Driving from a big-city airport to downtown when traffic congestion has been building all day doesn’t seem like the ideal way to learn everything there is to know about a car.
But when you only have that bit of time to experience a vehicle and you want to write about what people do in traffic jams, it’s actually kind of perfect.
My ride, a new 2012 Chevrolet Sonic, is parked in the basement of the airport hotel. I go to retrieve it and I’m greeted with a sexy hatchback. A four-door sedan is also available.
I get in, turn the key and nothing happens. Now I’m excited. Push in the clutch: this baby has a manual transmission.
Although if your story angle is about driving in traffic jams and what people do in this necessary urban evil, how will shifting gears impact the experience? Do stick-loving city dwellers eventually give up a manual transmission because the stop-and-go is too irritating? But then, what about those on-ramps and straight stretches where you get to go through the gears?
A meeting downtown is imminent so I have to put the Sonic in gear without really letting the interior features sink in. Leaving the basement is already a good time, since it whips around the corners quite nicely, although one of the first adjustments is to tuck away the armrest on the driver’s seat. It just gets in the way.
Not even off the airport property and I’m into a traffic jam, a line-up that starts at the parking-exit gate. This gives me a chance to drink in my surroundings.
The steering wheel is meaty, wrapped in leather with a touch of chrome. The subtle stitching gives it a racy feel. I realize I judged the armrest too harshly. Sitting in traffic, it’s a good thing to have. The seat is comfortable, also good in a traffic jam.
I plug my iPhone into the USB outlet that I find in the storage compartment above the glove box. The hidden notch in the cover means my cord doesn’t get crushed. Simple and sweet.
In making all of these observations, I’ve moved all of 10 feet. But that’s OK because I’m in a traffic jam and, for now, that’s right where I want to be.
So, what do people do in traffic jams?
The guy next to me is texting or sending emails. The woman in front of me is applying lipstick with her rear-view mirror tilted. People are jockeying from one lane to the next, always trying to zero in on the one that’s moving faster.
Being in three lanes of traffic trying to merge into a roundabout is not a relaxing experience. An ambulance in the left lane ahead suddenly turns on its lights and siren. The two vehicles in front of it are pressured into the circle. Vehicles coming from the left are not really cluing in that they should yield to the ambulance. Horns start blowing and tensions rise. Did the ambulance get an emergency call? Was the driver just looking for a way to get out of this traffic and to a coffee break? Hmmm.
A traffic jam is just the place to ponder such questions.
But wouldn’t you know it? After wrestling with a story angle and finally deciding to focus on “the traffic jam,” the traffic is now flowing freely. I’m shifting into fourth gear and bringing the sprightly little Sonic rocket up to 100 km/h.
Have you ever been in a traffic jam and were disappointed when it was over?
I didn’t think so. The Sonic is peppy. Really peppy since it’s the 138-horsepower turbocharged version, which also means the transmission is a six-speed manual.
Forget the story angle, give me some twists and turns and get out of my way.
Alas, acceleration-happiness is short-lived. Another traffic jam and I’m immediately back to thinking about what people do to pass the time.
But finally, after once again alternating between smooth sailing and stop-and-go contemplation, I arrive at my destination. Happily tossing the keys to the valet, it dawns in me what most people do in traffic jams: try to get out of them.