USA Coast to Coast: New Orleans, Louisiana

1. Kia Rio NOLAThe Hero in Town: the Kia Soul

* Now updated with official sales data and dealer interviews *

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We have arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana, also called NOLA or, more affectionately, Big Easy. A very different experience than all other American cities I crossed so far, especially given the fact I was there on a Friday night… Bourbon Street with all its performers, singers, live music, good vibes, cheap (so cheap!) alcohol and delicious food is an experience I had not thought possible in the US and one I don’t think I will see again in this trip. Of course, NOLA has its own very particular vehicle landscape, slightly different as is often the case for big cities compared to the rest of the State they are located in. The Top 5 ranking and full landscape description is below.

2. Dodge Challenger NOLADodge Challenger in New Orleans LA

Best-selling cars in Louisiana – source: JATO.com

Pos Model FY2013
1 Ford F-150 16,614
2 Chevrolet Silverado 13,359
3 Ram Pickup 9,502
4 GMC Sierra 7,741
5 Toyota Camry 6,719

3. Ford F150 NOLA 2Ford F150 in New Orleans LA

Looking at the best-selling models in Louisiana we are faced with a barrage of pickup trucks. After monopolising the Top 2 in Mississippi they do two more here and trust the Top 4 rankings. The Ford F-150 leads the way with 16.614 sales, ahead of the Chevy Silverado at 13.359. Up until now, nothing special I hear you say. The Ram Pickup (my very own Albert) rounds up the podium with just above 9.500 units and that’s new news, even though it managed to reach that ranking nationally a couple of times, but the most impressive jump is definitely the GMC Sierra in 4th place here with 7.741 sales vs. Nb. 20 nationally. The only passenger car to find its way into the Top 5 is, logically, the Toyota Camry.

12. Mercedes GLK NOLAMercedes GLK

Now onto NOLA.

Below the ubiquitous Ford F-150, the main striking element in NOLA is the impressive performance of premium German brands. Based on the areas I visited (Downtown, French Quarter, Lower Garden District, Treme-Lafitte and Whitney), I’ll go as far as saying that they hold an even higher market share in NOLA than they do in New York City. Local favourites include the new generation Mercedes ML Class, Mercedes GLK and BMW 3 Series, absolutely at every street corner especially in the French Quarter, but many other models make a remarkable reappearance here like the Mini or Smart Fortwo. In fact I had not seen that many tiny cars in a very long time.

4. Albert NOLAAlbert getting a little posh in New Orleans LA

In contrast with Louisiana as a whole, the most popular passenger car in New Orleans is the Nissan Altima, in line with my observations in Tennessee and Mississippi. The Honda Accord is not far behind though, judging by the high frequency of new generations in town. Also strong: the Toyota Tacoma at its highest so far in the trip (possibly just below the Altima and Accord), Honda Civic, Chevrolet Malibu, Ford Explorer, Hyundai Accent and Toyota RAV4. Less popular than their national rankings: the Toyota Corolla and Ford Fusion.

Toyota Sienna NOLAToyota Sienna

Almost all taxis in New Orleans are either Dodge Grand Caravan or Nissan Quest, and there is one model that has frankly surged in popularity compared to all other areas I have visited so far: the new generation Kia Soul and I will make it my Hero in Town for New Orleans. Strangely this popularity seems to have been triggered by the new generation as I hardly saw any first gen Soul in town. Brand-wise, Nissan is particularly successful here with the Versa, Sentra, Pathfinder and Maxima all over-performing on their national ranking.

5. Nissan Juke Versa NOLANissan Juke and Versa in New Orleans LA

Arguably the eccentric capital of the United States, New Orleans had to display a few oddities, and it did: the only two Nissan Murano convertible I saw in the entire trip were parked a few blocks away from each other in the French Quarter, and it looks like the Honda CR-Z may have once cracked the Top 20 in town given how many I spotted in such a small area.

6. Nissan Cube NOLANissan Cube in New Orleans LA

Having said all of the above, the New Orleans sales charts should actually be relatively conservative, at least at the top: Ford F-Series, Chevrolet Silverado and Ram Pickup, conforming to the State podium. This changes when we leave New Orleans towards Texas: the Silverado becomes extremely frequent with a constant flow of 2013 models on the highway. It should even pass the Ford F150 to lead sales charts in this part of the state, while the Toyota Tundra experiences a sudden surge of popularity the closer we get to the Texan border.

7. Toyota Tundra NOLA 2Toyota Tundra in New Orleans LA

Chris Solomon, Manager at AllStar Toyota Baton Rouge LA, confirms this observation: “The new generation Tundra is our second best-seller below the Camry but above the Corolla. Doing particularly well for us is the 1794 Edition with specific 20-inch wheels (named for the ranch, founded in 1794, upon which the truck’s assembly plant is located in San Antonio, Texas). It has attracted buyers in the 25-40 years old range, especially trading in a Ford F-Series pick-up. We are still below Chevrolet in pickup sales as they have a more affordable offer, but it’s a true possibility that we beat Ford in the Baton Rouge area.”

 

13. Ford F250 NOLAFord F250

Building on my Charleston observation, overall one in 3 new F-Series is a F250/350, this ratio shooting up to 50% after Lafayette. Other striking observations in this part of Louisiana include a new gen Hyundai Santa Fe much more popular than both the old generation and all other States before now.

9. Ford F150 NOLA 31987 Ford F150 in New Orleans LA

Shane Smith, General Sales Manager at Allstar Hyundai Baton Rouge agrees the Santa Fe is a conquest model for the brand: “Our best-sellers are the Sonata, Elantra then Santa Fe, and we can count on high loyalty from our customers who come back to the brand time after time. As far as the Santa Fe is concerned though, on top of repeat business we are also seeing trade ins typically from the Toyota Highlander, GMC Terrain and Toyota Camry. The Santa Fe has the best warranty #1 rated safety its category and that has helped us a lot in our sales. It’s the perfect upgrade from a sedan for families that need a bit more room.

19. Chevrolet vintage NOLA1982 Chevrolet S10

Shane Smith also commented on the exceptional pent-up demand in the market at the moment. “We are dealing with the oldest fleet of cars overall out there in a long time, and our sales are at their best since before the financial crisis. People have waited a long time to renew their cars and now is the time. For example we also handle Volvo and just yesterday we had someone trade in a Toyota Prius with 250,000 miles. It’s not that unusual at the moment to see that type of trade-in.”

23. Chevrolet Suburban NOLAChevrolet Suburban

The Chevrolet Suburban/GMC Yukon XL was seen in very high numbers again, understandable as this a much more touristy State than Mississippi and Tennessee I crossed beforehand, and 90% of Suburbans and co. that I have been spotting are rentals, with the French apparently being the most avid admirers.

10. Ford Thunderbird NOLAFord Thunderbird

Finally, a note on petrol prices. I later read in the press that this was a big deal but at the time I didn’t know it would stop there: for the first time since I left New York, the price of regular petrol has now plunged below $3, to $2.95 exactly in Lafayette. Not that it affects my budget as Albert drinks diesel and its price has not plunged in concert with regular petrol, staying at $3.66 cash and $3,71 credit in that very same 76 service station. Still no credit/cash price difference for petrol.

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USA Coast to Coast: Crossing Mississippi and reviewing US motels

New York New OrleansUS Coast to Coast trip so far. Picture courtesy of Google Maps

Now updated with official sales data and more detailed motel review 

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We are now leaving Memphis TN to drive South to New Orleans in Louisiana, crossing Mississippi in the process via the State capital Jackson. For those of you unfamiliar with this often underrated State, Mississippi is home of the blues and 3 million souls, famous for its cotton fields and the birthplace of Elvis Presley (check out Elvis’ cars here if you haven’t already)… We are now entering the next level of pickup domination, more in line with the national sales charts: based on official FY2013 data supplied by JATO, the Ford F150 (on its own like a big boy) is the most popular vehicle in Mississippi followed by the Chevrolet Silverado. Full Mississippi stats and my exclusive review of America’s budget motels below. Make sure you read till the end as it gets more ‘authentic’…

Going to JacksonApt soundtrack leaving Memphis…

Driving to the tune of the Walk the Line soundtrack (when in Jackson…), the increased frequency of pickup trucks is clearly visible even on highways where they had been rarer up until now. Specifically in Mississippi I noticed a trend towards commercial F150 crew cab models (with black bumpers), a very healthy amount of F250 while the Ram pickup – like the 1500 (Albert) I’m driving, now pops up on the road at levels not seen since the start of this trip. I also spotted shiny new Toyota Tundras for the first time in a while.

Nissan Altima MississippiNissan Altima in Winona MS

Top sellers in Mississippi – Full Year 2013:

Make Model FY2013
FORD F-150 7,466
CHEVROLET SILVERADO 5,540
NISSAN ALTIMA 5,145
TOYOTA CAMRY 4,061
HONDA ACCORD 3,140

Source: JATO Dynamics

Logically as it is manufactured here in Canton, Mississippi, the second Nissan assembly plant in the USA established in 2003, the Nissan Altima is the best-selling passenger car in the State with 5,145 sales over the Full year 2013. That’s a comfortable 27% above the national king the Toyota Camry and 64% above the Honda Accord. So there is no photo finish, Mississippi customers know full well which company has been providing provides much needed jobs here for over a decade and they have rewarded Nissan accordingly.

Chevrolet Malibu MississippiChevrolet Malibu

Stepping out of official stats into observations on the highway, I have elected the Chevrolet Malibu as the hero of the day. This a car I had hardly spotted since I landed in the US despite repeatedly ranking among the country’s 20 most popular vehicles for the past 7 years. Before today that is. A constant flow of current gen Malibu is travelling along Mississippi highways just as I’m writing these lines, to a level typical of a successful rental car or long-term company lease which remains, let’s be honest here, the Malibu’s best card.

Ford TaurusFord Taurus

In the continuation from my observations in Tennessee, the GMC Acadia can be seen very frequently in Mississippi, as well as the Buick Enclave and Ford Taurus – the latter at levels unseen until now but given the age of the current generation this frequency could still be the result of a surge in sales a few years ago. On the other hand, I didn’t notice any particular hike in popularity for the Toyota Corolla, manufactured in Blue Springs, Mississippi. It would appear that Mississippi consumers are yet to catch up to the fact that this vehicle is manufactured ‘at home’ and reposition their buying patterns accordingly, as this has only been the case for the past 3 years when Toyota switched Corolla production from California to Mississippi.

Albert MississippiAlbert in Winona MS

Now that we’ve cleared the car landscape in Mississippi, let’s get onto my exclusive review of America’s budget motels. Indeed, I did not want to tamper too much with the authenticity of my USA Coast to Coast trip and decided to test out the oh-so-American concept of budget motels, perfect for this type of voyage. So if you thought I was sleeping in 5 star hotels all through this trip, you were wrong! Very wrong. My basic necessities are a bed, shower and wifi connection to keep in touch with the elusive outside world. The latter point unfortunately meant most ‘original’ motels (read: that do not belong to a nationwide chain) were out, even though I did step out of motel chains for a few nights with varying degrees of success.

Note this review of the Top 5 best motel chains in America is based on all motels I stayed in during this trip up all the way to Los Angeles, not just to New Orleans, as there is a little bit of delay between the real time and publication time. Note also that I received no gifts or money from any motel/hotel during the trip. First things first, hats off to the US highway signage system. In a trip like this where 95% of distances are eaten up fast thanks to the highway network, knowing which accommodation options you have at the next exit saves huge amounts of time and energy, and thus enable the traveller to see more interesting things. In the US, there are signs before each exit that indicate all  food, lodging and gas options closeby. I don’t remember having seen this with such precision and regularity anywhere else in the world, and it makes for a very simplified, streamlined and more efficient choice process.

Econolodge

1. Econo Lodge

Number of motel nights: 1

The best value-for-money motel chain I have stayed at during this trip is Econo Lodge, at $49.99 in Savannah GA. It is a little symbolic that Econo Lodge comes first in this ranking as it created a new business category – the discount business hotel – in 1969 when it was established as Econo-Travel in Norfolk, Virginia. So technically not a motel chain if you want to be picky. There are 830 Econo Lodges open in the USA today, often located near highways. Econo-Lodge provided me with the quintessential American motel experience I was looking for during this trip: a long, stretched one storey building with one parking spot in front of each room, an 11pm sleepy but warm check-in welcome at reception, a reassuringly uncooperative key card but all the amenities in the room including free wifi, a comfortable bed and free breakfast – a rarity at this price point. At the time it was the cheapest motel I got to stay in and also the best, no mean feat. I checked a few additional Econo Lodge online along the trip, didn’t stay because I didn’t happen to stop in the area but they all seemed to align price-wise which gives this chain bonus points.

Motel 6

2. Motel 6

Number of motel nights: 4

Owned by the Accor Group up until 2012, Motel 6 is the most frequent motel chain I kept spotted along US highways during my trip – makes sense given it has over 1.100 locations nation-wide. Created as the very first budget motel chain the country in 1962 and responsible for the first (shock, horror!) non-smoking motel room, it was called Motel 6 simply because all single nightly rooms cost $6 at launch. Motel 6 gave me the best value-for-money night of the entire trip at $39.99 in Dallas TX. There the welcome was warm, the key card was uncooperative, the room was modern and the receptionist was worried when I checked out after just one night: ‘You didn’t like it?’  That same receptionist was the only one in the entire trip to actually ask me where I was headed next. Simple and obviously rehearsed but a nice touch. In the Motel 6 Hollywood CA, I got to stay in one of the redesigned rooms and I have to admit it didn’t feel like being in a motel any more, more like a boutique hotel. Is that all? Surely after all these positives Motel 6 should come first.

Not so, and the main reason is inconsistency between locations, potentially due to the fact that franchised Motel 6 do not have the same strict guidelines as the ones directly owned and operated. My night in Washington DC cost a much dearer $89.99 with only a similar level of comfort and almost as warm a welcome as the $39.99 one in Dallas TX. And the two other locations I stayed at broke two of my sacred rules about motel-travelling. Hollywood CA charge an extra $12 for your car! Isn’t the whole point of staying in a motel the fact that you can park your car close-by at no additional cost? That Motel 6 resembled in no way to a motel anyway. Whittier CA was appropriately gritty but charged $2.50 extra for wifi access and this was per device, something reception omitted to mention. I was so tired I couldn’t get myself to walk back to reception to add a device given I already did the trip to get a working key card. So I ended up spending an hour frantically switching from my phone to my laptop and having to log in again each time. Not ideal.

La Quinta

3. La Quinta

Number of motel nights: 3

Technically not a motel but an ‘inn’, I used La Quinta as a motel and therefore it qualifies in my review. Because I say so. Tellingly, I blanked out La Quinta for half of the trip thinking it would be out of my budget given the decidedly non-budget looking venues I could spot from the highway, until friends in Dallas recommended it as a valid option. This limited service mid-priced hotel chain was originally founded in San Antonio TX in 1968 and now has its headquarters in Dallas TX, operating around 1.000 locations across the country. It was on average more expensive than the rest of the motels I stayed in, but not the most expensive of the trip. Known for its pet-friendliness (not that I cared), to me the biggest advantage of La Quinta is its consistency across various locations, something other motel chains seem to be struggling with.

Ok comfort level, faultiness wifi and working key card (at last!): Amarillo TX ($79.99), Gallup NM ($99.99) and Las Vegas NV ($144.99) were all level and without any bad surprise. If La Quinta loses points for its dearer prices, it gains many for its spontaneity. Rather, the spontaneity of the Gen Y receptionist at Amarillo TX who will remain one of the more colourful characters of this trip: “But whyyyyyyyyy are you staying in Amarillo there is nothing heeeeeeeere!” A breath of fresh air among the generally circumspect yet polite welcome I received in most other places. “A song about Amarillo? Nah. Never heard of it. But I’m from Vegas, so…” You just made me feel 20 years older than I already am…

Albert Days Inn NashvilleAlbert in Days Inn Nashville TN

4. Days Inn

Number of motel nights: 1

Another very frequent motel chain along my route, Days Inn however loses a couple of spots due, again, to large variations in price and quality over my trip which disqualifies it as a reliable option. It still ranks inside my Top 5 because it did save my life (ok, night) in Franklin TN (a Nashville suburb) when I arrived a little bit before 2am all excited to have crossed the 30 mpg milestone with Albert my Ram 1500 ecoDiesel pickup truck, but rather exhausted from my 9 hour trek from Savannah GA. At $59.99 a night, this particular Days Inn at this particular time of the night after this particular trip looked like the best hotel in my entire life. Indeed, top notch quality, wifi and amenities did not disappoint. But there was a second storey (not a true motel!) and I went on to enquire at a few other Days Inn further along the way: double the price or more, and double the dodgy factor. Must get better.

5. Sentry Inn Gretna LA

Number of motel nights: 1

I also reached this motel at ungodly hours of the night on arrival from Memphis TN. This was potentially the closest to dodgy I got to on this trip, in a questionable neighbourhood of New Orleans across the bridge and with such feeble wifi that it was required to get out of the room, jump in my truck, move the car a few metres and connect to the reception signal. But. It also was the closest to a true American motel I got to stay in and not a formatted chain. People did live there permanently: there were flower pots on the next room’s window. The air was heavy, the room smelled of humidity, the air-con was roaring, my truck was by far the shiniest in the parking lot and the painting on the outside walls was a distant memory. There was a sign next to the door warning to double lock yourselves at night for your own security. Except there was no more inside lock. I was basically waiting for the Samuel Jackson character in the Quentin Tarantino movie Pulp Fiction to burst into my room pointing a gun at my head. To top it off, a plump and flamboyant African-American receptionist wearing fluorescent, diamond-adorned pink nails longer than her hand, sultrily checked me out with an avalanche of ‘baby’, ‘honey’ and  ‘luv’. I’m still blushing. Ok this should have been #1.

Next stop: New Orleans LA

USA Coast to Coast: The cars of Elvis Presley

Elvis pink CadillacElvis with his legendary pink 1955 Cadillac Series 60 Fleetwood

* NOW UPDATED with detailed info about each car *

Today we stay in Memphis as in my opinion the one attraction really worth seeing in town is Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. I wasn’t expecting much, but was pleasantly surprised with the tour’s thoroughness, the extravagant decoration and endless flow of music sales records detailed on the self-guided iPad tour. My never-ending thirst for stats was quenched here, and that says a lot! It was also an opportunity to go beyond the singer’s most commonly played hits and discover gems like ‘She’s not you’, ‘Good luck charm’, ‘The Girl of my best friend‘ or ‘Return to sender‘. Most significantly (and relevantly), there is also a car museum displaying a collection of cars Elvis owned. I have ranked the most stylish Elvis cars here along with detailed background info about each model. Yes this is absolutely and unashamedly subjective. The full ranking is below.

1. 1973 Stutz Blackhawk1. Stutz Blackhawk (1973)

Not only is this in my view the coolest-looking car Elvis ever owned, there is also a fascinating story attached to it. The Stutz Motor Company is an American luxury car company from Indianapolis, Indiana that produced America’s first sports car from 1911 to 1935. The Stutz brand was ressucitated in 1968 (to survive until 1995) by New York banker James O’Donnell, who hired retired Chrysler stylist Virgil Exner to design the new Blackhawk. A first Stutz Blackhawk had been produced between 1929 and 1930, but this second generation, manufactured between 1971 and 1987, bears absolutely no resemblance to it.

Mouth-watering design features include a massive and aggressive grille, freestanding headlamps and a spare tire protruding through the trunklid. It’s like one car rebelled against all design conventions and revived them all at once. Now onto some technical specs. To try and keep in line with the brand’s exclusive origins, the body, designed by Ghia, was custom built in Italy, shipped to the US and fitted on a powerful but all-in-all arguably relatively common GM platform and engine. The Blackhawk used Pontiac Grand Prix running gear, Pontiac’s 7.5 L V8 engine, and a GM TH400 3-speed automatic transmission. The Blackhawk’s engine was tuned to produce 425 hp (317 kW) and 420 ft·lbf (570 N·m), enabling the 5000 lb (2300 kg) Blackhawk to accelerate to 60 mph (97 km/h) in 8.4 seconds with a 130 mph (210 km/h) top speed. All this for decidedly paltry (but ok for the times and the car’s weight/engine size) 8 mpg. That’s 30 L/100 km for you readers outside the USA. Ford, Chevrolet and Cadillac engines were also used at some stage. Another piece of trivia: the 18 to 22 hand-rubbed lacquer paint coats required to finish up the car took six weeks to apply, adding up to a total production time for each vehicle of over 1500 man-hours.

Stutz Blackhawk 19721972 Stutz Blackhawk

But wait there’s more prestige inside: the interior included 24-carat gold plated trim and bird’s eye maple or burled walnut and redwood, Connolly leather seats and dash, instrument markings in both English and Italian, fine wool or mink carpeting and headlining, a cigar lighter, and a liquor cabinet in the back. Other special features included automatic headlamp control with twilight sensor, cornering lamps, bilevel automatic airconditioning, Superlift air adjustable shockabsorbers, Safe-T-Track limited slip differential, an electric sunroof, cruise control, central locking, a burglar alarm, non-functional exhaust side pipes, and a high-end Lear Jet AM/FM 8-track quadraphonic sound system. The first models had special 17-inch Firestone LXX run-flat tires and rims fitted, although these were taken off the market when it was found they were unsafe.

Commercially, the Blackhawk remained a very exclusive car all through its 17 year-long career: only 500 to 600 units were produced in total. It debuted in January 1970 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, priced from US$22,500 to US$75,000, that’s US$120,000 to $400,000 in today’s dollars… And this is where things take a truly fascinating turn: Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra competed to purchase the very first Blackhawk to be put on sale! Talk about exclusive and prestigious… This was the second Blackhawk prototype, as built by Carrozzeria Padane (the first one, built by Ghia, was driven by James O’Donnell himself). The legend goes that Sinatra was offered the second prototype on the condition that the distributor could show the car at the L.A. auto show and get PR photos with Sinatra upon delivery. Sinatra declined, but Presley accepted and got the car, which he purchased for US$26,500 on October 9, 1970. In January 1971, Presley even had a mobile telephone installed inside it for US$1,467.50!

In July 1971, one of Presley’s hired driver destroyed the car, which was restored with non-original parts after Presley’s death. Elvis bought at least three more Blackhawks and leased one other. The black 1973 pictured above and exposed in Graceland was his favorite Blackhawk, which he purchased at the end of the lease. Its interior features custom-ordered red leather seats. Elvis was driving this car when he drove through the gates of Graceland for the last time on August 16, 1977.

2. 1975 Ferrari Dino2. Ferrari Dino 308 GT4 (1975) 

Elvis purchased this Dino 308 GT4 secondhand in October 1976 for US$20,583. Interestingly, the “Dino” brand was created by Ferrari to market  more affordable sports cars aimed at competing with the Porsche 911 as Enzo Ferrari feared the Ferrari brand would be watered down with cheaper cars. The “Dino” marque was reserved to mid-engined, rear-drive sports cars and used for models with engines with fewer than 12 cylinders. So this was not typically the type of vehicle you’d expect the biggest star on the planet to purchase at the time, let alone secondhand. The Ferrari name remained reserved for its premium V-12 and flat 12 models until 1976, when “Dino” was retired in favour of full Ferrari branding. Thus Elvis’ car does have a “Dino” badge, and no Ferrari one, even though by the time he purchased the car the “Dino” brand had already disappeared, making this model an instant collector.

But why “Dino”? This was simply the nickname of Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari’s late son and heir Alfredo “Dino” Ferrari, who was credited with the design of the V6 engine used by the marque to justify the branding, however it was found later on that Alfredo Ferrari did not have any role in that design – awkward. At the time, setting a production car with a mid-engine layout was very avant-garde, although common in car racing. A mid-engined layout placed more of the car’s weight over the driven wheels, and although it enabled great design in the shape of a streamlined nose, it led to almost no passenger space and very abrupt handling, thought better reserved to professional sports drivers. For this reason Ferrari did not trust his customers would be able to ‘tame’ this type of layout and originally refused to produced one – with the consequence being that Lamborghini was the first to shoot with its mid-engined Miura in 1966.

The original mid-engined “Dino” (206/246) saw the light of day only because Ferrari rationalised that the low-power V6 engine would not be powerful enough to make handling unsafe even for relatively inexperienced drivers. The original 308 GT4 was designed by Bertone and produced from 1973 to 1980. It was Ferrari’s first V8 production car. It had a 90-degree, dual-overhead-camshaft, 2927 cc motor with 4 Weber carburetors which produced 250 hp (186 kW) and the V-8 block and heads were made of an aluminum alloy. The compression ratio was 8.8:1. However the American version that Elvis purchased had a timing change and an air-pump and produced a more modest 230 hp (172 kW). The GT4 weighed 2535 pounds. The 308 GT4 was Dino-branded until May 1976, when it got the Ferrari badge on the hood, wheels, and the steering wheel.

3. 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II 4. 1956 Lincoln Continental Mark II 23. Lincoln Continental Mark II (1956)

After being used between 1939 and 1948, the Continental name was revived in 1955 but as a separate marque, produced by a separate division of Ford Motor Company, with its only model being the Continental Mark II. The plans for this revival were grand and Ford made it very clear that this Continental was NOT a Lincoln. Ahem, right. Another one of these interesting strategy decisions. An attempt at hyper luxury by Ford, the 1956 Continental Mark II was among the most expensive cars in the world when launch, with a price equivalent to one of a Rolls-Royce at $10,000 when a regular Ford could be bought for less than $2000 and a Cadillac for $4000. Ford believed that its price point would elevate the car’s status among those who could afford the very best. True, but it stayed there and never really bled onto the Lincoln or Ford brand images. Plus, despite its astronomical price tag, Ford lost money on each one sold (2,996 in total including two prototype convertibles), the same way Cadillac did with its Continental-fighting four-door Eldorado Brougham.

The thing that Ford did manage to do with the Continental Mark II is create a myth: it reported tales of dealers turning potential buyers away because deemed not to be the right kind of people to own one, its sticker price was hallucinogenic and made the Continental only affordable by an over-prestigious clientele: Elvis logically being part of it along with Frank Sinatra (again), the Shah of Iran, Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Kissinger. Warner Brothers Studios even gave Elizabeth Taylor a custom-built 1956 Mark II, which was painted to match her eye colour. Elvis arrived in Miami in August 1956 driving his new Lincoln that had been decorated in graffiti by fans with lipstick. He traded that car and purchased this Continental Mark II with the proceeds from his tour. He used this car often, even taking it to New Orleans in 1958 for the filming of his movie ‘King Creole’. A bit of trivia to finish on: while on later models it was purely for decoration, the original Mark II did in fact carry its spare tire under the trunk lid’s stamped-in tire cover.

5. 1955 Cadillac Fleetwood4. Cadillac Fleetwood Series 60 (1955)

Elvis’ Pink Cadillac is arguably one of the most iconic cars in the history of the United States. A lesser known fact is that it is also one of the few that Elvis kept from his rise to stardom: he actually purchased his original Pink Cadillac (there were two) before any of his songs became popular. Ha. Bet you didn’t know that one. The story goes like this: in early 1955 Elvis bought his first pink Cadillac, a 1954 Fleetwood Series 60, but this car was destroyed in a roadside fire in June of that year. Exactly one month later on July 5, 1955, Elvis purchased a new Cadillac Fleetwood Series 60, but in blue with a black roof. Having mentioned a Pink Cadillac in the song Baby, Let’s Play House, the first Elvis song to break onto a national chart (it went up to #5 on the Billboard Country Singles chart in July 1955), Elvis had the car repainted pink that year and by March 1956 the roof was painted white. Elvis gave this car to his mother Gladys as a gift, even though she never had a driver’s license.

Like a haute couture designer, Elvis launched the pink car colour fashion with the Pink Cadillac. At the time, Ford Motor Company was the only manufacturer to offer pink as a standard colour. This changed quickly as Elvis’ Pink Cadillac became iconic. Firstly individual owners took it upon themselves to paint their cars various shades of pink, then progressively most manufacturers aligned themselves and offered pink as standard colour as well. Another interesting element is that although the original car was a 1955 four-door sedan, the more replicated version in popular culture is a pink 1959 Cadillac Series 62 Convertible, which have been sold as miniature replicas by the millions.

Let’s backtrack a bit and ask where the Fleetwood name comes from? The link with Cadillac goes back to 1925 when the manufacturer purchased the Fleetwood Metal Body Company in 1925. As such the Fleetwood Body Company began as a small community of coach-building craftsmen founded by Henry Fleetwood, near Lancaster in England in the 17th century. Its 300 year coach-building experience gave the Fleetwood Body Company a high reputation in automobile circles worldwide by the 1920s. Coachwork was built by Fleetwood for a variety of luxury makes through 1924, but were reserved exclusively for Cadillac once bought by them in 1925. From 1927 through 1934 all Cadillac series offered Fleetwood bodies as an option, but after that time Cadillac became more picky and offered Fleetwood bodies only its higher-end models. The Fleetwood script and crest would not appear on the exterior of any Cadillac until the 1947 model year when it appeared on the rear deck lid of the Sixty Special, the one purchased by Elvis in its 1955 iteration.

7. 1977 Cadillac Seville5. Cadillac Seville (1977)

This was the last Cadillac Elvis bought and he was driving it himself the day prior to his death. In the mid-seventies, European luxury imports such as Mercedes-Benz and BMW were more and more popular in the US and prompted Cadillac to reshuffle its range completely. The American manufacturer launched the Seville in 1975 as, interestingly, both the smallest and most expensive model in the lineup, turing their (and conventional) marketing and pricing strategies upside down. It was a big risk. Add to this the fact that the Seville was also designed to win back young American car buyers that were distancing themselves more and more from homegrown brands and especially Cadillac, and you come to an almost unsolvable problem as young American car buyers arguably find themselves at the more affordable end of luxury.

How did the Seville name come about? According to autosofinterest.com, hundreds of suggestions were up for consideration, including: Merlette, Sierra, La Mancha, Canterbury, l’Eclipse, Urbana, Le Nouveau, DeIntegro, Medici, Debonair, Berkshire, Caravel, Road America, Concept II, Americus, Leland, Minuet, Camelot, Renaissance, Counselor, and “Se Ville”. Pick your choice! I personally like Debonair best, a nameplate once used by Mitsubishi. Research showed LaSalle was the top pick, followed at a distance by St. Moritz then Seville (now properly spelled). A troubled past (LaSalle) and difficult pronunciation (St. Moritz) made Seville the winner, a Spanish province and the capital city of that province, renowned for its history, art and architecture. The Seville name had actually been used by Cadillac almost two decades before the launch of this model: for the two-door hardtop version of the 1956 Cadillac Eldorado.

The Seville’s angular design would set the tone for GM styling for the next decade, and by extension of an American car design symbolic to that time and now rare on US roads. It was the first Cadillac to be engineered (shock, horror!) based on components previously used in a Chevrolet model: it is a heavily upgraded version of the rear-wheel drive X-body platform that underpinned the Chevrolet Nova. Official design specs detail a  “wide chrome grille flanked by quadruple rectangular headlamps with narrow parking and signal lamps just below filled the header panel, while small wrap-around rectangular tail lamps placed at the outermost corners of the rear gave the appearance of a lower, leaner, and wider car.” It is assumed that the wrap-around taillights might have come from a design sketch of a rejected Coupe DeVille concept.

1977 Cadillac Seville. Picture courtesy of autodrive.info1977 Cadillac Seville

Other interesting official specs about this Cadillac Seville: it was almost 1,000 pounds (450 kg) lighter than the full-sized Deville, more expensive than every other Cadillac model (except the Series 75 Fleetwood factory limousines) at US$12,479, it was basically a commercial flop (43,772 1976 MY vehicles produced and 45,060 1977 MY) even though it spawned several imitators including as the Lincoln Versailles and Chrysler LeBaron/Fifth Avenue, and the first 2,000 units produced were identical in equipment and colour (Georgian silver) to make sure the quality of the initial production run would be optimal, which it was.

Arguably this Seville’s most interesting spec is its fuel economy, unheard of for a Cadillac at the time. The engine was an Oldsmobile-sourced 350 cu in (5.7 L) V8, fitted with Bendix/Bosch electronically controlled fuel injection, giving it a gas mileage of 17 MPG city and 23 MPG highway while the larger Deville and Fleetwood were still getting single digit gas mileage! A diesel 350 cu in (5.7 L) LF9 V8 was added in 1978, the first diesel engine offered in passenger vehicles in AmericaFinal piece of trivia: the Seville was also manufactured in Iran under the brand name Cadillac Iran from 1978 to 1987 by Pars Khodro, which was known as “Iran General Motors” before the Islamic Revolution. A total of 2,653 Cadillacs were made in Iran during this period. This made Iran the only country assembling Cadillacs outside the U.S. until 1997 when the Opel Omega-based Cadillac Catera started being built in Germany for the U.S. market.

6. Albert Graceland6. Albert (2014).

Ha. I’m sure Elvis would have loved to drive him.

8. 1962 Lincoln Continental 9. 1962 Lincoln Continental detail 1 10. 1962 Lincoln Continental detail 27. Lincoln Continental (1962)

Elvis purchased this 1962 Lincoln Continental in Vegas and got it customised to his specifications: white with a gold alligator top. The Continental was completely redesigned in 1961 by Elwood Engel into what was originally intended to be the 1961 Ford Thunderbird. It replaced the Lincoln Capri and Premiere, consolidating Lincoln into a single product line again, as it was the case when the Continental Mark II launched back in 1955 (see above). This car’s most iconic feature is its front-opening rear “suicide doors”, which would later on become the best-known feature of 1960s Lincolns. At the time the Continental was surprisingly small: so much smaller than its predecessor in fact, that an advertising campaign featured a woman parallel parking a sedan for a magazine spread – that would be a questionable let alone sexist move nowadays but hey.

Despite this the car was not lighter than its predecessor at 4,927 lb (2,235 kg) for the sedan and 5,215 lb (2,365 kg) for the convertible, an interesting case of a convertible weighing more than its sedan variant despite the lack of solid roof. This was the first car manufactured in the U.S. to be sold with a 24,000 mi (39,000 km) or 2-year bumper-to-bumper warranty, and also the first postwar four-door convertible from a major U.S. carmaker. As a result the new Continental was still heavier than all Cadillac moles for example, somehow earning it its reputation as “the finest mass-produced domestic automobile of its time .” It was a sales success, with 25,160 sold during the first year of production. This generation of Continental is favoured by collectors and has appeared in many motion pictures such as GoldfingerThe MatrixLast Action HeroKaliforniaSpider-Man 2 and in the opening sequence of the television series Entourage.

11. 1966 1960 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud8. and 9. Rolls Royce Silver Cloud (1960 and 1966)

The Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud nameplate was introduced in 1955 as a replacement for the Silver Dawn before being superseded itself in 1966 by the Silver Shadow. During its entire production time it was the core model of the Rolls-Royce range. The two Rolls-Royce exposed in Elvis’ Graceland museum are two different generations of Silver Cloud: a 1960 II and a 1966 III. The Silver Cloud II was launched in 1959 when it gained a 6.2 L V8 engine, boosting the weight to 2.11 tonnes but improving performance in the meantime and raising the top speed to 114 mpg (183 km/h). Fuel consumption was 11 mpg or 22L/100 km, not that atrocious in fact, power steering was standard and electrically operated windows were available as an option. Elvis purchased this 1960 Silver Cloud II, his first Rolls Royce, at Coventry Motors located on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, California. He used it in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Memphis.

He purchased a second Silver Cloud in 1966. The Silver Cloud III originally debuted in 1963. Official specs are as follows. External dimensions were slightly tweaked, the interior remodelled, the weight reduced by a little over 100 kg (220 lb) and improvements made to the engine which included fitting 2-inch (51 mm) SU carburettors in place of the 1¾ inch units used on the Series II Silver Cloud. The compression ratio was increased to 9:1, reflecting the higher octane levels of premium fuel in major markets, although the option of a lower 8:1 compression ratio was still offered in markets where non-availability of higher octane fuels might be an issue. Rolls-Royce, as was the ‘tradition’ at the time, refused to disclose overall engine power output, but indicated that there had been an improvement of “perhaps 7%”. Interestingly vague for arguably the most prestigious car manufacturer in the world. Increased power and weight reduction boosted speed and performance slightly. The engine now included a nitride hardened crankshaft to reflect the extra power being generated and in response to reports of broken crankshafts in the earlier V8 Silver Clouds. The transmission was a GM Hydramatic which Rolls-Royce used under licence. There. That’s all for the specs but I thought it’d be worthwhile to dream a little and visualise what luxury sounded like back in the sixties.

12. 1960 Willys Jeep10. Willys Jeep DJ 3A Surrey (1960)

Considered the iconic World War II Jeep, the Willys MB U.S. Army Jeep was manufactured from 1941 to 1945, later evolving into the “CJ” civilian Jeep, and then updated to the “DJ” version. The DJ-3A was introduced in 1955, using the body style of the older CJ-3A, but coming with either a column shift or floor shift three-speed Borg-Warner T-96 manual transmission. In early 1959, Willys introduced the DJ-3A ‘Jeep Gala’ to export markets interested in a flexible, open vehicle but without the need for four wheel-drive. What made it cool was that it was finished in pink, green, or blue and trimmed with matching white striped fabric, as well as with fringe on its top…

Instant cult status in Hawaii, Mexico, and Caribbean islands and as a result obligatory mainland USA version, the ‘Jeep Surrey’, launched in fall of 1959. The primary target market were resort hotels and vacation centres for the staff’s short trips, but it was also used as a low-cost rental vehicle for guests. The Willys Surrey Jeep pictured above was purchased by Elvis on July 12, 1960 for US$1,981. It was mainly used by Graceland’s guards and would often be seen driving around Graceland. This would mean that Elvis purchased it before it featured in the 1961 motion picture ‘Blue Hawaii’ – another interesting piece of trivia. Could it be the one actually featured in the movie? My searches for this info have come back null, so if you know about this please let it known!

This concludes our stop in Memphis, in the next update we will be crossing Mississippi on our way to New Orleans. Stay tuned!

13. Cadillac Elvis Automobile Museum GracelandThe entrance to the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum in Graceland.

14. Ford E450 Graceland 5Shuttles to Graceland are shining-new Ford E450

Follow all my USA Coast to Coast 2014 Photo Reports here

Albert Peterbilt 2Albert rubbing shoulders with a Peterbilt truck

You can follow all my Photo Reports as they are published on iconic American website The Truth About Cars by clicking on this link: www.thetruthaboutcars.com/author/matthias-gasnier/

The Coast to Coast page on BSCB is here: bestsellingcarsblog.com/category/usa-coast-to-coast-2014-photo-reports/

Alternatively, below are the links to all Photo Reports published on BestSellingCarsBlog so far:

Part 1: New York City

Part 2: Washington DC

Part 3: Driving through Virginia, North & South Carolina

Part 4: Charleston, South Carolina

Part 5: Savannah, Georgia

Part 6: Crossing Georgia and Tennessee

Part 7: Nashville, Tennessee

Part 8: Memphis, Tennessee

Part 9: The cars of Elvis Presley (Graceland, Tennessee)

Part 10: Crossing Mississippi and reviewing US motels

Part 11: New Orleans, Louisiana

Part 12: Everything is bigger in Texas

Part 13: Oklahoma – Last stop before Route 66

Part 14: Driving the Old Route 66 (Part 1)

Part 15: Driving the Old Route 66 (Part 2)

Part 16: New Mexico

Part 17: Monument Valley, Arizona-Utah

Part 18: Las Vegas, Nevada

Part 19: Death Valley, California

Part 20: Palm Springs, California

Part 21: Final destination LA + Final Albert review

USA Coast to Coast: Memphis, Tennessee

2015 Chevrolet Colorado2015 Chevrolet Colorado

* See the Full Photo Report by clicking on the title! *

After visiting Charleston SC, Savannah GA and Nashville TN, we are now heading 222 miles South West to Memphis, still in Tennessee. As a reference point, the best-selling vehicles in Tennessee are the Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry and Ford F150 (2012 figures). Splitting the F-Series into its specific variants (F150, F250) means it is ‘only’ #1 in 22 states. However if we get into detailed observation, Memphis is the first city I have visited so far to have a strong mid-sized pick-up truck heritage and I will cover this at the end of the report. My first striking impression in Memphis is the markedly older vehicle landscape, in line with the region struggling a little economically in recent times. Cars 6-7 years or older are the norm here which prompts me to describe the state of the US car landscape as I have been witnessing it so far.

1. Ford F250 Memphis 2Ford F250 and Kia Soul in Memphis TN

As I went through New York, Washington and every big city along the way including Charleston and Nashville, the common denominator is the remarkably recent vehicle landscape. The optical illusion on the country’s highways is that the majority of cars are 5 years old or less. Not true of course, but cars in frequent use on the highway and city streets tend to be biased towards more recent ones. A couple of reasons for this include the fact that fleet and rental cars, renewed fast, are ‘out there’ on the streets waiting to be spotted. For example, up until Charleston I was hard-pressed spotting any Ford F150 older than the 2003 generation. That changed a bit inland but the 2008 model is by far the most common F-Series on US road compared to all previous generations combined by a ratio of 2 to 1. Out of the hundreds of F-Series I have spotted thus far this is still rather astounding.

2. Chevrolet Camaro MemphisChevrolet Camaro in Memphis TN

In 2013, US consumers purchased 46 new cars per thousand inhabitants, the third highest rate in the world among mainstream markets below Australia and Canada both at 48, so the park does renew itself pretty fast here. But even compared to places I’ve been to recently like the French Riviera, Paris and Germany, arguably as wealthy as the American regions I’ve crossed so far or more, the US car park is frankly newer.

3. Chrysler 200 MemphisChrysler 200

But here’s the trick: compared to all the long-distance trips I’ve made across Europe, Russia and even China, I have spotted many more broken down cars on the side of the road here in the US. That for once was a very surprising find. Granted, the car is a disposable item in the US as is every consumption item, but this observation would lead me to believe that American car buyers could tend to renew their car more by necessity than desire.

4. Albert GMC Yukon XL MemphisQuick size check: Albert with a new generation GMC Yukon XL: roughly the same height.

Having said that, as mentioned above the environment in Memphis is miles apart from this general observation and there are not enough new cars in the streets to form a solid opinion on the best-sellers in town. The Altima is a little weaker here as is the Toyota Camry, with the Ford F250 seemingly more popular with local businesses than the F150.

6. Ford E-Series Memphis 2Ford E-Series

I have also noted a resurgence of Ford E-Series downtown – not to the level of New York but its 2nd best frequency so far. Potentially for the same reason that they are successful in New York: secure load without the need of any modifications. The Ram pickup (my very own Albert – a Ram 1500 4×4 ecoDiesel) is at its best thus far in the trip. Other over-performing models here include the Chrysler 200 especially the brand new generation, Honda Odyssey in a similar way to Nashville, Dodge Dart for the first time in this trip, Ford Explorer and Toyota Corolla.

5. Chevrolet Impala MemphisChevrolet Impala in Memphis TN

Finally as promised, a specific section on mid-size pickup trucks. Once a thriving segment in the US (Ford Ranger, Dodge Dakota, Toyota Hilux…), as at early 2014 this category was reduced to the sole Toyota Tacoma. Memphis is the first city in this Coast to Coast trip to display a very strong heritage of Chevrolet Colorado, a model discontinued in 2011 but about to be relaunched later this year starting at a cut-throat US$20,000 along with its more sophisticated sibling, the GMC Canyon starting at US$22,000.

7. Chevrolet Silverado WT MemphisChevrolet Silverado in Memphis TN

I will go as far as saying that previous generations of Chevrolet Colorado were more frequent than all Chevrolet Silverados combined in Memphis, making it the Hero in Town. As a result the 2015 Colorado/Canyon combo should be met with a particularly warm welcome in this region of the United States, potentially threatening the F150 for #1 pickup spot in Memphis. If this scenario repeats itself in a few other States, expect Ford to respond promptly with a revival of the Ranger, a question that keeps popping up as Ford currently produces a very successful Ranger (#1 in New Zealand) out of Thailand.

8. Ford F250 MemphisFord F250 in Memphis TN

The first signs are here: General Motors announced a few days ago it will add a third shift for its new mid-size pickup trucks at its Wentzville, Missouri assembly plant even though they aren’t on sale yet. GM claims to have received as many as 30,000 dealer orders for the mid-sizers so far. Add to this Toyota which will increase its Tacoma production output by 40% from April 2015 onwards to satisfy demand, and it would appear mid-size pickup trucks are back in fashion in the US.

And for once that’s actually not all for Memphis, next is a special Post on the cars of Elvis Presley as displayed in Graceland, located in the Southern suburbs of Memphis.

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USA Coast to Coast: Nashville, Tennessee

After crossing Georgia and part of Tennessee – the State of Davy Crockett, Aretha Franklin and Dolly Parton (of course) – we have now landed in Nashville, the country music capital of the world. Having grown up in France I am not overly familiar with this music genre but listening to Sirius XM’s “The Highway” satellite radio station all day long while driving had me catch up on lost time in a flash. Current favourites are  Kenny Chesney (American Kids), Aaron Lewis (Endless summer), Luke Bryant (Drink a beer), Dierks Bentley (How am I doin’) and The Cadillac Three (Party like you). I encourage you to at least sample these songs on iTunes or Spotify to get the best feel for this part of my Coast to Coast trip.

1. Nissan Altima NashvilleNissan Altima in Nashville TN

I also had the privilege to attend the 6pm show at the legendary Bluebird Café which caught me by surprise with an intimate atmosphere, the songwriters playing right in the middle of the audience. For those of you in the know, the night I was there John Pierce, Justin Lantz, Corey Crowder and Cale Dodds were playing – or rather joking around most of the time while taking turns singing. Unforgettable night.

2. Ford F150 NashvilleFord F150 in Nashville TN

So which cars do Nashville country music songwriters and hipsters buy? Based on the areas I visited (Downtown, West End and Hilsboro Road), rather different ones from the rest of the regions I have traversed so far. Logically, in a more urban environment we have more passenger cars and less pick-up trucks, with the most popular vehicles in town being (in this order) the Nissan Altima, Honda Accord – not seen at these levels since New York, Ford F-Series and Toyota Camry.

3. Chevrolet Traverse NashvilleChevrolet Traverse

Yes, I did write the Nissan Altima was the most frequent new vehicle I spotted in Nashville, ahead of all pickup trucks. Similarly to yesterday in Georgia for the Kia Optima, this could simply be because it is manufactured close-by in Canton Mississippi. There is another Nissan plant located in Tennessee (in Smyrna) and models being spat out of this plant are also significantly more frequent in Nashville than they were up to now: the Infiniti JX, Nissan Pathfinder, Murano, Maxima, (defunct) Altima coupé and most interestingly the Leaf: I saw more in Nashville than in the entire trip combined so far (including New York!).

5. GMC Acadia NashvilleGMC Acadia in Nashville TN

But there are a couple of models with an even more striking surge in popularity in Nashville: the Hero in Town is the Chevrolet Traverse and I have to confess that I did not know that car very well before landing here. This is fixed now as I had many opportunities to spot it all around town. Logically, its “twins” the Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia, using the same platform and very similar in size, are also extremely popular in town.

Nissan Quest NashvilleNissan Quest

Other extremely popular vehicles in Nashville are large MPVs: the Nissan Quest is everywhere, followed closely by the Honda Odyssey and Toyota Sienna, and most taxis are Dodge Grand Caravan. Would Nashville be a big soccer mum car market? Arguably the Toyota 4Runner, never more popular so far than here in Nashville could also fit this category. Small sedans also are disproportionately successful here, led by the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, VW Jetta and Hyundai Elantra.

7. GMC Sierra NashvilleGMC Sierra in front of the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville TN

One brand stands out in Nashville that I had not seen much before: Swedish carmaker Volvo, with the S60 sedan seemingly the most popular followed by the XC60 and XC90 SUVs. Cadillac SUVs also seem to be much more popular here than they have been so far in this trip. Other over-performing models in Nashville include the Nissan Juke, Ford Escape and Lexus HS, with the Hummer brand getting noticed as well here and for the first time on my itinerary.

10. Pontiac Aztek NashvillePontiac Aztek in Nashville TN

Finallly, Nashville carbuyers seem to have had a (masochistic?) love for late Pontiac models, including the horrible-looking Aztek and the G3, a rebadged Chevrolet Aveo… That’s it for Nashville! Next stop is Memphis, still in Tennessee.

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USA Coast to Coast: Crossing Georgia and Tennessee

Albert Peterbilt 2Albert rubbing shoulders with a Peterbilt truck

I started this New York to Los Angeles Coast to Coast trip by driving South along the East Coast all the way through to Charleston SC and Savannah GA. It’s now time to go north-west, taking the Interstate 16 to Macon then the 75 through to Chattanooga in Tennessee via Atlanta, and continuing on the 24 to Nashville. A total of 585 miles (940 km) from Savannah to Nashville, the longest daily stretch so far in this Coast to Coast trip. And this is where Albert – my Ram 1500 ecoDiesel pick-up truck – met his match in the form of a bright yellow Peterbilt truck, and beat his fuel economy record to reach a very symbolic milestone…

30 mpg30 mpg average in a full-size pick-up truck is possible: the proof.

As at the last update (Savannah), Albert’s average mpg since the start of this road trip was 27.1. That was already on par with this model’s advertised highway mpg average (27) even though my trip has included quite a lot of city driving so far, notably in Manhattan for 3 excruciating hours of virtual standstill. The combination of a relatively low speed limit across Georgia highways (varying between 60 and 70 mpg), extensive use of cruise control and virtually 100% highway for 9 hours has lifted my pick-up truck’s average mpg to a very symbolic 30 mpg by the time I arrived in my Nashville motel.

New York NashvilleUS Coast to Coast trip so far. Picture courtesy of Google Maps

This means that since my departure from New York, I travelled 1,664 miles (2,678 km) on just 55.5 gallons of diesel. For those of you who are reading this outside of the United States, it won’t mean much unless I translate this fuel consumption into 210 litres or 8.1 litres/100 km. Back to the US where I have to admit a 30 mpg average for a full-size pick-up truck had every local I shared it with raising their eyebrows. Fuel economy had up until the GFC not been much of a concern for full-size pick-up buyers. It has now changed a bit but even then, American manufacturers have been surprisingly slow to adapt and Chrysler is the first to offer a diesel engine on a full-size pick-up truck, lifting the mpg average to unheard levels indeed. Advertised at 28 mpg highway in its 4×2 version and 27 as a 4×4 (the one I’m driving), the Ram 1500 has the best fuel economy in its category, and I completely verified it today. Big tick.

Kia Optima. Picture courtesy of motortrend.comThe Kia Optima is the Hero of the Day…

Now which vehicles did Albert have the pleasure of crossing on our way through Georgia? It should be noted first that I did the entire trip on the highway and only stopped at a couple of exits to rest, refuel and eat, and obviously this impacts the type of vehicles I have spotted and will describe here. Final note is I did not stop in Atlanta (sorry!) simply and sadly for lack of time, and after I left Chattanooga in Tennessee, it was night time which meant I could not recognise most of the cars on the other side of the highway, limiting my learnings on Tennessee for now.

Hyundai Elantra. Picture courtesy of motortrend.com…with the Hyundai Elantra not far behind.

Once again we have a very unique vehicle landscape on Georgian highways. The Car of the Day is… wait for it… the Kia Optima, going from extremely discreet so far despite its #26 year-to-date ranking in the US overall (#15 passenger car) to contender for #1 passenger car – no less! There is a very simple explanation for this sudden change of heart: the Optima is manufactured locally in West Point GA… The Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento, manufactured in the same plant, are much less frequent than the Optima on Georgia highways but still frankly above the numbers I spotted up until now. The other very impressive model today is the is the Hyundai Elantra, also a contender to the title of #1 passenger car in Georgia based on my observations, and manufactured in neighbouring Alabama.

VW Passat ChattanoogaNot that many VW Passats near Chattanooga…

I can already hear some of you wondering out loud whether I saw lots of VW Passats in Chattanooga, Tennessee where they are manufactured. And the answer is no. I paid special attention to this very model the entire day to try and get a feel for its success (or lack therof) as we approached the border with Tennessee and I specifically drove in and around town to try and spot a surge in popularity for the VW sedan. The result: I saw my first Passat of the day 70 miles before Chattanooga (some 300 miles after leaving Savannah), only two in Chattanooga itself and around (if anything I saw more Jettas than usual but this model is manufactured in Mexico) and 3 between Chattanooga and Dalton in Tennessee. In other words, had I not known the Passat was manufactured here, I wouldn’t have noticed anything abnormal.

Albert Peterbilt 1

Apart from the Optima/Elantra surge, pick-up trucks continue to rule the roost in this region and their ratio to the overall traffic keeps increasing, rising to almost 50% in Georgia’s heartland but receding somewhat as we get North and into Tennessee towards Nashville. Other models spotted in higher than expected numbers across Georgia include the Ford Focus – truly popuar for the first time in this trip, the new generation Toyota Highlander – not seen at these levels since New York, the Ford Taurus, Nissan Versa Note, Buick Enclave, GMC Acadia, Nissan Sentra, Chrysler Town & Country, Dodge Dart, Jeep Cherokee, Ford Mustang and Dodge Charger.

Chevrolet Suburban2015 Chevrolet Suburban

All-in-all, mid-size sedans dominate the Georgian landscape as they do nationally, with the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima the most popular. A special mention once again to the new generation Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban – GMC Yukon/Yukon XL combo, spotted on the highway as if it was a Top 10 model, and to the defunct 2007 Saturn Sky: none in the 1500 miles coming up to the first one spotted and a total of 3 today!

2007 Saturn Sky2007 Saturn Sky

I will close this update by thanking the Peterbilt of Atlanta dealership in Jackson GA for letting me roam their massive parking lots, loiter for a good hour waiting for the sun to come back and take hundreds of pictures of Albert in various settings along with their trucks. To the salesman who drove to me in his golf buggy to apologetically let me know that the dealership had to close now: it’s ok. I got it all in the can! Next update will be on Nashville, Tennessee.

USA Coast to Coast: Savannah, Georgia

Albert Savannah 2Albert in the Avenue of the Oaks – Wormsloe Plantation Historic Site in Savannah GA

Now that we have gone through  New York City, Washington DCVirginia, North & South Carolina and Charleston, it’s time to travel further South along the East Coast of the United States and the Interstate 95 to Savannah, Georgia – the birthplace State of Martin Luther King Jr and Ray Charles. But first, I’ll give you my first impressions on running a full-size pick-up on diesel in the US. By now I have had the opportunity to fill up Albert – my Ram 1500 ecoDiesel for the trip – a couple of times and test his range: approximately 660 miles (1060 km), more than I expected. I also ended up spending less money than I thought (US$77) to rejuvenate Albert with 20 gallons of diesel so he could continue to faithfully lead me along in this Coast to Coast trip.

Chevrolet Silverado 1500 WT. Picture courtesy ChevroletThe Chevrolet Silverado Work Truck is the Hero in Town in Savannah

A few quirks about running on diesel in the US: as opposed to France for example where up to 80% of new cars sold in the country run on diesel and therefore not offering diesel means you can pack up your service station and change jobs, in this part of the country not all servos offer diesel, especially when you step away from the main highways. An interesting find when you start to run low and the next 3 stations you pass only have unleaded… On highway exits, I would say on average 50% to 75% of stations have offered diesel so far.

Albert refuelling 1Albert next to one of his Heavy Duty big bruvas

The other big surprise is the price. In Europe, one of the main reasons for choosing a diesel vehicle – on top of the fact that it is more fuel efficient – is its priced, significantly lower than unleaded although that price difference has thawed over the past few years. In the US, diesel is always more expensive, by at least 50 cents a gallon – a very significant margin. Starting off in New York where gas prices are from another planet ($4.50+ a gallon), I have noticed prices going down steadily as I was driving South to reach about $3.15 a gallon (unleaded) and $3.65 (diesel).

Ford F250 SavannahFord F250 in Savannah GA

Third surprise: for diesel, prices differ depending on your method of payment, with credit a full 6 cents per gallon more expensive than cash… I had never encountered that type of distinction before, and this does not apply to unleaded (for now). Most Americans don’t actually need to walk inside the station’s building if they’re paying with card as all pumps are equipped with swipe machines. Having a non-American credit card, I had to pay in advance each time and I had estimated (and paid) my first fill-up to be $100 but the pump put on full stops at ‘only’ $77. Not a worry, a 2nd trip to the servo gets me reimbursed in no time.

Matt Savannah 2Good old me with Albert

Lastly, an update on Albert’s fuel economy, now standing at an excellent 27.1 mpg after a little bit more than 1,000 miles travelled (1,600 km). This Ram 1500 ecoDiesel 4×4’s advertised fuel economy being 27 mpg highway, we are now right on target, even though my trip hasn’t been all highway. So Albert doing very well so far.

Ram 1500 Chrysler 200Quick check for size: Albert with a previous gen Chrysler 200

Onto the Savannah vehicle landscape, and although we are only 107 miles away from Charleston, this is a different state and a different landscape altogether. Georgia is another Ford F-Series State but for the first time during this trip, the Chevrolet Silverado is genuinely threatening it for the title of most frequent vehicle spotted in the streets of Savannah, making the Silverado Work Truck (with black plastic grille and bumpers like Albert) the Hero in Town.

Chevrolet Silverado Work Truck SavannahChevrolet Silverado Work Truck in Savannah GA

While in Charleston the Ford F250 was surprisingly more popular that its little brother the F150, in Savannah the ‘logical’ order is back with the F150 seemingly more successful. However even when adding up F150, F250 and F350, we still only come level with the new generation Silverado. But wait there are more surprises in the Savannah vehicle landscape…

Albert closeup SavannahAlbert on the Isle of Hope in Savannah GA

Based on my observations uptown, downtown, in Garden City, Port Wentworth, Vernon River and the Isle of Hope, along with the Silverado/F-Series tandem, other very successful models here include the GMC Sierra, surprisingly frequent, the Toyota Corolla – seemingly the most popular new passenger car in town, the Toyota Tundra back to levels last seen in Northern Virginia, the Ram pick-up, Honda Accord and Toyota Tacoma, also way above its national level here in Savannah. That’s it for the Southern belle, next we are crossing Georgia on our way to Nashville, Tennessee…

USA Coast to Coast: Charleston, South Carolina

1. Ford F250 Charleston 2Ford F250 in Charleston SC

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After driving from Washington DC through Virginia, North & South Carolina, we are now in Charleston SC. I know a lot of you live in town and have already predicted the type of cars I would see depending on which area of town I travel to. So I need to preface my observations by saying I spent some time in North Charleston, Downtown Charleston and Ashley River as this will impact the landscape I have observed. As it has been the case since the beginning of this road trip it is a unique landscape once again in Charleston.

2. Ford F150 Ranger Charleston 21973 Ford F150 Ranger in Charleston SC

The first observation is the strength of the Chrysler brand in this area compared to the regions I previously traversed, with the 300 and 200 (both the previous Sebring-facelift generation and the spectacular current one) more frequent as well as quite a few Pacifica indicating very solid sales when the model was still part of the Chrysler range. More significantly, Charleston is the first city where I could spot a very clear heritage of pick-up trucks with many older models parked throughout town, showing a decades-long history of domination of this type of vehicle.

3. Albert Charleston 1Albert pretending to be a big Charleston home owner…

And of course a lot more new pick-ups here than I have seen so far, with the usual suspects leading the way: the Ford F-Series is the most popular, with the Chevrolet Silverado, Ram and Toyota Tacoma also strong but not that many GMC Sierra or Toyota Tundra. Getting more granular, Charleston is the first city where I’m noticing the popularity of the F250 and, to a lesser extent, F350 variants as opposed to the F150. Ford doesn’t easily share sales split by variant, grouping each one into the “F-Series” nameplate, partly to ensure its best-seller the #1 overall spot each year, whereas the F250 and up differ quite significantly from the F150.

4. Albert Charleston 2…and again…

During my last US trips about 6-7 years ago I had hardly noticed any other variant other than the F150. In Charleston, the most popular F-Series truck was not the F150 but the F250, sometimes in a 2-door variant I didn’t even know existed. This is a pretty significant evolution that seems to have happened only during the last generation of the model. Further cities visited along this trip will confirm that trend as you will see.

5. Dodge Ram vintage 2 Charleston1981 Dodge Ram in Charleston SC

2015 Ford F1502015 Ford F150

I am in touch with Ford US to try and establish the ratio of F250 and F350 within F-Series sales nationally as this would be a great indication of where this trend is going. To me another hint is the new generation F150 which will hit dealerships this November, arguably closer to the current F250/350 than the F150 – confirming my observations. In any case, I am making the Ford F250 the Hero in Town for Charleston.

6. Ford F250 Charleston 6Ford F250 in Charleston SC

As I mentioned above, this F150 vs. the rest observation is mainly valid for tradesman/commercially-used pick-up trucks and along with the increased amount of pick-up trucks here compared to the places I had visited thus far, there are also a lot more tradesman/base variants on the road, like the one I am driving – Albert, who is feeling more and more at home in this trip.

7. Toyota Corolla CharlestonToyota Corolla in Charleston SC

On the opposite end of the scale, Charleston drivers also seem to love particularly small cars, with a lot more Nissan Versa Note, new Honda Fit and Hyundai Accent here than up until now. As it has now been the case everywhere I’ve been so far, the new generation Chevrolet Tahoe / Suburban / GMC Yukon / XL is appearing in the streets way more often than its national ranking would lead us to expect. When is this going to stop and why is this nameplate not ranking higher overall?

8. Albert Charleston 3Albert in Charleston SC

Last observations are a surprisingly strong heritage of Honda Element which seem to simply have been among the best-sellers in Charleston at the height of its career, as well as already quite a few new generation GMC Acadia. Next step: Savannah in Georgia. Stay tuned!

9. Ram 1500 Nissan Sentra CharlestonQuick size check: Albert vs. Nissan Sentra

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US Coast to Coast: Driving through Virginia, North & South Carolina

Nissan Rogue Virginia. Picture courtesy of motortrend.comNot my picture, but the Hero of the Day: the Nissan Rogue

After New York City and Washington DC, we continue South on the Interstate 95 Highway to cross Virginia via a detour to Williamsburg, then North and South Carolina to arrive in Charleston. As soon as we leave the Washington urban area, the vehicle landscape starts to progressively change to allow more pick-up trucks on the road. My Ram 1500 4×4 (Albert) is now starting to feel less out of his comfort zone and more and more at home…

Before I share with you in detail the vehicle landscape I encountered in this part of the trip, now that I have driven over 750 miles (1200 km) on US roads I thought it would be a good time to give you my first impressions on what driving in the United States feels like. I have just spent the past couple of months in Southern Europe where driving is a tiring chest-bumping sport aimed at showing who’s boss on the road. The French have had to be beaten into submission by hundreds of unforgiving speed radars for the most part located in unclear or lower speed limit zones to maximise revenue, but that hasn’t deterred many radar-savvy locals to flash through the highway at over 130 mph (200 km/h).

New York-CharlestonUS Coast to Coast trip so far

However to this day I still am yet to spot a true American lunatic driving frankly dangerously – and I will be just fine if I never do. I have found American highways one of the most relaxing and predictable driving experiences of my life. Unlike in Australia where effective advertising campaigns have convinced car owners to drive 5 km/h below the speed limit (true story), Yankees all pretty much drive at speed limit or slightly above, and there are no sluggish cars to disrupt the traffic, making us look like we are all in cruise controlled trains enjoying the landscape and waving at each other hands-free.

RAM 1500 Ford Fusion EmporiaAlbert next to a Ford Fusion in Emporia VA

I have learnt that to insert myself fluidly into US highway traffic a good idea is to drive 5 mph above the speed limit, which goes as high as 70mph (113km/h). I may or may not have done that… It’s a high enough difference to satisfyingly beat all Google Maps route duration predictions by a large margin (the tradesman trim of my Ram does not have a sat nav), but small enough to avoid bothering local sheriffs… so far. While European driving is unmistakably associated with road rage and arrogant behavior, at no point have I seen anyone flashing their lights to overtake. I’m sure some of you will disagree but this is coming from someone who drove in France for almost 20 years, I am happily surprised at how civilised and patient everyone and is on the road.

Chevrolet Impala North CarolinaThe Chevrolet Impala is also very popular here.

There is one thing that did shock me at first though. For all their wild driving, one thing French drivers will consider sacrilege is overtaking on the right. This is considered a highly offensive, let alone illegal manoeuvre in Europe: a way to scream to the other driver that he/she really drives like a … Given in the US everyone drives roughly at the same speed, overtaking appears to be done on each side and I did get offended when that happened. Add to this that from the height of my truck, a Mazda Miata-type coupé is almost invisible on my rear mirrors when it sneaks up from the right, especially when I don’t expect anything to come by from that side. Oh well, I got used to it.

2013 Coachmen Encounter. Picture courtesy of imcdb.com2013 Coachmen Encounter RV in movie “We’re the Millers”

Now onto the vehicle landscape. First things first, a very striking observation: all the way since New York I have been spotting a constant flow of RVs. But not your traditional LCV transformed into an RV, German family style. No. The big ass RVs like the one you saw in Hollywood movie ‘We’re the Millers’ (pictured above) and costing well above $100,000 to purchase. Given this flow abruptly stopped as soon as I drove North-West through Georgia I will assume these RVs are rentals that are headed towards Florida and/or the sunbelt for the holidays.

Best seller by stateStates in blue have the Ford F-Series as best-seller…

If Virginia’s best-seller is the Honda Accord (hard to pick from the highway landscape), crossing the border to North Carolina means you enter Ford F-Series territory (blue on the map above), a zone I will remain in almost the whole way to Los Angeles except in Oklahoma (Nissan Altima) and California (Honda Civic). I stepped out of the highway in Colonial Williamsburg (I highly recommend this massive historical village eerily wifi-enabled – makes for a slightly asynchronistic experience) and there the Ford F-Series and, surprisingly, Toyota Tundra were the most frequent.

RAM 1500 WilliamsburgAlbert in Williamsburg VA

The Hero in ‘Town’ (although we are talking about 3 different States) is the Nissan Rogue and by far. I saw dozens of the new generation all the way through this part of the trip and this has to come to consumer preference or a huge deal with rental companies as this model isn’t manufactured in these States but in Smyrna, Tennessee. The new gen Chevrolet Impala is also extremely popular in this part of the United States, and I also spotted two Tesla Model S which would seem to indicate that the success of this electric car isn’t limited to California and big cities. Next stop is Charleston in South Carolina…

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