Saturday, February 25, 2012

New Year's Day Road Trips - Part III: Des Moines

Things have a habit of working out for the best.  My friends and I joke about screwing up in reverse, which is to say, the unintended consequences of your actions work out to your benefit.  This is the case with my road trip to Florida--I did not get any beach time or buy a car, but it worked out better than I could have hoped.

I had driven my in-laws' Kia Sedona to Florida so they could fly back to Tampa, and to buy a 2008 Saturn Outlook my wife and I had seen on  We have been car shopping off and on for the better part of a year and had decided on the Outlook because we liked the way it looked and we like the features it offered as a family vehicle.  It's one of the GM Lambda quadruplets, which also include the Buick Enclave, Chevy Traverse and GMC Acadia.  Both my wife and I like the looks of the Outlook the best, but since Saturn was discontinued when GM filed for bankruptcy in 2009, finding one with the features we want has been next to impossible.  We wanted AWD, the dual sunroofs, and quad seating, but every Outlook we looked at with those features was either out of our price range or had too many miles on the odometer.

Then we found a 2008 model in Port Richey, FL.  It was my wife's favorite color, White Diamond Tri-coat, with the quad seats and sunroof.  It didn't have AWD, but it had less than 50K, and the price was under $20 grand.

Close enough.

I called the dealer and talked to one of the sales people.  In hindsight, I could have put a deposit on it, but I was reluctant because I didn't want to fight to get my money back, if I didn't like the car.  Plus, I thought I had a reasonable shot at getting to Florida and buying it on December 31.  After all, who buys a car the week after Christmas?

Lots of people.  Or at least enough people, which is why the Outlook was sold two hours before I got there and why I ended up buying a ticket to fly out of Tampa the next day.  I landed back in KC 48 hours after I left, tired and dejected.

We stayed in on New Year's Eve and I went to bed about 10:00.  The next day, we looked at other Saturn Outlooks online. Other than a gold 2009 model with 70K miles, there was nothing out there.

"I think we should look at the Chevy Traverse again," I said.  "It's the same vehicle and there's lots of them out there.  Plus it's easy to find one that's GM Certified, with a good warranty, special financing, and in our price range."

We spent New Year's day driving around to Chevy dealerships.  I maintain the best time to car shop is when the dealers are closed.  That way you can look and narrow down the field before you start test driving.  We narrowed the field down to zero pretty quickly.  Again, there were no cars in our price range with the features we wanted, in a color we liked.

"I really like the Black Granite Metallic color," my wife said.  "The White Diamond is still my favorite, but the Black Granite looks better on the Traverse.  Maybe if we searched outside Kansas City we could find one."

We went home and looked online again, entering all of our preferences and expanding the search radius out to 250 miles.  At the top of the list was a 2009 Chevy Traverse with 23K miles in Black Granite Metallic, with AWD, quad seating, and dual sunroofs.

"How do you feel about a day trip to Des Moines?" She asked me.

The next day after breakfast, we drove my 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass to the dealership in Des Moines, Iowa.  We had called ahead and the sales manager agreed to hold the Traverse for us.  It turns out they do a lot of their business on the internet, from people who travel from as far away as Chicago.  Buyers from Kansas City were not that unusual.

The Cutlass easily made the 200 mile trip to the dealership, cruising quietly at 75 miles an hour without complaint.  I was glad to get it out on the highway for our last trip together.  It had served me faithfully and cheaply for over a year and a half.  In that time I had driven it 16,000 miles, averaged 23 miles to the gallon, and spent less than $1000 on maintenance and repairs.

The 1997 Cutlass Supreme is not a remarkable car.  It doesn't have great road manners or handle that well.  It doesn't surround you in luxury like a Lincoln Town Car or Cadillac.  When it came out it wasn't as well rated as a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry or even a Ford Taurus at the time.  As a brand, the Cutlass and Oldsmobile were long past their heyday by 1997, but there was a time when the Cutlass nameplate was iconic.

When I was a kid, if you drove down any street in my neighborhood, you'd find a Cutlass of some sort parked in just about every driveway.  Everything from coupes and sedans to Vista Cruiser wagons and 442 fastbacks and convertibles.  For a time, the Cutlass was THE top selling nameplate in America.  But its popularity went into a slow decline starting around 1985.  Twenty years later, the Cutlass and the Oldsmobile nameplate would be history.

My Cutlass was on the tail end of the decline.  1997 was the last year you could buy a Cutlass Supreme.  And for good reason--for the money, there were much better choices.  But as cheap, reliable, daily transportation in the time I owned it, it was unbeatable.

We stopped at an Arby's outside Bethany, Missouri for lunch and pulled into the Chevy dealership less than an hour later.  Three hours later, we drove home in the Chevy Traverse, pulling into the driveway just before the kid's bedtime.  The Traverse, like it's other GM siblings, is a big vehicle the size of a Chevy Tahoe, but it has more room inside and gets much better gas mileage.  Short of a minivan, it's almost impossible to beat its mixture of practicality.  Plus instead of driving like a truck or a minivan, it handles much more like a big car.   

As I pulled into our neighborhood, I noticed there were two other Traverses parked on our street, and a GMC Acadia around the corner.  I doubt GM will ever dominate the automobile landscape like they did when I was a kid, but I can't help wonder if the Traverse is the modern equivalent of the Oldsmobile Cutlass Vista Cruiser, or in Chevrolet terms, a Caprice station wagon.  It's the kind of vehicle you use to haul your kids and their friends to Cub Scouts, basketball, or ballet lessons.  Or take family road trips to Colorado or Florida.  

Speaking of road trips, I see another one coming soon.


Saturday, February 11, 2012

New Year's Day Road Trips - Part II: The Drive

When you're driving, you can feel the minutes click by with the mile markers.  There's a sense of progress, and for me, serenity.  I left the Kansas City area just before 1:00 heading east.  The drive along I-70 brings back many memories of my college years at the University of Missouri twenty years ago.  Most of the cities and towns along the way have expanded their limits since I graduated, but I-70 remains the same.  It's a ribbon of four lane blacktop that rolls through the hills of central Missouri, with the state's namesake river twisting beside it.

Just before Columbia, MO is the small town of Rocheport, home of Les Bourgeois Vineyards, a number of small bed and breakfast inns, and the Katy Trail, a crushed limestone path stretching across Missouri from Clinton to St. Charles along the old line of the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad.  As you cross the I-70 bridge at Rocheport, you can just make out the Katy Trail at the base of the limestone cliffs.  It's as good of way as any to lose a day, biking along between small towns like Booneville and New Franklin before sharing a bottle of wine at the vineyard and watching the sunset from the cliffs of the Missouri river.  It's not Sonoma or the Loire Valley, but Rocheport and Hermann, another small town about an hour east of Columbia also known for its wines, make a pretty good substitute if you live in the Midwest.

By 4:30 I was in St. Louis and crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois.  I-70 gave way to I-64 and then I-57 as nightfall hit.  Just south of Marion, I picked up I-24 which would take me into Tennessee.  The Kia has proven to be all day comfortable, cruising steadily at 75 miles an hour and returning 22 MPG.  It had an USB port for my i-Pod, and plenty of room for Sonny, my in-law's golden retriever, to stretch out behind me.  Given the choice, I'd drive a Jaguar XK or some other GT car, but compared to the other cars I'd used to make this trip, a Olds Cutlass made during the Reagan Administration, a VW Fox made out of left over Audi parts, and a Penske truck, the Kia was a four-wheeled cloud nine.

South of Nashville, I stopped for the night.  It was close to 10:00 and I was ready to grab some sleep.  I also wanted to make the drive through Chattanooga during the day time.  Eight hours later I was showered, fed, had gassed the Kia, walked Sonny, and tanked up on coffee.  Palm Harbor, FL was 700 miles distant and I wanted to get there before 8:00 PM to look at the Saturn Outlook.

The most scenic part of the drive is around Chattanooga, which lies on the western tip of the Appalachian Mountains.  The area is surrounded by scenic valleys and lakes.  I-24 climbs slowly towards Monteagle before depositing you in the lush green gorges and canyons, dipping into north Georgia, before revealing Chattanooga itself.  I dropped into the city, picked up I-75 and entered Georgia for a second, final time, where the mountains give way to rolling hills of pine.  Atlanta is two hours away at this point, and beyond it is my destination, 450 miles distant.

The drive though Georgia is dispensed in six hours, bookended by potty stops for Sonny and punctuated by a stop near Macon for gas and a quick sandwich.  Progress through Florida is just as brisk, with nightfall coming around Gainesville.  Rather than stop for dinner, I push on.  I want to get to the dealership first.  The Kia stays planted in the left lane of I-75, pacing traffic.  Sonny seems to know we're close to his home and begins to get restless again.  Finally I hit the exit for Wesley Chapel.  My destination is 30 minutes away.

As I turn west on Highway 54 towards Port Richey, I am amazed at how much the area has changed.  What used to be an empty two lane road between Zephyrhills and Tarpon Springs is now developed land.  Strip malls and chain restaurants blanket both sides of the road, with occasional gaps in progress, either with undeveloped land or empty new buildings that were never completed or occupied when the Great Recession hit.  Unlike the greater Kansas City area, which was largely spared, Florida was severely impacted.  Real estate in this area cratered in 2008-2009 and is still 50% off its peak highs.

Finally I hit Highway 19.  The dealership is two blocks away and I can see its sign.  I pull in, park next to the used car lot, get out and walk around.  Even at night, the lot is lit up like daylight with the harsh white light cast from the halogen lights.  There are rows of cars, trucks, vans, and SUVs, but no Saturn Outlook.  

I learn from a salesperson the Outlook sold two hours before I got there.  Defeated, I head to my in-laws house to unpack the Kia, walk Sonny, and grab dinner.

Plan B is to spend Saturday in Florida, run some errands for my in-laws and get their house ready for their arrival, spend some time at the beach, and fly out on Sunday.  I can fly standby, since my wife works as a flight attendant for Continental.  Only when I call my wife, the plan has changed.  All the flights on Sunday are overbooked, so standby on Continental is out of the question.

"I can't get you out," she says.  "The best I can do is an American flight with a layover in Dallas, that leaves first thing in the morning."

Midnight comes before I fall asleep.  At 5:00 I'm up again and heading to the airport.  I've been in Florida for about twelve hours, all of it at night.  The sun rises as the American MD-80 climbs off the tarmac and banks over the Gulf of Mexico.  From above, I can make out Honeymoon Island at the end of the Dunedin Causeway, and lament the Saturn Outlook and lost beach time.