What we love when we love cars

Top Gear (Philippines) - - Contents - WORDS BY JA­SON K. ANG

‘The best thing about lov­ing a car is that it’s al­ways pos­si­ble at any price point’

Why do we like some cars and de­spise oth­ers? To para­phrase the movie critic Roger Ebert, a car is not good or bad be­cause of its con­tent, but be­cause of how it han­dles its con­tent. So, we can like a Honda Jazz, a sub­com­pact hatch­back that ex­cels at be­ing space-ef­fi­cient and easy to park, just as much as we like a Mercedes-Benz V-Class, which car­ries lots of peo­ple and lug­gage with aplomb and even a bit of flair.

Mak­ing a car lik­able isn’t as straight­for­ward as it seems. All cars are en­gi­neered down to the cost of their small­est screw, and slot­ted into pre­cise seg­ments of the mar­ket. But in most cases, when you drive a car, you just don’t feel any­thing spe­cial. It goes, it stops, you get out, and five min­utes later, you for­get about the whole ex­pe­ri­ence. To write a story on a model, I have to read my notes and look at the pho­tos I’ve taken.

Lik­a­bil­ity isn’t purely a func­tion of price. An ex­pen­sive car may be well­built and fea­ture-packed, but while this helps raise its fun fac­tor, the price drives up ex­pec­ta­tions. An ex­pen­sive car is usu­ally heav­ier, too, mak­ing it harder to drive well than one that is lighter. Of­ten, a cheap and cheer­ful car bright­ens up a dreary drive bet­ter than a dou­ble shot of es­presso can.

But to go from like to love takes some­thing spe­cial. The clincher isn’t air-con­di­tioned and mas­sag­ing leather seats, or even a 500hp en­gine. It’s the way the car re­sponds to com­mands: It should re­spond pre­cisely to steer­ing in­put, power smoothly through a cor­ner, and brake with con­fi­dence. A car is, af­ter all, a tool, per­haps the finest one avail­able for a wide au­di­ence. And the best gauge of its abil­ity to en­gage the driver is sim­ple: the smile fac­tor. If it can make you grin from ear to ear not only while you’re sweep­ing through a turn but also when you re­mem­ber that turn af­ter­ward, that’s when you know you have some­thing spe­cial.

A car does not have to be big and im­pres­sive to be mem­o­rable. One of my fa­vorites is the Toy­ota Echo, a soap bub­ble of a car. The fun in the Echo is wring­ing it for all it’s worth, and the best thing is, it re­sponds in kind. The 1.3-liter spins up madly, and the au­to­matic trans­mis­sion—only a four-speed—shifts like it can read your mind. Un­til now, I can’t re­sist tak­ing pho­tos of the Echo when­ever I see one on the street.

In­ten­sity is how other cars make you fall in love. One car, in par­tic­u­lar, stands out, seared onto the au­to­mo­tive sec­tion of my brain’s li­brary for­ever af­ter just a brief drive: the Fer­rari 599. It re­mains the only car that has in­stantly struck fear and ex­hil­a­ra­tion in me as I tried to keep it on the smooth stuff at the Fio­rano test track in Maranello. The ex­pe­ri­ence was a dou­ble-edged sword, be­cause that drive has for­ever ru­ined su­per­cars for me. Sim­ply be­cause noth­ing else has felt as su­per since then. Maybe when I get be­hind the wheel of a Le Mans GT race car...

Then of course, be­ing pretty makes a car ir­re­sistible. If the Mazda MX-5 were sold as an empty shell, it would still be a great piece of static art. The de­light­ful thing is that the Mi­ata ful­fills every bit of the prom­ise of its beau­ti­ful body, whether it’s danc­ing will­ingly at the edge of ad­he­sion on the track or just rum­bling along nicely on the way to the of­fice.

Some cars we love be­cause of the spe­cial parts that they played in our lives. You never for­get your first, as they say. So there will al­ways be a place in my me­mory for that red 1980 Toy­ota Corona Hard­top. It didn’t han­dle very well, that’s for sure, but it made up for it with a rel­a­tively pow­er­ful en­gine. Those were the days that you could go 130kph on a short sec­tion of EDSA, rather than the 13kph that we’re used to now. A sort-of-fast car with a good sound sys­tem, and that was enough.

There are few things more mem­o­rable than trundling down a moun­tain in Colorado—ex­cept hav­ing a rear wheel slip off the cliff­side road go­ing down that moun­tain. The car, a Jeep Wran­gler, was able to pull it­self out a split-se­cond be­fore grav­ity would have done us in. It was hard to let go of the Jeep af­ter that, and I’ve been look­ing at Wran­glers with fond­ness ever since. A shared ex­pe­ri­ence—dan­ger­ous, usu­ally—helps in bond­ing a car to its driver.

Fi­nally, we have a spe­cial place in our hearts for the ones that got away. A friend of mine wanted to give his pris­tine R129 Mercedes-Benz SL350 a new home. I hes­i­tated, and she ended up go­ing home with some­one else.

The best thing about lov­ing a car is that it’s al­ways pos­si­ble at any price point. It takes some pa­tience to find a car you can love. Each seg­ment of the mar­ket has one or two mod­els that could po­ten­tially make you smile on a daily ba­sis. Look for them, read about them, then go for a test drive to see how you feel about them. And when you get the chance to make the right car yours, don’t hes­i­tate.

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