They Go Together in the Good ‘Ole USA…

Listen carefully, and you can still hear the jingle. Doodee da, doo de dum, Chevrolet will make you feel secure… It is arguably the most memorable car commercial ever made, a rousing cheer of American culture played out in front of that most American of cars, Chevrolet.

Yeah — the bowtie shone brightly in 1975.
Back then, Mom really did make scratch apple pie in the kitchen. Grandpa and Dad played ball in the yard with the kids, and everyone ate a hot dog – or two – at the ballpark. Always, there was a Chevy parked curbside, a patriotic car for Americans living the American dream.

It’s been a long and hard 30 years since. Baseball has stumbled down a wicked path, wandering away from the romantic scene of a beat up catcher, leaning, begging and waving a fly ball around a foul pole as the nation gasped. It is now the pastime of cheats, a dirty game that has lost its place as America’s favorite sport. Apple pie and hot dogs haven’t fared much better. Once the staple of picnics and dinner tables across the nation, they’ve been downgraded as plain and unhealthy. Yesterday, you could go into any highway coffee shop and order up a warm slice of pie with a slab of cheddar on top.

Today, you get a small french pastry and a latte.
Bah. If this is a better way, make mine a beef dog with extra mustard and relish. The shadow of bloated ballplayers may drape over the game like a black veil, but baseball is still baseball, with its storylines and taut drama. Bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, full count, here comes the pitch…

What goes better with that than a hot dog, a slice of pie or a Chevrolet? Wait a minute. Chevy? GM’s bread-and-butter nameplate has always connected itself to the American Way, to be sure. And like much of traditional Americana, it has also seen better days. It’s ironic that Chevy, in that famous commercial, chose to introduce the Chevette — an import-fighting small car — instead of one of its larger vehicles. Watching now, the commercial subtly reveals the reality of what was happening in the world at the time, and what was to come. In 1975, America was pulling out of the first oil crisis, living with a mandated 55 mph speed limit and conserving energy. Automakers were scaling down their vehicles in response to foreign competition and a new average fuel economy standard called CAFE.

In the “Good ‘Ol USA,” people were getting over the shock of waiting in line to put gas in their cars, and were buying imports at a much faster clip. It’s been a weird and twisted merry-go-round ever since, large vehicles booming and busting with the price of a gallon and the fortune of US automakers tagging along for the ride. After 30 years, you’d think they’d have figured it out, but Chevrolet finds itself once again getting slapped around by small import cars. What used to be – you could sell a car because it was a Chevy – is long gone, and this time domestic automakers don’t have Americana to lean on. In 2006, the apple pie is fat-free and in the freezer section, the dog is a bratwurst, and Chevy has a new Tahoe.

That’s the difference – supposedly. Listen to the bowtie boys and you’ll believe that the Tahoe is one of the next great American cars, the SUV that offers everything – great ride and handling, a powerful engine, a comfortable and spacious interior and the fuel economy of a smaller SUV. It’s the car GM hopes will bring about a new surge of buyers, and in the process remind us all that we still love baseball, real apple pie, a big beef hot dog and, of course, Chevrolet. We were skeptical, as is our nature, so there was only one way to figure it out: eat as much pie as possible, cram down a few hot dogs, catch a game or two – and do it in two days, flogging the new Tahoe throughout California and Arizona, along highways, up and down mountain roads, through deserts and in city traffic. The goal: to see if this newest Chevrolet has what it takes to go together with what people want in today’s no-fat, import-friendly and fuel-efficient USA.

On the Road to Julian
Heading south to go east doesn’t make much sense on the face of it, but it does when you have a date with a piece of the best apple pie in Southern California — with cheese on it. That was exactly how I wanted to start this strange little road trip, which would ultimately cover more than a thousand miles of mountain roads, interstate, city driving, and pie – lots of pie. At the start of the trail, it all sounded so promising: I had fasted for at least two hours, plotted the route and packed up the Tahoe, which amounted to opening the warehouse-sized liftgate and tossing a few bags in back. It would be easy to see someone of small stature swinging from the end of that liftgate, as big and tall as it was. Granted, this is a large SUV, but shoot – few people really need this much room. And that was it: Myself and a longtime friend, Rafael – the only other person stupid enough to go on this trip – climbed into the cabin, flipped the key and were off, with a full tank of gas, two iPods full of tunes and an open road laying out in front of us.

Driving along a stretch of gently dipping highway, we came along an old man, riding a bike loaded down like a trapper pushing a pelt cart. I slowed down. He looked over his shoulder, and started pedaling faster. I crept up closer, slowly, careful not to upset the bike. He pedaled furiously, his old legs pumping along like pistons, his long white beard swinging to the time. I fell back; the old man deserved more than a shower of rocks and road dirt; I would respect him and wait for an opening, giving him a wide berth. When I got it, I swung out, waved to him and swept by, the 2007 Tahoe responding to my touch immediately. It was a pleasant surprise: Easy to handle, nimble on the twisty roads that lead through the canyons to Julian, Calif., the Tahoe was showing itself to be a dream to drive, eating miles and soaking up bumps. The 5.3-liter V8 engine, which develops 320 horsepower at 5,200 rpm and 340 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,200 rpm, was responsive to throttle command, and the four-speed automatic transmission shifted smoothly through the power band.

Forty miles away from my pie, and Tahoe was proving to be a very nice riding SUV, the kind a typical American family could appreciate.

Julian Pie
It was worth driving a hundred miles out of the way to get that piece of pie. Baked by Mom’s, located in downtown Julian, the apple pie – with cheddar – was a sweet and flaky treat, well worth the long trip south through the mountains.

I love pie that much. And seeing as Julian is the capital of pie, it goes together. Located 60 miles northeast of San Diego on the northern end of the Cuyamaca Mountains, the retreat town is on the southern slope of Volcan Mountain, just west of the Anza Borrego desert. Established after the Civil War by Drue Bailey and Mike Julian, the town was home to the only Gold Rush in San Diego County and is a quaint part of the history of Southern California, with wooden slatted walkways in the downtown area, historic buildings dotting the streets and even an old-fashioned soda fountain.

Julian didn’t get its reputation as a gold mine town, however, and, in fact, the rush to pan for gold ended quickly once farmers realized that the rich soil and altitude made for great apples. From there, it was only a matter of time before this idyllic little get-a-way became known as the apple capital of the region, harvesting juicy apples, churning cider and baking apple pie.

Julian homemade pie, baked with care in a mountain kitchen named after Mom. What a way to start a trip.

Onward to the Salton Sea
It was hard to say goodbye to Mom’s. The smell of baking pies, and the chatter of workers patting down dough, scraping out apple mix and counting tins gave the place a warmth, as though it were a winter day and the old fireplace was lit.

I will sit on the wooden bench inside Mom’s again. It was even tempting to go back in and get a slice of crumble when we went the wrong way and had to double back 10 miles, through town, to catch the connection that would take us east and into the desert. It’s a spectacular drive, a combination of straight-away and curvy road running through landscape that is brutally bleak and breathtakingly beautiful.

Had we done it, they would have simply assumed we were automotive journalists. This place, after all, offers what we scribes love most of all: food, lots of it, and a pleasing variety of roads. Sure enough, as we left town, there – on the side of the road – sat a journalist in a pastel Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder, wearing the disgusted look of a man awaiting a tow truck. I patted the wheel of my Chevy. There were no tows in this beast’s future, only tight and twisty roads, on which the Tahoe stuck well, though our optional 20-inch tires did complain when the driving grew more aggressive. Big deal — for a 5,265-lb. vehicle, the SUV was surprisingly nailed down and responsive. If only the brakes were also nailed down. Pedal feel was soft, with too much play; with the rest of the nuts and bolts of this car so dialed in, the brake feel was a mild disappointment.

Salton Sea Crust
There is no pie at the Salton Sea. None, not even a crust, unless you count the one ringing a body of water that’s saltier than the Pacific Ocean. Here is where Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets and his crew did dummy runs before they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Originally created in the early 1900s when the Colorado River flooded, the Salton Sea once covered more than 400 square miles, has suffered massive fish and fowl deaths, and, well, has been hailed as either an environmental treasure or a disease-ridden eyesore.

Yeah. There is no apple pie at the Salton Sea. But I’ll wager there are plenty of hot dogs. It’s an ugly place with a bad smell, and Rafael was quite happy to pass through. He had 9 versions of Tainted Love to listen to, after all, and was determined to do it after I had refused to let him play his Total Johnny Cash collection. He was also secretly afraid that he’d end up enslaved, hidden for 20 years inside one of the many tin trailer homes that dot the shore. Silly guy: we were driving a Chevy, not a Toyota, and people here respected Chevys. Sure enough, only minutes after we stopped and climbed out, an old purple Buick Regal drove up and down slowly, its driver looking at the Tahoe, checking out those optional 20-inch wheels and presumably, us. A little kid, without shirt or teeth, rode up a few minutes later and stopped, 10 feet away, admiring the car and, clearly, wondering if we had any pie.

If worse came to worst, we could barter our Mom takeaways.
I secretly thought to myself, if it came to it – who would really miss Rafael, anyway? I would really miss my slice of Mom’s pie.

Coachella Devil Winds
It took only four back-to-back versions of Tainted Love to realize that my good friend Raffy was a little peeved about me trying to sell him to the kid with no teeth.

…take my tears and that’s not nearly all, tainted love… There are many great things about the mp3 music revolution, one of which being the ability to listen to your music in a car such as the Tahoe, simply by plugging in through the aux input. The key word, there, would be your music — not to satisfy some freak’s need for Tainted Love. The silence made every horrible lyric ring throughout the cabin, and for the first time ever, I wished that Chevy would make a noisy interior. Wait — Chevy and quiet interiors haven’t exactly been like peas and carrots for some time, but this new Tahoe is indeed quiet, with virtually no road noise and, save for some windshield whistle and a few odd vibrations on the front passenger’s side of the car, a very insulated ride. That was the case, even as we cruised along the Salton Sea, up toward Interstate 10 and through the daily Coachella devil winds, gusting across the Tahoe. It was, in fact, hard to notice the environmental havoc going on without looking at the bent palm trees, such was the quality of the ride and stability of the Tahoe. For a large SUV, it sliced through the air with relative ease. Surely, then, we were getting great gas mileage. I looked at the digital readout and wondered aloud, over the whine of the angst playing on the stereo: “how could we only be getting 14 miles per gallon?”

Eat at Spotlight 29 Casino
More pie was waiting for us, just before the junction at Interstate 10, inside a large, empty and clean – very clean – casino. It’s one of the saddest things, a casino in the middle of the day: a giant, garish edifice with lights on and fountains spewing, built on the backs of people who come in the middle of the afternoon, those poor souls with gambling addictions, shuffling along and spending their paychecks at the slot machines, wasting their rent at the tables, getting further into a hole dug with the happy help of the 29 Palms Band of Mission Indians. Here. We’ll hold the light for you. Go ahead and keep shoveling. Called children of the Wolf, the Band runs the Spotlight 29 Casino, which was formerly known as the Trump Spotlight 29 Casino, housing 2,000 slot machines and 35 tables, along with two restaurants and the worst buffet ever, so bad that it should have been named the botulism buffet. $9.95 – all the stomach cramps you can stand! Worse yet, these children of the Wolf don’t know how to make apple pie – not even close. Or mac ‘n cheese, for that matter, unless you like your macaroni with a hard skin on the top of it. The seafood, well, I didn’t dare try the seafood.

As promised, the stomach cramps hit shortly after the second helping – hey, it was a buffet – and now we know what it takes to keep buffet food costs down. I could only hope that I could power through the cramps before our next pie destination.

Going Broke on the Way to Tempe
On the way to Tempe and to spring training baseball, the Tahoe, up to now a beauty of a ride, showed its gas-sucking Beastly side. With the gauge on E and a long stretch I-10 to go, we stopped, popped the top on the gas tank and watched as the machine rang up 60 bucks.

It was worse than playing the slots at the Spotlight 29.

Sixty bucks. And that was before the recent gas price increase. For all the good the Tahoe brings to the driver, it brings a lot of bad in the amount of cash it takes to fill up the tank. Throughout the trip, from E to F ran $60 or more, a whopping amount of money to hand over at the pump. That’s okay, though, if the gas that goes in lasts a good long time. Sadly for Chevrolet, so far the average fuel economy from the 2007 Tahoe registered 13.9 miles – after a complete tank of fuel. Somehow, that special cylinder deactivation technology wasn’t working for us. On the road again, I tried a variety of different techniques, even though we were on a highway, and the Tahoe is designed to be most efficient during this type of driving. I set the cruise control at 75 mph. I slowed down to 70 mph. I stayed in one lane. I tried to grab the draft off a big truck. Finally, I took my foot off the accelerator. That worked. Unfortunately, I had to place it back on the accelerator a few seconds later, which poses a slight problem for Tahoe owners.

Hugs for Gas
“Nah, dude, just get me one. All I need is one.”
“Are you sure? They’re on the dollar menu, you know, two for a buck.”
“Uh, really? Well, okay then. Get me two.”

The consequences of the high price of gasoline and a thirsty Beast like the Tahoe were stark and real; we were no longer able to stop and eat as much pie as we could handle; instead, we had to resort to the most affordable – and famous – pie in the Land: McDonald’s apple pie turnovers. Good? No. But good enough, and at a buck a piece, neither of us were complaining. Add to it a cup of old coffee and an SUV that was taking money out of our wallets at every mile marker and we were ready to arrive at our first stop. That would be Tempe, but between McDonald’s and Tempe was a stretch of I-10 that would surely rate as among the most boring, sleep-inducing pavement in America. The Tahoe made it worse, with its comfortable leather seats, excellent environmental controls and ample legroom. Only the anxiety of having to tell the wife about the upcoming gas bill kept me alert, along with desperately trying to squeeze every drop of fuel economy out of the Beast.

Ah, Tempe. Springtime home to the Angels, Giants, and one of the biggest party schools in the USA, Arizona State University. Tempe would be the place for me if I were to relive my young adult years. Some say ASU specializes in a beer goggle education, but it’s surely a fine institution of higher learning — which is why so many hard working young people were drinking so much, clearly as a release after a hard week spent studying advanced topics. That much was obvious on the streets of downtown Tempe, packed as it was with kids lurching from one club to another, dodging vendors and minstrels. One enterprising young lady, undoubtedly a marketing student, was paying her tuition with a creative new spin on panhandling. For a dollar, she’d tell you how her day had gone, and for a “donation,” you could give her a hug. It took only minutes for her to earn enough for the next round — and she didn’t have to tell a single soul about her day.

A Cracker Barrel of Laughs
Arizona is the blue-hair capital of the world. And there are few places in the state old people like better than the Cracker Barrel, a chain of restaurants that combines shopping and food with a country theme. It’s a truck stop for seniors, without the knife display. You can put your name on the waiting list – there’s always a wait – then while away the hours, shopping for jams, inspirational cards that play music, or John Deere souvenirs. Best of all, you can sit outside on some of the furniture for sale and get yourself into a nice game of checkers. It’s for a slower pace, but they have good pie – so we bided our time, ate some breakfast, chased it with pie filling and set out south on the I-10 for Tucson, to the last big Arizona city before the Mexican border, and to baseball.

What we thought would be a nice 90-minute cruise through open Arizona land turned out to be a commute that gave witness to the sprawl that has taken over this area of the state. Experts claim that within a decade, Phoenix and Tucson will meet, creating a megapolitan area to rival any in the country. Planning and land purchases make this a sobering reality: Phoenix housing and urban development is already moving forward with a plan to go 60 miles south, and Tucson development will creep 40 miles to the north in the coming years, leaving a 20 mile gap between the two cities with just one freeway serving both communities.

Tucson in the Sun
After many miles of highway road, with a handful of Phoenix city blocks tossed in, the Tahoe’s fuel economy was only slightly better: 14.4 miles per gallon on the second tank, an average that was sure to go down after fighting through traffic and driving around Tucson. On the positive side was the overall performance of the SUV: with a tight turning radius and a superb suspension that soaked up the potholes and cracks of downtown Tucson, driving The Beast was quite easy in stoplight traffic. Lane changing was easily accomplished, thanks to the oversized rearview mirrors, and the powertrain performed admirably in stop-and-go circumstances, giving smooth delivery of power and stopping adequately. Only the mushy pedal feel and lousy gas mileage kept this from being a virtually flawless ride. And on the streets of Tucson, the Tahoe’s smooth, stylish sheetmetal stood out as among the nicest rides on the roads.

Tucson. It was once a special place for me, though I never really understood exactly why. Many years ago I attended the University of Arizona, an all-around miserable experience of 110-degree temperatures that ended with me coming home, riding on top of my belongings in a battered old U-Haul trailer, just like a ragged Beverly Hillbilly. Now, for the first time, I was going back, and my regret over cutting short my Wildcat career was bubbling up to the surface. The brick buildings of higher education. The freedom, the independence! It was all still there. But so were the strip joints. The used car lots. The immigration lawyers and the discount stores. Either Tucson changed, or I never noticed it to be such a dirty, downtrodden place. Driving through the city, I gave thanks that I had once lacked the internal fortitude to make a go of it in the heat, dirt and decay of Tucson.

Play Ball
If it’s true that baseball is America’s pastime, it’s because of the first game of the season. The smell of freshly cut grass, the visual delight of a wide expanse of green held in by white lines and brick dirt, clashing with the chaos of sounds and colors in the crowd is a refreshing first dip into a world that whispers of a thousand games played on a thousand ball yards. The sensory experience of a spring day at a ballpark in Arizona, with players close enough to touch and families crowding in to see their favorite players, is in itself worth the drive. Walk around the park and your worries slide off; eat a hot dog, some peanuts and drink down a cold beverage and you get, for few fleeting hours, a new perspective. This is baseball without the high-stakes pressure of million-dollar television exposure. Instead of win at all costs, it’s play at all costs, and managers, players and umpires relax, play the game and enjoy the sunshine. The fans follow along: each side cheers heartily for their favorite team, yet the banter in the stands is about the players, not the winning, and it takes on the tenor of the experience.

Hey, what’s that tag dangling off your pitcher’s shirt?
It’s a bus ticket. The way he’s pitching, they’re gonna put him on the bus right after the game. Heck, probably after this inning – and they might make him drive the thing.

The score? Couldn’t tell ya. What I do remember, though, is one brief exchange, long after the game. Driving around the corner of the ballpark looking for photo spots, we stopped to let an older, grizzled ballplayer limp across the crosswalk. His knee was in a full length brace, and he hobbled along so slowly that I rolled down the window, leaned out and said to him: “Hey, you okay?” He looked up, smiled wide and said, “Yeah. I’m good. I’m good.”

And he meant it.

Fuel Range: Calexico low
Interstate 8 is a most desolate road, especially with dusk fast approaching and most of the truck drivers either routing through Phoenix or pulling off the road for a few hours of sleep. It’s a road for thinkers, for long drives between homes when thoughts turn to crossroads, real and imagined.

It’s a good place to go fast. Except for us, for we were driving the Beast, and the Beast eats money, so we kept it sane and safe. With little more than a half tank used, the next gas station a few hundred miles away and my friend asleep in the passenger seat, I made a quick calculation: the fuel range says 268 miles, the signs say 224. I can make it, if I lay off the gas and stay steady.

Hah. An hour later, it was dark and the needle had dropped like a stone. The difference between miles and range was closing fast; I put the Beast on cruise control and checked to see if my cell phone had service.

A little while later, the mile markers were mocking the fuel range, and I could feel the sweat bead up on my lip. It was still close, though, and I was determined to make it as far as I could on one tank. Calexico came, and I saw a gas station fly by. We traded city lights and call boxes for darkness and border barbwire. The sweat begin to trickle down my spine.

We weren’t going to make it, and I had to make emergency plans. I could feed Rafael to the creatures of the night, and it would give me enough time to run back to Calexico. He’d fight for awhile, and maybe they’d lose my scent. I told him to go back to sleep; offered to listen to Tainted Love again; but he had leaned over and had seen the fuel gauge, and he started whining. Then I saw the sign: gas in 20 miles. Surely the Beast could go 20 miles, surely there were two gallons left in the tank that would take us those 20 miles. I felt strong about it; this was a smartly-engineered car, after all, and it had that cylinder deactivation magic – even though the magic had yet to work. Now it would. Surely, it would. I slowed down, and coasted, and saw “V4 mode” flash on the readout. We were getting 34 miles per gallon. So what if we were coasting at 25 mph along I-8. The beeping had started, the incessant and irritating beeping telling me, that yes, I was going to run out of gas soon, very soon, that I was a moron and that my friend wasn’t strong enough to push the Beast five more measly miles.

I heard a quiet whimper. I started to pray.
Later, at the gas station, we agreed that it was probably best for me not to let the tank drain down to E again.

San Diego, Homeward
As desolate as Interstate 8 is, it’s also challenging – with several climbing, twisty roads, elevation changes, straight-aways and narrow, one-lane bridges, courtesy of CALTRANS projects. Arguably the lowest major highway in the country where it drops below sea level in the Imperial Valley near El Centro, I-8 climbs dramatically from there through several mountain passes on the way to San Diego.

At night, it is especially exciting, though the Tahoe took much of the thrill out of the drive. No matter what the climb, the engine never struggled; no matter how slick the road or precarious the corner, the 2007 Tahoe handled the road with skill. With its high seating position, visibility was mostly great, and it gives the driver and passengers a safe feeling, a consequence of its size and the excellent road manners this large SUV exhibits. The exception was the side window tint: in the evening, visibility plummets through the darkly smoked glass. Overall though, the Tahoe is what it should be but what most large vehicles fall short of: a large SUV that drives much smaller – except for that darn gas bill.

PS Play Ball!
Later, after the regular baseball season had started, I sat with General Motors officials at one of the first games at Anaheim Stadium, watching the Angels take on the Texas Rangers. With sales up and positive press out about their new lineup of large SUVs, they were a cheerful lot. Early returns on the Tahoe were so positive, in fact, that GM was cautiously hoping that this vehicle, along with brothers such as the GMC Yukon and Cadillac Escalade, would spur their turnaround and bring luster back to the brands.

The talk made me think of apple pie in Julian, spring training games, real beef hot dogs, and Arizona sunshine…and whether Chevrolet had recaptured the magic with its new Tahoe. Maybe, I thought to myself. It’s that good, the SUV is that good, and such a strong example of American engineering, with its large and powerful engine, spacious interior and smooth design. Save for a few minor nits, it drove like a dream, with responsive rack-and-pinion steering, excellent interior design and plenty of room. People could really get excited about this vehicle.

Perhaps. But then I thought of a number: Thirteen point nine.
From Riverside County to Julian, through the desert to 29 Palms, Tempe, Tucson, Calexico, San Diego and back to Riverside County, the 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe averaged 13.9 miles per gallon. At three bucks a gallon — and climbing — along with a 26-gallon tank, that’s almost $80 to go about 360 miles. In an old America that eats, drives and does what it wants, in an America that celebrates largess no matter what the cost, this means little. In today’s America, however, where heroes are drug-tested and kids are obese, where the amount of oil in the ground and the distance your car can go on one gallon matters – a lot – that tattooed 13.9 on the hood of the 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe is just not coming together for what people in the good ol’ USA really need.
Photos by Patrick Neeman, Brian Chee, General Motors, City of Julian, AARoads

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