‘Creeps and weirdos’


It is historical fact that General Motors funded a company called National City Lines, which by 1946 controlled streetcar operations in 80 cities. GM was not intending to go into the trolley-car business. Despite strong public support for rail expansion, NCL systematically shut down its rail lines until, by 1955, only a few remained.

NCL’s trolleys were rapidly replaced by GM’s buses. A federal antitrust investigation resulted in both indictment and conspiracy convictions for GM executives, but obliterating a public transportation network that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to reproduce today cost the company only $5,000 in fines.

It is painfully ironic, then, that GM dealers recently took out an ad in Georgia Straight, Vancouver, Canada’s alternative newspaper, identifying the transit bus as transportation for "creeps and weirdos." Luckily, it said, Vancouverites can buy the $12,998 Chevrolet Cavalier instead. But wasn’t it GM that forced the smelly, diesel-powered bus on us in the first place?

The oil industry used a similar ad campaign to derail trolley service in Los Angeles. By 1921, the city had 1,000 miles of track and 250,000 passengers a day riding its Red Car interurban service. Eighty years later, with L.A.’s population immeasurably larger, Los Angeles has barely recovered that level of transit ridership.

GM is still fighting clean car mandates and fuel-efficiency improvements. But it also sees a future in fuel cells and plans to field a whole fleet of hybrid vehicles. One of those hybrids is even, gasp, a "creeps and weirdos" city bus.

A Volvo SUV?

It certainly excites comment. Wherever we went in the XC90, Volvo’s first SUV, people emerged from the woodwork to fog up its windows and ask questions. Buyer’s lust was in the air. Personally, I think it looks like an off-road tramp, a tarted-up Volvo wagon on stilts, painted up for the SUV crowd.

Technically, the all-wheel-drive XC90 is something of a marvel, particularly in its safety systems. While for most SUVs safety claims amount to false advertising, the XC90 goes the extra mile. It’s very unlikely to flip over, given its gyroscopic Roll Stability Control, and "Dynamic Stability" traction control keeps it on the road in the first place. Should you be so incredibly irresponsible to get in trouble anyway, it offers curtain-type side airbags for even the third row of passengers.

And the XC90 is also quite comfortable and well-equipped, right down to its heated armchairs and six-CD changer.

The XC90 is powered by a twin-turbo inline six generating 268 horsepower, coupled to a four-speed automatic. It can boast of ultra-low emissions (ULEV) status.

For full-confidence long-distance cruising, the XC90 has to be the ultimate road vehicle. The penalties are twofold: fuel economy (an anemic 15 mpg in the city, 20 on the highway) brought on by the weight of all those safety and luxury systems; and price — $45,555 as equipped. The upside is that with three rows of seats, it becomes a highly evolved version of the city bus, with no "creeps and weirdos" stigma.