Bringing the Fun Back
Why lesser cars can be a better choice
As a driving enthusiast, it is easy to get caught up in obsessing over the latest and greatest performance offerings from Italy, Germany, or even the good old USA. New super cars and high-performance sedans boast ridiculous horsepower, mind-boggling acceleration, ludicrous lateral G's, and over-the-top styling. We see 911 Turbos, M3's, C7 corvettes, Lambos and more; whatever we’re driving seems to pale in comparison to such perfection. Many car enthusiast are programed to believe that super cars are best to drive, most exiting, and will even get you to the next base with the ladies. Remember those awkward, preteen years when you first caught a glimpse of automotive nirvana? That poster of a Lamborghini Diablo or Countach found its way to your bedroom wall, and all of a sudden you had goals in life. Owning a super car yields the ultimate satisfaction, right? They are the ultimate machines for the ultimate driving experience. Right? The thing is, for most of us, they might not be.
It all depends, in the end, on your definition of the “ultimate driving experience”. Do you want to look like you’re loaded as you cruise along at 45mph through the mountains? A Lamborghini Aventador might just be the car for you. Do you want to be universally admired at car shows? A Porsche GT3 would be the way to go. Do you want the most luxuriously comfortable of interiors and the smoothest of rides? Try a Bentley. But if you want to have fun on the autocross course, improve you’re driving skills, and push your car on canyon roads, then you might be better off with something…lesser.
A long-time friend of mine became successful and bought a string of progressively more exciting cars. As he went from brand new M3, to X5M, to Nissan GTR and Audi R8, I kept buying inexpensive, go-fast parts for my 2004 Mk IV GTI. I upgraded the tuning, brakes, tires, and suspension with the goal of making my car better to drive. One day, he threw me a bone: the keys to his latest acquisition, an Audi R8 V10 Spyder with a Heffner twin turbo kit. The car had ten cylinders, twin turbos, AWD, and 850 hp, and I was going to take it for a drive! Awed by its reputation and price tag, I drove it gingerly at first. That didn’t last long, though; I ended with a full-throttle run to 140 mph with the top down. After handing the keys back and thanking my friend repeatedly, I got back in my humble, mildly tuned 1.8T GTI for the drive home. I expected to feel let down and more dissatisfied with my car than ever. But I didn't.
The problem with super cars is that the threshold is so high for everything, and the engineering so good, that you have to be going triple digit speeds to be excited or challenged. The Audi had vague steering and a not-so-great paddle shift gearbox. It just wasn't very engaging to drive until the turbos spooled and you were doubling the speed limit. Also, cars like the GTR are designed to be relatively safe for even imprudent or unskilled drivers. The car has its own opinion about what you should or shouldn’t be doing with it—high levels of computer intervention conspire with the AWD to coddle you, and you end up feeling less connected with the driving experience.
My humble GTI has a real manual gearbox, better steering feel, and (thanks to worse engineering) feels like you are testing the limits in corners at a fraction of the speed. It is engaging, communicative, and exciting to drive at much slower speeds. And best of all, my GTI has one simple button to switch off all traction and stability control. If I owned the Audi, I wouldn't last a week before being arrested for reckless endangerment, or being frustrated by my inability to use the car the way it is meant to be used.
Cheaper performance cars might not look as good or be as plush, but they can deliver huge thrills. Not only can you test their limits at much lower (safer) speeds, but they can also be driven harder and longer for less money. Have you ever tried replacing tires on a 458 Italia, or the clutch on a Zonda F roadster? I’ve been driving my GTI like I stole it for over five years; it continues to be reliable and takes whatever I dish out. Its components are over-engineered, and it simply doesn't make enough power to break anything major. I drive so hard in the mountains, I can go through a set of tires in 6 months, but I can get a decent set of tires for $400 or less. Best of all, I can drive my GTI at its limits every week and still manage to average at least 27mpg! If a cheap car has the right elements—good steering feedback, decent suspension, relative low weight and enough power to be fun—it can be a blast to drive every day. It will be cheaper to buy, insure, and maintain. Many affordable performance cars also enjoy a vast and relatively inexpensive aftermarket support.
While we’re at it, what’s better than buying a “lesser car” new? Buying one used. Many relatively inexpensive second hand cars can be as much fun to drive as more exotic ones. There are plenty of used GTI's, Mazda Speed 3's, S2000's, Z cars and the like which can render big smiles 7 days a week. I don't have to worry about my old GTI; I can drive in rain, snow, and even on dirt roads to go hiking! I do autocross, road trips, track days, and sometimes persuade my wife to improve her stick shift skills. I can experiment with relatively inexpensive modifications that improve the car’s performance. It may not be the most glamorous transportation ever, but I have more fun by sheer volume than many people with Ferrari’s in their garages.
So, is a Fiesta ST as much fun to drive as a Zonda F roadster? Nope. If you have a lot of disposable income, should you abstain from buying a fantastic car? Definitely not. However, driving a fun car seven days a week, through good conditions and bad, is a blast. It’s the best bang for your buck and the best training for your inner Stig, and you really can have fun every day. Spend less money on a more affordable, fun car that you can enjoy often. If the car is too expensive to drive regularly, it is too expensive for you to own. Rather, spend the saved money doing tasteful modifications to your car that make it better to drive. Not stancing…sorry, guys. Spend your money on track days, autocross, and driver instruction courses, and who knows? You might even school some much fancier cars with your new-found skills. And as for getting to the “next base” with your lady friend: if she’s going out with you because of your car, you may be fishing for trout in the shallow end of the pond.
Keep driving skillfully, my friends.