Right Wagon in a Wrong Place

2006 Pontiac Torrent
2006 Pontiac Torrent
By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 28, 2005

It was a journey into the New American Wasteland -- a place of superhighways, tract housing developments and shopping malls. It was a disappointment. There was nothing to see.

I turned the 2006 Pontiac Torrent around and headed home, wondering if I was the agent of my own undoing.

I love driving. I can think of no greater celebration of freedom than getting behind the wheel of an automobile and setting out for points unknown. The idea is to explore -- to find a new place, get to know it, and leave it alone.

That is what I intended to do on an east-west drive along Virginia Route 7, starting in Alexandria and ending in Winchester. It had been years since I had driven the length of Route 7, years covered with memories of bucolic pastures, gently rolling hills and acres of undisturbed greenery.

I settled into the Torrent, an excellent family wagon masquerading as a sport-utility vehicle, and drove off. It was a pleasant launch. The Torrent, Pontiac's discernibly upgraded version of the Chevrolet Equinox, is an easy driver. It is available in front-wheel-drive, or all-wheel-drive, the latter of which is good for traveling along snow-covered or gravel roads.

I had the front-wheel-drive version. Front-wheel drive uses less gasoline than all-wheel drive; and with the price of regular unleaded gasoline rising to $2.50 a gallon on Route 7, I wanted the cheapest ride possible. The Torrent was helpful in that regard. The front-wheel-drive model gets 24 miles per gallon on the highway, which is decent for a compact wagon/SUV; and it runs well with regular unleaded gasoline, which costs less than premium grades.

Visibility in the Torrent is excellent. Its flat-black instrument panel sits low, giving the driver an unobstructed view of the road. The flat-black treatment eliminates instrument panel glare. The side-view mirrors are well placed. Rear vision is excellent. But the scenery was depressing.

Shopping centers and housing developments have swallowed up the green spaces along Route 7. Superhighways with soaring, looping access and exit ramps now crisscross the land. Route 7, itself, is a permanently congested artery filled with cars and trucks and drivers commuting to jobs miles away from their faux-rural, prefabricated houses and rushing to shopping centers to spend the money they've earned on stuff that they ferry back to their homes.

This goes on for miles--a motorized curse in which the freedom to drive has become a punitive sentence in which the convicts must remain in their cars and trucks running from one drab scene to another for the rest of their lives. It gives a new meaning to Jean-Paul Sartre's play "No Exit." Hell has become an endlessly expanding suburb from which there is no escape.

I did not want this. I only wanted to drive, to experience the joy and freedom of autonomous movement, to revel in the glory of a machine of many parts working in concert to keep me rolling.

But what has happened along Route 7 is an exercise in extremism in which the cars and trucks I love have been transformed into marauding monsters chewing up acres of beautiful land and spitting out miles of ugly concrete to move their drivers through an eternal cycle of work and consumption.

I turned around several miles before reaching Winchester, vowing never to travel Route 7 again, but knowing in my heart that we rapidly are turning America into a nation of Route 7s.

I concentrated on the traffic and listened to the steady hum of the Torrent's 3.4-liter, 185-horsepower V-6 engine, and found some peace in that. It is a five-passenger vehicle, outfitted with all sorts of storage bins, nooks and crannies -- perfectly designed for a family trip. Here's hoping that there will be someplace left for them to go.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company