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Free rides hit end of the line

Chev is columnist’s last review

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Well, this is it for the Deseret News car guy. After writing some 1,000 reviews for the Friday auto pages over the past 20-plus years, (early) retirement has arrived, and I've turned in my last set of OPC (other people's cars) keys.

It's been a nice run and I hope you've enjoyed the ride. I sure have. Funny, with all the OPCs I've driven you'd think my 1988 Acura Legend (contrary to rumor I do own a car) would be barely broken in, but I've somehow managed to put 133,000 miles on the beast.

Deseret News Publisher Jim Wall came up to me the other day and said he'd like to read a column in which I dramatically reveal which ride was my favorite out of all those cars over all those years.

I've thought about this a lot, but have come up empty. There are so many vehicles, and some are better at one thing (such as carrying lots of people and cargo) and some at others (such as making me glad to be alive).

The cars that leap to mind as I mentally compile a favorites list all tend toward the impractical side — expensive sports cars and convertibles that are fun to tool around in for a week but which I would never actually, you know, buy.

And not just because I couldn't afford them, although that's true enough. They simply aren't up to the tasks that most of us need from our vehicles on a daily basis.

However, of the cars I've reviewed this year I'd say the Infiniti Q45 was the best luxury car, the Audi TT Roadster the most fun, the Acura MDX the best SUV, the Dodge Ram 1500 Quad Cab the best pickup, and the ultra-limited-edition Mazda Protegé MP3 the best "affordable" car although you'll have a better chance of actually finding a "regular" Mazda Protegé (check out the new five-door hatchback) or a Mitsubishi Lancer OZ, which I also liked.

Before I offer a review of my final test vehicle, the 2002 Chevrolet Express (a really odd vehicle on which to close out my reviewing career) I want to put down something I've learned through years of driving one or two new cars weekly.

Is is this: less really is more. It's easy to make a good expensive car; the trick is making a good affordable one. Luxury cars aren't worth the money today because the "luxuries" that really make a difference in a car — air conditioning, AM/FM stereo CD player, power windows and mirrors, remote keyless entry, antilock brakes, power driver's seat, cruise control — are now standard equipment on most run-of-the-mill rides, even many "entry-level" cars.

But what about status, prestige, keeping up with (or besting) the Joneses? Well, sure, showing off has its moments. I took my family to "High Tea" at the new Grand America Hotel a couple of months ago in a BMW 740 IL, and it was kind of cool to pull up to the front door in a really high-end ride, but those moments are few and, ultimately, unfulfilling.

Take my word on this: No one will love you or even respect you more because you drive a really expensive car; they'll just expect a bigger tip. In fact, my experience suggests that folks will love/respect you less if you drive a car that costs double or triple the average person's annual income.

You will get a lot of (usually) positive attention if you buy a completely new breed of car — such as the VW New Beetle when it first came out or the Chrysler PT Cruiser — but familiarity quickly breeds indifference.

Beyond that, really pricey luxury cars, SUVs and trucks have become too complicated for their own good as manufacturers keep adding on gadgetry in an attempt to make you think they're worth the price. If they have to include a video to show you how to operate the thing, it's too complicated.

Besides, with most of those ultra-luxury "convenience" gadgets you set them once and never touch them again, but you pay for them forever — or at least the length of the lease.

Automatic climate control? Doesn't work as well as a good manual system. In-dash video navigation systems? Please. Buy yourself a road map for a couple of bucks and save yourself a lot of frustration . . . maybe even a head-on crash.

Well, let's get to my final review of the Chevrolet Express, a vehicle that is more often sold as a commercial panel truck. Chevrolet installed windows and other amenities and created what might be called a maxivan.

This really is a big van and a pop-up top is available as an option to allow room to stand up in it. In addition to the driver and passenger's seats, my tester was equipped with four captain's chairs making it a six-seater, but a rear bench seat is available that ups the seating capacity to seven.

But with just four chairs in the back, the center aisle is very wide and the space between the seats would allow Greg Ostertag to stretch out his legs in total comfort. I don't recall another vehicle with so much raw space between the seats. Take out the four removable rear captain's chairs and you have a vehicle large enough to take your entire living room furniture with you next time you go camping.

The Express has none of the macho image of a big SUV or pickup but it's probably more useful. Pickups are better suited for hauling a load of topsoil, but for most of your schlepping needs the van works better because it keeps your stuff clean, dry and out of the weather.

Surprisingly, the Express is not any less comfortable to drive than an average large SUV and the ride is considerably more pleasant than many pickups I've tested. Just keep in mind that it's over 18 feet long when you make tight turns and you'll be fine. It even fits in regular parking spots.

My LT model tester (which includes most of the luxury goodies noted above) has a base price of $35,005 that includes one of those built-in VHS video tape systems and two small screens that fold down from the headliner to keep the kids entertained with movies or video games. My tester also came with two option packages and a $690 delivery charge that put the bottom line at $37,290. The options included $1,300 for leather seats (I'd pass) and $295 for a 6-disc CD stereo.

Fuel mileage is rated at 14 mpg in city driving and 17 on the highway — pretty lame but about on par with most full-size pickups and SUVs. A 31-gallon fuel tank makes for an expensive fill-up but gives the Express a nice trip-range of some 500 miles.

I never got a chance to drive the Express at freeway speeds in a serious crosswind, but I suspect its tall, slab-like profile would get it knocked around pretty good under those conditions.

Take care, drive safely, and I'll see you down the road.

E-MAIL: max@desnews.com