The Lost Art of Making a Driver's Car

BMW pedals 1 photo
Photo: Florin Profir
Yeah, I get it, most technological breakthroughs that materialized on the automotive scene in recent years were dictated by a bunch of variables. Most of those variables revolve around legislation, fluctuations in market demand or were simply caused by trigger-happy bean-counters in search of a quick buck.
In other words, I don't believe in a conspiracy whose aim is to populate our roads and parking lots with crossovers that only come with automatic transmissions. Not to mention that some of those are about to drive by themselves in a couple of years or so anyway. That said, I think that most carmakers have slowly started to exaggerate a bit with the mass introduction of features which, either directly or indirectly, take away from the joy of driving.

I'm not necessarily talking about cars that lack a third pedal or the aforementioned pack of crossovers, although they are part of the reason for my predicament. No, I'm talking about modern cars that are filled with maybe too many driving assistance systems and other electronic nannies for their own good.

I don't mind electronic stability programs, hyper-efficient dual-clutch transmissions or other various driving assistance systems. What I do mind is that there is an increasing trend in fully separating the driver from the basic act of driving fast, without even leaving the possibility of an “off” switch. Don't confuse this problem with the rise of autonomous cars, since in my view they are unrelated. We will probably never have such a thing as an “autonomous driver's car,” so it's only natural I'm talking strictly about cars that should provide enjoyment for their drivers by letting their guard down when required.

More and more so-called sports cars base most of their performance and thrills on artificial methods, something that is wrong on so many levels that it needs an elevator in my view. You can divide the major methods responsible for this in half. On the more complicated side, you have launch-control systems, electronically controlled differentials, more permissive electronic stability systems, or stuff like drift buttons in Focuses RS and the Line Lock burnout feature in the latest Mustang.

On the other side, you have engine Sound Symposers or exhaust speakers (check out an Audi 3.0 Bi-TDI's exhaust to see the unthinkable), both of which are nothing but beautiful lies made to feel drivers better about their “sporty cars.”

Yes, they do (make the drivers feel better, ed), but probably only those who are less old-school drivers and more gadget-centric millennials. Especially since most have probably never experienced the true rush of driving an analog sports cars at the limit.

This thought brings me to cars like the Mazda MX-5 Miata, for the commoners, or the Dodge Viper, for those with slightly deeper pockets. As a matter of fact, if I could choose one single sports car from today to dip it in amber, so that future scientists can clone it on some newly emerged continent in the future, it would probably be Mazda's famous roadster.

The little MX-5 that could is part of a steadily decreasing pool of modern sports cars that don't need fancy electronics to make you either go fast or feel fast in them. The European base version, which is powered by a tiny 1.5-liter four-banger, doesn't even need power or torque to make you feel like you're flying.

Everything, from the weight distribution and suspension settings to the short-shifting gear knob and the screaming four-cylinder under that sexy hood make you feel like you're a gentleman racing driver from the 1960s.

Sure, it's not the most practical car in the world and almost everyone taller than average will probably hate driving it with emotional involvement, but neither one of those reasons can diminish the pure awesomeness exhibited by this little Japanese two-seater. If you're a bit demented you can probably use it as an everyday car as well, at least until you get bored of hitting every single interior piece whenever you try to reach the glove box or your passenger's legs.

Anyway, this brings me to my final, sort of related, point. Some carmakers have gotten so lazy when designing sports cars that most of their performance-inducing bits are actually dialed in by software engineers instead of good-old chassis engineers. Let me explain, but you can probably try this in almost any (not all) modern sports car that allows you to completely switch off the ESP and have a game of “catch the oversteer before you crash.”

Instead of developing a car with near-perfect weight distribution and a perfect suspension setup, some carmakers leave those trivial details to be sorted out via stuff like electronically controlled suspension, multiple-steps stability control systems or clever differentials. That becomes hugely apparent when testing a car's limits with all the systems on and then with them off, since the latter will make you feel like you're driving an overpowered children kart instead of the same car, but less friendly at the limit.

This is why you never see stuff like ESP or magnetorheological dampers in circuit racing, since race cars are usually left in the driver's hands only after some very good chassis engineers and/or aerodynamicists have dialed in the right amount of understeer/oversteer and weight distribution. How about trying something similar to all of the world's sports cars, instead of fixing bad chassis design with electronics? It's not like it hasn't been done before. Leave all the assist systems on board, but allow me to completely switch them off. Most of all, make sure the car's handling doesn't depend on them to provide driving thrills, that's all I ask.
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About the author: Alex Oagana
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Alex handled his first real steering wheel at the age of five (on a field) and started practicing "Scandinavian Flicks" at 14 (on non-public gravel roads). Following his time at the University of Journalism, he landed his first real job at the local franchise of Top Gear magazine a few years before Mircea (Panait). Not long after, Alex entered the New Media realm with the project.
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