Writing in Cars

 

©2015 Cedric Smith, TD 0976

Andrea Goto takes us for a wild ride in five of the hottest cars to hit our roads this season.  Photos by Cedric Smith. 

As someone who is unschooled in all things mechanical, I bought my Mercedes because it was pretty and fast.  Like, really fast—at least compared to my previous import, which I imagined was powered by four sickly baby mice.  And so, without any consideration for suspension, grip, horsepower or other such nonsense that matters so much less than color, I bought her and named her “Rosita.”

There are some arbitrary letters and numbers that indicate Rosita’s pedigree, but all I really knew is that she has four doors, four wheels and four mice on steroids who go all Hulk when I mash a little button marked “S”, presumably for “smash.”

But I recently discovered that those letters and numbers on her hiney might actually mean something important.  This occurred to me when one of Rosita’s relatives blew past us like a GT.  I spotted the letters “AMG” on his backside.  Amazing Mice Gusto?

After that, I started taking stock of the cars on Savannah’s roadways—cars that appeared faster and finer than my sweet Rosita.  But were they?  Since I thought a V-8 engine ran on tomato juice and an ABS system would give me a six-pack, I called on the gentlemen of the Oglethorpe Driving Club to school me on Savannah’s sexiest and speediest cars.  Each of the five skilled pilots test-drove (or shall we say drag-raced?) cars that would make James Bond weep.  With me in the passenger seat, softly whispering Hail Marys, they talked torque and traction, carbon fiber and cockpits; and I emerged on the other side with a better appreciation for fast, functional cars.  And by the grace of the Grand Prix Gods, I also emerged physically unscathed—visibly shaken, and stirred.

©2015 Cedric Smith, TD 0575

Mustang Sally

I admit I’m nervous when I meet up with the first handler of the day, Michael Shortt, to test-drive a Mustang at J.C. Lewis Ford.  When he sticks a radar detector to the windshield and fishtails out of the lot, it doesn’t do much for my confidence.  In between astronomical accelerations through corners to demonstrate how the Mustang stays flat on turns, Shortt reminisces about the first Mustang he bought—a vintage Pantera when he was 45.

“Instead of tearing centerfolds out of Playboy, I’d tear out the car ads,” he laughs, all the while keeping a sharp eye on the road.  (You see, the new Mustang is tighter, safer and more easily recoverable for inexperienced drivers—but, Shortt explains, it often gives drivers a sense of confidence they don’t deserve.)

Fortunately, we don’t die as he turns the car—and my heart—180 degrees.  As it turns out, Shortt is a stunt driver and two-time SEC Champion—information I’d like to have known before I soiled a perfectly good dress.

©2015 Cedric Smith, TD 0649

Occupation:  Producer/director/writer/stunt driver

Neighborhood:  Southbridge

In his stable:  Mercedes E350, 450SL, Dodge Magnum Hemi R/T, DeTomaso Pantera, Ford Excursion V-10, Honda Pilot, 1970 Mustang Mach One (unrestored), plus several motorcycles

Favorite Savannah road:  Highway 80

Test-driving:  2015 GT Mustang Coupe

Engine:  5.0L TI-VCT V-8

Transmission:  6-speed select shift automatic

Horsepower:  435 hp

Torque:  400 lbs./ft.

©2015 Cedric Smith, TD 0644

Acceleration and power > “Using my 1970 Mustang Mach One with the 351 Cleveland as the comparison car to this one, I’d offer that this one feels about 500 lbs. heavier but it has a smaller, slightly more powerful engine that comes on much smoother and revs higher.”

Cornering > “I have little doubt that a modern stock Mustang GT with the proper tires would be able to pace the older race-prepped car around corners, as well as take the drivers to dinner afterwards.”

Ride > “The older version was lighter and had a heavier engine placed in the front, so it rode a bit rougher, while the new version rides a bit softer.  I remember long trips in the old Mustang requiring a few roadside stops just to walk around.”

Exterior style > “Ford has done its best after many missteps to pay proper homage to the styling of the 1969-70 Mustangs with the very basic design lines.  It’s a far more aero-friendly design with many features that give it instant recognition and reinforce its branding.”

Accouterments > “The new interior is 10 times better in every way—the fit, finish, ergonomics, materials and lighting make it a joy to drive, day or night.”

Demographics > “It’s a perfect car for the driver—man or woman—who appreciates machinery with a purpose.  If you’re required to carry a lot of stuff, this isn’t your car.  But if you’re the most important thing you have to deliver, then this is your ride.”

Savannah scene > “Taking ‘Mom’ to The Mansion on date night or parked in the car corral at the Hilton Head Concours D’Elegance.  Ideally, ‘Dad’ will partake of at least a couple of Hooked on Driving experiences to learn the capabilities of his car at its limits in a safe environment, under expert instruction.”

Vintage matchup > “Its very silhouette is a direct modern recreation of the iconic 1969-70 design—retro styling at its very best.”

Playlist > “‘I Can’t Drive 55’ by Sammy Hagar, ‘Life’s Been Good’ by Joe Walsh, ‘Hotel California’ by The Eagles, ‘Rumors’ by Fleetwood Mac and ‘Eliminator’ by ZZ Top.”

To me, this Mustang’s design and deep, throaty sound waxes nostalgia at every acceleration.  It’s the kind of car that belongs to a bad boy with a hidden heart—the guy who rolls his cigarette pack into the cuff of his white T-shirt, but still kisses his mama on the cheek.

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©2015 Cedric Smith, TD 0718

Mercy, Mercedes

From there, I head over to Critz Mercedes to get behind the wheel of a six-figure, hand-built ride with Kevin Iocovozzi—which feels a bit like being the third wheel at prom with a naughty schoolboy and his date (the car, not me).  Iocovozzi initially demurs at the idea of test-driving a sedan with only 380 copies made for U.S. distribution, but he quickly becomes accustomed to the disarming 4-door beast he describes as “born angry—and will get pissed off if anyone passes it on the road.”  He strums the paddle shifters like a guitar as he takes me on a 90 mph tour through sections of the Savannah Speedway’s historic course, along Ferguson and La Roche avenues to Bluff Drive.

Iocovozzi, who spent some time at the former Bethesda Home for Boys before being adopted along with his twin brother, tells me how the Bethesda boys built grandstands, equipped with rocking chairs, along some of the tighter turns of the Savannah Speedway, charging money for people to view the race.  A certified racecar driver himself, Iocovozzi knows the stories behind every inch of the raceway where the 1908, 1910 and 1911 American Grand Prize Cup was held.  By the time we return to Critz, he also knows every gear of his test car by sound and feel.  He’s reluctant to hand over the keys, and I think this might be a match made in horsepower Heaven.

©2015 Cedric Smith, TD 0755

Occupation:  Aviation Consultant and Gulfstream Specialist

Neighborhood:  The Islands

Current stable of wheels:  1993 Mazda RX7 Twin Turbo, 2000 Mercedes Benz E 55 AMG, and a 2016 Ford Shelby GT350 on order

Favorite Savannah road:  The route of the 1908 Grand Prize race

Test-driving:  2015 Mercedes-AMG C63 S Sedan

Engine:  4.0L AMG V-8 biturbo engine with direct injection

Transmission:  7-speed AMG SPEEDSHIFT MCT with shift paddles

Horsepower:  503 hp

Torque:  516 lbs./ft.

©2015 Cedric Smith, TD 0652

Acceleration and power > “This is exactly how a 500-horse, German-engineered, custom-built twin turbo V-8 should feel and sound.  It’s delivered with brutal, neck-snapping acceleration that’s not for the weak of heart and accompanied by a beautiful, raspy and sexy exhaust note—kind of like being hit with a velvet hammer.”

Cornering > “The front-end grip is confident and strong and the road feedback is excellent.  The excessive power is handily managed by AMG’s Dynamic Traction Control.  Everything firms up when you put your foot in it, and the rear end squats like a tiger ready to pounce.”

Ride > “Once planted, the car rides on rails and is actually pleasant cruising between 70 and 80 mph.  I’d love to take this car to a race track, turn the traction control off, wind it up and scare the crap out of myself.”

Exterior and interior style > “How can you notice such things when you’re dealing the Fear of God?”

Demographics > “I see my dear friend Lori Judge of Judge Realty driving this car.  She and I ride motorcycles together.  She is an awesome driver and has the courage and skill to drive this thing ‘like a boss.’  She could track the C63 on the weekends, shuttle her clients around during the week and then pick up her son at Blessed Sacrament after school.”

Savannah scene > “Anywhere—especially in my garage—but the frying pan wielded by my wife would prevent that from happening anytime soon.”

Vintage matchup > “From the big, naturally aspirated 6.3-liter (the purest choice) to the twin turbo 4.0, Mercedes has been playing around with the C63’s engine over the years.  The sound of the twin turbos spooling up in this V-8 is intoxicating and I’ll miss the rush.  My 2000 E 55 has a 5.5-liter naturally aspirated engine and 150 fewer horses.  In its day, it ruled the sedan class, but it can’t hold a candle to this bad boy.”

Playlist > “Lana del Rey singing some sultry love song and some chill techno with a nice backbeat.”

Don’t let this demure four-door fool you.  Yes, it might go under the radar at the grocery, but it’ll rupture the radar on the racetrack. To the chagrin of my husband and the amusement of my paltry bank account, this car must be mine.

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©2015 Cedric Smith, TD 0835

The ‘Vette Set

At 28, Daniel Zeigler is the youngest member of the Oglethorpe Driving Club, which is probably why the salespeople at Vaden Chevrolet seem a little reluctant to hand over the keys to a Corvette that’s upwards of $90K.

“I need a haircut,” he laughs, brushing his boyish, overgrown hair to the side. “I look like Justin Bieber.”

But before a salesman can instruct him on how to pull out of the lot without scraping the car’s underbelly, Zeigler points to his pristine ’71 Stingray that’s already drawing looks in the parking lot as if to say, “Not my first time, friend.”

Zeigler earned the Stingray, which he built with his father, when he promised to go to pharmacy school and take over the family’s business.

“And, of course, to help people,” he adds, belying the fact that he knows every bitty bolt that goes into a Corvette and gets visible chills just talking about it.  Zeigler’s infinite respect for this machine—and, “of course,” my safety—is what prevents him from showing me its full potential.

“I grew up driving on drag strips,” he admits, “but I’m not going to scare you or act like an idiot.”

True to his gentlemanly ways, Zeigler keeps the ride pretty G-rated, though he does drive the car in Track Mode, against the warning of the salesman.

“It takes off traction control,” Zeigler explains.  “But that’s what you say when you let your 18-year-old kid drive the car.”

©2015 Cedric Smith, TD 0911

Occupation:  Pharmacist, Medicap Pharmacy

Neighborhood:  Henderson Golf Community

Current stable of wheels:  1971 454 Corvette, 2007 MTI tuned Corvette Convertible, 1976 MG Midget Convertible

Favorite Savannah road:  Bay Street

Test-driving:  2015 Chevrolet Corvette Z06 Coupe

Engine:  6.2L supercharged V8

Transmission:  7-speed manual

Horsepower:  650 hp

Torque:  650 lb./ft.

©2015 Cedric Smith, TD 0906

Acceleration and power > “There’s a 200 horsepower increase in the new ZO6 over the base model, and that’s apparent when force is applied to the gas pedal.  This car really puts Corvette back in the realm of supercars for me.”

Cornering > “When we talk about a Corvette’s suspension and cornering abilities, it’s usually accompanied by a light chuckle.  GM stopped that chuckle with the new ZO6.  This car is the most track-ready Corvette I’ve seen to date.  The 335-sized tires grip the road harder than my hand grips the keys.  That grip allows the car to pull enough Gs to throw someone’s back out of alignment.”

Ride > “With the ride selection dial, you can go from a somewhat smooth, Sunday-driving-quiet car in ‘economy’ mode to ‘track’ mode, where the exhaust cutouts open and you hear what you’re getting yourself into.”

Exterior style > “This car is gorgeous.  Its lines are aggressive, yet still bring the ‘classy’ the Corvette is known for.  To stray from the norm, Corvette now uses functional ducts to cool the brakes.”

Accouterments > “Corvette finally stepped up their game and did a complete renovation of the interior.  Arguably one of the worst aspects of previous Corvettes, the interior now contains creature comforts such as air-conditioned seats, active onboard navigation far superior to previous generations.”

Demographics > “The sticker price plus tax, tag and title will make this a six-figure car.  I’m sure you’ll see a bunch of men in their 50s and up owning them and driving the speed limit, but the true driver will be the adrenaline junkie.”

Savannah scene > “Hutchinson Island racetrack.”

Playlist > “Just listen to the engine notes.”

Zeigler’s passion for the Corvette’s power and precision is contagious and I secretly yearn to see what all the fuss is about from the other seat.  But when he asks if I want to take a turn, I politely decline, fully aware that just because you’ve ridden in a jet plane doesn’t mean you can fly one.

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©2015 Cedric Smith, TD 0938

Deutsche Marks

Back at Critz—but this time in their BMW lot—I meet Bob Coffey, who’s wearing a stark-white collared shirt and leather loafers and looking as if he were born to drive a luxury German automobile.  The salesman senses it as well.  He practically tosses the keys at Coffey and encourages us to “have fun.”

“Wow, you really trust us,” I say.

“I trust how my cars perform,” he enthuses.

From there he points us to “the ultimate driving machine,” and I’m a little underwhelmed to see a rather plain white coupe.  But one look at Coffey’s playful grin as he steps inside the sleek interior, and I realize that I may be in for yet another spree.

No sooner are we blazing down Veterans Parkway, when my once bridled chauffeur announces that we’re going to test the brakes.  Not by slowing down, but by stopping.  On the parkway.  We drop from 75 to 0, and I feel the back of my brain hit the back of my eyes.

“See how that handles?” Coffey says excitedly.

I do, once my vision is restored.

©2015 Cedric Smith, TD 0926

Occupation:  General manager at the Savannah International Trade and Convention Center

Neighborhood:  Parkside

Current stable of wheels:  2002 BMW M5, 1995 BMW 525i Touring, 1985 Euro-spec M6, 1975 International Scout II, and a bunch of motorcycles

Favorite Savannah road:  Roebling Road, Bloomingdale—it has lots of room for mistakes.

Test-driving:  2015 BMW M235i coupe

Engine:  3.0L BMW M Performance TwinPower Turbo inline 6-cylinder, 24-valve

Transmission:  8-speed sport automatic

Horsepower:  320 hp

Torque:  330 lb./ft.

Acceleration and power >  “Straight-line acceleration seems endless, and the 8-speed auto tranny is well matched to the earlier iterations.  There’s plenty of ‘oomph’ flogging out of a turn.”

Cornering > “The M suspension is typical magic with a very comfortable ride, and it sticks like horse glue in the corners.  The steering is electrically boosted but light and neutral, and it provides a good road feel.  It stops like it was hit with Thor’s hammer—or maybe that’s just how [the writer] would describe our little ‘brake test.’”

Ride > “Very comfortable under normal way.  For 30 years, BMW has had a lock on the voodoo of combining a great ride with stellar handling.”

Style > “It’s on the same wheelbase as the 1 Series, but it looks longer, lower and sleeker.  It has semi-decent backseat leg and headroom.  It gives up two doors to the competing Audi S4 and Mercedes CLS, which may complicate lying my way into an M235i with the wife.”

Accouterments > “The interior—wild Coral Red Dakota contrasting with the Alpine White exterior—is beautifully done, but typically spare.”

Demographics > “The E46 M3 guys would not fall all over themselves for this—though it might run circles around them, and its engine sound is a good match.  I could see my geezer self in this car, sucking the doors off WRXs and G37s on my way to pick up a case of Ensure.”

Savannah scene > “It’s a beautiful car, looks assertive but not aggressive.  I’d hog [Oglethorpe Driving Club president] Jim Goodlett’s non-parking space outside Collins Quarter with it anytime.  But not at Vinnie’s: too many wheels.”

Vintage matchup > “This car is often compared to the earlier 1M, which was mainly a rocket strapped to a skateboard.  I still see the E46 M3 in its DNA, but others may differ.  To me, the BMW lineage is pretty consistent; I felt very much at home strapping into the M235.”

Playlist > “Chix, Styx and Stones.  But I bring Emmylou and Tom Petty wherever I go.”

Like the stereotype of the sexy librarian, this Beamer is deceptively saucy. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a beautiful car with all the creature comforts and then some, but until you feel what it’s really made of—the “M” being the deciding factor here—it’s hard to imagine that it can compete with the other muscle cars.

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©2015 Cedric Smith, TD 1402

Snake Bite Fever

It makes sense for our last stop to be Southern Motors, where we encounter the biggest beast of them all—the Dodge Viper.  The car is intimidating just to look at and shares an uncanny likeness with the Batmobile—even more so when I meet my driver, Dow Hoffman, who has a Bruce Wayne quality to him and a history of owning Vipers.  Before we get in the car, he assures me that, as a man with a wife and three kids, he has no interest in dying, nor does he have any interest in buying this machine if he hurts it.  I didn’t know the “you break it, you buy it” policy existed with cars, but at the end of this rally, it’s clear there’s a lot I didn’t know—like what I would say and do right before I die.

Thanks to Hoffman, I now know.  As we enter a very tight corner onto Truman Parkway at what feels like 100 mph, all I see before me are a cluster of trees and the white light of Heaven opening its doors.

“Eeeeeeeep,” I softly whimper, completely paralyzed.

I’d like to think I’d go out with a bang, throwing my arms in the air and emitting a warrior-like battle cry, but it’s probably all for the best.  Hoffman doesn’t seem to notice my mousy squeak over the engine’s thunder or the fact that we almost flew off the ramp.  “This car is screaming fast,” he says, calm and in control.

©2015 Cedric Smith, TD 1504

Occupation:  Surgeon, Chatham Orthopaedic Associates

Neighborhood:  Downtown Historic District

Current stable of wheels:  2012 Mercedes Benz s550

Favorite Savannah road:  Roebling Road in Bloomingdale

Test-driving:  2015 Dodge Viper GTS

Engine:  8.4L V-10

Transmission:  6-speed manual

Horsepower:  645 HP

Torque:  600 lbs./ft.

©2015 Cedric Smith, TD 1417

Acceleration and power > “The car is flat-out fast and it’s still beautiful.  It goes zero to 60 in three and a half seconds, throwing your head into the headrest when you accelerate.  It has six speeds, but you will never leave fourth gear on Savannah roads.  In fact, the car redlines at about 150 mph in fourth gear.  With a top speed of more than 200 mph, the 35 mph streets of Savannah seem very slow.”

Cornering > “Steering is very tight—it never loses grip—and you can stomp on the brakes as hard as you want at any speed and the car does not even wiggle.  With the traction control, you can’t really spin the wheels like you could before.  If you went around a tight curve with the old Viper, you would go in circles. But this is kinder and gentler.”

Ride > “The car is a beast, but a much more refined beast than it used to be.  It is faster and lighter—it’s a street-legal racecar.”

Exterior style > “There is no mistaking this car for another make or model when you see it on the street.  The wheels and tires are absolutely massive—Pirelli 355s in the rear.  Older models were available in a convertible and a coupe.  The 2015 coupe looks just as good as the older models, even a little better.”

Accouterments > “The navigation, touch screen, back up camera and leather seats are all new.  The older models had a plastic and rubber interior, a radio and little else.  It was a Dodge Caravan on the inside.  Then an Italian designer took over.  The new one is very comfortable, though the fit is tight.  I was thumbing through the owner’s manual and read the directions for installing a baby seat.  Who are they kidding?”

Demographics > “A bachelor living in a downtown apartment should drive this car.  It has one passenger seat and enough luggage room for a gym duffle and a loaf of bread.  No room for kids.  The car is not cheap, so a wife, kids and a mortgage may cramp your style.  Save your money for gas and tires; you’ll need it.”

Savannah scene > “Roebling Road, a road racecourse just outside of Pooler, in Bloomingdale.  This is a racecar.  The best place to be noticed is at the front of the line at a stoplight.  People will want to race you, but they do not stand a chance.”

Vintage matchup > “It still looks great, like Vipers of old.  This car now has 645 horsepower, which is much more than previous models.  And the old one didn’t include instructions for the baby seat.”

Playlist > “Classic rock or heavy metal only!  This is not an easy-listening car.  The opening lines of AC/DC’s ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ come to mind.  The only problem—if it’s a problem—is that you can barely hear the radio over the engine noise.”

The Viper does not want to be driven on the street; it wants to be launched into space.  If I ever got the courage to drive this car, it would swiftly eject me from the seat out of distaste for my grocery-fetching, speed-limit-obeying conservatism.

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