It's 5000 miles away, with daredevil drivers and questionable driving environments, but can we learn anything from these tarmac heathens?
My numb hand flapped feebly in the air. The doors behind me closed, shutting in cool air and the memories of ten hours spent cramped in 34b. A couple caipirinhas later that night should erase the memory completely. The two of us watched as a miniscule Fiat hatchback peeled off the racetrack flow of the street and powerslid up to the curb. The hatch popped, oversized yellow tanks stacked where cargo should go, small piles of laundry and a bag of groceries tucked in next to them. We looked at each other, two 6 ft plus guys, and then at our bags, duffels stuffed with all the necessities for a month or two working offshore. The math did not compute. The driver seemed unfazed though. He sprung out like a gazelle, spewed some Portuguese at us punctuated by a double Fonzie, and proceeded to mash our bags in. I'm glad I left the good china at home.
With our bags distributed between the rear, front seat, and laps, we sped off. The country is a maze of crooked streets overlaid by elevated freeways. If the lines indicate 2 lanes, expect no less than 4 to be utilized. Every car is tiny. Polo's are average and Corollas are excessive, for the rich. Stop signs are ignored, red lights are merely suggestions, and speed limits are for pussys. As we slew around a cobblestoned corner at an alarming velocity, donuts squealing, the driver's hand darting back and forth between the shifter and the teetering 50 lb bag next to him, I have the sudden urge to wear my seat belt. I grab the belt and whip it down over my shoulder to where the latch should be, but a fabric maw gapes empty. I look up. No grab handle either. Son of a….
It's a harrowing automotive world, so very alien, but yet there are things I've noticed since arriving here that I think we could learn from our hoontastic southern hemispherical friends:
They're tiny, and I mean tiny. When you pull up next to a Jetta and get jealous of the legroom, you're in a small car. There's nothing wrong with little cars. They can park better, they get better gas mileage, and they cost less. Some of this minicar purchasing may be due to the astronomical pricing of cars down here. (Would you pay $70 grand for a VW Eos? Didn't think so.) But this makes people buy what they need instead of what they want and this purchase facilitates a lower cost of ownership on the vehicle. It's an automotive ouroboros, devouring it's own cost. It's a lesson that that would have kept us from much of the economic turmoil that we're in today. TV's, 22" rims, whale penis leather, it's all superfluous to the driving experience. Without all that, you get to the real soul of driving. It may not be "cool" to roll up to your office in a Fit, but it'll make your cubicle feel more like home. Plus, the money saved on your everyday cars could be spent buying a proper car for your enjoyment, like a '73 Gremlin to race in LeMons.
It's a mad house on these roads. The old cliché about rules meant to be broken is for realsies here. Three lane roads are driven as four. Offramps are movie theater exits when someone yells "Fire!" A quick horn blast is all you need to blow through an actively red stoplight. Jumping past everyone on a disappearing lane and forcing your nose into the line is a polite way to say hello. I swear pedestrians are actually worth points down here. And the cops? No where. It's a free for all. There should be accidents galore, dents on every car and bandages on every pedestrian, but no. It's a surreal kind of concrete anarchy that guides itself without need for a four wheeled Che Guevara. As I sat rigid, staring at the taxi driver, contemplating my own mortality, I realized he's not distracted. He's not texting, calling, reading, blogging, sleeping. He's DRIVING. Actually turning his head and noticing where every car around him is. And since I've been down here, everyone is like that: aware. They pay attention to their surroundings and adjust accordingly. If Americans drove half as attentively as Brazilians do, we wouldn't need 900lbs of safety equipment in a 2000lb car. And we wouldn't need 400 hp to get a family sedan to a respectable 0-60, Ford.
Those yellow gas tanks are worse than Jeep Cherokee spares. They take up a lot of space in a car where space is extremely valuable. But what are they? They're CNG tanks, compressed natural gas. Hybrid down here isn't gas electric, it's the ability to change fuels with the flick of a switch. Brazil has the 4th largest propane fleet in the world, over 1.6 million vehicles, and this from the country sitting on some of the largest modern oil discoveries. It's a costly retrofit if you don't buy the factory option, about $3,500, but CNG is far cheaper than gas, even in the states. It also burns cleaner and is actually less dangerous than gasoline. CNG dissipates very quickly in air and has an extremely narrow mixture percentage for combustion. We have some NGVs, natural gas vehicles, here in the US, but at less than 7% of Brasil's fleet, it's mostly busses. Only Honda currently sells a consumer NGV in North America. If adopted, NGVs hybrids could have a significant impact on our auto scene. Don't worry, it's still dino juice, and with all the benefits of hydrogen just without all the negative associations. Hank Hill would approve.
As for gas/electric hybrids? In my 2 month adventure I didn't see one. Now that's a lesson I think we can all take to heart.
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