Thursday, January 08, 2009

Drive Report: Pontiac Small Hippo

Now I understand why people drive so stupidly fast all the time. The soundproofing in the average sensory deprivation SUV is so complete, I thought I'd gone deaf. A smooth, heavy vehicle that feels solid and secure at 70 miles per hour feels like it isn't even moving at 40.

I definitely made the right choice yesterday, driving the little old Toyota Corolla with the good snow tires. All wheel drive does nothing for you when you're driving four cheesy tires.

On a snowy morning I will test the surface right after I pull out of my driveway, by jamming on the brakes and swerving, as long as no one is around. This lets me know what I might expect down the line and gives my reflexes a tune up before I need them. This morning I discovered that the anti-lock brakes in the Hippo feel like a nightclub bouncer throwing you off the brake pedal. "I'll handle this," says the muscly brute, shoving your foot away. "Sit down and shut up, pencil neck!"

It is as harsh and unpleasant as it sounds.

In the quest to make motor vehicles idiot proof, the auto industry has made them highly idiot resistant up to a point. Once that point is passed, all hell will break loose. In my favorite set of turns on the way to work, I decided to push things a little. The skimpy-treaded radials broke loose as I thought they would, causing the massive beast to lurch sideways toward the guardrail that stood between me and a pond. With officious whirring, clicking and grinding noises, computerized controls snapped into action to save me from myself. The result was not a snappy, skillful pullout, but a labored, slithering wallow back onto something resembling the right track.

These SUVs use lots of sophisticated computer equipment to compensate for the fact that they're really just rocket-propelled barges. If the automated systems can't overcome whatever pilot error has just been committed, the pilot has few options remaining. It's really easy to go too far.

Just dropping into the soft snow at the edge of the cleared lane elicited wallowing swerves. They were slight, but unsettling. It's ironic that a car like a Ford Escort or a Toyota Corolla with a weight around 2400 pounds has a more solid road feel than a supposedly capable truck weighing about 1200 pounds more. But think about it: the tires on the smaller car have a relatively larger bite on the road compared to the weight they are trying to keep on track. The little car sits lower and requires much less power to accelerate and much less force to steer or stop.

To help keep drivers aware of the fragile lives outside their cabin, auto makers should put some of that computer power to work on a system to reduce the cabin insulation and the sense of isolation at lower speeds. I thought at first this would be a simple matter of making the vehicles smooth and solid at highway speeds, but complete rattle traps at lower speeds. But this would backfire as people tried to stay at smooth speeds all the time. So the solution will have to be variable insulation or perhaps a constant nagging voice from the dash board.

"Slow down! Watch out for that bike! Hey, people are walking here! Oh god! You'll kill us all!"

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