The Case for Analog
Author Steve B.
A few weeks ago, I discussed how the auto industry (and BMW specifically) seems to be making its performance cars more subdued than in the past and why that’s a good thing. Today, I’m going to explain why it’s not.
I ride a motorcycle. The first time I rode one was in a parking lot and I immediately called my girlfriend (She’d later become my wife) to tell her it was the most amazing thing I’d ever done. There’s something that makes you feel alive when you have no safety net, no margin for error. Sports cars should give you a similar feeling. Sports cars should make your heart race, your palms sweat, and your adrenaline pump. Ask any Italian, driving a great car should feel like sex.
Automatic transmissions theoretically allow you to pay more attention to the road. We all know people rely on autos so they can do other things, like text and eat breakfast. All wheel drive theoretically gives you more traction in bad weather. Stability and traction control keep you from crashing. Electronic power steering makes turning easier. Radar cruise control, parking assist, accident avoidance systems; these are all great because they make our lives easier on a daily basis. But, they take away from the thrill of driving.
For decades the M3 has been the epitome of the perfect sports sedan, everything you want, nothing you don’t. The 2002tii gave us a pure driving experience, the E30 and E36 M3s made it even better. In the early 2000s, we got the E46 M3. It came in two distinct flavors, the manual and the SMG automatic. Nearly 15 years later, the manual is still considered the benchmark for all sports sedans. The SMG car is universally panned. All you really need to do is look at Schnelllist for that generation to see that manuals go for several thousand dollars more than the automatics. The reason is the manual version gives people that emotional feeling, the SMG gives you hemorrhoids.
The current F80 M3 is roughly the same size as an America’s Cup J Boat, uses electric power steering, a turbocharger, and when equipped with a dual clutch automatic; gives you the same amount of joy as an ASPCA commercial. Now, I’m not saying it isn’t a great car, but now you need to go through menus and change suspension settings and steering sensitivity just to make the car feel like it has a soul. And something about that is inherently artificial.
I’ve picked on BMW a lot here, but ALL car manufacturers are guilty of this. Volkswagen hasn’t let you turn off stability control in their GTI for two generations now. When the GTI first emerged, people loved it because it was fun, it was simple, and it had a soul. Now the GTI is still a hot hatch, but it’s complicated… It has a turbo, a dual clutch transmission (if you ask for it), permanent stability control, and weighs nearly double the original. It’s composed and nice, but when you put it in sport mode, it fakes engine noises and brakes the inside wheels automatically to keep you from having too much fun. As much as I love the GTI, the father of the hot hatch has also become artificial.
370Z’s have automatic rev matching to downshift; the new Mustang has a linelock so you can do a burnout like Jimmy Johnson after he wins at Darlington; Porsche has a launch control that allows you to do hundreds of mind numbing, physics defying, launches without frying your clutch; Yawn…
The more automation that goes into cars, the harder it is to get that visceral feeling. Electric steering feels numb. Automatic transmissions are boring, even when using paddles to shift manually. Stability control and traction control keep you safe, but the lack of safety is what makes driving quickly thrilling. Even launch control is a drag, anyone can hit a few buttons and stab the throttle; it takes skill to finesse the clutch, get on the power at the right moment, and perfectly time shifts. Electronics ruin that.
Modern cars are technological marvels. They do things that our fathers could never dream of. But they do it without the flair, the emotion, the sex! There’s a reason why analog super cars are climbing in value. Porsche 959s, Ferrari 288 GTOs and F40s are selling for astronomical amounts; the Ford GT never depreciated like most cars do. Old E30 and E36 M3s are climbing in value, and I won’t even mention air-cooled Porsches again... Why? Because they make you work for it and when you get it right, they make you feel alive.
So you can have your dual clutch transmission, your electric power steering, your fake engine noise, your launch control, and stability control. I’ll take a 2002tii, a mkI GTI, an air-cooled Porsche any day over something new and digital. You may run circles around me at a track day and blow past me in the canyons, but my smile will be far bigger.