What a gas, in so many ways

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE CAR PAGES - WAR­REN BROWN brownw@wash­post.com

Ihad five hours to think. That’s how long it took to drive seven miles from down­town Washington to my home in North­ern Vir­ginia. The cul­prit was a fast, fierce win­ter storm. It struck at the be­gin­ning of the evening rush hour, around 4 p.m., dump­ing sev­eral inches of heavy, wet snow that turned lo­cal roads into skat­ing rinks.

Ve­hi­cles of all makes and prices were slid­ing into one an­other. Traf­fic was a stalled mess.

First thought: Snow­storms are the en­e­mies of driv­ing fan­tasy.

I had just come from a pre­view of the 2011 Washington Auto Show at the Wal­ter E. Washington Con­ven­tion Cen­ter — a glis­ten­ing dis­play of more than 700 new cars and trucks from 32 man­u­fac­tur­ers. The show, which opened to the pub­lic over the week­end, runs through Feb. 6.

I’m ad­dicted to car shows. The District’s ex­hibit, spon­sored by the Washington Area New Au­to­mo­bile Deal­ers As­so­ci­a­tion ( WANADA), has long been one of my fa­vorites. It’s an odd mix of re­gional, in­ter­na­tional and fed­eral in­puts — the lat­ter oc­ca­sioned by the show’s lo­ca­tion in the nation’s cap­i­tal, which, through govern­ment-man­dated safety, fuel-econ­omy and clean-air reg­u­la­tions, has a big hand in de­sign­ing ev­ery car and truck sold in this coun­try.

Sec­ond thought: Snow­storms are why the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s dream of 1 mil­lion bat­tery elec­tric ve­hi­cles (BEVs) on U.S. roads by 2015 is likely to re­main a dream long be­yond 2015.

I spent my five hours in the com­fort­ably warm and en­ter­tain­ing cabin of this week’s sub­ject au­to­mo­bile — the com­pact, front-wheel-drive 2011 Nis­san Al­tima 2.5S sedan, equipped with a 2.4-liter in-line, di­rect-in­jec­tion four-cylin­der gaso­line en­gine (175 horse­power, 180 foot-pounds of torque). I thanked God that I was not in the bat­tery-elec­tric Nis­san Leaf.

I like the Leaf. I think it’s the per­fect ur­ban com­muter in good weather. It eas­ily can run 80 miles be­tween charges un­der the right con­di­tions.

But a snow­storm re­plete with a five-hour traf­fic backup isn’t one of those con­di­tions. The Leaf’s ad­vanced lithium-ion bat­tery pack would lose its charge. Bat­tery dis­charge would be has­tened by the use of any or all of those things — heater, de­froster, wind­shield wipers, head­lamps, ra­dio — needed for safety and peace of mind in foul win­ter weather.

All around me, there were cars and trucks with tra­di­tional in­ter­nal-com­bus­tion en­gines run­ning low on gaso­line and diesel fuel, a rush to empty quick­ened by mad mash­ing of ac­cel­er­a­tor ped­als, spin­ning wheels on icy roads, go­ing nowhere. But the like­li­hood of find­ing a re­fu­el­ing sta­tion to re­plen­ish those ve­hi­cles was far greater than hook­ing up an elec­tric car to a quick-recharg­ing sta­tion, es­pe­cially in the snow.

Elec­tric recharg­ing in­fra­struc­ture, where art thou?

Third thought: Honda and Toy­ota make two of the best com­pact fam­ily sedans in the world, the Honda Ac­cord and Toy­ota Camry. But Honda and Toy­ota are los­ing their grip. The new Nis­san Al­tima, thor­oughly re­designed in 2010, proves it. If more proof is needed, it can be found on the floor of the Wal­ter E. Washington Con­ven­tion Cen­ter at the Hyundai, Kia, Ford and Chevro­let ex­hibits.

There has been a rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of for­merly bread-and-but­ter fam­ily sedans that Honda and Toy­ota have missed, or at least seem not to un­der­stand.

Sit­ting in­side the 2011 Nis­san Al­tima 2.5S, for ex­am­ple, is akin to sit­ting in a sub­stan­tially more ex­pen­sive car. Un­like the Al­tima sedans of the past, the new model looks and feels rich — bet­ter ma­te­ri­als, world-class fit and fin­ish, lots of in­fo­tain­ment elec­tron­ics, truly at­trac­tive de­sign. There is a de­lib­er­ate at­tempt, missing, for ex­am­ple, in the com­pa­ra­ble 2011 Honda Ac­cord SE, to ex­ceed cus­tomer ex­pec­ta­tions in the out­fit­ting and over­all pre­sen­ta­tion of the Nis­san Al­tima 2.5S. Com­pa­ra­ble mod­els of the Chevro­let Mal­ibu, Ford Fu­sion, Hyundai Sonata and Kia Op­tima all make a point of of­fer­ing more car than the con­sumer ex­pects to get for the price paid.

Honda and Toy­ota, jus­ti­fi­ably proud of their long­stand­ing rep­u­ta­tions for qual­ity and re­li­a­bil­ity, seem con­tent to rest on their lau­rels with the Ac­cord and Camry — sell­ing vanilla de­sign and feel when ri­vals are sell­ing hip and at­trac­tive for the same money. Some­one needs to hit them with a snow­ball and awaken them to the new re­al­ity: Com­peti­tors are no longer try­ing to catch up. They are in­tent on pulling ahead.

Fourth thought: Hubris is no sub­sti­tute for com­mon sense when driv­ing in snow. I got cocky. The Al­tima 2.5S is a well-bal­anced au­to­mo­bile that han­dles ex­cel­lently on roads dry and messy. On sev­eral oc­ca­sions, I could have sworn that the fron­twheel-drive car was equipped with all-wheel drive. It slipped a bit but self-cor­rected and pulled through icy stretches that side­lined many more ex­pen­sive cars, in­clud­ing a few with all-wheel drive.

Over­con­fi­dent, I care­lessly turned onto my home street in Ar­ling­ton, where the snow re­mained deep, at least six inches, and un­plowed im­me­di­ately af­ter the storm. The Al­tima 2.5S clears the ground by 5.4 inches. It sank. I got stuck.

Fi­nal thought: Thank God for neigh­bors.


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