Anyone who has paid $1.5 billion for a car naturally wants to try it out.
So it was hardly surprising when a selected group of taxpayers -- who happen to work for newspapers, auto magazines and other publications -- showed up yesterday to get behind the wheel of Chrysler Corp.'s new save-the-company K cars, the Dodge Aries and Plymouth Reliant, that are being built this fall with the help of the federal government's $1.5 billion loan guarantee.
Eighty 1981 K cars, give or take a few, were lined up in the garage of the Shoreham American Hotel to be driven away by the press on Chrysler's euphemistic version of a sports car rally -- an hour-long tour through Rock Creek Parkway, over the Capital Beltway to Wolf Trap Farm Park and ending in a restaurant in Northern Virginia.
The object of a sports car rally is to follow course directions past a series of checkpoints to the destination.
The object of yesterday's event, from Chrysler's standpoint was to whip up a burst of applause from the press and raise the public's curiosity about its new cars. It probably won't be disappointed.
This taxpayer, who divided driving chores with a newspaper reporter from another city, didn't spend enough time in a K car yesterday to justify a definitive report. It can be said, though, that the red, two-door Plymouth Reliant provided a comfortable ride, with plenty of room for a compact; its acceleration was peppy and smooth, with no evidence of a sideways pull that afflicts some other companies' front-wheel-drive cars. There were no obvious exterior blemishes on the car on which Chrysler has staked its reputation and its future.
The more detailed verdicts are coming in now from a group of automotive reporters who attended the first K-car striptease for the press this summer.
Magazines such as Motor Trend, Automotive Age, Car and Driver, Popular Science and Popular Mechanics are on the newstands now or in subscribers' hand bearing accounts of K-car test drives.
"The only thing that will prevent these cars from becoming saviors is a chronic worsening of the economic situation," says Motor Trend, in a positive report in the K cars. The magazine credits Chrysler for a long list of changes in the design and production process intended to make certain the cars measure up in quality to U.S. and foreign competitors.
Popular Mechanics gives the cars good marks for engine component locations that make repairs simple.
In a rhapsodic review, Car and Driver magazine says the K car has "a long bill of attributes that should help it blaze like a laser through Detroit's darkest hour," cirint the aluminum cylinder head (made by Fiat), the firm suspension, the interior room and fule economy. Popular Science says its test driver averaged 38 miles a gallon at a speed of 35 miles an hour.
In general, there are few complaints from this first round of reviews.
The direct impact on the public of these magazines -- aimed at car buffs -- is not particularly heavy, according to Chris Hosford of Automotive Age. -"The total circulation of the buff books does not cover a very high percentage of new cars buyers," he said. But these are readers with some influence, the kind of educated car owners that neighbors will listen to at a party when the conversation turns to the K cars, he added.
Perhaps more important is the report card that will be issued in January from Consumer Reports magazine. Its critical review of Chrysler's subcompact Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon two years ago ("Chrysler's Big Mistake") gave those models a black eye that took a long time to heal despite Chrysler's protest that the report was an unfounded cheap shot.
As is its custom, Consumers Reports will purchase K cars for testing off dealers' lots to make certain it looks at a typical production car.
At the end of yesterday's festivities, two dozen out-of-town reporters drove home in new K cars to perform their own extended road tests.
This also is a standard part of the fall preview ritual, but one that is not without its risks.
The most celebrated preview in memory was the introduction of the illfated Edsel in 1957. Ford Motor Co. brought 250 reporters out to its Michigan headquarters to see the Edsel, a party that cost Ford $90,000.
Then 71 reporters headed home with, Edsel to deliver them to their local Ford dealers, recalls author John Brooks in his book "Business Adventures."
As Brooks tells it, that experience was adventure enough for some. One reporter made a driving error and ran into something, Brooks reported. Another Edsel lost its oil pan in Kansas, stranding the reporter until another Edsel could be driven to the scene. Another crashed through a turnpike tollgate when the brakes failed. Another was sideswiped on the Pennsylvania Turnpike when a rubbernecking motorist in another car, straining for a close look, got too close.
Chyrsler officials, who say the K cars have been tested harder and longer than any other new model, aren't expecting that kind of ending to yesterday's public relations production.