A car guy fail, and Christmas comes early

Friday, September 21, 2012

Yeah, I'm officially outmoded.

For all my career I've been test driving the coolest new cars I could con my way into, in preparing our fall and spring car guide issues. I've done doughnuts in an $80,000 Corvette, whipped the very first hybrid vehicle ever in Storm Lake through paces it wasn't meant to do, borrowed near priceless antiques to go through the driveup at Taco Johns, and even abused a couple of all-out race cars. I'm the son of a mechanic, and a lifelong lover of anything with an engine, so it's always been a much more enjoyable time for me than for the nervous auto dealers who have entrusted me with their expensive inventory.

But last week was a first for me. I've been appalled by new car models, thrilled by them, annoyed, exited and dismayed by them. This was the first time I was confused by one.

For the record, it was the redesigned 2013 Ford Escape, gone from a small, basic truck to a large, tear-drop shaped car packed with features.

The helpful staff at the dealership handed me a key, only once I got in the beast, I found that it was a key that wasn't a key at all, just a fob with a bunch of hyroglyphics attached. Not being born yesterday, I located a push button starter. Only when I pushed the button, nothing started. Like a chimp in an experiment at the Great Ape Center, I repeatedly punched away the secret code as best I could decipher it with no luck, except for the door locks going up and down and the horn going off several times by accident.

Then I did what any guy would do. Walk in and ask for directions in how to start the car? Not a chance.

I shook the key fob thoroughly, did every conceivable pattern of dance on the various pedals, pushed every button I could find, over and over. And after half an hour of frustration and creative vocabulary, I quite by accident discovered the proper sequence of events and got the thing out of the parking lot. Ba-zing!

It was a nice day to drive, not that I noticed. I was too busy attempting to figure out the massive touchscreen that dominated the dash. From what I could gather on the fly, it provides directions, maps your route, talks to you, operates your phone, chooses your radio station, monitors your driving performance, sets the temperature, beeps warnings about everything you are doing that you shouldn't be, and if you spend enough time scrolling through the screens and laying down fingerprints all over the place, probably is capable of encoding the launch of a nuclear missile.

I made my way to the other lot, and found lots of the same. High-tech gizmos galore to assist you in dealing with every aspect of your driving life. Stuff that goes beyond what James Bond was getting a few movies ago. The more I research, the more I realize that cars are in the process of turning into giant iPods.

All of this is wonderful, of course. Amazing advances that no doubt keep a person safer, better entertained, more comfortable and more aware, and fits their increasingly technological lifestyles.

And yet, I remember when driving WAS the entertaining thing about a car. It wasn't about syncing, or communicating - if you had wanted to communicate, you would have stayed home with your family. You went for a drive to AVOID communication.

The process for starting a car used to be: 1. Put key in ignition. 2. Turn. Way too simple.

You had a steering wheel, without a hundred tiny buttons sticking out of it everywhere, a shifter, and a radio. You want louder, you turn a knob. You want warmer, you slide a switch. GPS not so long ago was a crumpled map in the glove compartment.

The joy of driving then wasn't infotainment or Blue Toothing, it was the engine note blasting out of the pipes, the feel of the rubber on the road, heel-toe-ing it through the curves. You worked on cars then, too, made adjustments in your driveway, and people actually had to fix stuff, not just hook into a computer and order a whole new unit.

Anyway, the high tech cars I've driven were fine once you figure them out. American automobiles have come a long way fast - the reliability, performance, economy, fit and finish are a world ahead of anything that was on the road a few years back.

Still, I'm outmoded. I can see that now. I'm pretty sure I'd manage to crash one of these wondercars in fairly short order, trying to fiddle with all of the touchscreen stuff or find the right button somewhere on the steering wheel or attempting to answer calls and check email, instead of watching the road.

Everyone else in the world is going to love these new cars, all of them, and will be dialed into all the technology by the time they get the door unlocked.

As for me, I looked around the lots, and finally found a model that had everything I like. I asked how much.

It wasn't for sale. I think it maybe belonged to the mechanic. A Camaro, from about a quarter of a century ago. The salesman just looked at me like I was nuts. Maybe so, but that baby, I could start.


It was last week that I happened to be in BV Stationery when the staff was putting up their first display for the Christmas season. Before the mid-point of September. It must have been 80 degrees out. As far as I know, it is informally the first Christmas development in the local stores. But not by much. I was in Walmart Monday, and they were putting out Christmas trees, on the same day as the giant inflatable Halloween creatures.

Christmas stuff used to go up around Thanksgiving, then around Halloween, and in the past few years, right around the time of my birthday in early October. Now, it's headed straight back toward Labor Day and eventually, no doubt, will coincide with Fourth of July.

There was a time I was annoyed by this, but heck, I like Christmas and stores wouldn't do it if people didn't want to buy the stuff, so more power to 'em.

In fact, I would like to propose a new idea - to combine all of the seasonal holidays into one. This would save a lot of time changing out store displays, and a lot of money for people who feel like they have to redecorate every square inch for every event, and save the gas companies trouble since they would only need to find excuses to jack up the prices once.

It would be Laborveteranshallowgivingmas. Mark your calendars.