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Karen is doing 80 mph on Interstate 40 west of Ozark headed home when she tells me about a couple she once knew who would change drivers on the fly.

This was in the 1970s. He'd be driving and feel like taking a break, so she'd crawl over him as he slid to the right.

I think about this.

They couldn't have been driving a car with a stick shift; it had to be one of those land yachts with bench seats. In a mid-'70s LTD or a deuce and a quarter with cruise control it'd be no problem, so long as they both weren't giants. It was probably a lot less dangerous than texting if you pick the right long stretch of open highway. We sure couldn't do it.

Just then the white minivan in the left lane starts to pull into our lane on the right. Karen honks her horn, but the van keeps coming. So she taps the brakes and the van misses us. By three feet.

That's enough for her. Next exit, she coasts off, pulls to the shoulder and kills the ignition. I get out and walk around the back of the car to the driver's side while she walks around the front of the car to the passenger side. I get in and push the bucket seat all the way back, then pull it forward an inch, tweak the mirrors, find first gear and pull away. In less than a minute we're back on the interstate, and I've found a front door.

The car is new; the odometer rolls over 700 miles just before we hit Clarksville. It's a sporty Hyundai, and Karen settled on it largely because it was one of the few models available with a manual transmission.

It's her second Hyundai; she bought the first one sold in Little Rock back in the 1980s. The dealer took her picture with the car and sent it to both newspapers, but if you remember seeing that photograph you're experiencing a Mandela effect--she worked for the Arkansas Gazette at the time, and its policy was not to run PR photos that featured their employees. And the Arkansas Democrat wouldn't run it because she was a Gazette employee.

I don't know that this Hyundai is her dream car, but she likes it a lot. It's tight and smooth and though the horsepower rating isn't eye-popping, it accelerates nicely, and at highway speed the tach doesn't touch 3,000 rpm. Lots of controls are located on the steering wheel so you hardly have to take your eyes off the road.

In five minutes, Karen is asleep. I thumb down the volume on Tom Petty, just a tad.

Were this my car, I'd probably turn the lane-keeping assist feature off. I'm not sure how the system works--I read a few articles on the Internet that suggest it's camera-based--but it works well. I can feel it nudging the car to more precisely the center of the lane if I let it drift even a foot or so. If I change lanes without flipping on a turn signal, it makes a little buzzy chirp. Sometimes when I'm passing a truck I'll move over to the left side of the lane and get that chirp even though I know I'm not quite on the line.

The little bit of resistance that the lane-assist technology produces in the wheel isn't unpleasant; it feels a bit like the push-back you encounter when trying to touch the like poles of two magnets together. And in an era when distracted driving seems to be the norm, it's a worthwhile gadget. I want everyone else on the road to have it.

Though it's easy to feel nostalgic for old cars, particularly the muscle cars of the late '60s and early '70s, the plain truth is that cars are a whole lot better than they used to be. This Hyundai is a big improvement over cars I remember fondly--it's quicker, faster and more nimble than some bona fide sports cars I drove back in the day.

That's true of a lot of cars now; if it weren't for car dealers I'd be really into modern automobiles. You have to make an effort to buy a lousy car these days; you can't work on them yourself, and if you dent a plastic panel it'll cost you $3,000.

You can argue aesthetics and politics and whether a given vehicle is suited to a given purpose, but mostly they're all pretty good. They start and go when you want them to. They're easy to drive, which might in some ways account for the fact that almost nobody seems to be able to drive anymore. (Self-driving cars won't save us. The more you know about artificial intelligence and the difficulty of coding ethics into algorithms, the more skeptical you become of autonomous cars.)

It doesn't take any real skill to pilot this Hyundai; even if you can't drive a manual transmission the gears are so silky and forgiving you could probably get the hang of it in a half-hour in a high school parking lot.

It will help you stay in your lane; it'll help keep you from running into another vehicle from behind.

Maybe I wouldn't turn the lane assist off after all. I don't think I need it, but I don't think I need a bike helmet either.

Still, you have to read the manual, and not just for Bluetooth and Apple CarPlay. (As the designated IT person in our family, I've set up the former, but haven't got around to the latter. And I don't know that I will. Between NPR, KABF and 94.5 FM, she doesn't need Apple Music or Spotify. For trips like this one I can hook up an iPad or an iPod or a portable CD player.) She turned on the windshield wipers on the way to Fayetteville and we had a lot of trouble figuring out how to turn them off when the sun came out.

We aligned the little mark on the lever with the "off" position--actually we aligned two little marks on the lever with two different "off" positions--but that didn't work. (What were we thinking?) So we shifted our bodies and lifted our feet and flicked the lever back and forth and up and down until we managed to get it to stop.

Then we sank down into our goldfish brain complacency, believing we'd solved the problem.

Thirty seconds later, the wiper arm skree-skrawed like chalkboard fingernails across the dry glass. The slowest intermittent cycle.

"Maybe that was an anomaly. Maybe it just had to get in the last word."


Something Karen did fixed it; she doesn't know what. Until she reads the manual.


Editorial on 10/13/2019


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