How can you carry out your sacred democratic responsibilities when you have elections as dull as Canada's? (I tried to watch the leaders debate, but fell asleep after two questions.) So as a service to the nation, I have come up with a better way to choose a party: Turn each leader into a car, and conduct a full-on road test. So how do they handle? And which one would I buy?
It was my civic duty to pick the correct car to represent each politician. Some were easy - Elizabeth May morphed into the electric Mitsubishi i-MiEV before my very eyes, and Jack Layton is a Volvo wagon with two legs and a mustache.
Gilles Duceppe was harder. Was he a Citroen Deux Chevaux? Like Duceppe, the Deux Chevaux is a flimsy Gallic design that has no hope of passing a crash test. But unlike Duceppe, the Citroen is charming, and sells well. (I finally selected the failure-prone Peugeot 505 as Duceppe's automotive doppelganger.) Toughest of all was Stephen Harper. Initially, I saw him as a Chevrolet Impala (a bland throwback model that should have gone out of production 20 years ago). But the Impala lacked Harper's bulldozer quality - it's not the kind of car you barrel through a crowd in.
Could he be a ZiL, the cast-iron Russian sedan once favoured by Nikita Kruschev? No, Harper was definitely GM: corporate and Waspy, with styling that conjures up a suit from the discount rack at Mr. Big and Tall. So I perused the GM lineup, and bingo! There was Harper, aka the Yukon XL, a full-size SUV favoured by hockey parents and third-world dictators.
I could see why. Like Harper, the Yukon manages to be both imposing and dull. Even so, my initial driving impressions were surprisingly favourable. The Harpermobile was one of the smoothest rides I've ever experienced. (When I learned that I had run over former caucus member Helen Guergis and two seal hunt activists during my test I was genuinely surprised - I didn't feel a thing!) The sound isolation was also outstanding. As I drove through a picket line to give the Yukon's bumpers a real-world test, I saw people's lips moving outside the windows, but heard absolutely nothing. On the downside, the steering had zero feel, and pulled persistently to the right, even after an alignment check.
There were also problems with the radio: When I hit the preset button for the CBC, the Rush Limbaugh show came on instead. I also noted that the heating system had a limited range of settings - from Cold to Slight Chill.
I tried to look under the hood, but it was welded shut. I called the factory, and was informed that the sealed hood is a standard feature on the Harper Edition Yukon. If I wanted to see the engine (or check the oil) I would have to file an Access to Information Request, which I did. (So far, no response.)
Next on my road test schedule was Michael Ignatieff, aka the Citroen SM. Like the flesh and blood Ignatieff, the SM is an exotic import with highly advanced features and surprisingly limited appeal: It was introduced in 1970, and was pulled off the market in 1974.
The SM's controls had a remote, academic feel, and the interior reminded me of a Scandinavian airport lounge. I could see why the SM was relegated to third place in a long-ago International Car of the Year competition.
Like the Liberal leader (a former Harvard professor), the SM is clearly superior to its competitors, at least in theory. And I found myself impressed - but again, only in theory. The SM was the most cerebral vehicle I'd ever driven, with swiveling headlights and an oleo-pneumatic suspension system that, like Ignatieff himself, can assume any number of positions, depending on the circumstances.
Although I admired the system's sophistication, it did exhibit some operational limitations. When I tried to raise the SM to clear a speed bump, the car surprised me by tilting to the left, then sharply to the right. Then a hydraulic line failed, and the entire vehicle dropped, much like Ignatieff in the polls.
I went into my road test of the Layton-edition Volvo wagon with some misgivings. Volvo was once a distinctive Swedish car favoured by rally drivers. It is now best known for its focus on passive safety, which makes it the pre-eminent brand in a narrow but important demographic dominated by tenured academics with trust funds, vacation properties and a deep attachment to progressive social causes.
The Volvo's power was lacklustre, and the radio appeared to have only channel: I listened to a David Suzuki story on the plight of the harp seal, a bassoon concerto performed by a lesbian quartet, then a documentary on Norwegian day-care policy that put me to sleep. When I woke up, I found a motorcycle wedged into the Volvo's grill.
The Layton Volvo had definitely altered my approach to safety. In most cars, I rely on outward visibility, brakes and handling to stay out of trouble. But in the Volvo I had 22 airbags, three first-aid kits and steel perimeter beams. Or at least I thought I did. At the end of the test, I found another motorcycle stuck in the grill. Must have fallen asleep again.
I was revived by the prospect of testing the Duceppe-edition Peugeot 505. French cars are unique - but as the 505 proved, not always in a good way. The Peugeot was a Ford Topaz with a beret and an expired warranty. The manual was French-only. As I rounded a corner, the steering wheel came off in my hands. Separated, you might say. No sale.
It was on to the Elizabeth May electric Mitsubushi i-MiEV, which made me feel a lot better about driving. After so many sleepless nights spent worrying about the shrinking habitat of the Andalusian Gorge Rat, I was genuinely relieved to be running on electric power alone. The future was green! (Unfortunately, I didn't have enough battery range to get there.) In theory, the little electric Mitsubushi was perfect. But so, in theory, is May. Last year, Mitsubishi drove an i-MiEV across Canada to demonstrate its capabilities. Behind it was an 18-wheeler truck with a diesel generator. Based on this, I must give May a thumbs down, at least for now.
The bottom line: Five political road tests, no sale. But it was more fun than the leaders' debate. Then again, so is servicing the furnace.
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