Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Boys toys

Time for a confession. And please do not scorn me. Deep in my heart I want an SUV. Not any soccer mom car, but one particular SUV. The cynicals amongst you will tell me it is not an SUV, but a crossover, but I do not like that name. Alas, it will never happen. Because our tax regulations do not make it interesting to drive one. But even more so, because that vehicle is not available here in Holland the way I would like to have it. And let’s not talk about the money you need to bring with you.

  With Ford Explorer in Beaverhead National Forest, Montana

Travelling to North America with a railroad buff means that you have to be prepared for the new world’s often challenging back road conditions. Because photographing at yards is only a small part of the fun. The real stuff is found out there on the tracks, so into the wild with the right gear. On the second trip to the USA in 1994, starting in Seattle, going to the Cascades and Glacier Park in Montana, it was deemed advisable to rent something with four wheel drive, because the Ford Escort rented a year before was not really a success in that respect.

That trip was my first experience with a Ford Explorer. A huge vehicle for a Dutchman used to more modest means of transportation, and an SUV designed from the old book of four wheel drive vehicles. Body on frame construction, a gear selector on the steering column, diving heavily under braking, leaning in corners, no handling to speak off. It almost tipped over during a fast u-turn, but still, during the vacation trip it was great for its task. Comfortable and fine for unpaved and gravel roads. Being quite tall, one of the best features of the car was the easy getting in and out and getting stuff from the rear seat or cargo bay without having to lean over. And then that in those days rather unique feature, a tailgate window that could be opened separately from the hatch. So perfect for grabbing your subs from the cargo bay! I think the Explorer was such a great vehicle, because it seemed so well adapted to the easy going American way of life, cruising at night, and arm out of the window. That a copious dinner, that started with an all you can eat salad bar, almost exited my mouth out of the Explorer when going over a nasty speed bump, is an anecdote that does not fit in the scope of this story here. But managing the impressive Gravely Range Road in Montana’s Beaverhead National Forest, picked by Men’s Journal as one of America’s best drives, wading through a shallow creek, with a view of the Grand Tetons in the distance, will always be locked to a Ford Explorer in my memory.

I don’t know if there were no Explorers available at Hertz a few years later, or if I wanted to have a try with the new first generation Toyota RAV4, but the smaller Japanese AWD proved to be a far better solution for the train chasing trips than the bulky old fashioned Explorer. Because it added elements to the driving experience the Ford lacked: performance and handling. A lovely rental with plenty of room for the two train explorers. “You will not be able to follow the Cape Breton & Central Nova Scotia Railway over gravel roads, because that is too dangerous” a trainspotters travel guide warned. But it was not impossible with a RAV4, an accomplishment I as the driver am still proud of today… But RAVs were either in short supply or very popular at Hertz, because at the start of the next trip there wasn’t one available. The lady at the desk wanted to upgrade us to an Explorer, but through the windows I saw a Subaru Outback on the lot. Once again, it topped the driving experience, while having sufficient off road capabilities for our needs – but cargo space for two suitcases was limited. I loved the Outback. Outbacks hold a special place in my automotive heart. Although I backed out of buying one three years ago – the car had grown too much, it felt too large on narrow polder roads, and it was rather lethargic with the A/C on and being fuelled by LPG. But that’s a different story.

Toyota RAV4 in Franz, Ontario.

Ah, nothing as impulsive as a man when it comes to cars. Or is it that I grew older and my priorities changed? Or is it simply because cars evolve? Any dreams of Explorers, first gen RAVs and Outback Subies were wiped away a few years ago when the Hertz employee handed me the keys of the most recent generation RAV4. I instantly fell in love with that car. The ergonomics, the ride, the quality, it is to me an ultimate boy toy. I want one. I need one. Ah well, a dream is a dream. American RAVs differ from Euro RAVs, because a longer wheelbase offers more cabin space, and we do not get the 2.4 engine. And the window sticker is out of my league. Importing one would even be more costly I fear. Maybe it better stays a dream then. Because, after all, it is a SUV at heart, and isn’t it politically totally incorrect to drive one these days because of its CO2 emissions? So, better leave it as a perfect American train chaser, and focus on miserly hybrid econoboxes. Hurray.


  1. I'll have to admit that I did end up enjoying the Suburban my father rented a couple of weeks ago.

    I expected to hate everything about it - big, cumbersome, ungainly, wasteful, inefficient - but I actually kind of wanted one. Once I got used to the size, all the acres of space inside were really nice, like a mobile living room. The big squishy seats, giant steering wheel, and grumbly, powerful V8 were such an interesting departure from the dull, efficient, and not-masculine-at-all CamCord sedans of everyday life.

    In a fantasy world where gas, space, and political correctness were all nonexistent, I would quite like to have one as well.

  2. And all those big SUV's have one major advantage over normal rental cars: you blend in with the native Americans very well. They don't even notice you're a tourist...
    I have to agree the Outback and the RAV4 are very nice cars. Too bad they're too expensive over here. And unfortunately we don't have any real mountains here too...

  3. I can see why you would like the Explorer. Not my first choice, though. If I was to buy an American off roader, I would go for a Chevy Tahoe or full sized Blazer. I always liked them for some reason. Not really a fan of the Suburban. Too much like a school bus for me. It is odd that I like the Tahoe though, as I generally prefer small cars. I miss my MINI sometimes. I can not zip in and out of traffic as well in my car now. And parking the MINI was quite a bit easier too. There are hybrid SUV's out there with more being introduced every year. Maybe your dream of an SUV while being politically correct is not as much of a dream as you think?

  4. When traveling over the Gravely Range Road I remember meeting a bicyclist who had spent the night under the blue sky. He didn't have any water and had melted some snow to drink. As the mountain road was very steep, he asked if we could take him for a ride. There were some sixpacks of water in the back of the car, but strangely enough we forgot to offer him a bottle of fresh water... The bicyclist left the car near the end of the Gravely Range Road.
    We continued our travels to Ennis, MT. The scenery was awesome. MT is one of the prettiest states in the entire US.