2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray: Rattles, Hums and America's Road
October 30, 2013
Days Four & Five: Arkansas > New Mexico > California
Early breakfast in Arkansas and today's goal is Santa Fe, New Mexico. At 842 miles, it's ambitious. We leave early, pass through the rest of Arkansas and make our second fuel stop around mid-afternoon in Checotah, Oklahoma. Even here at the southern fringes of the prairies, you can feel the distance between horizons. The sky is massive out here.
Oklahoma's license plates pay homage to its Native American history and its road signs tell you which nation's territory — Seminole, Cherokee, Choctaw — you're passing through. You wonder how long it took men on horseback to traverse this land. Even in this 2014 Corvette, it feels like it could take us days to reach some faraway settlement we see in the distance.
We've covered 777 miles so far and ranged 415 miles on our last tank. The Corvette says we averaged 25.9 mpg. While filling up, a thin man with long graying hair under a baseball cap walks over from his Dodge pickup. His tank top asks "Why You Hatin?" We aren't.
Gently rocking on his heels, he pulls at a stringy goatee and admires the car, telling us he was in the Marine Corps, stationed at Camp Pendleton in the early 1970s. He says he used to make runs to San Diego and Big Bear in a '68 he owned. He knows old Vettes, specs and all, and he likes ours a lot.
The Corvette takes 17.1 gallons and we're back on the highway. After nearly 800 miles, we haven't had to panic-test the brakes. I like to think that means we're driving smart. But when I see a road sign for "Oldham County Line" inside Texas, I lay on the pedal with purpose and the Corvette slows from 80 mph to the shoulder like it's hooked on an arrester cable. Kurt's not happy when he opens the door to a nose full of cow patty fields, but we figure the boss will like the photo.
The Big Texan restaurant and Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo are must-shoots, even though they're obvious and overdone. If we don't get them, Editor Oldham will ask why. We figure "because they're obvious and overdone" won't suffice as an answer.
We tune in local radio whenever we can get a good signal. There's great blues and gospel through Memphis and classic country through Oklahoma, but the Bose audio system is a letdown. It lacks clarity at low volume, when you're trying to keep levels below normal cabin conversation, and the subwoofer comically exaggerates bass level. We try the Bose system's different modes like "Centerpoint," which purports concert-style staging. It just diverts signal from the upper door speakers to the dash. I find the rear-bias mode, which fills the hatch area with sound, offers the best compromise between listening and talking with a passenger.
In quieter moments, we've identified two rattles. One comes from around the driver-side B-pillar, but it's intermittent and we can never pinpoint it. The other is easy. The vent slider just above the nav display buzzes when set just so. Jiggle it in either direction and it goes away. But no question, it's loose and the buzz won't disappear. A little felt shim should silence it, but it's a bummer.
It's also impossible to ignore the driveline lash when the V8 shuts down four of its cylinders. It's a noticeable but not unreasonable shock. It's a driveline burp you can live with, an engineering compromise that makes sense when re-fueling. At our third fuel stop, in Adrian, Texas, the Corvette has ranged 424 miles and averaged 25.2 mpg on the last tank. It takes 17.1 gallons.
Dusk sets in and we accept we're not making Santa Fe. It's another 230 miles and we're hitting the wall. We decide to press on another hour to Tucumcari, a footnote on old Route 66. Santa Fe sounds nice, but so does a good meal. Having skipped lunch, we've subsisted so far on Fig Newtons and beef jerky.
Tucumcari's got a cluster of chain motels and restaurants just off the interstate, but venturing further up Route 66 into the darkness reveals half a dozen motor hotels lit by colorful neon with names like the Blue Swallow, Palomino, and the Buckaroo. We drive to the west edge of town and find the Pow Wow Inn. The motel looks beat, but it's got a kitschy old America's Road vibe to it and we can walk to the Lizard Lounge next door for Tex-Mex and tequila. We're barely disappointed when the clerk tells us the motel's Wi-Fi is down.
Kurt says later that he too got up a few times in the night to check on the Corvette. We hadn't seen anything to worry us, but this was a shabby old motel near the edge of town. But the Vette's still there in the morning when I go out to find coffee. I half expect Kurt to rush out of his room brandishing a war club when the V8 fires to life. It's a brisk morning, the rising sun is blinding and though it's Friday, hardly anyone is on the road.
We're back on the highway at 9:00 a.m., determined to make it home tonight. Southern California is 965 miles away. We figure we can make it home by midnight. The rest of New Mexico flies by, desert scrubland changing to mesas and buttes with stratified layers of red, brown and white sandstone and shale. We make the Arizona border around noon and re-fuel, then it's open highway through the state. Nearing Flagstaff, we learn that the Grand Canyon is closed to visitors, our most personal reminder of a government shutdown less than a week old.
Arizona's rough patches of Interstate 40 amplify the noise floor of the run-flat tires, but the Corvette still impresses as it suppresses. Regular rubber would make this an even better grand tourer. We make great time through Arizona and cross into California while it's still daylight. But as the sun drops and the Mojave Desert trades its orange glow for impenetrable blue, we start to run low on fuel. The range indicator in the dash merely reads "Low," the default warning once you've dropped below 40 miles of range.
We haven't seen a "next services" sign in a while, so we consult the nav system's points-of interest. It's not much help. Whether we zoom out wide (5-10-mile view) or in tight (2.5-mile view), it's not showing any gas stations. We're closing in on 460 miles, the farthest we've pushed a tank yet. Finally a road sign reads one mile to Ludlow.
After 2,080 miles, we record the best range (464.8 miles) and average yet (27.2 mpg). The Corvette takes 16.9 gallons, suggesting we could have coaxed 500 miles out of the tank if we'd pushed on another 30 miles to Newberry Springs. This is how road-fevered we've become: In the company of a 455-hp American icon, we're giddy like nerdy hypermilers.
Kurt takes the wheel for the home stretch. We're ragged, but the end is in sight. All this time, I've been thinking about a famous anecdote between writer Hunter S. Thompson and Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone magazine. Wenner assigned Thompson to go out on the road and find the American Dream, but reportedly offered a cheap automotive allowance. He even recommended the writer buy a Beetle. Thompson, enraged, asked the editor how the hell he expected him to find the American Dream in a (expletive) Volkswagen. Thus the good Doctor came to own the Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles that formed part of his legend.
I don't know that Kurt and I found the American Dream. But we did find a good cross-section of American dreamers: affable Southerners, rattled veterans, excited teenagers, city cops, Navy dropouts and bored Navajos. To a person, they loved the car or what it represented. I realized we didn't need to search for any American Dream. We'd been driving a piece of it all along.
Dan Frio, Automotive Editor