As an avid speed and g-force enthusiast, it would make a certain amount of sense that I am a huge fan of rollercoasters. In fact, my bucket list holiday involves touring the USA in an RV / Winnebago type camper and visiting all their major theme parks to ride the hundreds of coasters they have there.
However, even the most committed among coaster-lovers have to quietly admit to themselves that part of the thrill is that brief second when the train reaches the top of the chain lift and is about to go over the crest, when you can’t help think to yourself… “I should have gotten off this train!”
Looking at cars today, I kind of feel like that. We’ve gone too far and we should have gotten off this train a long time ago. The sad fact of the matter is that we have no-one to blame for this situation, but ourselves.
Perhaps this would make a bit more sense if I explained what I’m talking about. Personally, I feel that we have a massive void in the market for affordable, fun sports cars and genuine driver’s cars. In my opinion there are currently only 2 – Toyota 86 and Mazda MX-5. Frighteningly, I actually have to remove both of these cars from this list immediately, since the 86 is now exactly twice the price it was at launch when I bought mine (current list price is R620k), and the MX-5 is now only available with an automatic gearbox (in South Africa) and is also priced at the wrong side of half a million bucks!
Try to increase the budget a bit to include more cars and you’ll discover your next true sports car up the list will set you back, near as makes no difference, a million bucks – if not more.
I don’t want to get involved in an argument around car pricing and exchange rates and why certain cars cost so much more in South Africa than elsewhere in the world. At the end of the day I think a lot of our pricing gets determined by the demand. Porsche, arguably the most successful sports car manufacturer in the world, sells more SUVs than sports cars by many long country miles.
Speaking of Porsche, I feel they should be commended for their commitment to the “drivers” among us. By all reports their cars are still epic fun to drive and focus more on the feel and joy of driving rather than purely the numbers.
Those numbers – I hate those numbers.
Bragging rights and Nurburgring lap times have become more important than the “Fun Factor” because regrettably you can’t put a number on Fun. Most people these days buy their cars without ever test driving them. Even if they do, 9 out of 10 have already made up their minds about buying the car long before driving it. Cars are bought on looks, features and the numbers in the brochure. No-one seems interested in what the car is actually like to drive, because you can’t win a pub game of top trumps by saying your MX-5 is more fun to drive than a Veyron, when the latter has numbers that make even some of NASA’s creations blush.
This quest for ever-better numbers, in my opinion, is what is turning the sports car genre into automotive anaesthetics. The cars are getting quicker and more impressive for sure, but they are getting less fun to drive and massively expensive to buy and own. Sports cars today are expected to have supercar levels of performance – and they do! The likes of BMW’s M4 and Merc’s AMG offerings are ludicrously fast.
But for the average driver, this makes them too much of a handful, so the handling has to be dialled in for safety rather than fun. When the power becomes too much for the traction, they have to install all wheel drive systems – and honestly, in my book, all wheel drive is pretty much the end of all things fun.
My ever beloved S2000 is a perfect example of what I mean.
Looking at the numbers, it’s a terrible car compared to something like a Golf R, which is much faster. But driving an S2000 feels like catching a ride on the back of a nimble shark, darting from corner to corner with a massive grin on your face. Driving the Golf R is more like wrestling with a baby hippo… in a swimming pool…. filled with custard.
Even my latest car, the BMW Z4, is great fun to drive on, at, and beyond the limit. It’s forgiving enough to inspire confidence to push it harder and harder, to the point where it just starts to step out and you can feel the balancing act between throttle and steering inputs fighting against momentum and the laws of physics. With “only” 170kW I’m having far more fun in this car than I ever did in an AMG Mercedes with almost twice the power.
It pains me to say this, but sports cars are trying too hard to be fast, rather than being fun. Cars have their maximum potential for being fun, when driven at, near or even over the limit. Most new sports cars have so much power and outright grip, that on normal roads, no driver could ever really get close to those limits, and in many cases, exceeding the limits will mean certain death. Massive power and turbocharged torque figures that wouldn’t be out of place on a truck make these cars intimidating to drive quickly on a twisty road. This is why my rather modest 3.0i Z4 often keeps up with much faster machines on breakfast runs.
I don’t have to fight it, I get to play with it, and I don’t have to worry that it wants to kill me.
Here’s the thing about rollercoasters – just because you’ve been on the scariest one in the world, doesn’t mean that the milder ones are any less fun to go on. So if you’re used to driving an 800 horsepower monster car, it doesn’t mean that a modest sports car with 200 horsepower will be any less fun. In fact, the opposite may be true.
We all constantly want more and better and faster, and it needs to stop! Refocus yourself on having a car that is fun to drive, that feels mechanical and most importantly, is “slow” enough to still be able to play with it on the road relatively safely. Perhaps if we start buying and demanding more cars like that, manufacturers will start building them again – some already are!
So there is hope, a glimmer of light at the end of this tunnel. Maybe we are going to be over-run by affordable fun-to-drive sports cars in the near future and I truly hope we are. Because currently, looking at the new car market is a little depressing. The numbers enjoy far more priority than the experience, and no-one seems interested in just having fun any more. Like the song says “I was born to late, into a world that doesn’t care,” but I don’t want to get off this train just yet.