I found this the other day, coincidentally not long after the founder's death. I must have been sent there by AARP when I was the automotive columnist for their baby boomer maganize, My Generation, most likely to do a story on how older drivers can ensure safer driving.* I remember starting my piece with a sentence about taking out half the state of Arizona when I rear-ended a truck carrying something nuclear. I remember learning "you go where you look," which is why people on the side of the road get hit by passing cars at a pretty good clip. I learned to trust that the car would go where I sent it.
I thought I might still have that piece but I took a lot of stuff off my computer over the years. I kept a list** so I could find them again but of course I don't have those backup disks anymore, or if I do, no way to access them. Yay for technology.
* found it! I think this is the final but here it is (where's the headline?):
The bad news is I just rear-ended a semi-truck full of nuclear waste at 65 miles an hour.
The good news is I only did it once.
The "semi" is really a line of traffic cones at the Highway Survival Training course of the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Arizona, where I am test-driving Pontiac's new Grand Prix GXP in hopes of finding out what women want—and need—in a new car. I was supposed to roar toward the cones, slam on the brakes, and yank the car around the obstruction. The School's exercises imitate real-life driving hazards and emergencies, such as a child darting into the street or a truck unexpectedly stopping on the highway.
"What'd I do wrong?" I ask after clipping the cones (and theoretically destroying half the state).
"You hit what you looked at," says Patrick Sallaway, our unflappable teacher, a race car driver who, for over six years at Bondurant, has coached everyone from teen novices to top professionals. This is a line we heard a lot. "Rather than the cones," he explains, "look for the opening."
Ah! Eyes on the hole, I burn serious rubber yet feel I have all the time in the world. It's magic! Instead of a giant unmovable object in front of me, I find an enormous gap to the right and thread right through it. What's to hit?
The Grand Prix debuted in 1962 as a sports coupe but has transmogrified into something pretty different. This 2006 incarnation is a family sedan with a big, brawny engine. The General Motors reps call it "a performance car aimed at women." My first instinct is that's just marketing hoo-ha, since car makers at best have paid lip service to women's concerns—and labeling a vehicle "chick car" is the kiss of death. But this car sports plenty of features a woman may actually find useful: remote start, which turns on your car from up to 150 yards away; the capacity to install three child seats; and OnStar, which offers remote door unlock, roadside assistance, help in locating a stolen vehicle and other emergency and information services. Like many cars these days, it also has eight-way power seat, tilt and telescopic wheel, and adjustable pedals, making it possible for even shorter drivers to reach the controls easily and comfortably.
As for the "performance" hook, I'm dubious: Don't women see such cars as the province of testosterone-fueled teenage boys, with an obligation to speed, to pass dangerously, to drag race? I'm reminded of JFK Jr. with too much airplane for his skills. Who wants a car she has to live up to?
What GM means by "performance car for women," however, is that the Grand Prix can pour it on when extra horsepower is needed, says GM engineer Sheri Hickok. When merging onto the highway, for example.
It occurs to me that although I know perfectly well that hp stands for "horsepower," I've driven some cars where the "h's" under the hood might have been hamsters, not horses; it's scary when your car doesn't have enough muscle to get you out of trouble. Perhaps counterintuitively, performance is a component of safety?
The Grand Prix has eight cylinders. Basically, the more cylinders, the more power. But the more cylinders, the more gas a car uses, making eights not particularly kind to the planet (or your checkbook). That's a potential drawback, seeing as more than 80 percent of women in a 2004 survey say it's important that a car be environmentally friendly. Turns out GM has answered that, to a point, with Displacement on Demand. This means in essence that the car runs most of the time on four cylinders; when you need a shot of power — accelerating, passing — the capacity is there. This feature improves fuel consumption by about 12 percent, to 18 city miles per gallon and 27 on the highway, more like a six-cylinder car than an eight. The Grand Prix "has power when you need it and economy when you don't," Hickok says. Sounds suspiciously like an ad, yet I'm starting to buy it.
Control is as important as power, so, to get used to being the mistress of my four wheels, I jump into a special Bondurant car equipped with what looks like training wheels. This can simulate any kind of skid—fishtail, spin out, understeer, oversteer, icy, rainy, front-wheel, back-wheel, all-wheel.
One thing that helps a car swerve without rolling — the major cause of one-car accidents — is an increasingly available technology known as electronic stability control (ESC), which works by individually braking whichever wheels are needed to bring the car under control. "A car turns better than it stops" is another Bondurant mantra, meaning that in most emergencies you're better off taking evasive action than slamming on the brakes, but you need a car that won't tip over when you do. Recent studies from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that passenger cars with ESC were 35 percent less likely to be involved in a single-car accident than the same vehicle without this feature (SUVs were 67 percent). ESC also cuts fatalities by 30 percent for cars and 63 percent for SUVs.
In real life I'm as cautious a driver as the next soccer mom. So when I nick another cone, Sallaway suggests I do the opposite of what logic tells me to. "Be more aggressive when you make a sudden lane change," he says. "The car will stay with you." The next time through I cut the wheel much harder, and there's none of that scary rocking. This car is like that mythical lover who anticipates every desire. It's right with me at every twitch. There is something to be said for trusting that your car will do what you want it to; there's even more to be said for knowing your car will do what you need it to.
Study after study finds that women put safety first when choosing a vehicle, making this car's maneuverability seem right on message. But when I ask a bunch of pals, they pick looks over safety, hands-down. So do women care about safety or not? Joanne Helperin, Senior Women's Features Editor of the automotive web site Edmunds.com, politely suggests that "safety is such a given in today's cars that your friends might not call it out"—and she's probably right. Cars are so well-built and have so many bells and whistles these days that we can have our safety and our fun, too. Automakers have the technology to offer vehicles that can do it all. Women may not yet understand that safety includes more than just seat belts and air bags—that it really does, for example, include a car with the muscle to avoid an accident.
Just before we decamp for the day, Bob Bondurant himself, a successful former racecar driver who is now 72 years old, whirls 10 folks around his racetrack—in a van. Any of the rest of us would have rolled that ungainly thing in the first high-speed hairpin. It's easy to see that at his level, it's the driver not the vehicle. For us regular drivers, though, it sure helps to have a car that converts us into baby Bondurants, safe at (almost) any speed.
** from a doc called "Freelance on CD NOT HD"
partial list 4/7/08 (LaCie)
newswise et al
The Body 11/07
Women & AIDS update