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.


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