These cars may not be regarded as particularly quick by modern standards, but the driving experiences they deliver are as visceral and every bit as involving as the tales that gave rise to their legends...
I blame the modern automobile and its ensemble of onboard nannies for the death of the driver’s car. You know - the ones that utilised manual transmissions and lenient traction controls, and boasted obnoxiously loud and unfettered soundtracks. I’m not saying the contemporary equivalents aren’t any good but these days it’s easy to look good behind the wheel thanks to sophisticated computers and in-car telemetry systems that monitor and compensate for driver error.
The Far East is known for creating some of the best driving cars around having mastered the ability to extract massive power from minuscule engines. Witchcraft? Perhaps, but anything Japanese with rear-wheel drive, a stick shift and over 100 kW is going to be tremendously light and engaging to thread through a twisty mountain pass. The Europeans, on the other hand, enjoy doing things the opposite way. Here front-wheel drive, loquacious turbochargers and limited-slip differentials ensure similar levels of endorphins. Of all the options available we’ve narrowed down to the bucket list below. You can thank us later but more importantly, enjoy the read.
Nissan 350Z (2003-2008)
Beneath the muscular bonnet of the 350Z rests a naturally aspirated 3.5-litre V6 engine. Originally launched with 206 kW it later produced 230 kW thanks to a revised twin symmetric air intake system and a straight intake port. Minimalist by design the 350’s cabin caters exclusively for the driver where a short-throw manual gear lever, basic steering wheel (sans multi-functionality) and a cluster of ancillary gauges take centre stage - nothing fancy here. But it worked and took nothing away from the driving experience which can only be described as barbaric in nature. The 350Z’s stiff underpinnings meant turn-in was accurate and grip plentiful but the rear-drive layout often resulted in a Tokyo drift or two if the driver got too over enthusiastic with the throttle. As a result of these attributes the 350 only made sense as a weekend racer or track -day car - used as a daily would be quite taxing considering the tightly-sprung clutch pedal, heavy steering and gearshift action. A Japanese muscle car if there ever was one.
Renault Megane RS 265 (2012-2017)
There’s no other hot hatch that boasts as manic a driving experience as the Renault Megane RS. Get in, start the engine, hold on, put foot and repeat. The whole experience is an unsullied one, hard-edged and straight-to-the-point. The acceleration is ferociously precise, if a little twitchy owing to the trick differential apportioning the torque evenly between the front wheels but with 195 kW and 360 Nm on tap it made a mockery of its rivals, particularly around the track. The RS’s ethos hinged around a sensory explosion second to none - from the road fizz filtering through the helm and sound of air being sucked in by the 2.0-litre’s turbocharger to the smell of unburnt fuel. Like the other cars listed here, the cabin is tailored around performance rather than comfort. As a result, Recaro racing bucket seats tightly ensconce its occupants akin to being hugged by the Incredible Hulk himself. It’s a harsh environment but one that makes sense - especially for those who enjoy track days and spirited runs up and down a mountain pass. If you can, try and get your hands on the Trophy edition that came right at the end of its life cycle - entertainment level and driving purity went through the roof, but it's hardcore.
Honda S2000 (1999-2009)
Bar its digital instrument cluster the Honda S2000 is as analogue as they come and widely known for encouraging its driver to symbiotically massage every inch of power and torque from the rev band. It wasn’t by any means perfect. For starters, it was a roadster - but unlike its contemporaries who suffered from scuttle shake and the like, the S2000 behaved very differently. The high X-bone frame, steel monocoque chassis and body structure gave the S2000 levels of stiffness never seen before in open-top cars. The weight balance - especially in the updated AP2 versions - was progressive and communicative, instilling in the driver a sense of confidence that bordered on telepathic. And then there was the naturally aspirated 2.0-litre 16-valve engine. Good for 177 kW and 220 Nm it revved to an ear-splitting 9 000 rpm, the threshold of which surfaced between 7 200 - 8 500 rpm as the VTEC system hit its stride. Unlike some of its rivals that produced more mid-range punch, the S2000 had to be thrashed to get the best out of it. This, of course, didn’t gel with everybody but at its price point, there was very little that came close to matching it in terms of thrills.
Mazda MX-5 (2005-2015)
The third-generation MX-5 may have picked up a few kilos over the years in the name of improved safety but that did very little to affect its reputation as an engaging driver’s car. Of the cars listed here, it has the least potent engine - a meagre 118 kW/188 Nm naturally aspirated four-cylinder but its beautifully balanced chassis made up for the lack of firepower up front. The MX-5 only made sense when a set of corners came into the equation where its magnetic-like grip courtesy of a near-perfect 50:50 weight distribution kept it secured to the road. There’s a certain level of purity to be had behind the wheel and while there’s almost always more grip on offer than power, the entire experience was a mechanical lesson in dynamic prowess. Outright power is and never will be the defining attribute of any car and the MX-5 repeatedly proved this notion over nearly two decades and three generations.
Ford Focus RS (2009-2011)
I’m not sure what we like more: the Ford Focus RS’s ultimate green paintwork or its utterly absurd power delivery? Gifted with an appearance that looked as if it was sculpted by Thor himself (its engine blueprint was borrowed from Volvo after all) the RS made no excuses about what it was designed for - bullying its rivals. Its outlandishly styled rear wing, beefed-up wheel arches and aggressively set bumper arrangement made for an appreciably intimidating machine - and that’s even before firing up its 2.5-litre five-potter.
Punch the pedal and the RS' full fury (224 kW and 440 Nm of torque) was unleashed onto the front wheels – something that could have rendered it undriveable, but a RevoKnuckle suspension set up helped keep the peace to a certain extent. Despite the slightly fidgety steering, it still managed to slingshot itself to 100kph in 5.9 seconds. As you can imagine, the soundtrack was as loud as its appearance delivering somewhat of a pyrotechnic display at full chat before a trailing throttle sent the wastegate into a fluttering soliloquy.