Tuesday, December 22, 2009

300C: A US odyssey

It's said that alligators sometimes wander into peoples' back gardens in this part of Florida. You really can head out to the pool and find half a ton of armoured reptile basking in it. Yet even here the greatest threat to a pale skinned Brit seems to be that of spontaneous combustion. It’s mid December, but still the temperature is a thoroughly toasty 85 degrees and the humidity is up to nearly 60 percent.
So what drags me away from the temperate climes of London? Well, in between sampling the banked curves of Daytona and plying my wares at the world's largest racing trade show – more on those later – I'm here to experience a little bit of American car culture. In truth, it's been something of an impromptu affair – with a day to spare before the show I approach the local car hire firm for something suitable. The result was a gleaming black 2008 Chrysler 300C. And a map. The plan is to get out of the tourist Mecca of Orlando, which lies to the east of the Florida peninsula, and head west to the town of Clearwater on the Gulf of Mexico; sort of a mini coast-to-coast.
Out in the car park, the big Chrysler does a fine job of filling even a US space. At sixteen and a half feet long it's bigger than a Bentley Continental GT. It screams Americana too, with a comically high shoulder line, a brash authoritarian presence and a front end seemingly modelled on JR Ewing's grin. It's much the same inside, with wide open spaces and a bold, simple layout.

The 3.5-litre V6 starts with a slightly muted thrum and the 300C creeps forward obligingly once the 5-speed auto 'box is placed in drive. We whisk out the car park and onto International Drive with the transmission quietly slurring away. The sheer size of the thing would render it unwieldy in the UK. Fortunately, you sit quite high with a good view of its extremities as the long bonnet sweeps round corners. It does feel somewhat like captaining a boat at times, but cruising the wide palm tree lined boulevards of downtown Orlando the 300C feels perfectly at home.

Soon I locate the interstate, and with it my first chance to open the car up. To be honest it seems to be a bit startled by the process. I'd love the 5.7-litre V8 in the higher spec 300s, but my work was cut out just trying to find something American and the V6 is a bit of a pale imitation. It's actually a very revvy engine, with a useful power band extending up to 7,000rpm, but torque isn't really on the agenda. Cruising slowly this isn't a problem; the auto 'box shifts up at the earliest possible moment and you're left wafting quietly around, but put your foot down and the torque converter throws a hissy fit. After a moment's confusion it begrudgingly kicks down two gears and begins screaming away without any significant increase in speed. It's almost as if the gearbox is slipping. Yet with a more delicate approach it can be coaxed into performing quite well. The acceleration is hardly alarming (it's rated at 8.6 seconds to 60mph), but it does feel nicely sustained as the big Chrysler pushes its way through the air. The soundtrack isn't bad either; quite refined, but with a muscular edge that almost suggests an extra pair of cylinders might be lurking under the bonnet.
After a couple of miles I start to drop into the routine of US motorway travel. Barring the flat, sub tropical landscape, much is the same as the UK. It's 3 lanes wide, people have a healthy disdain for the speed limit (which ranges from 55mph to 75 and even includes minimum speeds in some sections) and the layout is all fairly intuitive. What's even worse than the UK is lane discipline. It simply does not exist, and drivers seem to pick a lane completely irrespective of their speed. Occasionally one of them wakes up and promptly undertakes the car in front, but there's little real order. It never feels aggressive or overwrought and, with relatively low traffic densities, the whole thing more or less seems to work. In fact they're so chilled out that several times I witness a car in one of the outside lanes wander until it actually puts two wheels on the dirt. Fortunately the trucks appear to be somewhat more carefully guided. They're big out here; really big. If one was to stray off the road it's likely it could run over several small towns before the driver's attention was even diverted from his Lynyrd Skynyrd tape.
The I4 widens to four lanes as we pass the outskirts of Tampa. It's a bright modern city with a cluster of silver sky scrapers looming against the hazy midday sky. It also marks a brief stint on the I275, a comparatively twisty urban freeway, which gives a bit more insight into the Chrysler’s dynamics. Once again the messages are a little mixed. The steering is quite precise with a pleasingly linear action, but it’s almost completely devoid of feel. The initial turn is distinctly floaty and the whole thing feels a touch under-damped, but the car actually feels surprisingly well balanced once its set up in the turn. Sweeping through the I275’s twists, its body roll is no worse than you’d expect from a large sedan and the car actually feels quite poised. 

The only real shock comes after we turn off and join State Road 60. It begins by heading through a series of traffic lights, one of which decides to turn red just as we approach. There’s no one behind and it’s not that close so I elect to go for the brakes. They felt fine on the interstate with adequate feel and reasonable levels of assistance, but when tasked with something a bit more urgent they fail miserably. The tyres let out a screech and a puff of smoke, but little in the way of actual retardation. We pass the stop light travelling at pretty much the same speed as before and I elect to go for the gas instead. There’s plenty of time to clear the crossing, which is fortunate as the brakes are simply the worst of any modern car I’ve encountered. I suppose it’s good to see the big Chrylser does live up to its ‘yank tank’ image in at least one respect.
The SR60 rapidly blends into the Courtney Campbell Causeway; 9.9 miles of bridges and reclaimed land stretching across Tampa Bay. It leads to the aptly named town of Clearwater. You can drive virtually onto the beach and, as Florida gives way to the Gulf of Mexico, the water is indeed crystal clear. As we pause for a photocall, a steady stream of numbered white 4X4s drive past – presumably watching out for anyone paddling past in a sombrero. The strange foreigner randomly photographing his hire car seems to attract a certain attention too, signalling that it’s perhaps time to move on.
We trundle down a rough concrete track barely wider than the Chrysler. It runs within feet of the waters edge, before rejoining the main road that takes us back towards Tampa. Cruising onward along the I4 you can’t help noticing the sheer number of police cars. There are state troopers, county sheriffs and local police everywhere. At one point we pass a car being pulled over and the officer approaches cautiously, one hand hovering over his gun. Make no mistake, this is still America.

Orlando is beckoning, but we’re not done yet. With about twenty miles to go, we turn off the beaten track onto State Road 532. This is Smokey and The Bandit country; unmistakably Southern with paperbark trees, Florida pines and palm trees dotted along the side of the road. Sure enough, it’s not long before we pass the county mountie, watching intently from a side turning. Even the cruisers still bear a distinct resemblance to those which chased Burt Reynolds.
Our final waypoint, Kissimmee, is different. It feels like someone has turned the contrast up – it has the bluest skies, the greenest grass and the orangiest buildings. To be fair, the Victorian shop fronts and awnings stretching onto the main road actually come in a variety of colours, but all are bright. I don’t know how many ordinary Floridians actually live here, but to an outsider it appears to be a rather utopian vision of small-town America. It’s like Pleasantville. There’s no litter, every blade of grass is immaculately trimmed and every street corner has a bright, breezy cafe cheerfully dishing up the local speciality, key lime pie. Even fly tipping just looks better here. We pass a mid ‘50s Ford Edsel Station Wagon that’s been abandoned in a side street. Although faded and abused, it still bears a sort of retro charm. Somehow it just looks right.

The drive back along Poinciana Boulevard features a rare sight on Florida’s country roads: corners. It’s hardly Zig Zag Hill, but there are a couple of S-Bends that provide a certain amount of childish amusement for me, but apparently considerable concern to the local drivers who slow right down before carefully negotiating these dangerous oddities. If their cars go round corners like the 300C stops it’s probably a wise move.
My first experience of driving Stateside has been an enlightening one. Like America in general, much of it feels strangely familiar, but all with a distinctly US slant. I’d love to do a real coast-to-coast one day or cruise along Pacific Coast Highway, but for now the trip to Clearwater in the big Chrysler will have to do. At least I didn’t expire in the heat.

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