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2nd Gear: The Forest Tests

Thursday, August 28th, 1997

13:45 hours: Joshua, Dan, Jonas and Ryan pile into the Omni on a warm but cloudy summer Thursday.  The Omni is in typical working condition, though it should be noted that the car's oil level is far below the fill line: a full 2 1/2 quarts low.  We never get a chance to buy oil until midway through the day... but the lack of oil seems to have had little affect on the car's "performance".   We stop at Cumby's for some snacks and then head south on Route 3 toward Beaver Dam Road.  It was on this lovely American highway that we decided to run our first test.

Test #1: Top Speed

14:00 hours:   As we all squirm and squabble, someone suggests that we should try to figure out the Omni's top speed.  Without a word, Joshua slams his foot on the gas, ducks his head in toward the wheel in a determined soap box racer stance, and maneuvers past a disgruntled townie in a pickup truck.  The rest of us laugh and yelp and make monkey sounds as the Omni glides ahead across the carless stretch of asphalt raceway.  The speedometer needle passes 60... then 70, and the frame of the Omni begins to shake a bit.   We all holler in anticipation like thirty-somethings on reruns of Wheel of Fortune, but  the needle finally holds position at a whopping 85 miles per hour.   We are all duly impressed.  Joshua holds the car at 85, zooming past carloads of tourists heading south toward the Cape.  After about 10 seconds of this we collectively decide it would be a good idea to slow down.  None of us are particularly interested in losing our lives in the name of "auto-science".

What we learned:  The Omni has a top speed of 85 miles per hour when carrying four basically full grown men on a straight section of road.

What this means:   While it's certainly a joke, the Omni is not a 100% sad vehicle.   A sixteen year old American made hatchback that can approach ninety could be a car worth saving.  There are plenty of cars made in China and eastern Europe during the mid-80s that might have trouble beating the Omni in a race.  While the Omni is dangerous, it is not much more dangerous at high speeds.  Therefore it's actually safer to drive fast--the faster the Omni travels, the sooner its passengers can get the hell out of this ridiculous blunder of a soap box.

14:15 hours: We pull off the highway at exit 3 and drive toward The Spot, a little pond in the forest where we love to camp out during the summer.  It seemed like a good place to test the Omni's off road capabilities.   We choose an ominous looking dirty puddle at the corner of Old Sandwich Road and Long Pond Road as the location for our second test.

Test #2: The Mud

We all get out of the car, stretch our legs, and remind Omnician Joshua (that's Omni-technician Joshua) to put on his safety helmet.   One can never be too careful.  Who knows if the damn thing will spin out in the mud and hit a tree.  Daniel, Jonas and Ryan maintain a safe distance as Josh revs the engine; when the coast is clear, he pops it into first and drives straight through the nasty, nasty mud.

the little hatchback that could

The Omni has little trouble clearing the puddle and the surrounding squishy roadbed.  We are all impressed with the amount of muddy spray that has been produced... and it begins to dawn on us that the Omni's abilities as an off-road vehicle just might be stronger than we expected.  It looks like so much fun that Omnician Dan decides he should run another mud trial, "just to be sure".  You can view snapshots of that trial, and of the post-test soiled Omni, by clicking here.  As Dan splashes down, Joshua comments that the handling of the Omni was "strong and surpassingly nimble."  Test #2 is declared a success, and Josh and Dan receive many a manly slap on the ass.

What we learned:  Off the beaten path, the Omni screws.

What this means:  We had missed years worth of healthy good fun by not driving the Omni around in the mud every time we had a chance.  And, it seemed, we were going to have to run some more off road tests.

Test #3: Brakes

14:20 hours: On the unpaved road that runs past The Spot we set out to test the Omni's "braking system".  Dan tightens the strap on his crash helmet and prepares to run test number three.  The road surface has a mixed texture of sand and gravel.  None of us are quite sure what to expect.  Daniel drives a hundred yards or so down the road, turns around, and heads back toward us.  The road is a mix of sand and gravel.  He reaches and maintains a speed of 30 mph, and slams on the brakes at the point in the road we had agreed upon.  The Omni slows to a halt over a distance of 25 yards.   During the last few yards the car pulls a hard 45 degrees to the left and hits the road's dirt shoulder, in a cloud of yellow dust.  Luckily, no one is standing on that left shoulder.  All four of us laugh at the Omni's horrible failure.  Dan explains that in depressing the brake he "felt nothing for the first few seconds.  After application of excessive weight, some change in speed was detected.Omnician Jonas describes the Omni as "a dangerous, dangerous car."

What we learned: Off the beaten path, the Omni screws.  But unfortunately it does not stop screwing, even when you want it to.

What this means:  It was probably a good thing that we had all missed years worth of healthy good fun in the mud.  More importantly, we had better use wide roads and avoid tailgating.

Test #4: Rally Car

14:25 hours: We are all quite excited about the next test.  True, the Omni possesses the beauty and luxury one expects from an American auto manufacturer during the Reagan era, but in terms of sheer maneuverability, does the vehicle pack the punch that suburban twenty-year olds demand in an economy hatchback?  We intend to determine just that.  Our plan is to attempt to drive the Omni from the road that approaches The Spot, through the forest, to the edge of the pond itself.  This is no easy task.  Though visitors to the spot have worn down a trail, this trail weaves around fallen logs and through narrow spaces between trees. 

The Rally Course

The distance from the road to the pond is approximately one quarter of a mile.  We decide that Dan will drive (since he has both mud and braking experience), Jonas will ride shotgun, Joshua will time with his stopwatch, and Ryan will document with the camera.  At Josh's "Go!", Dan begins his rally from the edge of the street.  Help yourself to the Rally Car Test photo sequence. 

As the photos and commentary reveal, Dan has no trouble weaving through the trees, logs, and shrubs.   Luckily, the car's lack of effective brakes (see test #3 above) was of little consequence, since Daniel doesn't attempt to depress the brake at any time.  It's impossible to convey just how quickly the Omni rockets out of Joshua's and Ryan's view.  Certain high-speed chases on the planet Endor come to mind.  Jonas and Daniel arrive at the pond's edge in a ridonkulous 48 seconds, and pose for a float-o-finish.  On the return trip, Dan has a bit of difficulty identifying the correct route--at one point he comes within 4 inches of front-ending a tree.  He finally reaches the road after 95 seconds, but the four of us are too busy laughing to feel disappointed.  Omnician Daniel reports, "It was a tough call on which way to go on the way back.  Trees were everywhere.When asked to comment on his shotgun role in the rally test, the glossy-eyed Jonas had few words.  "I actually dropped a load in my pants," he remarked.  "Dan's driving was spectacular.Understood, dear Jonas.   We hear you.  We hear you clear as a moonlit November eve.

What we learned:  The 1981 Dodge Omni sets the industry standard with a level of control and maneuverability far exceeding that of other maroon economy hatchbacks in its class.  In addition, Dan can manipulate The Force and Jonas has weak bowels.

What this means:  None of us have any idea.  If you come up with anything, click on reverse, and let us know. 

Now that we're almost out of the woods, click on the shifter or click here to move this party in to higher gear with The Downtown Tests.  There's nothing quite like playing with toy cars in beautiful historic Plymouth.


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