Okay, okay, not all cars are boring. Only about 95% of them are. Think of all of the sport-oriented trims of cars nowadays. R/T, RS, GT, S, AMG, ///M. These trim levels exude the style, the grip, the acceleration, and the speed of sports cars nowadays, that is until you stop looking at the flagship models of a manufacturer’s lineup. It’s sad and pathetic how the watering down of trim names and models have really ruined the image of the ‘sporty’ car.
Let’s look at the R/T badge. It’s Dodge’s symbol of performance. Cars that have more power and grip than their standard cars. It’s existed since the 1960s, in the time where the Charger R/T was the king of the Dodge lineup. Over time it’s essentially morphed, from the level of modern day SRT to well, the Dodge Nitro. Something fatal has gone wrong with the sporty formula, and I blame the general boring way in which cars are going. Let me explain.
Since roughly around 1996, when cars were mandated to have dual front airbags, cars have gotten more bland. I’d call it, not the rush to power and speed, but the rush to safety and laziness. Dual front airbags were just the start. ABS was soon rushed in to help people who couldn’t pump the brakes to stop safely, and now you have average cars with ten airbags or more. ABS, TCS, ESC, ABC, 123, are all standard on new cars, TIPM (Tire Information/Pressure Monitoring) is mandated, and more. Cars will become safer and safer as we go, possibly even going as far as to turning into foam balloons (ex. the cop car in Demolition Man.)
These focuses on safety have in turn affected all of the fun aspects of sporty cars. More weight is added by all of the silicon and faulty airbag inflators needed to make a car a safe balloon. The weight added makes cars more boaty and less responsive to input to the point that your new Dart feels like a 1970 Monaco. Suspension has gotten softer because yuppie moms don’t want their Starbucks to get spilled and their kid’s heads jostled a little. The old man with the bad back needs a Buick Park Avenue because he can’t stand the ride of his Corvette C5, which makes him even more of a road hazard. Old man, please speed up and turn off your left turn signal. It’s the Florida Turnpike, not the neighborhood-watched suburbia.
Safety isn’t the only thing that made cars so boring. People are fucking lazy. Automatic transmissions reign in the North American market, so people can’t and don’t use the third pedal of ultimate control, or the shifter, which is the ultimate extension of the human body. Just flick it in Drive and go nowadays. You need not worry about having greater control of the engine and gears, newer automatics and shudder CVTs are better and better right? In my opinion, no. Some dual clutch flappy paddle gearboxes are indeed faster than the fastest human, and yes some gear changes in automatic cars are smoother, but damnit I love the control afforded by the clutch and the shifter if my left leg doesn’t get tired in traffic. Also, driving manual keeps me more awake and alert, which throwing an automatic in Drive cannot. I can modulate my speed with gears, and I have to constantly make sure I won’t stall at this light, or rev out too far. Ms. Uggs can’t do that, she’s texting with her open hand.
That brings me to another point, in which the so-called “hard to drive” cars are even becoming easier to drive compared to their past generations. Example, the Dodge Viper. The 1st model all the way to the 2012 had zero traction control, just your right foot. 400 to 600 horsepower to the rear wheels, and nothing but wheelspin and sudden death on the side. Who doesn’t love suicide? Well, most of the population of the world, apparently. Traction control essentially neutered the Viper as the Miata-size death machine with exhaust that will burn you if you are not careful.
Touching back to the manual transmission, even they have gotten easier to drive. Due to the mass-produced nature of the Ford Escort, the clutch actuation is so light I don’t even really feel the bite point with my leg, I rely on engine vibration. My shifter movement is so smooth, it feels like nothing is in my hand besides a cloud. These make the so-called “hardest transmission to use” way too easy. I kind of need to feel when I get in gear and when the clutch engages. I also don’t have hill start, which means I have to be extra fast on the clutch to get moving and not burn it out. The hardest cars to drive of the previous era are now too easy to drive. That Viper I mentioned had no airbags, no traction control, nothing to keep you from that tree. Now, it’s all a big balloon with computers to help.
So, there’s less control in new cars, along with the ability to float away in a crash, and laziness has dominated the market. What else makes modern cars so boring?
Weight is another factor. A light car will give you more of a sensation of speed compared to a heavier car. A lighter car just happens to be a little less unsafe, but there are bigger things associated with weight we don’t usually think about. Weight can make a car boring. Let’s first talk about fuel economy. Yes, fuel economy can be boring, but there’s another factor. Weight makes fuel economy worse due to the engine having to work harder to pull a car around at the same speed. This is exactly why we don’t put 1-liter 3 cylinder engines in pickup trucks. It’s just too damn heavy for its own good. But things are seemingly going that way. Although power efficency levels are rising, weight gain isn’t slowing down.
Due to CAFE fuel economy standards, cars in a manufacturer’s lineup must reach a certain MPG figure for emissions and whatnot. So, if a car manufacturer has three models of car, and they get 15, 30, and 45 MPG average. Their CAFE average is 30 miles per gallon, which is the average of the combined fuel economy of a manufacturer’s lineup. These rules are getting tighter and tighter by the year, so car manufacturers have to push for that extra mile per gallon. That means trying to cram as many 1.0L 3s in every pickup truck model they have, for the pure sake of economy. That 1.0 can’t get the power and torque figures associated with a big ol’ V8, so slap a small turbocharger on there, right? Wrong.
Although yes, cars are getting better mileage than they ever have. That is usually a good thing, but not if you want to have any fun in a car while your wallet thanks you. There are exceptions of course, like hypermiling can be fun, but everyone else behind you during rush hour wants to lynch your ass six ways to Sunday. There’s generally less power in normal everyday cars with the fuel economy focus. Let’s take a look at the EcoBoost engines by Ford quickly. Yes, the new 1.0L 3 has 3 more horsepower and a lot more torque in overboost mode than the standard 1.6L engine. But, if Ford had tuned the 1.0 for maximum power over fuel economy, I guarantee it would be pecking close to a Fiesta ST. They don’t want to do that because the ST brand has a reputation to hold up.
That’s another thing that pisses me off about new cars. The manufacturers care so much about their profit margins for performance vehicles, they won’t make a zippy regular version anymore. Take for example, the 1991-1996 Ford Escort GT. It has a Mazda BP engine worthy of 128 horsepower and 110 lb-ft of torque, all wrapped up in a nice sporty package which includes stiffer suspension, better brakes, more bolstered seats, a sunroof (optional), red accents inside, etc. It adds a lot for the extra ~$1500 more than you pay over an LX. The LX only had 88 horsepower and 108 lb-ft of torque from the factory. It doesn’t have the nice suspension, brakes, accents, bodykit, wheels, or anything else the GT included. Of course, the LX-E came a year later, in 1992, for the sleeper sedan market. I could tune up my 1.9 liter in my LX to rival the GT, but (planned obsolescence?) the valve seats may obliterate themselves over periods of time with more power, Ford knows that they designed this into the 1.9 SEFI motor, so you had to buy the GT if you wanted more than under 90 horsepower. Less power makes more boring.
Manufacturers know this, so they want the higher end model to be the more sporty one, and the lower end model to be the more boring, volume focused version of the car. That’s simple enough to understand. But, sporty models, which include the whole bevy of options like stiffer suspension and a more powerful engine, are decreasingly existent. “Sport” models now are mostly some low-profile tires on some massive wheels (like the 22-inch Edge Sport’s wheels), black trim dotted around here and there, and maybe some roof racks. I sure doubt there is any stiffer suspension in these “sport” models, as the soccer mom doesn’t want to feel that speed bump she just flew over.
These boring models just are purely riced from the factory. There is nothing truly sporty about the ‘sport’ models, if you don’t count the thin sidewalls. The only thing sporty about the fake sport models is possibly a small decrease in the center of gravity due to the half-inch drop. This is why cars are boring. Car manufacturers don’t want to make anything really sporty because the decrease in profit margins isn’t good for them, but it’s not good for us. They have to make the cheap, volume-oriented econoboxes to make the profit, and then we get the fast cars. This is exactly how Mitsubishi “died”. Almost all of their market is the Evo, but none of us wants a normal Lancer. Their only halo car now is the i-MiEV, and that is an utter piece of shit.
But, not every car is boring, as I started this whole articles’ story. Let’s look at the Focus RS. It’s the ultimate hot hatchback. 350 horsepower through four wheels with a drift button. It’s almost perfect. Except it’s not all that it can be. The EcoBoost hasn’t been tuned to its maximum potential, fuel economy is still in the background, and the massive amounts of airbags and shit weighing it down. Thicker A-pillars for roof strength and thicker, stronger steels make the chassis. The new C63 AMG-S, it’s awesome, but it’s still heavy. Any sports car you can think of is still not as sporty as it could be.
I think a sports car in 2016 should have the following: The bare minimum number of airbags legally required to save weight, no stereo, or carpets, or anything besides racing buckets and a steering wheel and pedals. TCS, TPMS, etc, because it wouldn’t be road legal. Stiff suspension is required, as is ultra-high performance summer/all-season tires. This is a sports car, not a luxury car.
That is not a boring car, but legal mandates, fuel economy, safety, and many other factors including Starbucks spillage and fleet usability factor determines more about cars other than the people who actually love them for what they are, the enthusiasts, myself included.
I guess I’ll just keep driving in my 25-year-old shitbox until a soccer mom in her new Range Rover holding Starbucks in one hand and her phone in the other T-bones me at ~50 miles per hour.