Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Test Drive Terror: The Unstoppable DeVille

Test drives can be disappointing. Almost as often, they’re impressive. Once in a while, they’re downright fun. But sometimes, just sometimes, a test drive is a terrifying adventure.

Looking for a half-decent car below $2000 is not a particularly easy task. It can be done, but it takes some diligent searching. Having decided to pick up a cheap spare beater to drive for a few months and then flip, I set out on a search. On the list of possibilities – a dark green 1996 Cadillac Sedan DeVille listed for $1900.

It looked very good – shiny paint, no rust, no dents, clean white leather interior. Turned the key and the Northstar V8 came to life, quietly. Seemed pleasant enough.

I took the car around a bit, and apart from a clunky suspension and weak, worn-out brakes, it was acceptable for how I’d expect a 90s DeVille to drive. Before I went back to the dealer, I decided to stop and give a walk around, maybe pop the hood, give it a look over. I pulled into an empty parking lot a few blocks down from the dealership, and shifted it into park. Suddenly, I heard a slightly loud noise coming from under the hood. It sounded like some sort of accessory motor, maybe for the rear air suspension, so I got out and popped the hood. Couldn’t figure out what it was. Got back in, shifted into reverse, and immediately the car jolted and started moving backwards at a frightening pace. I had to really stand on the brakes to get it to slow down. I continued backing out the space, shifted into drive to pull away, and once again, felt a hard, jerking jolt and the car started to fly forward. It was quite clear what was going on – the motor was stuck at part throttle rather than idle. Since the target demographic of this model was primarily octogenarians, there was no tachometer, and the V8 was so naturally quiet I couldn’t even tell it was revving high.

I looked down at the gas pedal, and it wasn’t stuck. Since the car had been sitting on the lot for weeks if not a month, I was afraid to turn it off and restart the engine, because the battery might be too drained to handle it. Somehow, I had to get this thing back to the lot. I would just have to be very careful and keep my foot on the brake.

Oh, but that wasn’t all that was wrong with this damn thing. There was a plethora of electrical issues, and among them, neither of turn signals were functioning. Not a big deal… just wait for room and take extra care when changing lanes, right? Only problem – the dealership was located on a high volume one-way street, and I was test driving it during rush hour on a Friday.

Needless to say, traffic was crawling along, bumper to bumper. The street had three lanes, and the dealership was on the opposite side than the parking lot I had stopped the car in. Not only did I have to get out into the street, I had to get all the way to the other side. I nudged the nose of the Cadillac out, and the drivers in the two closest lanes made a small hole in the traffic flow to let me in. Seizing the opportunity, I quickly pulled into the middle lane. As I crawled along in the sea of cars, I flipped the signal up to the right, so someone would make a space to let me in the far lane. Oh! That’s right, it doesn’t work. But the dealership was right there! Past the lot I went, stuck in the wrong lane. No problem… just have to get in the left lane, make a turn at the next intersection, and circle the block again. Damn! That signal doesn’t work either. So there I was, stuck in the middle lane of a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam, completely neutered of any navigating abilities. Keep in mind, all this is happening while I’m standing on the brakes to keep the car under control.

What fun. I could be stuck here for miles, crawling along at the mercy of the traffic flow, and if I let off the brakes at any moment the free-revving engine might propel the thing into the back of the next car in line. NO! I was not going to put up with this. Closer and closer I came to next intersection. If I didn’t turn left here and circle the block, it would be at least another mile before I had the chance. I had to get out of here and back to the dealership before this car killed me, it was now or never. I was now in the intersection, almost through it. I had to make the turn. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a slight break in traffic to my left. It might even be big even to fit the car through. Maybe. It was my only chance. Suddenly, as if possessed by the fear of being in this situation for any longer than I had to, I floored the gas and yanked the steering wheel sharply to left. The body flopped onto its side and tires squealed in protest as the brute Cadillac squirted sideways. A symphony of angry horns erupted around me, one of them no doubt that beige Malibu in that nearly took out my left tailfin.

Phew, I made it. Hmmm… it looks like I may kill myself before the car has the chance to. Ah well, people do crazy things when they’re scared. Around the block I went, and somehow navigated into the dealership lot without any further incident. Quickly, I parked it and turned the engine off. It was all over.

“How’d you like it?”, asks the salesman as I walk in to return the keys.

“Let’s just say, I’m no longer interested.”


Martin van Duijn said...

Oh boy. I wanted to say: stay away from nice good looking cars for little money, but then I realized that you found a decent and safe Benz.

But couldn't you just have called the dealership and tell 'm you were not driving that car for an inch, and that they could pick it up, including you?

Anonymous said...

I suppose you could have used the hand/arm signals they gloss over in drivers ed. But I suspect the other drivers wouldn't see your arm or they wouldn't know what you were signaling.

Max P. said...

Martin - You are very right about that. The Benz, nice as it is to drive, is not nearly as good looking as this Cadillac was. The body is OK, but the paint is pretty bad and some trim details are not perfect. I've been realizing lately that if you want a car at this price range you can have two choices. A great looking car that drives like crap, or a not-so-perfect looking car that drives well. If you want both you're going to have to at least double the price. As for the cell phone, I stupidly left it at home this day, which was my fault.

geognerd - That is exactly what my dad said when I told him the story. After contemplating it for a moment, I came to the same conclusion - most American drivers are too stupid to understand that, even if they could see it, which would have been unlikely.