Wherever you go, there you are 

Off the floor

Off the floor

I’ve had this fascination with a map and compass ever since I was a kid. Since I’ve never been exactly sure where I’m going, I suppose I’ve compensated by trying to discover where I am. Judging by the maps and globes and atlases littering my home and office—not to mention the compasses, triangles, parallels, scalers, and grid overlays—you’d think I’d detected some unfinished corner of our manifest destiny that Meriwether and William left for me to chart. But you’d be dead wrong if you suspected I’m dead-reckoning my way across untrodden turf or over the bounding main. I do all my navigations athwart the armrests of the good ship SS Easychair. This way, I’m always back in port by dinnertime.

Except this past week, I thought it’d be fun to give Cookie a break. So I weighed anchor, hoisted the “ball-and-chain” ensign up the mizzenmast (indicating first mate on board), and set sail with The Wife in Acura’s flagship luxury sedan, the 3.5RL.

“Proceed to the highlighted route.” The voice of a veritable Circe commanded me gently, yet with an authority to brook no insubordination. The Wife and I exchanged glances. Whozzat? What route? Suddenly, on a 6-inch computer monitor in the center of the dash, there appeared a royal-blue line tracing a path atop a precise array of streets and intersections. From where we sat at the corner of Hobbs and Hillsboro, our route spooled out before us on a rotating, zooming, scrollable electronic map of Nashville until the thin blue line reached our intended little pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Ahoy, matey! We were on our way to Dalt’s.

I have been a Driving Dutchman ever since. I have never had such fun behind the wheel of a car at sub-posted speeds in all my life. Acura’s stately RL sedan is Barcalounger comfortable. It is eminently quiet and unflappable on the road. It is ducal if not regal in the sumptuousness of its leather-lined interior. Its 210-horsepower V6 competes earnestly, albeit a bit strenuously, in a luxury sedan category full of V8s. Yet it’s tempting to suggest that almost everything traditionally automotive about this car is irrelevant. The story here is the Acura Navigation System, a brand-new $2,000 option presently available only with the 3.5RL sedan.

The Acura system may well represent the current benchmark for versatility and ease-of-use among the several global positioning system (GPS) devices now finding their way to market. It’s important that these considerations be linked together. General Motors’ OnStar, for example, may be easier: You just call an operator using a hands-free cellular phone and voice-recognition software. If you’re lost, just ask directions—then take notes, because you’ll either have to remember the route, or you’ll have to hold the operator on the line till you get where you want to be. The operator’s the one with the map; you’re just a remote-control drone, and you do what you’re told. That’s not especially versatile at all; and it can get expensive, if mounting cell-phone charges are of any concern.

With Acura’s system, the car’s GPS receiver interfaces with an on-board gyroscope and 170 megabytes of mapping data and system software to give users near-complete and personal control over their terrestrial destinies. It works something like this: Once the car is started, your location is “fixed” by satellites, and your position is visible in vivid detail on the in-dash monitor. Not vivid enough? Just zoom in—up to one-twentieth of a mile per half-inch scale, if need be (that’s just over 500 feet of street for every inch displayed). There it is, the world in two dimensions at your fingertips—literally, as it turns out. The screen is touch-sensitive. If you’ve a specific destination in mind, you may type it in; bingo! a small, red bull’s-eye appears at the very street and street number you’ve requested. A moment’s pause while the computer cogitates, and bingo! again: There’s the blue route that Circe admonishes you to follow.

It doesn’t matter how many twists and turns there are in your travels. Acura’s mapping system accounts for every mile, the gyroscope detects the car’s every motion instantaneously, and Circe augurs every required turn and maneuver. When she does, a special, highly detailed “guide screen” replaces the map to show unequivocally what you’ll need to do and how far until you need to do it. On the interstate, in fact, the voice alerts coincide uncannily—and reassuringly—with every appearance of exit and interchange signs relevant to your route. Accidentally overshoot? Not to worry. “Please turn around if possible,” the enchantress advises. She even suggests where: “At the intersection in one-half mile.” When you do, there’s a reprise of cogitating, and an entirely recalculated route appears on display, pronto.

Lest you fear your typist skills will lead you astray, the system’s keypad is only one of several means for prescribing your destination. A little game-boy-style joystick lets you scroll over the map manually until your target appears under the cross-hairs. Or you can resort to a built-in directory with listings for restaurants, shops, motels, banks, auto and emergency services, and so forth—all sortable by city, distance, or name. You can save locations on the fly when you happen by, then personalize them for later use. You can even design a custom directory that out-of-town visitors can use to glide effortlessly to Webb Pierce’s guitar-shaped pool or to the Wildhorse Saloon.

Strictly for mapping purposes, Acura’s Navigation System is, so far, my favorite combination of hands-on and hands-free technology available from an automaker. It doesn’t have the safety features of OnStar, which can send emergency help in the event of a serious crash, for example. And ironically, because of its very novelty, Acura suffers from its own potential. Maps are not yet uniformly detailed for all 50 states; indeed, maps for our region (denoted Midwest) are only weeks old and currently feature only interstate and state highways for the most part. Maps for metropolises like Los Angeles and Atlanta canvass even the suburbs in microscopic precision, leaving a Nashvillian feeling lost in GPS space by comparison. But updates are proceeding apace every 90 days, and it’s a simple—and free—matter for the dealership to “overwrite” the removable hard disk with new maps, as service manager Steve Bowman and I discovered at Gary Force Acura just last week.

As a kid, I’d ply the miles just to hear the stereo, since the system in my car surpassed anything I could cobble together at home. Now I’m an adult—a parent, in fact—and I’m beyond such wanton self-indulgence. Adults don’t just go driving around on a whim; they have places to be, things to do. That’s why adults merit serious appliances like Acura’s Navigation System...so we can drive around all day safe in the knowledge that we’re actually going somewhere.

Muscle car madness

The fourth annual Music City Classic auto auction has been scheduled for Saturday, March 14, at Nashville Auto Auction, 1450 Lebanon Pike (at Spence Lane). In case you’ve missed it before, this is an auto-buff extravaganza not to be missed. It’s a “retail auction” (i.e., for us “off-the-street” consumers) featuring cars required by Tennessee law to be 25 years old or older. For 1998, that means cars of pre-’73 vintage, which puts the matter squarely in the middle of the muscle-car heyday that ruled the road until the Arab oil embargo of ’74. Typically, there are more than 200 cars at auction for this event. According to auction organizer George Eber, ’50s and ’60s muscle cars are the typical mainstay, like the ’68 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396 that sold last year for $15,750; but there are also likely to be deluxe collectibles like the 1935 Packard Victoria that went for $75,000 at last year’s event and the 1936 Cord Westchester sedan that sold for $25,000. Would-be sellers can register for the auction by calling Eber at 244-2140, ext. 267. For bidders and gawkers, general admission will be $5 for unlimited tire-kicking, bench-racing, and bargain-hunting during the all-day event.

The ultimate no-hassle?

The rate of car sales on the Internet is “exploding,” according to a report by the industry tracker Web Automotive Monitor. In just 18 months, from March ’96 to Sept. ’97, more than 9,000 auto-related Web sites have appeared. The report shows that 40 percent of auto-industry sites are dealer-oriented, compared to just 2 percent for manufacturer-sponsored sites. This trend is confirmed in a recent Wall Street Journal article (Dec. 30, 1997), which suggests that “a real revolution in auto sales is slowly starting to happen online, and it is changing everything about buying and selling cars.” Chief benefits to shoppers are the Internet’s ability to locate specific vehicles over a wide area and the availability of precise pricing information to aid in negotiations. For a quick introduction to auto cybersales, the following sites are a good place to start:

* Auto-by-Tel: http://www.autobytel.com

* AutoNetwork: http://www.autonetwork.com

* AutoVantage: http://www.autovantage.com

* AutoWeb: http://www.autoweb.com

* Calling All Cars: http://www.cacars.com

* Microsoft CarPoint: http://carpoint.msn.com

* DealerNet: http://www.dealernet.com

* Price Auto Outlet: http://www.PriceAutoOutlet.com

Dealer news and other views are invited via fax at (615) 385-2930 or by e-mail to Autosuggestive@compuserve.com.

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