What makes a proper sports car? Or fast car, or fun car, or whatever you consider to be the paramount of what all obtainable cars should try to be? Is it the pedigree behind the brand? Is it a top speed or acceleration within a certain margin? Is it the way the gear lever slots into place, or is it the way the car’s power, or lack thereof, tosses it around a corner?
No matter who you are or what you like, there is one factor that almost always defines a "proper car": how it feels. In the early days of car manufacturing, drivers could feel every sensation that the car and road ahead had to offer. Everything was mechanical and everything was physically connected to something you interacted with. In turn, the feedback was equally as direct. Of course, back then, these feelings came with numerous inconveniences for daily use. Cabins were noisy, turning the wheel without some sort of assist was difficult, and old school suspension left a lot to be desired. As time went by, changes were made to make cars more liveable. Power steering was added, sound deadening became an integral part of a car’s construction, and driver assists were added to make cars easier and safer to drive.
The cars we have now are safer, more comfortable, and more efficient than they were in the past, but many of these changes have come at a cost. Exhausts have become more restrictive to reduce emissions and noise levels, hybrids and electric cars are everywhere, replacing the drama of the Internal Combustion Engine with the silent and direct power of electric motors. Non-enthusists herald these electric and hybrid cars as the solution to our climate change problems with little to no regard as to where that leaves those of us who live, breathe, and drink petrol. Even cars with the purest of heritages can now be found riddled with modern features and trim levels that sacrifice performance and intimacy with practicality and efficiency. While things like traction control can be disabled with the push of a button, electric steering and computer controlled throttle bodies will forever sever part of the bond we have with cars. These sacrifices are what give us more precise, more perfect cars, but to many, it also makes the experience of driving more numb.
When cars like the new Acura NSX were announced, thousands of people cheered, hoping for the return of a once-great beacon of performance. The raw and pure feeling of the original NSX was something that helped it remain coveted, despite it lacking power and features that many similar cars had to offer.
The old NSX was lightweight, balanced, and a delight to drive. More importantly, it managed all of this without the aids found on modern sports cars today. Many of the best driving cars in existence owe their fame to the physical and mechanical connection the drivers had with their cars. When the details of the new NSX began to surface, cheers quickly faded as people discovered the NSX of old was long gone. In its place, yet another car with enough computing power to redo the moon landing, powered by a dense lithium-ion battery strapped to the bottom. This is the world that we live in, despite outcries from the automotive community.
For those of you that feel that computers and technology have invariably ruined modern sports cars as we know it… You’re probably right. Mankind is imperfect and it goes without saying that we tend to like imperfect things. Imperfections are what let us bond with our cars. It gives them personality; it gives them excitement; it makes them relatable. For tuners, imperfection means room to endlessly chase perfection. For racers, it means room to improve yourself as a driver and a way to dominate others who are less worthy of the pole position.
As technology has moved on we have started to lose touch with what makes a car feel fun, feel unique, and feel like anything at all really. While a lot of the tech in cars now may serve the same function as their old hydraulic or mechanical counterparts, they don’t give the same feedback that many of us crave.
All of that said, I don't think all of this is actually a bad thing. It's change; and change is a polarizing thing and when something is polarizing, there will always be a sizeable number of people who reject it.
When direct injection first saw the light of day, there were people to protest against its complexity and its questionable reliability. When cars became riddled with sensors and more and more computer controlled parts, protests of increased repair complexity and cost could be heard from every corner of our community. It can still be argued that some of the most computer controlled and tuned cars on the market have a plethora of problems that an otherwise normal car wouldn’t.
Regardless of what concerns there have been, we’ve seen an incredible burst of performance over the past few decades and it's all thanks to some of the most controversial automotive changes the industry had to offer.
Cars like the Nissan GT-R use a myriad of on-board computers combined with every automotive innovation of the 21st century has to offer to rocket an arguably chubby car around a corner just as quickly as a low-slung, lightweight exotic. The hybrid trinity are a testament to what can be accomplished using technology once reserved for Prii (yes that's the plural of Prius). Even some of the more traditional cars like the Ford Mustang and the Chevy Corvette have seen insane horsepower bumps thanks to changes and improvements made using technology that was once mocked by automotive purists. We owe a lot of what we have now to the controversial changes made years before their refinement.
When a new technology is introduced to a car, many people are quick to either praise or condemn it and keep their state of mind forever locked within their initial perceptions. They will write it off as worse or useless and use it as a defense for why the old way is the best way. Getting lost in asserting what makes the old better than the new gets us stuck doing the same thing over and over again and doing the same thing over and over again is EXACTLY Albert Einstein’s oft-quoted definition of insanity. The time will come when we can’t go any further with the internal combustion engine or to go further will require more than what the ICE can do alone. That time is not now and may not be in the foreseeable future, but the big names in the auto industry are trying to find out what the next step is, before we hit a wall.
Maybe someday scientists will create some new metal or develop some kind of new oil that somehow makes every inline 4 get 1000 HP and 50MPG , but we shouldn’t condemn the industry for trying to explore new technologies. I’m not saying any one automotive design path is better than another, and I’ll stand up and agree with many of you that some things should never have been changed. However, I’d rather see the engineers of the automotive industry try something new, fail a hundred times, and give up, than see them never try anything different.
Change isn’t always a bad thing.