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Talking GoCars Help You Explore San Diego

GoCar Tours
GoCar Tours
Courtesy Photo

GoCar Tours came to San Diego in 2006, and business has been, well, rolling.

"It's very good, people are excited about the product,'' said Roger Zakharia, who runs the local GoCar franchise, located on Kettner Boulevard in Little Italy. "Our product is very unique; we have no competition. It's so unique... no one else is doing it.''

GoCar bills itself offering as the "The Cure for The Common Tour," and it's certainly miles away from being on the requisite tour bus with a bunch of yokels from Nebraska and West Virginia.

The GoCars are small, three-wheeled, open-air vehicles that provide computer/GPS guided tours, complete with a friendly narrator, whose voice tells you where to go and a bit about the areas you're going through. Actually, a lot about the areas.

San Diego's GoCar tours offer two choices: one tour takes the driver and a passenger (one could do it alone, of course) through the Gaslamp Quarter, Hillcrest, Balboa Park, Petco Park, Bankers Hill and other spots. The other spans Old Town all the way down through the Point Loma Peninsula, to the Cabrillo National Monument. The tours can be done in as little as 90 minutes, but expect to take longer. What would the point of rushing through this?

Don't feel like going through a preset tour? No sweat. The GPS and narration can be turned off, so you can listen to the radio or blast Hendrix on the CD player while cruising down the street.

"The car talks and tells you where to go,'' said Zakharia. "It's very educational. While you're driving, the car tells you about sight-seeing. You drive to the Midway (Museum) and the car gives the history of it. It's a marketing tool to produce tourism for San Diego.''

The educational claim could be brushed off as mere production of his product, but Zakharia wasn't kidding. We took a truncated version of the tour, and the computer voice was dishing out information that was foreign to me, and I've lived downtown for two years.

"It's a fun thing to do, so they drive it around,'' Zakharia said. "It's not like renting a car. It's an activity, a fun activity. Guaranteed fun.''

Zakharia also guaranteed we'd get noticed a lot, and that was exactly the case. Every time we turned around, there was a smile or a wave by a pedestrian, though there were a couple of folks who bore expressions that said, "Look at them yo-yos. What are they doing in that go-kart?"

Yeah, it might seem a little weird, but it's working. A pair of Englishmen, Nathan Withrington and Alasdair Clements, came up with the GoCar Tours concept in early 2003 and started the company in early 2004. GoCar has locations in Miami, Lisbon, Barcelona, Madrid and three in San Francisco, where the first GoCar Tours opened.

Time hailed the GoCar as one of 2004's "Most Amazing Inventions of the Year," and it has received other glittering national press.

The San Diego branch opened two years later, and Zakharia has been marketing it aggressively. He was featured on a local television show the other day, a major coup in getting the brand out to the public.

Given the small space on Kettner, Zakharia can only have about 20 cars on the lot, compared to as many as 80 at the San Francisco locations. But the cars are almost always all gone on weekends, and anyone not making a reservation might not be able to score a GoCar. Waiting lists have been known to be generated.

"Obviously, we'd like to do more, but we're holding up our weight,'' said Zakharia. "We're going in a positive direction. We're impacted like everyone else in the tourism market.''

Zakharia, who was born in Greece and lives in Rancho Bernardo, said about 60 percent of his business comes from tourists, so he acts accordingly by marketing with area hotels.

About 20 percent of the customers come from San Diego, most likely people who live in outlying areas and don't get downtown much. The rest are from places like Las Vegas, Palm Desert and Santa Barbara.

"We go after a demographic that's family-oriented,'' Zakharia said. "A lot of folks bring their kids with them. We focus on people who have money to spend on activities. You should see the feedback we get.''

"We could talk about anything, art , the port, history, where the Mayor is. We could market San Diego along with the city.''

The GoCar Tours certainly have tons of appeal, but here's one issue: Getting into an accident in that thing doesn't sound too enticing, especially if it was entangled with one of the condo-complex-sized SUVs.

Zakharia said wrecks haven't been a problem with San Diego GoCar Tours since it opened, just the usual fender-benders, bumps and scratches. The GoCars can hit speeds about as high as 35 miles an hour, but unless you're Jimmie Johnson, going that fast probably isn't prudent.

"There have been no major accidents,'' Zakharia said., "Obviously, we make every effort to keep customers safe. They've got to follow the rules of the road, and the cars are yellow and very easy to see.

"(Other) drivers are very courteous. (Driving a GoCar) is like driving a scooter. It's safer than driving a scooter.''

Expect to see more GoCars zipping around in the future. Zakharia plans to open two satellite offices down the road, and hopes he can duplicate his most memorable GoCar experience to date: Twelve couples rented the cars and were married at Liberty Station. At the same time.

"It was awesome,'' Zakharia said. "It was a lot of fun.''

And he believes a good time can be had by all with a GoCar tour, even if no one is getting hitched.