PT Cruiser and other cars

Jay Loden has an interesting journal entry from yesterday (1 Dec 05). Apparently, while in Seattle on a buiness trip, he had the, ahem, priviledge of driving a Chrysler PT Cruiser. I have driven them on a few occasions in the past when I worked for Hertz, and generally agree with him about the layout of the car: it pretty much sucks. Putting the window controls by the radio is dumb. Visibility sucks worse than any sports (or sporty) car I’ve driven other than the Celica and Tiburon. The looks, well, as he points out, if you like ’em, you like ’em, and if you don’t, you don’t. I think the car looks like a monkey turd with wheels, but that’s me.

I have to disagree with him, though, on his general statement, “American cars by and large just can’t get a grip on this whole build quality and reliability thing“. While working at Hertz during and after my stint at HVCC, I got to drive almost everything Hertz rented (I also had to drive everything they rented). I found out that I don’t fit well in the Ford Taurus for long periods of time, but that the Escort (while not visually appealing to me) fit me fairly well. This is totally counter-intuitive when you look at me, since I’m a decently-big guy. I’m about 6’1″ and have long legs, so the Taurus should’ve been a better fit (more leg and head room), but the Escort’s seat was better shaped to me.

Outside size of the vehicle, it turns out, doesn’t always correspond 1-1 to inside comfort. The Lincoln LS, for example, is a semi-compact sports sedan. However, the back seat is just about useless to put anyone over 5’3″ into for trips over 30 minutes. I found the driver’s seat quite comfortable, but the front passenger seat leaving something to be desired. I hate the Toyota Avalon, and it’s not just because I dislike most Japanese-make cars (I find them generally unattractive, and set-up weird inside). The Avalon, for all it’s niceties and appointments inside, and it’s decent ride, offered really bad visibility for me. I generally sit with the seat as far back as it will slide (that whole longlegs thing), and the back pretty much upright. Even with these shifts to the seat position, though, I had trouble knowing where stuff was around me. And that was on a lot I drove on 10 hours a day 4 days a week. I’d hate to think how driving it on the highway would have been. On the other hand, any time I’d hop in the big 15-passenger van to clean it, I knew where every corner was, and could put it quite precisely where I wanted it in the lot.

I generally pride myself on knowing how big my vehicle is (important when you want to pass someone on the highway or pull into a parking space), and where it’s performance limitations are to be found (the Lincoln LS sucks in light snow). One of the things the managers, and cleaners and transporters, at Hertz noticed about me very soon after I started there was my comfortability with driving almost everything we had. From little Prisms on up to Excursions, Sportages to Mustangs, Land Rovers to Miatas, I knew where my vehicle was just about all the time, and could back it into any spot it would fit into.

For those who know me, they know I’m a Ford fan. Not everything they make, but a lot of their vehicles. In straight-up comparisons, I’d hasten to point out that cheap Fords – Focuses, etc – have nicer-looking plastic in them than expensive Cadillacs. Don’t ask me why, but GM seems to chince on the plastic. Volvos ride smoothly, have good power (even on the cheap editions Hertz rents), and are comfortable to drive, with good visibility and room inside at least the front. Camrys on the other hand, a very popular car in this country, felt loose on the highway to me. However, the driver’s seat was pretty comfortable on them. They didn’t have a dash set-up I was especially thrilled about, but internally they weren’t too horrible. I hated driving Towncars because you feel like you’re floating when you’re driving – a very disturbing feeling when you’re the driver and want to know you’re still on the road. Compare them to a Grand Marquis or Crown Victoria, and you have the same frame, less expensive internals, but a better feeling of road grip in the ‘lesser’ models.

Jeep Grand Cherokees’ driver’s seats feel like you’re being swallowed into the back, and the dashboard is a garish green that tends to blur, making it hard to read. Pontiacs just suck. There’s no two ways about it, they’re horrible. The dashboard lights are all variations on a theme of red. The warning lights are just different types of red (ooh! or maybe this time it may be orange!). The instrument clusters always look weird, and finding information out about the car, especially if there’s anything wrong with it is difficult.

From my experience with Hertz, I’ve had the opportunity to drive more different types of vehicles than probably anyone else I know outside of fellow Hertz employees. I discovered that Subaru Outbacks don’t do well in the snow. That whole “transferring power from the wheels that slip to the wheels that grip” mantra leaves out the fact that if all four wheels slip, the power stops. Doesn’t matter if you mash down on the gas pedal. It just idles. The wheels are slipping, after all, so why send power to them? I found this out when I managed to beach an Outback in a small snowbank turning to come down the access road to Hertz from the Albany Airport. The wheels quit turning, and the only way to get the car moving was to have two people pushing on the front to get it out of the snow and get the back wheels back on the pavement, then wait a few seconds for the computer to realize the back wheels could grip again, which allowed it to pull out of the snow. All in all, a poor design. Also, the Outback, while a higher-end vehicle than the Forrester, doesn’t have as much headroom, legroom, or shoulder room. And, from my experience, the Forrester accelerates better, too. It may not be quite as nice inside, but it’s the better car.

Coming back to what Jay was talking about with the American vehicles, I agree that most of the American brands don’t have fantastic styling across all their product lines. The Corvette has good styling, as does the Mustang, and Viper. I like the way Ford trucks look, and will never buy a Dodge product (truck or otherwise) because they look kludgy. The grills look like they belong on a dump truck, not a sedan, and the trucks they make look bad, and I don’t like the Dodge/Chrysler/Jeep dashboard layout. Contrast that with what, to me, seems a very natural layout in the Ford dashboards, better visibility in similar vehicles, and I’m sold on Ford. I liked driving the pre-2005 Mustangs, as they had a fair amount of pep in those V6s, even if it was metered to you through an automatic tranny.

I was disappointed with the Windstar, though, Ford’s follow-on to the successful Aerostar line. It rode funny to me, since it’s based on a car chassis and not a truck chassis as the Aerostar was, so you don’t sit up as much in it. I like the way the Ranger looks and drives, but the S-10 (which GM has since renamed and resized) was horrendously under-powered. Ford’s higher-line trucks, the 150, 250, and 350 all looks like trucks to me. They have gobs of power, great visibility, comfortable seats, have great road handling, and enough room in them to put stuff along with passengers. I’ve ridden in several GM trucks, and driven a couple, and they feel unwieldy to me. The GM 2500 I drove several months ago felt incredibly sluggish in turning, getting up to speed, and in backing. GM also likes to put touchy brakes on their vehicles, and gas pedals that are already almost all the way to the floor. When I drove my uncle’s Blazer a couple years ago I flet like I was searching to the gas pedal to leave the parking lot. So, by the time I found it, my foot was moving quickly, and I hit the pedal hard. GM apparently wants to start with your foot on the floor and just feather the gas to get the vehicle to move. The brakes systems I’ve seen in their cars and trucks is the same way. Most vehicles have brakes that you can start to apply, and they have a nice, smooth curve of braking power. Not GM. They have on and off, and very little in between.

Ford is not without blame in all of this either. The older style Explorers were great SUVs, I don’t like the new ones at all. Taking an older explorer off-road seems natural, while the new ones are really just glorified, 4-wheel-drive minivans. The whole ‘bubble’ era in car design (which wasn’t just a Ford thing, rember those ‘cab-forward’ jellybean Chryslers and Dodges?) was just nasty. And it bugs me a great deal that most new cars have funky radio shapes which make changing the stereo out for an after-market model painful at best – impossible in some.

Admittedly, I haven’t driven any brand-spanking-new cars on a regular basis since I left Hertz, but the design on many doesn’t seem to have gotten better. Their are, obviously, people out there who keep buying cars that I think look like crap, and that are laid out in a very unergonomic fashion from my point of view. However, I have to point out that I’ve known many people who have driven their American-make cars well over 200k miles, or at least gotten up in that range. The last van my parents owned, a 94 Aerostar, got to about 230k before it croaked, or at least needed ‘major surgery’. The 94 Tracer wagon I owned for 3+ years made it all the way to 186k before it died (in Pennsylvania, driving home on spring break in 2004). And my roommate only recently got rid of his 91 Bonneville, with over 300k miles on it.

I think most people don’t drive their cars a long time because they get bored, that “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality that pervades our culture. Every vehicle I or my parents (and several of my friends) have owned, we’ve driven till they wouldn’t any more (sometimes because we put them into large objects, others because they finally broke). Vehicles being sold today, with very few exceptions, are expected to last 100-150k miles before needing tune-ups. I expect that anything I buy made since 1995 will last to around 200k, maybe further, if I can push it. The car I have now, a 95 Mazda MX-3, has 148,500 miles on it, an increase of 21k miles in the eleven months I’ve owned it. I drive a lot, but it’s been running pretty well so far. I’d like something different, but for now, this is what I’ve got, and it’s what I’ll drive.

Lasting a long time is more up to the owners, generally, then the manufacturers at this point. Outside of crashes, most vehicles have no reason to be discarded before they hit at least 150k miles – many till past 200k. So long as regular maintenance is performed, you don’t hit anything, and there weren’t blatant problems in manufacture, the car you buy, be it for looks, name, comfort, etc, should be one that you can plan on driving for 10-15 years from when it was first sold.