Friday, September 16, 2005

BRAKING POINT

Why don’t people buy American? Rent a new Dodge Caravan and find out.

It’s the minivan of choice for the Avis rental-car agency, and buying one costs up to $27,000. But for a minivan it’s surprisingly cramped, and for a fairly basic vehicle it’s surprisingly confounding. Why won’t this chair move? What’s wrong with this door? Where the hell is the release for the parking brake?

My parents rented a Caravan at night, and Avis had taken the driver’s manual from the glove compartment. Still, even if these count as excuses, there simply aren’t that many drivers who want a car they have to figure out. Having to wrestle a door or seat into submission imparts the unsettling feeling that there’s some soft of “feature” that turns your headlights off if you’re driving faster than 55 miles per hour after midnight.

Just as an example: On other cars in which the parking brake is controlled by a pedal rather than hand-operated lever, it releases when you shift into “drive.” Or you put light pressure on the pedal to make it spring up. Or there’s an obvious handle to pull, usually black plastic with a white icon sticking out from the dashboard.

On the Caravan, the parking brake release is molded to be part of the dashboard’s underside. You pull it with your left hand to release the brake.

It feels and looks like part of the dashboard, though. The driver must know it’s there, as even a concentrated search can be frustrating, especially at night, when arched dark plastic blends almost seamlessly into a whole span of identically colored, congruently arched dark plastic.

Odd that after so many years, U.S. auto manufacturers must be reminded to check out what the Japanese are doing. While the big three shares shrink, even amid big incentives and “employee discounts” for all, Honda, Toyota and Nissan are doing just fine without the desperate gimmicks. What could it be? The lower gas mileage? The reliability?

The ability to just get in one and drive?

3 comments:

eric said...

This has been Car Talk, with Marc...

:)


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Krissy said...

My parents had a Dodge Caravan...and the automatic window got stuck in the open position. The windshield wipers would also go on at random times. It was awful!

Scape7 said...

Those were features. You actually paid extra for the window getting stuck and the wipers going on randomly.