Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Chevrolet Cobalt Is A Horrid Car

On Sunday, I rented a 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt to get from Memphis to rural Mississippi. I didn't choose that car by request, it was simply the one Hertz gave me, probably the cheapest rental the company had and thus the preference of my current employer.

I can say without any hesitation whatsoever that the 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt sucks to high heaven. It sucks so hard that not even light can escape. I would also say it blows, but that would be an insult to things that blow. If I had a million dollars, I would buy as many Cobalts as I could and destroy them all in painful, tortuous, sadistic ways, then send the dismembered pieces to the people who designed it. It is an absolute, unmitigated disaster of a car.

Here's what happened:

I got the car Sunday evening and got to my destination relatively quickly, as I noted yesterday. It drove well for a little car, though I didn't like the fact it was bright red: cops tend to ticket red cars for speeding more than any other, and I was most definitely speeding. Monday morning, I got up and drove another hour or so to a small college in Mississippi, where I gave a presentation until 12:30 pm. I was headed back to Memphis by 12:45, trying to catch a 6:05 flight.

I took the Natchez Trace Parkway. If you ever have to drive through Mississippi, I highly recommend that road, which cuts across the state from the southwest to the northeast. It is precisely the kind of road that people mean when they refer to lovely back-country roads: nothing but thick woods and an occasional idyllic farm. There's no commercial traffic allowed at all, and since it was a Monday afternoon, there was little other traffic. A truly beautiful drive.

I was making good time, but I was so busy enjoying myself that I didn't realize I was quickly running out of gas. The only problem with the Natchez Trace is that it never passes through any towns, and only has occasional exits to nearby towns. I also had no cell phone reception whatsoever. If I ran out of gas I was going to be stuck for a very long time.

I drove several miles hoping for an exit to something other than a camp site or trail head, and luckily got my wish: an exit to Utica, Mississippi. I took the exit and drove a few miles and came to a ramshackle old general store with a couple of gas pumps out front. I figured I'd fill up and be back on the Natchez Trace in a few minutes.

I pulled up to one of two pumps, one that did not have a sign that said "pump out of gas." The equipment was so old it did not have any way to pay at the pump, so I went inside, dropped some money on the counter, and said "I need $10 worth of unleaded." The lady behind the counter said, "Oh, we're out of gas."

I didn't argue with the logic of putting a "pump out of gas" sign on only one of two empty gas pumps, and instead asked her politely where the next gas station was. She pointed me down the road to a station a few miles away.

I walked back to my car praying the thing would start. Before I got in it occurred to me I had still had the air conditioning blasting, wasting fuel, so I turned it off, turned the radio off, and tried start up. Happily, the car started fine and I peeled out of the store as fast as I could, the rear windows now rolled down.

I got the car up to about 50 mph, the posted limit, and all of a sudden it started to shake violently. Really violently. So violently I could hardly control it. Worse, I felt pressure in my ears like someone was holding me down under 20 feet of water. I slowed down a little and the shaking reduced some, but not completely. That's when I heard thumping sound coming from the back of the car and I realized I probably had a flat, acquired from the dirt and gravel lot at my previous stop. I reduced speed to 40 MPH, the fastest I could go and still feel I had some control over the car.

I thought, to hell with it, it's a rental: a few miles on a flat won't kill it, and with any luck there will be a mechanic at the gas station I was headed to, one who could help me put on a spare or maybe even fix the flat. At that point, I'd given up hope of making my flight: I would have been happy to get as far as civilization and a decent hotel.

I got to the station to learn it was just another little country store, so there would be no mehcanic to help me, but when I checked the tires I realized I didn't have a flat at all. So something else was wrong with the car. I felt some hope that the shaking had somehow to do with the empty gas tank, and that once I'd filled up the car it would go away. I got my gas -- $15 worth just to be safe -- and I realized I had no idea what highway I was on, what direction I was headed, or how to get to the interstate that would take me to Memphis. I asked the lady at the store for directions and she pointed me down a state highway, and assured me it would take me to the interstate. The problem was, no more Natchez Trace, no more easy, no-commercial-traffic driving.

I got on the state highway and took the car up to 50 MPH and once again it started shaking viloently. I realized then that it didn't matter what road I was on, this car wasn't going to get as far as Memphis. The shaking had to have been more than just an empty tank or a flat tire. There was something profoundly wrong with the car, somehow suddenly acquired in the gravel parking lot of the decrepit little store I stopped at first. I slowed down to a controllable speed, hoping only to get to the outskirts of Jackson, where I could call Hertz's roadside assistance, get another car, and call my office to arrange different travel.

I spent about 30 minutes driving like this, frustrated at myself for not asking how far Jackson was from the last store. I kept looking ahead for signs of the city, some kind of easy-to-find location so Hertz could come resue me. I started to get hot, and realized I still had the air conditioning off and the back windows rolled down. Now that I had plenty of gas there was no point in being uncomfortable, so I rolled the windows up and blasted the air. Like magic, the car returned to normal. I almost didn't believe it. I accelerated slowly, first to 45 MPH, then 50, then 55, and no bone-rattling, head-crushing vibrations.

It couldn't be the air conditioning, could it? That would be crazy: how can turning the air off cause a car to shake so violently it could barely be driven? It made no sense at all. Just to see, I turned off the air and accelerated a little bit more. No shaking. I turned the air back on and realized there was only one possibility: having the rear wiindows down in a 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt made the car dangerously undrivable at speeds above 45 MPH.

My exact thought was: "No freakin' way." Seriously, how could a car be designed so badly that it couldn't be driven when the driver made the not unusual choice to roll down the rear windows? How is it possible a mistake like that could get past all the testing a car company must do? This made even less sense then the air conditioning. I simple refused to believe it. I drove a good 5 minutes unwilling to even attempt to roll down the rear windows to test the possibility. It was simple inconceivable to me that the car could be designed so badly that it could kill a person for rolling the windows down.

But eventually, the scientific method won out. I rolled the rear windows down about half-way, and the violent shaking began. I almost lost control of the car because I'd taken one hand off the wheel to press the button to roll the windows down. I slowed to a speed where I could control the car with one hand and rolled the windows up, and the shaking stopped. I even tried it with one window down, and while the shaking was lessened, it was still impossible to drive the car safely above 45 MPH.

I theorized that having the rear windows down created an air pocket of some kind, one so severe that it made the car completely undrivable at high speeds. That would explain both the shaking and the pressure I felt in my ears.

With the windows rolled up, I could again drive fast, perhaps fast enough to make it to Memphis in time for my flight. Though I had to deal with all the traffic on the two-lane state highway I was on, plus all the stop lights as I neared Jackson, I was able to get to the Hertz agency by 5:00 pm. It helped that I averaged about 90 MPH once I got to the interstate. I had plenty of time to get through security and to the gate. The plane happened to be delayed about an hour, but as my wife pointed out, if I had driven the speed limit, the plane would not have been delayed at all and I would have missed my flight.

So, to recap: the 2006 Chevrolet Cobalt is a steaming bucket of horse piss. If you are driving more than 45 MPH and you roll down the rear windows, there is a strong chance you will lose control of the car, drive off the side of the road, and get yourself killed. Other than that, it's a good car.

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