By Warren Brown
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 9:00 AM
I had five hours to think. That's how long it took to drive seven miles from downtown Washington to my home in Northern Virginia.
The culprit was a fast, fierce winter storm. It struck at the beginning of the evening rush hour, around 4 p.m., dumping several inches of heavy, wet snow that turned local roads into skating rinks.
Vehicles of all makes and prices were sliding into one another. Traffic was a stalled mess.
First thought: Snowstorms are the enemies of driving fantasy.
I had just come from a preview of the 2011 Washington Auto Show at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center - a glistening display of more than 700 new cars and trucks from 32 manufacturers. The show, which opened to the public over the weekend, runs through Feb. 6.
I'm addicted to car shows. The District's exhibit, sponsored by the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association (WANADA), has long been one of my favorites. It's an odd mix of regional, international and federal inputs - the latter occasioned by the show's location in the nation's capital, which, through government-mandated safety, fuel-economy and clean-air regulations, has a big hand in designing every car and truck sold in this country.
Second thought: Snowstorms are why the Obama administration's dream of 1 million battery electric vehicles (BEVs) on U.S. roads by 2015 is likely to remain a dream long beyond 2015.
I spent my five hours in the comfortably warm and entertaining cabin of this week's subject automobile - the compact, front-wheel-drive 2011 Nissan Altima 2.5S sedan, equipped with a 2.4-liter in-line, direct-injection four-cylinder gasoline engine (175 horsepower, 180 foot-pounds of torque). I thanked God that I was not in the battery-electric Nissan Leaf.
I like the Leaf. I think it's the perfect urban commuter in good weather. It easily can run 80 miles between charges under the right conditions.
But a snowstorm replete with a five-hour traffic backup isn't one of those conditions. The Leaf's advanced lithium-ion battery pack would lose its charge. Battery discharge would be hastened by the use of any or all of those things - heater, defroster, windshield wipers, headlamps, radio - needed for safety and peace of mind in foul winter weather.
All around me, there were cars and trucks with traditional internal-combustion engines running low on gasoline and diesel fuel, a rush to empty quickened by mad mashing of accelerator pedals, spinning wheels on icy roads, going nowhere. But the likelihood of finding a refueling station to replenish those vehicles was far greater than hooking up an electric car to a quick-recharging station, especially in the snow.
Electric recharging infrastructure, where art thou?
Third thought: Honda and Toyota make two of the best compact family sedans in the world, the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. But Honda and Toyota are losing their grip. The new Nissan Altima, thoroughly redesigned in 2010, proves it. If more proof is needed, it can be found on the floor of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center at the Hyundai, Kia, Ford and Chevrolet exhibits.
There has been a reinterpretation of formerly bread-and-butter family sedans that Honda and Toyota have missed, or at least seem not to understand.
Sitting inside the 2011 Nissan Altima 2.5S, for example, is akin to sitting in a substantially more expensive car. Unlike the Altima sedans of the past, the new model looks and feels rich - better materials, world-class fit and finish, lots of infotainment electronics, truly attractive design. There is a deliberate attempt, missing, for example, in the comparable 2011 Honda Accord SE, to exceed customer expectations in the outfitting and overall presentation of the Nissan Altima 2.5S. Comparable models of the Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Fusion, Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima all make a point of offering more car than the consumer expects to get for the price paid.
Honda and Toyota, justifiably proud of their long-standing reputations for quality and reliability, seem content to rest on their laurels with the Accord and Camry - selling vanilla design and feel when rivals are selling hip and attractive for the same money. Someone needs to hit them with a snowball and awaken them to the new reality: Competitors are no longer trying to catch up. They are intent on pulling ahead.
Fourth thought: Hubris is no substitute for common sense when driving in snow. I got cocky. The Altima 2.5S is a well-balanced automobile that handles excellently on roads dry and messy. On several occasions, I could have sworn that the front-wheel-drive car was equipped with all-wheel drive. It slipped a bit but self-corrected and pulled through icy stretches that sidelined many more expensive cars, including a few with all-wheel drive.
Overconfident, I carelessly turned onto my home street in Arlington, where the snow remained deep, at least six inches, and unplowed immediately after the storm. The Altima 2.5S clears the ground by 5.4 inches. It sank. I got stuck.
Final thought: Thank God for neighbors.