Sunday, May 22, 2011

GM Main Street In Motion review (I got to drive a Corvette!)

Main Street In Motion is a marketing exercise by General Motors.  The traveling circus goes to about 20 metropolitan areas and lets the public test drive 70 cars and trucks (GMs and their competitors) on closed "tracks".  

I got an invitation by email a month or two ago.  I am convinced that GM got my info when I filled out one of those long questionnaires on Jalopnik.  The attendees included car guys, truck guys, families, and quite a few senior citizens.

The event is being held this weekend (Friday to Sunday) in Alameda (San Francisco Bay Area).  I reserved an 8 a.m. Saturday spot, thinking that this will maximize my chances of driving in-demand cars like the Corvette and the Volt.

But you can't get something for nothing.  In order to drive the Volt, I have to drive a Chevy Cruze first.  And if I want to drive a Corvette, I've gotta try a Buick first.  Fine.

The organizers set up six "tracks" with cones on the runway of a former naval airfield.  A golf cart took me to the Buick track first.  These are my impressions:

Buick Regal Turbo: The Regal is supposed to compete with the TSX.  I really didn't know much about the Buick line-up, other than it's huge in China.  The interior is very European and I was surprised to learn that they are assembled in Germany.  You can tell that Buick is trying hard to make the car appear more upmarket.  But it falls short by just a bit.  The leather stitching job looked rushed and the plastic bits did not feel solid.  Plus, there was a surprising lack of headroom both up front and in the back.

On the short track, the car was competent but not above average.  It definitely beats the last Pontiac you rented.  I think Buick deserves an A for effort.  If it keeps moving in this direction, it should be on par with its Japanese and European counterparts in another five years.  Maybe.

Acura TSX: Again, I don't know much about the new TSX either.  I had decided a while back that I was not going to replace my '04 TSX with a new TSX and so I have not read any reviews of the car.  It drove like a bigger car (than my TSX) but it cornered very well.  The accelerator-engine was very responsive.  I was almost giddy while driving it.  The dash has way too many controls and buttons and looks too busy.

Buick LaCrosse FWD: The mid-size sedan is supposed to compete with the Acura TL and the Lexus ES350.  The LaCrosse is so anonymous looking, I can't tell the difference between it and the Regal.  Behind the wheel, it felt like a boat.  I braked more than I should have at the first corner because I didn't have confidence in its cornering abilities.  This is definitely made for long-distance, straight, highway driving.

Buick LaCrosse AWD: I had more confidence in the AWD's cornering abilities so I took the first corner much quicker.  But when I stepped on the brake pedal, I got nothing (or next to nothing).  Where did the brakes go?!

Acura TL: It felt as big as the LaCrosse but drove much better.  However, there is no getting around physics.  There's just no substitute for lighter, shorter wheelbased cars.

The course for the Chevy passenger cars is shorter and slower than the Buick course.  Plus, there are a lot of 90 degree turns.  It's almost like they didn't want us to drive fast.

Chevy Cruze: Besides the hideous interior color scheme (black with puke red accents), this is a very decent compact car.  It is light years ahead of its Cavalier/Cobalt predecessors.

Chevy Volt: Main Street In Motion assigns a nanny to sit in the passenger seat of every Volt, Camaro, and Corvette.  People probably have a lot of questions for the Volt and as for the muscle cars, they probably don't want people to get too crazy.

My guide was very knowledgeable.  The electric motor can work on its own for 40 miles before the gasoline powered engine generator kicks in.  That means for this driving event, the generator kicks in by 1 or 2 p.m.  With a GM rep sitting shotgun, I couldn't get myself to truly hoon the Volt.  Dynamically, I can best describe it as a heavier version of the 2nd generation Prius.

There was a Volt on display and event participants were grilling the GM rep standing next to it.  "If not all Chevy dealers are capable of servicing the Volt, what if I'm taking a cross-country trip, I break down, and the nearest authorized Chevy dealer is thousands of miles away?  Who is going to pay for the towing?"  "My daughter lives in Wyoming, will the Volt's battery be damaged by extreme cold?"

Finally, I get to the Chevy performance course.  You get a wristband so that they can keep track of what you've driven.  You are allowed three one-lap drives total.  And one of them has to be in a V6.

As I wait in line, I hear the throaty roars of the V8s being thrashed by people who don't have to live with the consequences of abusing these brand new cars with less than 50 miles on the odometer.  My heart is beating fast and I'm literally having a hard time breathing from the excitement.  Cheers for big displacement engines!

Chevy Camaro SS: I tried the green V8 SS first.  It's got 400 horsepower and is very retro inside.  The gauges, the hard-to-reach seatbelt, the looong door.  They all scream old school Camaro.  It felt heavy but it handled and braked very well.

Chevy Camaro RS: I tried the V6 version next.  What a mistake.  I should have tried this before the V8.  This only has 300 horsepower.  My minder tells me that the last F-body Camaro V8 only cranked out 280 horses.  Yay for technology!

Chevy Corvette Grand Sport: This is the climax.  The 436 horsepower Grand Sport falls somewhere in the middle of Corvette's line-up.  I had a choice between the coupe and the convertible.  Being a purist, I chose this red coupe.

My minder/instructor had a lot to say to me.  1. When you get to the first corner, just tap the brakes, even if you think you're going too fast.  2. Once you're in the curve, look out your side window, not through the front windshield.  3. When I tell you to BRAKE, it's a command, not a suggestion.  4. If you knock down a cone, we're going to make you eat it.

Oh shit, can I handle this?

My fear was massive oversteer.  But it never materialized.  Granted, I never went over 70 mph, but the 'Vette was relatively easy to control.  It was quite a rush.  I wish I had a longer track and half a full day with this car.  But with the smell of brakes emanating from a few of the Camaros and Corvettes, maybe a few laps will do.


  • Kudos to GM for having the guts to let the public compare and drive its and its competitors' products side-by-side.  GM products have come a long way.  All of the GM cars I drove were average at worst and outstanding at best.
  • I may replace my old TSX with a new TSX, thanks to GM.


longrooffan said...

Man: You had a full day! Main Street in Motion, I am told, is a daily event down here at DisneyWorld. I need to get over and check it out. This beats the hell out of my LEAF test drive earlier this year. Possibly that Airstream is a new model of those that picked up astronauts after they returned from space? Sounds like a blast and thanks for sharing.

Alan said...

Sounds fun but frustrating.

Have you driven a Legacy Turbo? Right up your alley if you're looking at a new TSX.

Edvin said...

That Buick Regal is a rebadged Opel/Vauxhall Insignia. German, but not considered a premium car.

Maxichamp said...

@Alan: Never thought about a Legacy. I'll put that on my list.

@Edvin: GM should have dumped Buick along with Pontiac and Saturn. Just let China keep the Buick brand. The average age of a Buick owner here is probably 60+. I know GM is trying to make the Buick more attractive to younger buyers. But I went to a concert last night and 90% of the audience were senior citizens. There were a lot of brand new Regals, LaCrosses, and Lucernes in the parking lot.

Edvin said...

I see what you mean, trying to change the brand image rarely works as planned. OTOH that Insignia/Regal ain't a bad car. Haven't driven one myself, but I understand it's come a long way from it's predecessor (the Vectra). Also, you guys sure could use cars with smaller engines. ;)

Maxichamp said...

@Edvin: Yeah, a 2.0 liter turbo 4 in a Buick! I think I was just turned off by their attempt to make it too luxurious.

Greg said...

Thanks for the heads-up about this event. Signed up for one of the East Coast events in July. I guess GM is ready to start burning the marketing dollars again. Do you recall if you drove a 2011 Grand Sport or the 2012 with the much improved seats? And were there any Cadillac CTS-Vs to drive?

Maxichamp said...

@Greg: Let us know your experience! I don't know what year the Corvette was. There were no Cadillacs at all.

Anonymous said...

Be careful if you intend on bringing young children -- you can't leave them alone, but you also can't bring anyone under 8 in a Camaro (goes without saying that you can't bring any kid into a Corvette). So, if you bring very young kids, bring someone to watch them while you drive.

Anonymous said...

The advertisement for the upcoming local edition of Main Street in Motion mentioned Lexus also being included.

Did they have any Lexus models when you attended? If so, which ones?

Maxichamp said...

@Anon: I recall the Lexus ES being used to compare the Buicks. I don't remember if they had any Lexus SUVs.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately it seems that GM has cancelled this event. Bummer for those of us on the East Coast who haven't had a chance to do it yet. I was going to attend in Atlanta in November, but now will have to find something else to do that weekend!

Also, one small point - you indicated the last F-body produced 280hp from its V8. Actually, the most recent 4th gen models used the LS1 V8, which made 305 in Z28 guise and 325 in SS models. Still impressive nonetheless that they can squeeze over 300hp from a NA V6.