General Motors, Ford and Chrysler met with Nancy Pelosi on Thursday to beg for a second $25-billion loan package from Congress, arguing that they're too big to fail and that Michigan voted for Barack Obama. GM, after getting turned down by the Bush administration, is already planning to ask the next Treasury secretary for $10 billion to buy Chrysler. I'll let other people waste their time examining GM's debt load or Chrysler's union contracts; I decided to figure out whether the government should bail these companies out by testing their products. I'd wanted to run this same experiment on Lehman Bros. and Merrill Lynch but got bogged down when I couldn't figure out what either of them did. I am, however, certain that U.S. taxpayers should not save Bennigan's.
Shortly after getting to the Glendale Dodge dealership, I realized that evaluating cars was going to be more difficult than I'd anticipated, because the only thing I know about cars is that, after 19, women don't want to have sex in them. While waiting for a salesperson, I also realized that Phil Collins wrote many more songs than I remembered. Luckily, my method of car evaluation is exactly the same as most car buyers: Does it look cool and hook up to my iPod? So I got salesman John Martin to let me drive the brand new Challenger, which is a noisy, gas-munching, "Starsky and Hutch"-worthy, retro muscle car with giant wheels and side stripes. I slid into the driver's seat and felt my hair get shorter in the front and grow in the back. Martin knew how to make me fall in love with it. "When we sell these vehicles," he said, "we tell people how dangerous they are."
After I left small bits of rubber all over Brand Avenue, Martin introduced me to the new Ram 1500, which is a very large truck. I've never driven a truck, or even held a conversation about trucks, yet I instinctively knew to ask, "What's the payload on this one?" I was not sure if Martin would respond with a weight, a metric volume, a dollar amount, a comparison to horses or a high-five. He told me it carried 9,000 pounds, which sounded like a stupid amount because it meant I'd somehow have to lift 9,000 pounds on and off the truck. Still, the large payload made me feel manly. "Yeah, you feel like building something," Martin said. Not really, I told him. "A cabinet, maybe," he offered. I explained I meant "manly" more in the vein of not putting sugar in my chai.
Pretty impressed, I drove a block to Star Chrysler Jeep to try out the new Town & Country minivan. This vehicle has seven seats, three televisions, a DVD player, 13 cup holders, a flashlight and a weird plastic table for picnicking. The two TVs in the back are hooked up to Sirius satellite service so kids can watch the Disney Channel, Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon. If I ever have five children I don't want to talk to who drink 2.6 beverages at a time, I will totally buy this van.
I also took out the cushy, ultra-smooth, Bentley rip-off 300C, which costs $40,000, is completely tricked out and now has a small scrape on the bottom from going over a speed bump at 30 mph. Like all the cars I tried, it had an awesome stereo, a GPS system and a 30-gigabyte hard drive with a USB port, which seemed cool until I wondered what I'd download onto my car that wouldn't cause a deadly or at least deeply embarrassing accident.
Chrysler also guarantees the lifetime of your powertrain -- which you should never call the "gear train" even if that sounds like it makes more sense. While impressive sounding, a lifetime guarantee is an easy thing to offer when you're about to go out of business. If I were President Bush, I'd be giving out lifetime guarantees on mortgages, Iraqi democracy and the furniture in the Lincoln bedroom.
But no matter how much I liked these cars, I don't think the government should use taxpayer money to give life-support to dying, poorly managed, market ignorant, technologically outdated industries other than newspapers. As sad as it would be for American icons like Chrysler to die, and for thousands of people to lose their jobs, propping up failure prevents innovation.
I do, however, hope that even if American automakers implode, we keep a few of these giant, impractical vehicles around. Because after this recession is over and our conversion to small electric cars is complete, we'll start wanting to behave like Americans again. And no other country is going to make cars with a button like the one I saw on the Town & Country that flips the rear seats around for easy tailgating comfort. As profligate as that might seem right now, it's that pursuit of inane happiness that makes us so great. We will once again be a 2.6-beverage country.