2013 Chevrolet Impala LSView Vehicle Profile
Chevy Impala ‘gits ‘er done’ in Gulf South
I’d wanted to rent a Ford Fusion. I didn’t know a lot about the car except I had heard it had some electronic gizmos and did well in Car of the Year balloting with some magazine that has girls in bikinis on the front and cars with large, throbbing engines.
I had reserved my car for pickup with Budget at the New Orleans Airport. The website clearly said I’d get a Ford Fusion or equivalent. But the lot was Fusion-less.
Shoot. I thought to myself, “What would Norris (Wheels editor Norris McDonald) want me to write about?” I stopped caring deeply about cars once I graduated from high school, leaving behind my bulletin boards filled with TR-6s and Fiat Spiders. I was panicking. A Kia? That’s interesting, I think. But it’s an SUV and I’m slightly environmentally sensitive. You can’t drive from New Orleans to Dunedin, Fla. without the sun on your head and there were no ragtops in the lot. So I nabbed a dark-blackish 2013, four-door Chevrolet Impala with a sunroof.
The excitement-o-meter doesn’t jump, but it’s got a trunk big enough to hold the Blue Jays bullpen. The dashboard is easy to navigate, although the button to control the temperature is kind of a toggle thingy that looks like a light switch. Not traditional, but it seems OK.
I panicked for a minute, thinking I had failed to consider the radio. I don’t want to listen to AM/FM all the way to the Tampa Bay area (and then on to St. Augustine). But I find there’s Sirius XM, which means I can revel in the Sixties on Six station and the Bruce Springsteen/E Street Band station. Sweet relief.
The Impala drives fine as I head out from New Orleans to a plantation called Houmas House. I don’t want to rile up a southern police officer, so I don’t push it beyond 75 m.p.h. on Interstate 10.
The car’s pretty quiet as the trucks roll past on I-10 and it handles fine for a family sedan. I ask a passenger in the back seat about the car and she’s very happy with the ride and the space. It seems fine for the roughly 12 or 13 hours of driving I have ahead of me as I head to Dunedin, Fla., where I’m writing a story for the Travel section as we get closer to spring training (pitchers and catchers for the Jays report Tuesday, Feb. 12).
I pull off the highway and head toward the plantation when I suddenly look up a large bank of dirt that’s piled high in front of me, just off the Mississippi River. And then I realize I’m driving an Impala. Which means that, wait for it, I’m driving a Chevy to the levee.
The trip to Dunedin starts the next day. Eastern Louisiana and Southern Mississippi are a foggy blur in the early morning. We pull off the road in Mississippi and there’s a gas station that sells not only 4,329 kinds of chips and candy but also has deep red steaks in a cooler and shrimp po’ boy sandwiches. We stop at a Starbucks and there’s a three-week-old edition of the New York Times for sale.
I struggle to find the right buttons for the defroster and wipers, but it’s all good and we plow through South Alabama. Finally, the skyscrapers of Mobile and the placid bay behind me, I pull over the state line and into Florida. I’m looking forward to a glass of orange juice at the welcome centre, but it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the centre is closed. I’m outraged, but I still pull my beloved Impala in front of the “Welcome to Florida” sign for a photo.
I reach Pensacola and cross the bridge into Pensacola Beach, past a goofy but fun sign of a giant marlin (I think) and then onto a long strip of two-lane road that strings along the beach. I’m stunned by the sand, which is pure white and fluffy. The water near the shore is emerald green.
But I’m panicking about the car and what I’m going to write. It gets good mileage; only about $40 to fill it up from near empty. There’s a fake wood trim I don’t much like, but it’s got good visibility and brakes pretty well without being too soft or too quick. Nice-looking wheel covers, but I doubt Norris gives a hoot. I’m thinking I’d rather be driving my first car, a 1967 Pontiac Firebird Convertible, bright blue, with mag wheels and a license plate that said, “JBYERS.” But the Impala will do.
I could take I-10 east to I-75 and go south to Tampa. But that’s so predictable, and I get tired of counting Waffle Houses after a few hours. So I opt for smaller highways. My BlackBerry’s GPS system doesn’t appear to work so well, so I stop for a map at a small station in a forgettable small town outside Panama City Beach. No maps. I try another one up the road. No maps. More po’boy sandwiches. Plus 146 kinds of beef jerky. But no maps.
Pretty soon I find out I veered left a few miles back and missed the shortcut/cutoff and I’m on the edge of Tallahassee. The good news is they actually sell maps at the BP station. I drive along the city’s beltway highway, passing the road I want before making a quick U-turn to get back to the intersection. I punch the accelerator to beat out an oncoming Ford SUV and the Impala roars. Well, let’s say it accelerated just fine and I got out of the way of impending doom.
I take Highway 20/27 and then pretty much Highway 19 the rest of the way south (the map says Highway 19 but also carries the numbers 55, 27 and 98, so it’s anything but crystal clear). I pass small towns like Perry and Chiefland with mom- and-pop joints that look very much like the south and not so much like what a tourist would think when he says the word “Florida.” I worry about country cops but set the cruise control to the speed limit.
It’s pretty country. It’s not Sea-to-Sky Highway between Vancouver and Whistler pretty, but nice views of horse country and oak trees with Spanish oaks and birds circling overhead. I slide past a sign for “Ed and Bernice’s Fish Camp” and church signs that insist I should repent. As I roll over the famous Suwannee River, I glance to my right and see an old wooden dock on a sleepy stretch of water that makes me think of Huckleberry Finn.
I work my way down past Weeki Wachee (“here there be mermaids”) and New Port Richey and, finally, on to Main St. in Dunedin. The next day, it’s time to get a photo of the car at the Blue Jays’ spring training stadium on Douglas Ave. I’m not really supposed to be inside the gate but the guys at the stadium just smile as I pull the Chevy in front of the Jays’ sign.
I’ll drive onward to Orlando and St. Augustine, but my Wheels assignment is over. I’ve navigated some fun roads and managed not to wreck this sexy beast of a rental car I’ve been handling.
Before I pull out of the Jays’ stadium parking lot, I think back to when I covered the team for the Star during the World Series glory days. With the changes the team has made, this should be some kind of spring training. I’m not sure I can make it down again before the Grapefruit League games are over. But if I do, I’m gonna try to rent a Ford Fusion. Or maybe a ‘67 Firebird.
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