Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Road Trip: National Harbor to Richmond, VA

The day was already off to a less than auspicious start. My flight into National Airport, just outside of DC, had gone smoothly enough despite being a bit late. The shuttle to National Harbor was uneventful enough, despite requiring a much longer wait than originally expected. Things started to come apart at the seams, however, when I stopped at the Hertz rental car counter in the hotel to pick up the car I had reserved. Apparently, they had a few cars that were delayed in coming back and despite the fact that I had a reservation to pick up the car at 3:30PM, the earliest a car would be available would be 6PM. Since I was expected to be in Richmond, about 2 hours away, for dinner, that just wasn't going to cut it. Throw in some surly service from an overwhelmed counter rep and my patience was wearing thin. Figuring that the airport location would have more cars, I called for a shuttle and headed back to the airport.

Arriving at the airport location, I headed for the Hertz counter. The large number of people sitting around waiting should have been a clue, but I was hoping for the best. I approached the counter and as the guy pulled up my reservation on the computer, it was looking like things would finally be going my way. We went through nearly the entire process before the rep at the counter informed me, with an air of "sucks to be you," that there was a 90-minute wait for a car. Running out of time, I gave the rep a piece of my mind, in no uncertain terms, before canceling my reservation. Taking a step back, head full of steam, I looked down the row of rental car counters and picked out Budget, mostly because there was absolutely no one in line. Before I even began the process, I asked the counter rep if they had cars available immediately and he assured me that he did, although they only had coupes left: one Mustang and one Camaro. Before deciding, I inquired as to whether the cars were V6 or V8 versions - the Mustang was six-cylinder, but the Camaro was an SS with the V8. Jackpot!

Already behind schedule, I did a quick walk around of the cherry red Camaro SS to make sure there was not any obvious damage. Hopping into the driver's seat, I fired up the motor, taking a moment to drink in the muted burble of the V8. A quick final check and I was on my way, taking it easy as I exited the airport grounds onto GW Parkway where I could open the taps on all eight of those glorious cylinders. Foot to the floor, I rode the wave of torque up to just beyond cruising speed. Passing through Old Town Alexandria, the bright red Camaro attracted a surprising amount of attention, garnering at least a few double-takes and a few camera phone photos, demonstrating that, despite being a few years old, the design still attracts its fair share of attention.

Finally out of the city and onto I-95 headed south, I was able to relax a bit and set the cruise control. I had driven the Camaro only once before and I never really enjoyed the interior, which felt cheap and sort of gimmicky. Luckily, my travel companion today included both the 6-speed automatic and GM's head-up display unit, which meant I did not have to rely on the barely legible gauges at all. That meant setting the cruise to a comfortable 5 mph over the posted limit, music streaming via USB from my phone to the MyLink infotainment system, and settling in for the drive.

Anyone who has driven this stretch of I-95 between Northern Virginia and Richmond knows that it is pretty much as straight and as dull as they come. There are few attractions along the way and even the scenery is repetitive. Usually, when I travel to Richmond, I look for interesting back road routes that take substantially more time, but offer much more entertainment value. However, due to all of the setbacks, I was already well behind schedule and had about a 20-minute deficit to make up. Once I got past Fredericksburg, with Trapster running in the background on my phone, I cautiously upped my pace, allowing the Camaro to draw in the cool fall air and convert it into a sustainable extra-legal pace.

Time check: 50-minutes till dinner with just under 60-miles to go. I was making up time quickly, but would still be a few minutes late at this pace. Already stretching the boundaries of my comfort with skirting speed limits, I started scanning around me for fast moving cars that I could use as decoys for any law enforcement that might be hiding along the way. Luckily, it seemed that I was not the only one in a hurry because several cars along the way were far too happy to oblige. A few quick passing sprints allowed me to enjoy the torquey V8 accompanied by the raucous sound of the exhaust. A few sprints to keep me entertained also allowed me to make up a few more minutes.

Just a few miles from the restaurant with under 10 minutes left, I was able to back off the breakneck pace and cruise through the streets of Richmond, absorbing the scenery of the homes along tree-lined streets, many with just the right touch of southern charm. Not surprisingly, the cherry red paint work on the Camaro attracted just as much, if not more attention in Richmond than it did driving through Alexandria.

Dinner was with friends that I had not seen in a little while and was filled with raucous conversation and much reminiscing. The food was nothing special, but service was excellent. After dinner, I stopped in at their place and had a cup of coffee to recharge for the haul back to the DC area.

In the dark of this particular moonless evening, traffic was light and the drive back to return the car was uneventful. I was wiped by the time I returned to my hotel room and sank into bed, the knowledge that an early morning was there to greet me in a matter of hours.

The Camaro proved a solid road trip partner, with a firm, but not uncomfortable ride for hours of smooth highway cruising. Since time was of the essence, I did not get a chance to toss the car around much, but there were plenty of opportunities to take advantage of the power of the big V8. The presence of the HUD helped to make the drive easier since I did not have to use the terrible gauges and the MyLink system offered up all of the connectivity I could possibly need to my mobile device. It may not be the best infotainment setup in the business, but it is far from the worst.

Best of all, my evening romp with this hot little number cost me less than what I would have paid to get stuck with some mediocre sedan from Hertz. Budget even threw in full coverage insurance with no additional cost. Talk about turning around what could have been a miserable day of delays.

A special thanks to the team at Budget for providing a great car rental experience and for stocking some truly excellent cars.

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