Jon Rettinger and I recently flew to GM’s stomping grounds in Detroit for hands-on demos of the new Chevy Cruze and Chevy Sonic compact cars. But what we experienced far exceeded our base expectations, which consisted of taking the automobiles for a brief spin throughout Motor City. Not only were we given a sexy 4GB leather USB press stick with embossed Chevy logo on it, but Jon and I received dense itineraries that included OnStar, Design Center, Wind Tunnel, Crash Test, and Track Driving activities focused on the Cruze and Sonic. We drove brand new Chevy Cruze models to and from the testing and design centers, which rivaled the size of airplane hangars and were riddled with rent-a-cop Officer Krupkes.
My favorite part of the trip was when the check-in station security guard at the Design Center had 14 litters of kittens because he confused Jon with a guy in a commercial. Jon went along with the entire thing and the security guard begged us to “forgive his excitedness” regarding his reaction to the local celebrity. Jon and I laughed, we cried, but most of all we gained an inside perspective on the ingenuity and meticulousness that is funneled into the creation of a single automobile in GM’s world on a daily basis. Start your engines.
Jon plunked himself into the driver’s seat of our Cruze as I collapsed into the passenger’s quarters. A laminated Chevy map with turn-by-turn directions beckoned our attention upon the console, especially as our GM rep cautioned us to heed this navigation provided by Chevy. After sheepishly nodding in agreement, Jon rolled the window up and I said “Let’s call OnStar instead.” So, Jon called OnStar as we pulled out of the Marriot in downtown Detroit. A friendly male voice greeted us, and Jon proceeded to have a delightfully pleasant conversation with Mr. OnStar while he configured our electronic turn-by-turn navigation. After missing our destination due to OnStar’s less than accurate directions, Jon pulled a U-turn and we met up with his adoring fan at the check-in station.
In the lobby of the GM Design Center sat the Chevy Stingray concept car—yes, the one from Transformers. It was there that security descended upon Jon and I like hawks from Hell and forced us to delete all images on our phones, despite the fact that the car has been out for over two years now. Once inside, we took stadium seats in the global design room, which featured three billboard sized LED panels and microphones for late night or early morning design calls to countries all over the world. It was here that GM revealed the inspirations behind each genre of vehicle, in addition to an economic/middle class/upper class variation; essentially each design’s luxury factor. For instance, all of the Chevy truck inspiration pictures reminded me of a Marlboro ad while the sporty cars featured pictures of motorcycles and Puma shoes.
This mentality overflowed into the next room, where large robotic carving machines chiseled custom wheels out of clay and we saw expansive collages of Chevy Sonics with various graphics kits that Chevy is planning on rolling out this year. GM’s goal is to work with Original Wraps in order to crank out car-sized decal kits for the aftermarket crowd who yearn for a little more pizzazz in the aesthetic department. Some of our favorites were a giant Puma shoe stripe, neon green and black lightning bolts, and a hypnotizing vortex that could put other drivers under a spell. But it wasn’t until we reached the Color Room that I began to see how involved designing a car could be. Various metal panels sprayed in colors like Silver Ice Metallic, Imperial Blue and Crystal Red Metallic Tintcoat lined the walls. And the most popular color in the world? My guess was Silver, but at the moment it’s White. One of the Color Girls ran out to confirm that Silver, Black, and White are the most popular colors for a car, and usually alternate every few years in the top slot.
Next, we ascended a few steps to spend some quality time with the world’s largest automotive wind tunnel. When our twenty-something group of journalists entered the tunnel, we were told not to take heed to the clay model car under the tarp in order to maintain its clandestine existence, so I will not say a word about the 2013 Cadillac Escalade clay model I saw in the tunnel. Because GM was testing a clay model, we were unable to see the smoke demonstration, but Jon and I were given the opportunity to take a lengthy expedition throughout the entire wind tunnel. Traveling through what seemed like chambers in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory crossed with Gollum’s caverns, I felt like an electron in a refrigerator box. The ceilings were uncannily high and the entire shape of the wind tunnel was a giant rectangle from a bird’s eye view.
But these preposterous dimensions were necessary in order to house the 43-foot diameter fan made of six laminated spruce blades and powered by a 4,500-horsepower electric motor that was capable of cranking out hurricane-force winds. The echo in certain realms of the tunnel was supernatural, and the mere sight of the gargantuan fan made us all seem insignificant within the landscape of life. But there was a science behind the beast with six blades. According to GM, there are three ways to effectively increase gas mileage: reducing vehicle weight, improving powertrain efficiency, and improving aerodynamics. The reduction in drag alone equates to approximately 2-3MPG, which in turn saves drivers $100-300 per year on fuel and ultimately spares the US tens of millions of gallons of fuel per year.
Crash Test Dummies
After the Design Center, I leaped into the driver’s seat of a Chevy Cruze Eco and escorted Mr. Rettinger to our final destination—the GM Proving Grounds. Smooshing the accelerator to the carpet, the Eco sat bewildered for a moment before lunging forth like a tiger on speed. My goal was to inject a little fear into the leader of the Buffalo, but like a true General, Mr. R. was steadfast and unwavering in his stalwart emotion, vanquishing any fear brought on by my exceedingly reckless driving. We got lost in attempt to locate the entrance to the Proving Grounds, along with another pair of journalists, and ended up leading them through the Proving Grounds after a consolation with a random check-in guard. However, I dusted the sorry sods after lighting up a few rotaries on the way. The Proving Grounds were prodigious, and consisted of multiple buildings, some of which housed highly confidential projects. Jon and I also noticed a few unmarked vehicles that were dead ringers for 2013 and 2014 models parked around certain buildings, and we never once spotted an import.
After lunch, GM informed us that we would be taking a tour of the Crash Test Facility and witnessing a live demonstration of a 40mph smash performed by an all-new Chevy Sonic. Touchdown. But first, the technology! We filed into a room that resembled one of Lady Gaga’s music video sets and gazed upon a family of crash test dummies. Four adult male dummies sat at the far left, next to a grown woman dummy, two children dummies, and two infant dummies. The GM dummy expert assured us that the same technology was implemented equally into every dummy, regardless of size. In fact, the technology is so advanced that crash test dummies range from $150,000 to $400,000. We’re talking status reports at 10,000 times per second via 70-80 sensors placed all throughout their bodies. And why pink shirts? At thousands of frames per second with the high-speed cameras, it’s all about the lighting. White would be washed out and black would dip into the shadows. Therefore, crash test dummies remain pretty in pink.
And now, it was time for the moment we had all been waiting for: the 40mph head-on crash of the Chevy Sonic at GM’s crash test facility. We were cautioned not to capture videos or pictures of the crash, but I had inadvertently pressed the record button on my phone and accidentally held it steadily in position to capture the video embedded below. Oops! Not only did GM hold front-end collisions in this facility, but they also specialized in side impact and rollover as well. The science of the side curtain and knee airbags, in addition to the standard passenger and driver airbags, was mind boggling, especially when watching the slow motion videos of the bags deploying split seconds before the dummy’s head reached a hard part of the car. The crash itself was over within seconds, and the booming sound was earth shattering.
After witnessing the preserved steel cage of the Sonic, it’s no wonder Chevy is the leader in safety with the Cruze. Various strengths of metal are strategically placed within each car’s frame to ensure that the right parts crumple around the cage. The Design and Safety team work closely together to ensure that safety is never compromised, and based on the motorcycle-inspired style of the Sonic, Chevy did not skimp on aesthetics. The most sobering demonstration of safety came in the form of a video of a 1959 Bel Air crashing against a 2009 Malibu. The Bel Air succumbed to ferocious destruction, crumpling its dummy like a soda can while the Malibu dummy remained relatively unscathed. All in all, watching the Sonic erupt into a cirrus cloud of shrapnel was the highlight of our trip.
Test Drive and Conclusion
The last stop on our Fun Map brought us to the GM track, in which Jon and I were given opportunities to drive the new Sonic and Cruze cars through a myriad of bumps, ruts, potholes, sweeping turns, and straights at a maximum recommended speed of 60MPH. After taking the most uneven curve at 80MPH in my petite 1.8 Liter Sonic and catching the rear tires in the midst of a hardcore breakdance, I decided to decelerate and enjoy the ride. Just kidding. I ran the damn wheels off of that thing, just as I would have done to any of my toys as a kid. Though most of my toys always ended up in more than one piece, the Sonic was delivered back to the GM fleet without a scratch. I was blown away by how well the wee little Sonic and compact Cruze handled on the track. The suspension was stiff enough to swallow harsh dips, and even handled slight air while powering out of dangerous ruts. Both cars were uncannily quiet, and the larger engines cranked out enough zip to rip.
Last year I had to help my fine lady shop for a compact car. We spent a week test-driving various models like the Ford Focus, Nissan Sentra, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, and Mazda 3. In the end, the Mazda 3 stood triumphant, but if the Cruze was available at the time, I feel as though it would have been the victor. While GM gradually pries itself from the treacherous restraints of a financial bear trap, I can safely report that the company is headed down the right track. The intelligence, creativity, emphasis on safety, and professionalism funneled into the company’s lineup of automobiles was testament that GM is not going anywhere without a fight. Even as Jon and I walked the streets of Detroit, it was evident that the entire city relied on GM, and without it, would merely be a hole in Michigan’s landscape, let alone the entire country. So, the next time you sit in a recently released Chevy, think about the plethora of technologies that are infused within the car’s existence. And if you’re in the market for a compact car, take the Honda Civic, Mazda 3, and Chevy Cruze for test drives and report what you find here.
In closing, I want to thank GM for the opportunity, for it was quite enlightening. My only regret was that I missed out on Hockey Town, but we’ll save that for the next trip to Detroit when we test those camouflage 2013 models in the GM parking lots. But you didn’t here that from me.