the contents of their tiny lot and figure out what I'll be driving, using my magic power.

On a recent visit, it was apparent that I wouldn't be driving the economy class I had reserved. Data collected from my optical sweep returned the following results: Grand Caravan. Grand Caravan. Sienna. Grand Caravan. Sienna.

What's worse than Stow & Go stigmata? A minivan that's also a Toyota. So I took the Caravan, in the butchest color available: Maximum Steel Clearcoat Metallic. Hellzyeah.

So what's it like hauling two other full grown men around town and country in a vehicle meant for suburban kiddie conveyance? It was hell. Having a remote slide both side doors open and raise the liftgate as we approached with heavy computer bags and purchases was positively annoying. And all that SPACE! Dealing with all that AIR in the car; the free movement and ease of access and egress. It was just tedious. And how typical of such a vehicle to have countless thoughtful bins and cubbies to store everything from cell phone gear to SmartWater bottles. YUCK!

Ok. It didn't suck. Like... not at all. In fact it was ideal for our purposes. Considering I had squeezed the three of us into the likes of the Mazda 2, the Fiat 500, and the Chevy Spark, the fellas in particular enjoyed our time in the Grand Caravan very much. Interior accommodations were very good, which one would expect from a car the size of a SoHo micro loft. Interior design was tasteful with two-tone bone and ebony dash treatments and occasional flashes of chrome. And bits of mood lighting were an unexpected touch. We all got quite... comfortable.

I played with the Stow & Go seating. I'm sure with practice it becomes second nature, but it was much more difficult than it looks in the commercials. Particularly the second row. But it is really cool how all that seat can just disappear into the floor. And my palms didn't bleed once.

The Grand Caravan, well, GRAND, so fuel economy from the V6 is only about 17/25. But once you get used to all that size, navigation is pretty easy. It isn't what I'd call nimble. But it never came across as top-heavy and the suspension was buttoned down and not floaty.

I'm a little more than mad that I liked it.

Fast forward a couple of months and I'm at the Enterprise counter being presented with the keys to a gleaming blue Chevy Cruze. I show the agent a free one-class upgrade from Enterprise, given in honor of my birthday. The Cruze keys go back on the hook.

I cross the parking lot, pointing the remote at my giant birthday present. The side doors slide in welcome as the liftgate rises and salutes me...

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The "LT" Stands for Lieutenant

For a long time, the dread of most renters was being handed the keys to a PT Cruiser. And believe it or not, there are still a few PTs in some rental fleets. I feel almost the same about the Chevrolet Impala.

Why? For one, being in my 40s with close-cropped salt-and-pepper already makes me look enough like a detective. Driving the Impala (or the other car some agencies call "premium": the Ford Crown Victoria) makes it a little too tempting to buy a tin badge and roll up on crime scenes, passing myself off as Det. Alquilero from the 23rd precinct (which, of course, I will refer to as "da two-tree").

I live my life AVOIDING cops. I don't want to look like one.

But the bigger reason is fuel economy. At 18/30 you could do worse. But you can do much better. Many full-size offerings get you closer to 40 highway, and at nearly $4/gallon, I know my priorities are crystal clear.

The 2013 black Impala LT I'm pushing around Chicago these days feels like a throwback. When I close my eyes, I'm whisked back to a '97 Grand Prix I owned. And for good reason, as they're not far removed from each other at the DNA level. The trouble is, the old Grand Prix felt SO much better. The Impala feels oafish around town. The steering is stiff. And low-end throttle response (as in parking lot moves) is especially sluggish. Combined, they make the car feel as though it weighs 10 tons. On the highway, things improve. Passing power is sufficient and the ride is relatively quiet and compliant. Too bad it doesn't have my old Pontiac's pushrod 3800 engine note. This new 3.6 liter mill just can't carry a tune.

Remote start is nice to have on a rental. Especially in Chicago. But the 40's strike again when trying to read the remote start instructions on the back of the keyfob remote. I'd love to meet the wunderkind who decided on 3 point type in a bronze color on a black remote. Asshat. It's also disappointing that there is some sort of malfunction, on a car with just 4,000 miles, that has the washer fluid warning aglow even after a top-off.

For A-to-B transportation, it does the job (like every other rental I've blogged about). And you could do worse—like the Chevy Aveo 4-door with roll-up windows. But it's just such a joyless experience. Dated exterior. Dour interior. Torpid movement. And thirst. My recommendation is that you drop a rental class if handed the keys to one. I'd take an Elantra over an Impala any day, for its agility, good equipment level, better fuel economy, and equally spacious interior.

An all-new and sultry Impala arrives for 2014, based on the same platform as the Cadillac XTS. It's a stunner that I'm sure will provide a driving experience light years ahead of the outgoing model. But old habits die hard—there's still enough rental fleet demand for the old model that it will continue to be produced in 2014 (maybe even beyond) as the Impala Limited. The Limited will only be sold to rental fleets, so I'm sure at some point in my travels I'll have to rent one again.

Just in case, I'm ditching my trench coat.