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posted: 9/15/2013 12:55 AM

Hell and back is route to success for automakers

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By Tim Higgins
Bloomberg News

HELL, Mich. -- The road to Hell, it turns out, is a great place to test drive cars.

Automakers seeking publicity try to get automotive journalists in their vehicles, sometimes luring them to exotic locations with gorgeous views, luxurious hotels and sumptuous restaurants. Wine Country. San Diego. The Autobahn.

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And Hell.

An unincorporated Michigan community about 60 miles west of Detroit, Hell boasts winding roads and a diner called Screams Ice Cream. It has also become one of the top places for automakers and journalists to test the day's newest cars, especially as a flood of new vehicles hits the market after the turmoil of the recession.

A total of 376 models will be introduced in the United States from this year through 2015, according to researcher Polk, as auto sales run at the fastest pace since 2007 and deliveries in August blew past expectations. Those new introductions compare with 88 in 2011 and 91 in 2010, the year after industry sales fell to a 27-year-low and both Chrysler and General Motors went through bankruptcy reorganization.

"The economy is better, so the auto companies are doing more programs and doing more regional programs to reach a wider array of media," said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst with Edmunds.com, a website that tracks the auto-retail market.

Mercedes-Benz held three events with routes through Hell this year, including for the new E-Class mid-size luxury sedan, while General Motors had journalists drive Chevrolet Cruze sedans to the Hell Creek Ranch, where they switched from the compact cars into the full-size Chevrolet Impala that Consumer Reports called the best sedan on the market. A few weeks later, journalists passed through Hell again driving GM's Buick LaCrosse.

The inevitable puns follow. WardsAuto, an industry trade publication, reviewed the Cruze in July by asking how far the diesel version can travel on a single tank of fuel: "Almost to Hell and back."

Joann Muller began a Forbes.com article last year by stating: "I just spent two days driving through Hell, and I promise you, it was worth the trouble."

Such fun is to the chagrin of Christopher Jensen, 65, a freelance journalist based in Bethlehem, N.H.

"It's not exactly a tribute to the human spirit or intellect, but it does appear to be irresistible," he said. "I suspect if somebody named a town Poopy it would be very popular as well."

Jensen founded the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards more than 20 years ago and suggested later that the roads around Hell might make a good spot to test the finalists.

"It's close enough to Detroit that the automakers have no big problem getting their vehicles out" there, he said. "Within about two minutes you can be on a really great selection of roads."

In some spots, the narrow country roads rise and fall like a roller-coaster ride, while other areas are flat and straight enough for a quick burst before turning into another curve covered by a canopy of trees.

The good roads have attracted car engineers to the area for years, said John Colone, 67, who owned a Chrysler dealership in nearby Pinckney for more than 20 years.

"Almost daily you'll see Chrysler, General Motors and Ford here with cars all covered up," he said of Hell.

In 2000, Colone sold his dealership and tried retirement. It lasted about three months before he set up Screams in Hell and began his efforts to market his ice cream -- and the community. His ice cream shop is painted in Halloween orange with cartoonlike portraits of a devil and green witch.

He has a miniature golf course, a wedding chapel -- "A marriage that starts in Hell has nowhere to go but up," Colone likes to say -- and a gift shop where the teenage girl working behind the counter dutifully wishes visitors goodbye with a "have a helluva day." Colone estimates he attracts about 200,000 visitors a year.

"I'm living proof that car dealers go to Hell," said Colone, who lists himself as mayor of Hell on his LinkedIn page. Hell is an unincorporated community with 72 residents that was settled in 1838 by a man who built a whiskey still, Colone said. When wives were asked about their husbands, they would say they'd gone to Hell, he said. The Hell property association doesn't count people living in the nearby Hiland Lake area because in 1952 they tried to change Hell's name, he said, and "the people in Hell still hold a grudge."

Colone understands the appeal of the area for test drives.

"It's our beautiful back roads -- they're lightly patrolled," he said. Also, "it's that novelty of going to Hell."

Journalists preparing reviews and engineers refining a model in development often wheel around the area.

"Anyone who is anyone does like to drive to Hell," said Scott Burgess, Detroit editor of Motor Trend. "Those are some of the best roads" in Southeast Michigan.

Krebs, of Edmunds, agrees: "It may be Hell, but the roads are heavenly for test drives, at least for Michigan, which has few interesting, winding roads."

GM's Chevrolet brand, which is introducing 13 new or redesigned vehicles this year, took advantage of Hell's location for the diesel version of its compact Cruze while spending more for journalists to test drive the new Corvette sports car through the wine country north of Monterey, California.

Colone is just happy to have the visitors.

"Every town is historical," he said. "We're hysterical."

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