The 5,500-mile coast-to-coast-to-coast marathon road test of our 2007 Saturn Aura XR started at the UPS Store in the quiet Washington, D.C., suburb of Oakton, Va. It wound up about half a mile from there two weeks later after a quick trip to Los Angeles and back.
The initial assignment seemed simple enough. A young family member was headed to California and needed to ship her worldly goods so they would arrive a day or so after her flight landed. But in the parking lot, it became clear it wouldn't be so simple.
"How do I know they won't lose my stuff? Or break it?" she asked, a chin tremble becoming evident. "How do I know I'll ever see any of this again?"
"It's insured. If they drive a front-end loader over it, they'll have to pay up," I offered, knowing as soon as I said it that my assurance wasn't what was needed.
Soon, we had not only backed out of the UPS Store parking lot, we were headed west on Interstate 66 on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the Saturn loaded down with such priceless and irreplaceable objects as personalized coffee cups, shot glasses and candleholders.
The drive on I-66 was pleasant enough as we climbed up out of the swamp that, though far from drained, nevertheless is home to our so-called government. Soon we turned south on I-81 into the fabled Shenandoah Valley, whose beauty has been oft celebrated in song. It is perhaps those ballads that attract so many tractor-trailer trucks and passenger cars to the thin ribbon of asphalt that passes for a highway in Virginia.
The asthmatics among us felt our chests tighten and our young passenger asked what had happened to the mountains. "They're still there, you just can't see them through the smog," I assured her.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but for the next five hours we breathed air that belonged inside the tailpipe of a 1950 Ford and watched an ugly brown cloud hover and ooze its way through the hills, dales, gulleys and what-have-you. I could taste Virginia on my tongue for days afterwards.
It being Sunday afternoon, besides the ever-present moving wall of semis, we had the usual collection of speed demons, sight-seers and hungover students from the many universities that line I-81. On one occasion, we let the Aura blast itself free of a rolling clot, giving the 3.7-liter engine a firm tap and holding on tight to the wheel.
Now, you don't normally think of Saturns as fast but the XR is a surprisingly responsive sports version of its more sedate cousin, the XE, voted North American Car of the Year in 2007. Besides the engine on steroids, the XR boasts a six-speed electronic transmission with Formula One-style steering-wheel-mounted shift levers, a very tight suspension and 18-inch wheels. The price on the sticker: $27,019.
The one thing it has a little too much of for my taste is power at high speeds. Kick the accelerator hard when you're doing 80 or so and the smoothly-loping stallion becomes a bucking bronco, crazily dancing in tiny little stutter steps. There's not nearly as much torque steer as in the early days of front-wheel-drive cars but there's enough to be scary.
The first -- and last -- time I floored it to maneuver through a tight spot, I feared we were about to do the front-wheel equivalent of a fishtail. As an accredited member of the 720 Club, I have had two more go-rounds than necessary and don't relish having any more, thanks very much.
Not too many years ago, I floored an insanely-powerful 1995 Alfa Romeo 164 sports sedan on an empty highway, just to see what would happen. What happened is that it jumped into the next lane, leaving me to consider whether it would be better just to walk home.
Saturn -- or more precisely Opel, on whose design the Aura is based -- has built an exceptional sports sedan. But a car with this much power at high speed needs to be rear-wheel drive, in my humble opinion. The electronic stability control helps keep the car on the straight and narrow but I would not want to be anywhere nearby when one of these broncos comes loose on a damp pavement.
Having learned to be tender with the accelerator, we gently worked our way free of traffic-clogged, smog-ridden Virginia, drifting into Tennessee and meeting up with Interstate 40, which was to take us through Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, New Mexico, Arizona and a slice of California.
It seems to be my fate to be on the road when disaster strikes and this trip was no exception. We left on Sunday, August 31, just as Hurricane Gustav was bearing down on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Evacuees fled north to Memphis on I-55, then spread out from there.
Many went east on I-40, we learned that evening as we pulled into motel parking lots jammed with cars bearing Louisiana license plates.
"Hmmm, might be hard finding a room," I cautioned my passenger, who was blissfully sleeping in the back and could not have cared less.
We rolled on through the enveloping darkness, occasionally making half-hearted stops to inquire, in the manner of a door-to-door firewood salesman, "You don't have any rooms, do you?" In a filled-up Marriott Courtyard, we chatted with a family -- a couple, their children, aged parents and two dogs -- that had been on the road for 15 hours and were sorely in need of rest.
"We lived through Katrina, so I guess we can live through this," the hard-pressed husband told me, though he didn't seem so sure.
Everyone we encountered was quite nice to the evacuees but the options were definitely limited. For the two of us, it was an inconvenience and nothing more but for entire families wandering the highways and wondering if they would have homes and jobs to go back to, it was a very sad and tense Labor Day weekend.
We rolled on into Arkansas, where a very helpful Howard Johnson's manager on the outskirts of Little Rock assured us there were no rooms anywhere in Tennessee or Arkansas. "You'll have to head for Oklahoma," he said.
"Well, I was headed for Oklahoma anyway so that should be no problem," I assured him. But in fact, we found lodging about 5 a.m. the next morning at the Russellville, Arkansas, Holiday Inn. We paid the regular price and the friendly manager assured us the restaurant would be serving breakfast later than usual the next morning so we could sleep in without fear of going hungry.
Complaints of price-gouging always surface after storms and no doubt many are valid, but we found no instances of jacked-up gas or food prices and not one hotel clerk even suggested that a room could be had for a few dollars extra.
After putting in 15 hours behind the wheel, I was not too thrilled to find the Aura waiting for me the next day, but the car is so comfortable and well-appointed that I was really none the worse for wear and we were soon traveling west through the last few miles of Arkansas, headed for the Sooner State and sampling new XM channels.
A generation gap became evident as we tussled over whether it was better to listen to XM's Fine Tuning or plug our young passenger's iPod into the Aura's sound system. She won and for the rest of the trip, the iPod and the Aura's speakers teamed up to keep us entertained.
I missed listening to the news but there are so many XM channels and we had so many miles to go that I didn't take the time to search out the XM news channels and hunting for local stations is apparently something that's just not done anymore.
We had an uneventful trip through Oklahoma and most of New Mexico, no thanks to the very poorly-marked and badly-lit Albuquerque freeways. We actually wanted to stay in Albuquerque but there was so much highway construction and so little useful exit information that we continued on to the mighty little metropolis of Grants.
"Virginia," the Holiday Inn Express clerk pondered, studying our license plate. "That's near Oklahoma, isn't it? I've been to Oklahoma. There's a lot of states border Oklahoma."
They surely do, we agreed.
The next day we crossed into Northeastern Arizona and I was able to bore my passenger with tales of my adventures as young reporter in Arizona back in the prehistoric 70s. Why, there was the time I got stuck in a sand storm on the Hopi reservation and completely sandblasted my Fiat roadster. Then there was ... oh, never mind.
We passed through Flagstaff, a lumberjack's town that is rapidly becoming a yuppie refuge, climbed through the beautiful Coconino Mountains and up onto the high plateau that would take us into California and the dread Mojave Desert.
As we passed Lake Havasu City, I recalled covering the dedication of the London Bridge, moved stone by stone from London to the Arizona desert. Our press contingent flew from Phoenix to Lake Havasu on Frank Sinatra's private jet, I told my passenger, realizing as her eyes glazed over that the term "Frank Sinatra" was not in her vocabulary.
"Carrying any fruits?" asked the bored functionary at the California Entry Station. Her manner made it clear we were not to make any comments about everyone on board being straight and so we shook our heads and went wordlessly into the Mojave.
There is beauty in the desert if you know where to look for it, but most of the drivers on I-40 were looking for Barstow. Cars routinely flew past us at speeds of 100 or more.
The desire to get through the desert is understandable but it's also wise to think about the fact that when it's 110 outside, a car's tires, cooling system and other components are being stressed beyond their normal limits. Trying to match one's speed to the temperature is an invitation to a tire tread separation or worse.
The very same Fiat that had suffered so grievously on the Hopi reservation blew its engine going up the hill towards Indio a year or so later and I well remember the few hours I spent standing there until a cowgirl stopped her pickup to give me a lift into town. Take it from one who's been there: the desert is not where you want to be stranded.
Thanks to that first, 15-hour day, we motored stately into big LA right on schedule late Tuesday afternoon, made our way to the hotel and, the next day, unloaded gobs of luggage and personal treasures at our destination.
The Aura's trunk is cavernous under normal circumstances. We had even more room than normal, thanks to our having left the spare tire in the garage of an Eastern Long Island beach house a few months before. This was not due to any foresight on our part; rather, it was due to one of several annoying fit and finish problems with the Aura.
To put it bluntly, the Aura's trunk leaks like a collander. The spare tire well had several inches of water sloshing around in it when we discovered the problem. The rug and well cover were getting moldy, and the jack and spare wheel were getting rusty when we emptied the trunk and dried it out as best we could.
While having some other work done, we asked the service manager at Saturn of Fairfax to check the leak in the trunk. He said we would need to bring the car back and have a separate service order written, since we had failed to mention it when the car was brought in.
"Well, it's sitting there ten feet away from you. Why don't you walk over there and see if the problem jumps out at you?" we asked. He flatly refused and we haven't been back there since. A few days later, as if the service manager had put a hex on the car, it spit out its right-hand door handle, leaving an unsightly gap that puzzles valet parking attendants.
Another oversight: The battery ran down one evening when a guest driver inadvertently disabled the automatic headlight switch, causing the lights to stay on for hours. There was a nice new set of jumper cables in the trunk but as far as we can tell, the trunk can be opened only electronically, through a switch on the dash or with the remote control.
At any rate, unburdened of our passenger's luggage, we bid her farewell and made our way to LAX Lot B, the long-term parking area, where we intended to leave the car for a colleague who would soon be moving to our Los Angeles office. We jumped on Virgin America, were lulled to sleep by the mood lighting and arrived more or less refreshed at Dulles Airport in Virginia a few hours later.
A week or so later, plans again went awry. The colleague would not be in Los Angeles after all and the car was orphaned at LAX, where there is a 30-day parking limit. Hello again to Virgin America, back on the Lot B bus and into the Aura.
The Lot B cashier looked suspiciously at our credit card and peered closely at our license plate.
"Is that East Virginia or West Virginia?" she asked sharply. Not wanting to get into an extended discussion of place names, we informed her it was East Virginia, an assertion she duly noted in her official records.
We took time out for a quick oil change at Pep Boys and washed off the Oklahoma bugs and LAX jet fuel at the legendary Santa Palm Car Wash in West Hollywood. Lubed and looking good, the Aura nosed east -- back across the desert, through the mountains and the MidSouth or whatever it's now being called -- into Virginia (state motto: Radar Detectors Illegal) and back up the smoky, smelly Shenandoah Valley, where the air was as foul at midnight as it had been at high noon a week earlier.
We were one exit away from the UPS Store parking lot when the Aura surged with unnecessary vigor past a few late-night travelers. One was a Virginia State Police officer who eyed us suspiciously but decided we were harmless as we sought refuge in the right lane and slowed to 60.
We would give you total mileage but the Aura's onboard computer resets its trip odometer each 1,000 miles, a fact we discovered much too late to do anything about it. Let's call it 5,300 miles. We averaged about 26.6 miles per gallon, much better than the dismal 12 or 13 the car normally gets crawling around DC and its Virginia suburbs.
Perhaps most significantly, after two marathon trips involving long hours of high-speed driving on unfamiliar and often dark and crowded highways, we arrived in good spirits and with none of the soreness and stiffness that often accompanies long hours behind the wheel.
The Aura is an outstanding highway cruiser. It will glide along all day at 80 or so as the engine barely turns over at about 1,800 rpms. Except for the annoyances noted above, we'd have to give the Aura five stars for comfort, performance and value. Now if only the trunk didn't leak.