entry level

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.

McQueen Bullitt green please

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.

gross exaggeration

gross exaggeration

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 GT4 has too much grip and is effectively geared for top speed runs on the autobahn, leaving the base Cayman (not Cayman S) as 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.

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it’s just a name

I’m not the biggest fan of Top Gear. The reviews border on painfully overzealous with comically quick transitions between the host screaming at the top of their lungs and the car drifting past the camera at 100 mph. But Top Gear is made with the jaded television viewer in mind, so it has to contend with the myriad of cop murder dramas and the endless race to the bottom that is reality TV. James May holds rank as the quiet mild-mannered host of the Top Gear trio. While the other two squabble to win the audience’s affection with the wittiest putdown of their co-hosts, May manages to put together some great insight with his time in front of the camera.

Model names are for the masses. 

Diehard owners never simply state that they drive an M3 or GT3. It’s always the generation designation first (e36 M3 or 997.1 GT3) because they understand that those distinctions matter. As I touched on in a post before, brands that carry a model to a successive generation are merely creating a modern reinterpretation of the original. The 991 911 shares nothing in common with the original besides the overall concept and that’s fine. Singer 911s, even if sold at a price point comparable to a 991, probably wouldn’t keep Porsche afloat today. There is no perfect iteration of the 911 anyways. Better to have it evolve than die.

Ferrari just does this better. 

I was set to write an article about how great Ferrari is with naming their cars. Then they debuted the LaFerrari, and I had to shelf that idea. But I’ve gotten over it. It’s not like I’m buying a LaFerrari so it’s really of little consequence to me. The point I wanted to touch on was that each new Ferrari bares a new name. While American (Mustang/Corvette) and German (911, S class, TT) are happy to continue their using their model name in perpetuity, Ferrari starts fresh with each model. The new model doesn’t have to be anything but better than the one it replaces. Mr Manzoni, the chief designer of Ferrari, shed some insight into the brand’s overall philosophy when he was asked in a interview about brand consistency when designing a new car.

this is the challenge we are faced with every time we work on a new ferrari. the challenge resides in coming up with a completely new shape while staying true to the values ferrari stands for. any repetition of design ideas invariably gets dismissed by our president mr. montezemolo as ‘déjà vu’. the basic rule is that a true ferrari must be immediately identifiable even without any badging. contrary to other brands we do not rely on a precise set of design guidelines which can be simply implemented across the model range. we instead call upon on a higher paradigm and need to come up with a fresh interpretation of it every time. with each new model we search for that subtle link with tradition and with the other models in the line-up. it is not a link that derives from the repetition of ‘graphic’ traits, but from the comprehension of the kind of plasticity and formal language a ferrari lives by.

This design approach is indicative of the entire brand’s philosophy towards building cars. Ferrari’s core values guide the design and engineering of their cars as opposed to the other way around, where design and engineering specifics define the brand. As a result of this approach noting is sacred at Ferrari. Look at turbo power for the California T or dropping the manual completely for paddles as far back as the 360 Challenge Stradale. They even went AWD and hatchback for the FF. How cool is that?

Ferrari FF, the rich man's Golf GTI

Ferrari FF, the rich man’s Golf R

While Porsche’s steadfast adherence to its past was the impetus for this article, BMW is actually the worst offender of the design by guideline approach. With Hoffmeier kinks, kidney grills, angle eyes, L shaped tail lights and most recently front fender vents constricting so much of the design, BMWs feel boring and fussy at the same time. The supposed design revolution that Chris Bangle started at BMW with the e65 7 series was not a success. Rather it only served to further emphasize these signature design cues and create an increasingly narrow window for design as more and more design cues became a necessity to the brand. M cars are even worse with their own set of design guidelines stacked on top of the already overstyled base model.

BMW’s i series (i3 and i8) demonstrate that BMW is well aware of the situation. These cars only carry the kidney grills while the rest of their design is left unrestricted. While it’s hit (i8) or miss (i3), it’s just what BMW needs to coincide with a dramatic shift in brand philosophy. We’ll just have to see how much of the i8/i3 aesthetic gets directly transplanted onto future models.

real subtle

vortex generators: never to be seen again

vortex generators: never to be seen again

The Mitsubishi Evo VIII/IX MR had roof mounted vortex generators that supposedly cleaned the air passing over the back of the car. They also served to distinguish the MR from lesser Evo variants. Since I’ve never seen them on another car (Evo X included), it’s safe to assume that their purpose was mostly cosmetic. And on a car like the Evo, questionable styling features are fine, even expected.

M5 fluff

Apply this concept to a luxury sedan and the results are less than spectacular. BMW’s M5 has taken the MR approach to differentiating itself from the lesser 5 series models. Fake venting on the front quarter panels, flashy special colors, 20″ brushed alloy wheels, and bright blue brake calipers fail to add any tangible benefits and merely serve to exemplify the misguided nature of the car.

Objectively, the M5 is a hard sell. Compared with the other 5 series variants, it is the heaviest, most expensive, least fuel efficient, and harshest riding. All for a car that will realistically spend a vast majority of its time sitting in traffic. Of course, I still want one… just minus the flair. I want a low profile comfortable sedan with devastating speed. What I want is an Alpina B5.

Alpina is a quasi-independent and long standing BMW tuner dating back to 1965. Known for making fast luxurious cars; Alpina is somewhat reminiscent of the last decade of cars produced under AMG with their high HP engines mated to more livable driving dynamics and restrained aesthetics. With Alpina there’s no fancy side mirrors, flared arches, or unnecessary venting. Their cars receive mild exterior modification with signature Alpina rims. Interiors include custom materials, and the suspension is more focused on a comfortable ride than setting lap times at the track. Of course, it’s still unnervingly fast thanks to 540hp accompanied by a massive 538lb-ft of torque from its twin-turbo V8. While not the outright performer of its M5 counterpart, it could be argued that the B5 is better suited for the real world.

I’ll take my B5 in black, a nod to the e28 M5

No matter how you tune it, be it M, Quattro, AMG or Alpina for that matter, these cars are still fundamentally 2 ton luxury sedans, not sports car. So why fight it? The B5 isn’t looking to be the Swiss Army knife of sports sedans. Give me a car that does one thing well over a car that does everything ok and nothing great.