Wednesday, August 5, 2015

1200 Mile Desert Road Trip...In a Chevy Sonic Turbo

Recently I participated in a press event for GMC as a photographer/representative for my client. The trip was all about the new GMC Canyon. The participants were bought to the back country of Southern Utah and St. George area to experience the truck in a series of adventures. I saw this trip as an opportunity for an epic road trip to see an old friend out in Arizona, and then make my way out to St. George Utah. Because they don’t look that far apart on a map, right? Wrong.

Day 1
I flew into Vegas on an early morning flight, as this would be the base of operations for the journey. In hindsight, I should have just flown into Phoenix, but hey, that would be thinking ahead.  I immediately made my way to Enterprise to pick up my car. I always loved Enterprise because they let you pick your car in your class, and I needed to get a GM vehicle.   In addition, they rent cars with unlimited mileage, and I skip the line as a fleet member.

Then she arrived, clean and shiny, with only about 4000 miles on the clock, a 2015 Chevy Sonic LTZ hatch. Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with small cars, the Chevy Sonic is a 4-door compact car with a tiny 1.4 liter engine. I was hesitant at first, and considered paying the extra money and upgrade to a Cruze or Impala, because frankly I couldn’t imagine doing over 1000 miles in this little econobox. But then a gleaming badge caught my eye on the rear hatch: “Turbo” it whispered to me, and I gave into that sweet siren’s song and decided to give it a spin.

The cabin was surprisingly well appointed, and I paired my phone with the infotainment system for navigation before I left the rental lot.  I was happy to find other standard features that were surprising for a car in this class, such as power windows, AC and seatbelts. Missing though were some key things like seats that were adjustable in multiple ways- for example, there was no recline option, only a lever that adjusted the seat position for back and forth tilt. Rolling out of the lot, I exited the Vegas Strip, and made my way onto The 15 Freeway. I hit the gas, and felt the pure exhilaration as all 138 ponies were let loose from their cage. Since Vegas is a city of high rollers, I curbed the urge to smoke the Ferraris and Lamborghinis that were passing me, who were obviously on the hunt for a challenge. However, since I really didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, I resisted and continued my journey.

After passing the Hoover Dam and crossing the Arizona state line, I hit the open road. Route 93 was hundreds of miles long, and was where I would be spending the majority of my journey. The speed limit was between 65 and 75, so I eventually let the cruise control take over, until the straight desert road started twisting through the desert canyons. The handling at low speed is surprisingly nimble, but at higher speeds I was a bit hesitant of sharper turns. I grew accustomed to hitting the gas pedal hard when I spotted a large hill, fully well knowing I would need all of the power I could get to maintain a safe speed up the incline. But of course, these rapid elevation changes are not the typical kind of driving your normal teenager or early 20-something who purchases a Sonic would expect.

About an hour in, I really started to explore the Chevrolet “MyLink” radio system. I had never liked touchscreens, but this one grew on me. There were physical buttons on the wheel for most controls in addition to touch screen, and pairing was a seamless operation. The system was actually great, and made this long road trip quite enjoyable, as I was able to pull music from my phone and iPod, and talk to my wife and check in with the office through the phone.  The My Link system was totally way more than I would expect from an economy car, and actually beat many modern luxury cars in terms of connectivity and operation.  The radio audio was also surprisingly decent, and I had visions of thrashing the Sonic through a cow pasture to the tune of Fun’s “We are Young” like they did in that Super Bowl Commercial. That didn’t happen.  The main driver display was also a funky design that I grew to love. The speedometer was big and digital, while the tach was a traditional needle. I was wishing for a temperature gauge while driving 7 hours through a 110-degree desert, but thankfully, I didn’t need one.  The display also held info like MPG, and fuel range, which was a little helpful. But like most machines, I didn’t totally trust it because of that whole Skynet thing. Additionally, 3 days in, I found out that there was actually a backup camera, and opening the glovebox revealed a USB port and auxiliary jack. Win.

Here’s the thing about driving through a desert when no one is around you for 70 miles in any direction, and you just got done watching “The Hills Have Eyes” - Range anxiety becomes a real worry. I picked the Sonic up with a full tank, and the range readout was on 310 miles to empty. Not bad, but not the fuel economy I would expect. I stopped to fill up twice on my journey, even though I was slightly under half full, just because I didn’t know when my next opportunity would be. The first time I filled up, the bill was 13 bucks. Yes, 13 dollars. The reason the range was so small was because the car actually had an itty-bitty gas tank, of about 12 gallons. The trip computer told me I was getting about 30 MPG, which seemed low for a car of this size, even while blasting at 75 MPH with the AC on. But then something magical happened. On my third fill-up, the range mysteriously shot up to nearly 400 miles, and my MPG skyrockets to about 38 MPG. This welcome change would stay with me for the rest of my journey.  

Day 2-3
My ride from phoenix to Utah was amazing. I left at 3 a.m. to make it to Utah by noon. It was cool enough that I could drive with the windows down, until the sun came up. I drove the Joshua Tree Scenic Highway (Rt. 93) through Arizona during the sunrise, which was a surreal experience. Seeing the sunrise on the rock outcroppings with the cacti silhouetted was gorgeous, and surely something I will remember for a long time. I didn’t have to stop for gas until I hit Las Vegas, and then I made my way into Utah. The drive to St. George, Utah was equally gorgeous, with the road dipping into fiery red canyons and long, straight expanses with distant mountains. The Sonic had no trouble keeping up with the 75 MPH speed limit, and was quite comfortable on the freeway.

Day 4
When I made it to Utah and met up with the GMC team, my tiny Sonic was dwarfed by the Canyon pick-up trucks. I struggled to keep up with them on the highway, frequently flooring the accelerator to not get left behind the group. Then the trip took an unexpected turn-off road. The activity was canyoneering, and the route to the mouth of the canyon was about 45 minutes up through the Dixie National forest. No problem for a capable 4WD pick-up, but big problem for a front-wheel drive Sonic.  The ride was harrowing and white knuckle, as I struggled to maintain a safe line, and keep the ass of the car from sliding off any one of the numerous hairpin turns. To make matters worse, the dust plumes kicked up by the trucks made my visibility about 20 feet.  To my left was a cliff with about a 300-foot drop. To my right, sheer rock face, and ahead of me was no room for error. After this nerve-wracking ride up and down the valley, I was relieved the Sonic made it out without even a scratch…and then I realized I left my camera bag with my lenses up at the canyon entrance, so I had to go back up and do it all over again. The best part about this was the confused stares and looks from the other jeep, FJ cruiser and other 4WD vehicle owners on my way up the mountain, clearly surprised to see this tiny car going all Tanner Foust on the trail. So the lesson here is this -  no matter what they say, any car can go off-road…as long as it’s a rental.

I did get a chance to ride in the GMC Canyon, and I was surprised by the level of refinement inside the cabin, augmented by the trucks aggressive lines and good looks. The design straddles the line between useful functionality and comfortable utility, with 4 doors, and ample backseat and great cockpit tech. Little things like steps near the back tailgate and a powerful enough 3.6 liter V6 engine make this pickup truck into a comfortable highway cruiser, and an off-road bruiser.  I guess that’s a secret that’s known by middle America, which is that pickup trucks can actually be used for commuting, and quite successfully.  

Day 5
The ride from Utah to Vegas went pretty fast, and the miles ticked by quickly on the 15 freeway. I took a detour through Arizona’s Valley of Fire for some more sightseeing and looked forward to boarding a plane to get back home.  I was a little worried about being hit with a cleaning bill for the car, as taking to the trail made the car dirty -  dirt was literally piled over the emblems, and even the inside of the door sills had a layer of dirt in them.  The girl at Enterprise was surprised by the mileage I put on, but assured me that “people come back with cars way worse than this all the time”. This makes me think about the abuse that rentals endure. I reluctantly bid my little Sonic goodbye, and felt a tear come to my eye -  we had been through a lot together, and she never let me down.

In conclusion
But this is the point where I get existential. At some point in the journey, I was reacquainted with my inner peace. With nothing around me for miles, I remember why I fell in love with the open road. For years, I have been flying out west on my way to Seattle, Vegas, LA and SF. I have always looked down at the vast desert, and seen the long, straight roads cutting through the landscape below, and have wondered what it would be like to blast down them. I now know the answer, and its very long and boring. Over the long trip, the Sonic and I had become good friends, and I came to appreciate this small car and all it had to offer. I came in to the relationship with lower expectations, and left pleasantly surprised by the capabilities of the car.

Key stats for the road trip:
  •  Frames captured on my Nikon D5500: 624
  •  Miles traveled - 1230 miles
  •  Enterprise bill for the car $276.44
  •   Average MPG -35.8
  •   Money spent on gas: $96.12
  •   Vultures hit: 1 (he came out of nowhere)
  • Tumbleweeds hit: 2
  •   Cans of Starbucks iced coffee: 9
  •  # of Spotify playlists: 6
  •   # of days it took me to find the hidden USB and Aux ports: 3
  •  Times lost: 0
  •   Times the Sonic went to an actual Sonic: 2
  •   Breakfast burritos consumed: 4
  •  # of times I thought I was going to drive off a cliff: Like at least 5
  •  Times “Turn the Page” came up in shuffle and I totally rocked out: 4
  •   Existential reckonings: 2
  •  Average speed: 78 MPH (75 MPH speed limits!)
  • Most travelled road: Route 93
  • Time zones: 3
  • Times the Sonic went Super-Sonic :0