The General Motors Ride-and-Drive, 2011
by David Zatz
The General Motors Ride-and-Drive has been making its way throughout the nation, to address the gap between their cars and public perception. In short, Chevrolets, Buicks, and GMCs are far better than most people think they are, and GM is out to prove it by letting you drive their cars alongside Toyotas, Hondas, Dodges, and Fords — their biggest competitors. We sent a reporter to the Meadowlands Arena location, held in the stadium’s massive parking lots and, for the Volt, out on the street.
Since the big attractions were the Chevy Volt, Camaro, and Corvette, GM cleverly put down two conditions: you could not drive a Volt until you had driven a Cruze, and you could not drive a Camaro or Corvette until you’d driven any of their other vehicles first. Regardless, the queues for most of the cars and trucks were similar in length; around twice as many people seemed to be interested in the pickups as the Chevys, Buicks, SUVs, or crossovers, so they had two tracks for pickups and one each for the other groupings. Crossovers and cars were driven on the same track; Camaros and Corvettes had a longer “performance track;” and pickups had their own choice of a short “job site track” or the “highway track.”
GM seemed to be playing it fair: they didn't swap inferior tires onto competitors’ cars, they didn’t buy low-end trimlines for competitors to go against high-end GM trim, and the tracks and queues were the same for both. They went for the most popular competition — Cruze went against Civic and Corolla, not Lancer and Caliber. The newly redesigned Chrysler line was absent (Chrysler 200, Dodge Charger, Ram 1500), possibly because their sales still aren’t high enough to challenge GM; Explorer was on hand, Grand Cherokee was not.
While most of the visitors appeared to be already predisposed to GM, based on the longer lines for GM vehicles, some were also curious about the competition, particularly the Ram 2500 diesel pickup — and based on the conversations we overheard, most visitors were serious about buying a truck, at least. The GM and Ram seemed to be tied for first in customer plans to buy. We took the Chevy and Dodge 2500 models around the course, and they performed similarly; both were rattled by the wooden stockade, similar to a pallette, that was at the start of both “highway” and “job site” courses, and both jittered over the lengths of rope strewn over the path. The Chevrolet 2500 was better damped, the Dodge more nimble, and two potential customers we overheard (in separate groups) left to buy Rams, but others were impressed by the Chevy 1500 available in both top-end and low-end trim.
The Cruze, on the other hand, was a low-end Eco model, with an automatic; it didn't have the lag we remembered from the last Cruze we tested, but then, we didn't go very fast, either. The interior was a bit plain — it is an inexpensive car — but comfortable, and the Cruze handled the road obstacles easily and comfortably. It struck me that even the cheapest Chevrolet compact (excluding the subcompact Aveo and Sonic) has a more luxurious and deals better with rough surfaces than many luxury cars did a mere decade ago.
The course was short and didn’t allow for higher driving speeds, but did have twists and curves that were tight enough to elicit squeals from the tires. The Honda Civic I took out next felt firmer and rougher; the interior was perhaps a little more upscale, in an updated-1980s way, but there was more vibration, and the tires squealed in the same places to the same degree, if not more. The Civic had an annoyingly fast tip-in (the amount of fuel given as soon as you touch the pedal), to make it seem more powerful than it really was, which also made it harder to drive smoothly. If I had no more basis than this test drive, I'd easily mark the Cruze as being a better buy; but for Chevrolet, especially on the import-happy coasts, simply showing that the Cruze is not a gutless rolling junkpile will be a major triumph. (I did test-drive a Cruze for a week and found the chassis dynamics to be impressive.)
The ride in the Camaro was all too brief — none of these courses are anywhere near as long as you’d think, partly so they can deal with the masses of people coming through, partly, one suspects, to eliminate accidents. I chose a V6, since I've already test-driven a V8 Camaro SS for a week; the engine was tuned to sound like a performance V8, but felt similar to the Dodge Challenger’s new V6, with little response right off the line but impressive power once you have time to rev. The Camaros and Corvettes (and Leafs) had GM reps in the car; the other vehicles did not.
For me, at least, the final drive was in the Chevy Volt, and that was impressive. They had a much longer course laid out which included runs down public roads, and I was able to get up to 50 mph easily. The Volt began with a lecture inside the car, and ended the same way. I had been wondering whether the Volt was only good for so many miles, even with the range extender, but was told that the car could keep running after the battery was completely empty, on gasoline alone; it wouldn’t be very fast, or thriftier than a Cruze Eco, but it would still be more fuel efficient than a typical gas-powered car.
To me, the impressive thing about the Volt is how little you give up. Yes, it costs more, but unlike the Prius, you get a car that handles well, and accelerates with authority — and immediately, with the torque of an electric motor that doesn’t require you to “wind the engine” or wait for a downshift. Stomping on the pedal was enjoyable indeed (and made me want to go out and test a Tesla, not that I can afford one). I'd seriously consider a Volt if I had a nasty stop-and-go commute; it seemed to be a good highway car as well. The Prius, while it’s good around town, has fairly poor cornering due to the skinny low-rolling-resistance tires, and isn't an enjoyable highway car. The Volt is not.
Overall, I suspect events like this and the Chrysler road tours, while expensive, are essential in correcting the average person’s impression of American brands. General Motors cars are far better than most people think, and reliability surveys show they’re not far from any other brand in likelihood of failure, either. I suspect GM cemented a few sales, with the side-by-side comparisons (bereft of sales droids) helping people to see that the Chevy or Buick (or GMC) cars and trucks are competitive with, or better than, the heavier-selling imports.