What we love when we love cars
‘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.