Saturday, August 24, 2013

The GoCar Experience.

Done! I got to try the GoCar in Lisbon that I had noticed on my first day there. The little yellow three-wheeled buggy struck me as a fun way to tour the city, and I got the chance to take one for a spin. The two-seat cars are actually modified scooters. The rear half is a scooter engine and automotic transmission driving the rear wheel, and the front has been rigged up to steer like a proper car (with two wheels). The advertisements promise a GPS-guided tour with a fun and helpful storytelling of the highlights of the city.
It was quick and easy to sign up for an hour tour with your standard rental procedure: show your drivers licence, tick off the optional insurance (or not), sign the contract, and leave a deposit (100 euros). The GoCar really is a mix of car and scooter: the open-air feel and handlebars and all the controls (signals, lights, horn, and the gauges) are all straight out of a typical scooter, while the seats and seatbelts and pedals and steering system are much more car-like. The small locking trunk is a nice touch to store personal effects.
Three different GPS-guided tours were suggested, though we were free to take the GoCar anywhere we liked with city limits. Having seen an unfortunate couple struggle to make it up one of the cities many hills earlier that morning (I'm pretty sure the woman who had to get out and push her husband in the GoCar up the hill while onlookers pointed and laughed is STILL yelling at him...!), my travel partner and I decided to play it safe and stick to the mostly flat tour to the west of the city that included the Monument to the Discoveries and Belem Tower visit.
Little explanation was required; the GoCar people were friendly and helpful, and it only took them a few minutes to outfit us with helmets and explain the cars few controls. They started the GPS vocal GPS system (there is no screen; all directions are given by a voice through the radio system) and pointed us in the right direction. The GoCar, like any scooter, has an electronic start. The little 50cc engine doesn't really roar to life... it sort of coughs and shudders and takes a little pull on the throttle to wake up.
The GoCar has no reverse, so you have to push it back away from the curb and line it up on the street. Mirrors adjusted... helmet buckled... driver and passenger braced for take-off... pull on the throttle... and... and... maximum noise, minimum acceleration! I suppose I should have expected that with all the extra frame and body work of the car and two full-sized adults that the little cart wouldn't be a rocketship, but the take-off really is very weak. The ratio of noise to acceleration is rather disappointing.
Once you finally get rolling things are better, as the very low seating position and direct steering make for a proper go-kart type experience. You have an excellent view over the low windshield, and the GoCar offers a unique presentation of the city. But that noise! It is loud. Very loud. Obnoxiously loud. Sitting down low, just ahead of the motor, you get the full blast of the struggling two-cycle sound, and it really isn't enjoyable. Even with the radio turned to full volume, it is nearly impossible to hear the GPS directions. With our heads tilted down to the speakers we could more or less figure it out, and in the end were able to follow the guided path, but it certainly wasn't easy. The promised stories and jokes and details of the city are also hard to hear, as they come through the same speakers as the GPS guidance.
And luckily we took mostly flat roads, because even on the very slight hills we encountered we could feel the poor little laboured buggy fighting to keep its speed up. On flat stretches it would hit 40 km/h, which is fast enough for in the city, but even the smallest of grades drops the speed down considerably. It became a game to keep up a maximum of speed in corners and roll through stop signs to avoid losing too much speed. As a result, while the passenger was free to gawk and stare to his hearts content, the driver (yours truly) had to spend most of his time focused on keeping the car moving forward.
The car gets points for great handling, but loses them for poor ride comfort. The lack of suspension means that you get a bone-jarring ride (compensated slightly by the squishy foam seats), especially over cobblestones which are everywhere in Lisbon. Remember, when you were a kid, sliding down the stairs in your house on your butt... imagine that, and you've imagined the GoCar ride over rough roads!
So would I suggest the GoCar to someone visiting Lisbon (or any of the other cities where it exists, including San Francisco, Barcelona, and Seattle)? As much as it pains me, I'm not sure that I can. The go-kart experience spoke to my inner child, but it gets old fast. And once that's over, or if your inner child has long since stoped being amused by such things, you're left with a noisy, rough, bouncy tour. To make it worse, not only do you have a hard time hearing the directions, but you also can't hear the comments on the city.
There are a few pluses, like the great view and 'wind in your hair' experience, and the fact that you can deviate from the GPS tours and stop and get out where you like. But the minuses really do take away from the experience. At 29 euros for an hour the price originally seemed like a great deal to me, but in the end seemed a little high for the enjoyment we got out of it.
What could make this idea work? The cars need to be more powerful and quieter, and the best way to do that would be to make them electric. That would solve both major problems and make the GoCar experience much more enjoyable.
All that said, I checked the TripAdvisors review of the Lisbon GoCars, and the average result is 4.5 out of 5, with many glowing recommendations! Many people seemed to love it, so you might too!

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