I recently drove the new-ish 5.0 V8 Mustang GT. Rather unsurprisingly, it is not a sophisticated and nuanced sports car. It felt more like a brute instrument, and I mean that in the best possible sense.
dark green in a nod to McQueen’s Bullitt Mustang
Serious horsepower and torque coupled with relatively soft suspension provides for a lot of drama. Step on the gas and the rear suspension squats, pushing the long hood even higher into your field of view while the engine’s wave of torque pins you back. Heavy braking does just the opposite, with the car pitching forward giving you a better view of the immediate pavement. Commit to a turn at decent speed and the car leans hard on its outside wheels. There’s a real sense of speed and momentum that makes the Mustang a genuinely exciting drive.
A shameless part of me really wants a muscle car because it’s just so much fun. For driving on the street, I’m betting the base Mustang GT is more fun that the hardcore GT350R model with its screaming 526hp flat plane V8 and ridiculously wide (305/315 front/rear) carbon fiber wheels. The reason being that you can’t push the GT350R to its limit often in the real world. It’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.
This notion of the entry level car in the ranks often being the most fun extends to a surprising number of cars. McLaren’s newest model, the 570S, is getting a lot of love. McLaren intentionally focused on driving enjoyment, leaving the lap record to the more expensive and less renown 650S. BMW’s 1M was more highly regarded than the corresponding generation of M3, and the upcoming M2’s seems poised to continue the trend. How about Porsche? The new GT4 has too much grip and ridiculously tall gearing for a road car, leaving the base Cayman (not Cayman S) is the real driver’s car.
So if money was no object, do people have the self control to spend less and get the more fun but more basic cars? Probably not. Sports cars are about the theater, and it takes many forms. Is the GT350R’s fancy kit really necessary for a road car? Not even close but the appeal of a car is as much in the story behind it as anything else.
NASCAR gets a bad rap. Is it the pinnacle of automotive technology? Hardly, but that’s besides the point. NASCAR is all about putting on a good show. There is genuine competition among the field (if you drive a Chevy, sorry Ford). 10 different drivers have won races this season. F1 and WEC have elected to focus on outright performance as opposed to viewer enjoyment and both series are dominated by single teams.
That being said, NASCAR isn’t for me. My new favorite form of 4 wheel racing is Stadium Super Trucks (SST). It’s essentially trophy trucks racing on paved road courses with jumps added to the straightaways. Off-road tires coupled with the huge suspension travel gives these cars poor on-road performance but makes things terribly entertaining. The trucks are either on three wheels in the turns, launching 20 feet in the air or crashing. This might be the best form of motor racing I’ve ever seen.
How much of your city’s layout is compromised to accommodate the car? Probably more than you realize. Consider a stationary car’s footprint on the road in the image below.
click to expand – footprint of 60 people when commuting by bicycle, car and bus
Now consider how much additional space each car requires when moving. The higher the speed traveled, the more space that’s required between cars. A car traveling 25 mph on the road probably needs around to 1-2 car lengths between it and the car ahead, and that figure doubles for every ~25 mph increase in speed.
Even still, it is pretty shocking to learn that the total percentage of land dedicated solely to the automobile can exceed 50% in some cities. Beyond that terrifying land usage statistic, consider how much of the remaining land’s development is influenced by the automobile’s close proximity or the preference for people for traveling by car. In short, cities are built around the car, and cars are a huge waste of space.
So why does no one seem to care about this backwards set of priorities? Why isn’t there an aspirational city car to match every enthusiasts aspirational sports car? Gordon Murray, the man behind the McLaren F1, has turned his attention to the city car, but it has attracted minimal attention. Part of the problem stems from the ridiculous correlation between vehicle size and perceived luxury.
Mini Rolls needs more grill
Small cars are always a brand’s entry level model. You simply can’t buy a truly luxurious small car. It’s almost an oxymoron. The rational for this is that automakers build cars based on consumer demand, and most cities do little to incentives people to drive smaller cars. If anything, consumer preference has favored increasingly large cars. The current 3 series is now as large as the 5 series from two generation ago.
We already incentive people to drive fuel efficient cars through taxation. Why not place the same emphasis on vehicle size or correspondingly weight? I can’t wait for the Mini Rolls or maybe just smaller (and lighter) cars in general.
I used to lust after Alfa’s 164 Procar concept from the 80’s because it seemed like the most uncompromising and focused sports car ever conceived. It had a V10 from F1, seats and an enclosed roof. I find myself still wanting the same car but for very different reasons, its utter simplicity.
I look at contemporary cars, and they seem littered with fragile expensive stuff. What we actually need in a car vs what we convince ourselves we need are two very different things. What’s the realistic lifespan of power heated/cooled backseats with a massaging feature or an engine with turbo-charging, simultaneous direct and port injection, dual-overhead cams with variable inlet and exhaust timing, mated to an electric motor and batteries?
The perfect car doesn’t exist. There is not a single car that is perfectly suited to every situation: road trips, windy back roads, track days, and everything in between. Each scenario has its own unique set of demands. With that being said, if you want to explore the possibility of the perfect car for a particular scenario, there are definitely some cars that get pretty damn close to perfection.
If you’re looking for a sports car from the early 1960’s to do some vintage racing, I would have a hard time passing on the Low Drag Jaguar E-Type. Sorry but the Ferrari 250 GTO is the obvious and uninspired choice for this category. Effectively an all aluminum E-Type with a roof, the Low Drag is gorgeous. Like the Singer 911, it feels like a piece of art but for very different reasons. While the Singer is a testament to attention to detail and luxury, the Low Drag is stripped to the bare essentials, which amounts to little beyond an engine block, carbs and a steering wheel. It’s exercise in aluminum craftsmanship.
If you were asked to start from scratch and design a purpose-built race car, chances are it wouldn’t be front-wheel drive or a front-engine layout. But Nissan has done just that with their front-engine front-wheel drive LMP1 GT-R LM prototype that will compete in the World Endurance Championship (and Le Mans) against Porsche, Audi and Toyota’s trio of mid-engine rear-wheel drive bias prototypes, and I’m hoping that Nissan destroys the competition.
This isn’t because I’m partial to Nissan or FWD, but because it challenges the status quo. Nissan has been on a bit of a roll with unconventional setups, first with the Delta Wing/ZEOD but that was more of a proof of concept than competitive challenger like the GT-R LM. Manufacturers understandably don’t take risks on this scale very often. It’s horrifically expensive to develop and race a competitive hybrid prototype in WEC’s LMP1 class, and Nissan’s gamble could totally backfire. Bottom line, you have to respect Nissan for the effort.
The ZEOD always reminded me of Tim Burton’s batmobile
It also doesn’t hurt that the GT-R LM looks absolutely insane. While its styling and packaging is all in the name of airflow and performance, it still ends up looking more hot rod than endurance car with the driver positioned low behind the long hood and the exhaust spouting flames in the driver’s field of view. Just completely ridiculous. FWD FTW?
It’s been more than five years since American automakers received government bailouts or generous lines of credit, and we are finally seeing the fruits of the restructuring that took places as these companies were forces to refocus after decades of running aimless. Ford is on a roll and in the midst of a wild turnaround. They went from inconsistent and totally unique cars for each market to a strong consolidated global lineup.
I wrote a while back that the Mustang brand was better off dead. I stand corrected with the launch of the GT350R. With a high revving flat-plane V8, carbon fiber wheels and a stripped interior, the Mustang seems to suddenly have more in common with sports enthusiasts than anything besides a Porsche Cayman or Z/28 for the money. A Mustang that’s more of a sports car than an M4? It’s incredible what a few choice upgrades can do to the perceived value of something.
quintessential halo car
Possibly the biggest sign of the turnaround is debut of the Ford GT concept, which serves to garner hype for the production car that is set to arrive next year. The original Ford GT40 was possibly the biggest home run in motorsport history. Enzo Ferrari backed out last minute in the sale of his company to Ford. Henry Ford was furious and exacted revenge by building the Ford GT40 which beat Ferrari along with everyone else at the 24 hours of Le Mans from 1966 through 1968. While Corvette and Viper struggle with brand perception, the Ford GT name has possibly more cache than Ford knows what to do with. No one seems concerned about paying $200k for a Ford GT. Hopefully, the upcoming Ford GT lives up to expectations.
While Chryster and GM have each launched some interesting products recently, I’m less than convinced in their entire product line. Do I like the 707hp Charger Hellcat? Yes but it doesn’t make the Chrysler 200 anymore appealing. GM wants Cadillac to be viewed on par with the German brands but that’s a tall order. They’d probably have better luck starting fresh with a new brand. Their V performance lineup looks promising, but they have to be massively better than competition to steal customers. Brand perception is a bitch.
At the end of the day, all American brands have squandered so much cache over the decades. America is a high tech powerhouse in many regards but our automotive industry can feel at times like it peaked in the industrial revolution.