Tuesday, April 17, 2012

WHAT MAKES AUTO GREATNESS

"Picking holes in a new car is much easier than writing nice things about it"

I haven't driven much in my life. Frankly I don't like to drive, its nerve wracking and uncomfortable for me; perhaps with more experience it would be less traumatic, but I just prefer not to. However, I've driven enough to get a feel for different kinds of cars, and I have noticed that some are objectively better than others.

And I don't mean more expensive, or more luxurious, I mean they just are... better. Richard Hammond from Top Gear recently test drove the BMW 320d and he wrote in the UK Mirror that he thought it was possibly the best car ever made. Now, I have a hard time taking the Top Gear guys very seriously because they play every situation for comedy no matter how blatantly set up it has to be and they obviously have an anti-American bias. They also have a tendency to criticize some cars for characteristics they praise others for, so their judgment seems to be based no on objective principles.

I'd go so far as to wonder if they aren't paid to like some cars, except for the fact that they clearly will say when they think a car is junk, even though it enrages the manufacturer (they've actually been refused use of a car because they slammed a company so badly in the past). And when they do serious evaluation of a car, they tend to be honest and accurate about it - unless its an American car - especially James May and Richard Hammond.

So on the whole, if Richard Hammond, who has driven literally hundreds of cars for his job, thinks this car is really great, chances are it probably is. Hammond used terms like "brilliant handling," "very accurate steering" and "one of the nicest Threes to drive in decades." He doesn't seem to have any clear leading characteristic in mind, but he really likes the car - and its a hybrid.

Now I don't know if he's right or not, and at around $50,000 US, its insanely overpriced, but I have driven one car that was significantly better than any of the others. It was a minivan, the Dodge Caravan. Dodge has a justly deserved bad reputation for lousy cars (especially lately) but they have made some gems and the last models before they put a door on both sides were wonderful to drive.

I know that sounds odd to write about a minivan, but it was comfortable, easy, responsive, and did exactly what you hoped it would when you pushed the gas and turned the wheel. Yes, it had a problem with the back gate (the hydraulics were faulty) and yes the transmission was crumbly, but the drive was wonderful. And since a van is all about hauling things around and long trips (vacations etc) then a comfortable easy drive is incredibly important.

I can't explain why, though. Part of it is that I haven't driven as much as most people my age, and part of it is that it isn't any one thing or easily identified combination of things. It just is a mix of a lot of things that are just right, for me at least, and all add up to a great experience.

And so often that's how it seems with cars. Whenever I see a car reviewed that is wonderful, they can't exactly explain what makes it so great. They can list great features and details, but when it comes down to why its better than other, similar cars, it usually comes down to "something" or "x-factor." And perhaps there isn't any way to quantify it.

1 comment:

Eric said...

One of my friends had a Dodge Caravan in high school. I don't remember exactly what it was about the engine, but it was incredibly, surprisingly powerful... not just ofr a minivan but for anything on the road. There was a flat long strip of highway a few miles outside of town called the Quarter Mile, where stupid high school kids used to race their cars on Friday nights. We would actually take all the seats out of the Caravan (to make it lighter) and go race it on occassion. One time we outran a kid in a turbo charged Dodge Daytona Shelby (admittedly because the Shelby was a stick and he was a horrible driver who kept missing gears... but still!). I'll never forget the look on his girlfriend's face when my buddy's minivan thundered across the finish line a car's length ahead of her preppy boyfriend's bad-ass sports car.