- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Veteran “slugger” Bill Burke has commuted in everything from a school bus to a limousine since he began cadging rides to and from work in Washington. Now, Chevy wants him to use his experience to rate the 2008 Malibu.

At the edge of the National Mall, Mr. Burke steps into the back seat of the car and rides home, like he does every evening, except this time he gives feedback to a Chevrolet representative about the car.

Having commuted back and forth from Springfield in a different vehicle every weekday for the past 24 years, Mr. Burke has seen every kind of car there is, and that is precisely why Chevrolet seeks his feedback.

An auditor for the Department of Agriculture, Mr. Burke is one of thousands of sluggers, employees in the District who line up every morning and evening to catch free rides with strangers. The practice is a common way for drivers to meet HOV-lane requirements while helping out fellow commuters and decreasing congestion on D.C. highways.

Slugging is so popular in the District that Chevrolet, a division of General Motors, decided to embark on a novel marketing campaign, introducing its 2008 Malibu, named “Car of the Year” by the North American International Auto Show, by picking up riders from slugging locations in the Washington area in the five weeks following the Washington Auto Show.

The concept, as explained by Chevrolet, was to bring the dealership to people by providing the opportunity to test “ride” new cars without going to the dealership.

“The Malibu has received great reviews from automotive and consumer media, and we wanted to hear what people thought about it,” said John Konkel, Chevrolet marketing manager for the Northeast region. “We’ve been gathering comments about the Malibu from slugs each morning and afternoon, and that feedback has been very positive.”

David LeBlanc of Woodbridge, Va., the webmaster of slug-lines.com and a slugger for 14 years, rode in one of the new Malibus during the promotion.

“I thought it was a great way to expose people to the vehicle,” he said. “I was very impressed with the car itself.”

Mr. LeBlanc emphasized the benefits of slugging over carpooling, noting that unlike a rigid carpool schedule, sluggers have flexibility over when they depart, saving time and money.

“There’s certainly a benefit to the environment,” Mr. LeBlanc said. “Everybody wins. What’s great is that nobody’s in charge. It’s probably the fastest, most efficient system around. … It just works.”

A 2007 study by the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors found that 71 percent of workers in Northern Virginia drive to work alone, while only 29 percent commuted collectively.

After nearly 10,000 slug rides, Mr. Burke said that the only change throughout the years is the speed of his commute, citing better highways.

“It’s taken 10 minutes off my commute,” Mr. Burke said. “I can go from my house to my desk in 35 minutes. … This is by far the quickest way to get back and forth to work.”

Mr. Burke said that riding the Metro would make his commute nearly an hour longer.

“It’s the greatest deal in the world. The drivers give more than they get, but they save some time,” Mr. Burke said.

“As a slug there’s no wear and tear on my car, [plus] there’s no parking downtown. That’s the real killer. … One of the nice things about slugging is I had a car that was 24 years old and I hardly ever drove it,” he said.

Chevrolet gave approximately 800 rides to sluggers in the new Malibu during the promotion, Mr. Konkel said. The idea to seek feedback from sluggers came from several of the company’s D.C. interns, who shared the concept with the regional office.

“We thought it was a great idea,” Mr. Konkel said. “It was very successful.” He said that Chevrolet would look into putting on similar promotions in the future.

The car’s OnStar turn-by-turn navigation system and 110-volt outlet for portable electronics were among the most commented-on features of the car by sluggers, Mr. Konkel said.

Chevrolet said that the Malibu drivers only provided information to sluggers about the cars if the commuters specifically asked.

Mr. Burke said that his wife slugged twice when she was nine months pregnant, and that for “bring your daughter to work day” he brought his children in through the slug line. In addition, when friends visit from out of town, he brings them home for dinner on the slug line.

“It’s a lot of fun. People really enjoy it,” he said. “The drivers are just a wonderful breed of people. They let you in their car, they don’t ask for a whole lot from you. I’ve never been in a situation where I thought the driver was driving recklessly or inappropriately. It’s always been a great, comfortable ride.”

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