The Basics: California Cars

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SUV Dreaming

SUV Dreaming (an actual billboard just outside my Oakland studio, unwittingly showing us what an SUV is really for…)

An actual quote: “Chevy ™ Tahoe (R), the one sport utility vehicle whose vast size and comfort make it perfect for self-discovery.” — Chevrolet ad, back cover, Smithsonian magazine, Jan 1998. Cars and self-discovery — you can’t get more Californian than that! I’m surprised it didn’t mention yoga in there somewhere too.

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There’s still an arms race going on out there, despite the increased gas prices and the various recessions: like Californians themselves, California Cars are (still!) getting fatter and heavier by the year, and drivers in smaller cars are (still!) besieged by intimidating fleets of vast SUVs like the Chevy Tahoe. This is a place where size matters, and combined with the cult of the SUV, you’ll see the most bloated, overpowered, inefficient, ungainly — and ludicrously ugly — cars and trucks in the world here (maybe the most ludicrous of all is the Cadillac Escalade, a huge SUV made by (yes!) Cadillac, with all the stylishness, engineering quality, and attention to efficiency we’ve come to expect from that company; needless to say, the Escalade SUV is not designed for anything but city and suburban driving). Remember, this is a country where a full size Honda Accord is categorized as small, and Toyota Landcruisers and Ford Explorers are typically thought of as only mid-sized, especially compared to their larger competitors such as the Chevy Tahoe or Ford Excursion. Even the recent gas price hikes and the collapse of SUV sales haven’t made much of a dent in the size of the cars you’ll see all around you on the road here.

However, most Californian cars are not the huge stereotypical “Yank Tanks”, “boats”, or “land yachts” — that is, the huge Cadillacs, Buicks, and Oldsmobiles you see in old movies and TV shows. For years, the best-selling cars in America have been the Honda Accord, the Toyota Camry, or the Toyota Prius — and many cars in California are smallish Japanese or European cars (or their American equivalents). There are also a large number of mini-vans, vans, four wheel drive (4WD) cars or SUV’s, and small trucks; the traditional really large cars (the Cadillacs, etc.) now seem to be driven mostly by the old or the poor (at least in the cities).

This means that if you chose wisely, you will have little trouble with the cars themselves — despite the horror stories of wrestling ten ton monsters on the hills of San Francisco, you’re actually likely to end up with a car that’s reasonably easy to drive and park. Almost all rental cars have automatic transmissions and air conditioning; both can come in handy when stuck in the typical California traffic jam. Automatic transmissions are also highly-recommended for keeping your sanity while driving in San Francisco, with its combination of steep hills and stop / start traffic (the phrase (and title) “The Hills Of San Francisco” is not metaphorical — they’re really steep in some places, and few parts of San Francisco or the surrounding region are  flat).

Smaller Californian cars are usually referred to as being either “sub-compact” or “compact” (bearing in mind that “small” is relative here — despite increasingly successful attempts to sell the Smart Car, cars the size of a 2CV or Fiat Uno are still very rare here). “Sub-compact” typically corresponds to small-to-medium sized European or Japanese cars; a Honda Civic is plausibly sub-compact. “Compact” roughly corresponds to medium-to-large European or Japanese cars: a Lexus or a Saab or the typical Toyota Camry or Holden Commodore would all plausibly qualify as “compact”. Once again, the term is relative, and varies in usage; in general, a “compact” seems to be anything that isn’t a traditional large American car, van, or large SUV. These classifications are used extensively for car rentals, parking lot spaces, etc., so it pays to know which is which, especially if you want to avoid renting a typical bloated large (“normal”-sized) unparkable soft-suspension soft-steering gas-guzzling Buick, Cadillac, or Lincoln Town Car.

Many American cars double up the brake lights and the turn signal lights — i.e. the (red) brake light on the relevant side flashes when the turn signal is used. There are no separate (yellow or orange) turn signal lights on the back of the car. This can be lethally ambiguous — it’s often difficult to tell whether a car intends turning or is stopping in a stop-start manner with a defective brake light. (Of course, since most turns in California are done without using any signals at all — see Bad Habits later in the Guide — this is usually a moot point). A significant number of imports have been specially made to do this as well.

Some older American cars have an automatic seat belt arrangement — the seat belt is attached to a sliding lug at the front of the doors, and moves back to the normal position when the door is closed and the ignition turned on. The usual sign of this is the shoulder strap appears to be fixed to the door somewhere near the dash rather than behind the shoulder, and there’s a small slot running along the inside of the car just above the door. Don’t try to move the seat belt yourself — it’s that way on purpose, and although it’s both confusing and counter-intuitive, you just have to close the door and wait for it to slide into place. And remember: you must also (manually) fasten the lap belt part of the seat belt once the automatic bit is in place; leaving the lap belt unfastened is extremely dangerous and very easy to do with automatic belts. This great “feature” has been slowly disappearing over the years; I’ve been told that automatic seat belts were actually made illegal some time ago, but I still occasionally see them around.

Another slightly odd idiosyncrasy is that some cars sold in America don’t allow you to start the ignition until you’ve done something like press the clutch or the brake pedal or put the car (if an automatic) into Park (the specifics vary). This can be pretty embarrassing when it happens at the car rental place — you sit there trying to start the car and nothing happens, no matter what you do. Don’t worry too much about this — most of us locals can’t get this right either. Variations on this theme abound: some cars won’t let you drive with the doors unlocked (or they automatically lock your doors for you when you start moving); others don’t have a separate parking brake release — it’s automatically released when you move the car’s transmission into drive, for example.

One more thing to look out for is that a lot of American cars are specifically designed to allow you to leave your full headlights on when you leave the car. Some cars will try to signal that you’ve left them on — a few pathetic beeps or the muted chiming of a bell —but few of them turn them off (or down) for you as you would expect if you were used to European, British, or Japanese models. It’s an easy way to lose your battery….

Car and Driver Insurance

All drivers and cars must be insured for at least third-party injury and damage. The way this is done varies tremendously — sometimes it’s the car (and any driver fitting certain profiles) that is insured, other times it’s the driver (and any car he or she is driving). Since injuries involving cars invariably result in huge law suits and years of lawyering, insurance is not just legally mandatory, it’s essential for your financial health. You can get extra insurance that covers your expenses if you are hit by an uninsured driver (there are a lot of these in California).

You are required by law to be insured — and if pulled over by a police officer, to be able to show proof of insurance. If you are a foreigner or from out of state, you should check very carefully with your own insurance company, and with the policy of the owner of the car you are driving (if the car’s well-insured, and you’re a normal driver, you’re probably insured by the owner’s policy — but don’t just assume this!). If you are in an accident, whether you caused it or not, and you are uninsured, you will most likely be subject to crippling legal and medical fees.

Gas Stations

A very few Californian gas stations are still mixed full service (i.e. an attendant does all the work) and self-serve, but the vast majority nowadays are self-serve only. The full service pumps at a mixed gas station are usually well marked — if you don’t want full service, find the self serve pumps in the same station, as you pay a lot extra for using full service pumps, whether you have the attendant do the work or not. At full service places you don’t normally tip the attendant; you do, however, pay a fair bit extra for the gas for the service (you can normally expect them to check the oil and clean the windshield as well as pump the gas).

Self-serve pumps are fairly self-explanatory in use and similar to gas pumps elsewhere in the western world, with most pumps needing to be explicitly turned on before they’ll actually pump (this is usually a simple matter of pushing a well-labeled button or lever). There’s a standard pump handle color code for gas pumps throughout the state (and the rest of the US as far as I know): red for “standard”, white for “premium”, blue for “supreme” (or whatever the brand-specific names are for the various increasing octane ratings of “normal” gas or petrol), and, most importantly, green for diesel pumps. You should not theoretically be able to fit a diesel nozzle into a standard gas tank filler hole, but don’t count on it.

Californian gas stations haven’t sold leaded gas for years now; instead there’s the usual full range of unleaded gas in various octane ratings; most places have some sort of diesel as well. The fancier gas types, usually sold as “Plus Unleaded” or “Supreme” or similar, are usually not worth it unless your car really needs them — stick to ordinary unleaded unless you drive a turbo or the car’s manual says it needs the better stuff. The major brands of gas available in California are Chevron, BP, Exxon, Valero, Shell, etc.; prices vary somewhat according to region and brand, but are still somewhat lower than most other places in the western world.

Virtually all gas stations take major credit cards (at least Visa and MasterCard); some charge more for credit card transactions than for cash; some will require some form of valid identification for credit card use (e.g. a driver’s license — a foreign one often seems to work, especially if it has your photo on it). Almost all self-serve gas stations allow you to pay by credit card for your gas at the pump by passing your card through a card reader on the pump, without an attendant or clerk being involved. It is usually fairly obvious whether this is possible or not, and it’s mostly pretty easy and very convenient to use, with instructions in English and Spanish. Lately the credit card readers on the pumps have started asking for your zip code, which isn’t a lot of help if you’re not a US resident; in these cases, just go to the attendant and use you card there instead.

Virtually all of the self-serve places are “pay first” gas stations, especially in urban and suburban areas. At these places you park next to the pump, and either use your card as described above before starting to pump the gas (by far the easiest and most convenient way to pay), or walk up to the cashier or attendant and pay first, with cash or by card. If you’re paying by cash before pumping, just say something like “Fifty [dollars] on [pump] 7”, give the cashier the money (the fifty dollar bill), and go back out and start filling the gas tank. If you used less than the fifty dollars, just go back and get the change; otherwise, you can drive off without further bothering the clerk. If you’re using a credit card at a “pay first” place, and you need to pay manually, give the attendant your credit card first and just tell them what pump it’s for (and how much you want to pump if you’re not filling the tank, e.g. “fifty on five…”). You usually can’t pump more than you asked for, and you’ll quickly learn with experience what’s a useful amount to pay beforehand.

If you can’t tell whether it’s a “pay first” place (they usually say so with a sign just above the pump or on the cashier’s window), it’s best to assume it is and go through the motions described above (paying first is common enough even at places where it isn’t necessary — and anyway, the clerk will tell you if they don’t want you to pay first). Some places are only “pay first” between (say) 6pm and 7am. Almost any pump that lets you pay at the pump will be “pay first” — you won’t be able to pump until you’ve passed your credit card through the reader.

Gas stations in rougher areas typically have a single bullet-proof bunker in the center of the gas station where you pay (before you pump, of course) through a thick bullet-proof window, talking to the cashier through a microphone or a small hole in the glass. This can be fairly intimidating at first but it’s not too bad when you get used to it. You could always drive on and find a nicer place.

Most gas stations have some form of air supply for tires; this is sometimes out the back or not in any obvious place — it pays to ask. Some places do not have any air or water outlets (even though it’s apparently required by law); others charge you a quarter to use the facilities, so have a good look first. Similar remarks apply for toilets or restrooms — some places have them, some don’t, and you may have to search a while or get a key from the cashier. In my experience, all Chevron stations have restrooms.

Special note: if you drive north into Oregon, all gas stations there are full service. You are not allowed to pump your own gas, and the attendants will often get quite unpleasant if you try (in many cases you can’t do it anyway, since you need a special key). After years of self-service I initially found this irritating and paternalistic, but it’s the law there (and it doesn’t cost any more than self-serve gas in California). (A potential explanation for this law comes from a reader who believes it’s due to someone who blew themselves (or someone else) up smoking while refueling and sued as a result. All too plausible, unfortunately. Another explanation is the strength of union jobs up there…).

Renting or Buying A Car in California

Renting a car in California is relatively cheap and straight-forward. Every airport and every reasonably-large city or town will have at least the usual range of rental companies such as Budget, Avis, Hertz, Alamo, Enterprise, etc., and (with a little research) you can rent almost anything here from a nice little hybrid Prius, through the normal Fords, Toyotas, Subarus, etc., to something ludicrously-stupid like a Hummer (as long as you’re willing to pay for it…). If you’re visiting here from overseas, it’s often easier and cheaper to arrange for the rental with the company’s representatives in your home country rather than doing it here when you arrive. Firstly, you’ll at least have some reason to believe there’ll actually be a car for you when you arrive (and that the office has stayed open for you); and secondly, you’ll probably be able to shop for good package deals at your leisure rather than running around here in a rush to get out of the airport.

To be able to rent a car here, you’ll need a major credit card (Visa, MasterCard, American Express at least), and a driver’s license valid in the country you reside in. You don’t normally need to show or have an international driver’s license (I don’t think I’ve even seen one now for something like twenty years). You may have some trouble renting a car if you’re under the age of 25, so ask ahead. When you pick the car up, you’ll be asked whether you want to have “collision damage waiver” (CDW) insurance. This costs something like $10 to $12 per day, and looks like it covers collision damage, etc., but beware: firstly, it doesn’t actually cover anything very useful (read the fine print one day), and secondly, you may already be covered. Most gold credit cards cover CDW automatically if you use them to rent the car, and your normal car insurance may also cover it if you’re American. When in doubt, I suppose it’s best to agree to the CDW, but it’s not a good deal, and they don’t advertise it in all those lovely-looking prices in the glossies you poured over back home.

Rental cars usually can’t be driven into Mexico or Canada or (sometimes) out of state without explicit permission from the rental company. This permission is easy to get and is mostly due to insurance rules (you’ll prob ably just end up paying a bit more for the rental). If you’re thinking of driving to Nevada for a day or two’s gambling in Las Vegas, for example, check with the rental agency when you book the car (it’s usually no problem — just another box to tick on the form and maybe a few extra dollars — but just be sure). Check again when you actually pick the car up; you may have to pay slightly extra for these things.

An interesting alternative to traditional car rentals for urban areas is the Zipcar, which is a carshare service that can be convenient for short trips and uses (I have friends who’ve had positive experiences with it, but then they’re local).

Alternatively, if you’re here for any extended amount of time, you might want to actually think about buying a car. This isn’t as weird as it sounds, since cars here are relatively cheap, and you can buy a classic old Yank Tank that will last you a few thousand miles for practically nothing. But beware — not only will you have to deal with the state authorities when you buy the car (especially the DMV, who do the car’s licensing), but you also run the risk of buying a lemon (or worse). I wouldn’t recommend this unless you really know what you’re doing (or you’ve got a sense of adventure), but the results from people I know who’ve actually done it (and lived to tell the tale) have been fun.


In places like downtown San Francisco or Santa Monica, taxis are relatively safe, convenient, and comfortable, and often the best way to get around town (but usually scarce). In much of the rest of California, taxis are only haphazardly-available, and often poorly-maintained. Nonetheless, they’re still relatively safe, or at least safer than taking a bus late at night — statistics strongly suggest that it’s taxi drivers rather than the passengers who suffer most from crime and accidents.

In downtown areas you can either hail a passing taxi, or find a taxi stand (usually outside a hotel or the local train or BART station), or use the web or a phone to book one. Airports (even the smallest) will also have a taxi stand. Everywhere else you’ll have to use the phone or an app (or Uber…).

Remember to tip the driver at least 15% of the final fare, unless he or she’s done something egregiously stupid or dangerous, or obviously took you the wrong way.

For Australian readers: sit in the back of the taxi, unless there’s more than two of you. You’re likely to provoke fear or discomfort by leaping into the front seat (in some of the scarier areas of the state, you won’t even be able to get in the front).

Uber, Lyft, Etc.

Uber and Lyft are both big (and quite popular) in the San Francisco and Los Angeles regions. They’re controversial in some eyes, but they’re also convenient and (in my experience) pretty safe. I work a lot in LA, and if it weren’t for Uber black cars, I’d be in a lot of trouble and a lot less mobile (if you’ve ever tried to get a conventional taxi to pick you up on Wilshire at Highland at 6pm on a typical workday, you’ll know what I’m talking about…).


And hey, if you want to see some authentic Californian (and some Arizonan and Nevadan, but never mind) cars in the wild, take a look at the following video (© 2011 Hamish Reid; yeah, I had a lot of fun shooting this one…):

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