Contemporary performance- and sportscars are excellent; they’re packed full of modern technologies that help keep them on the road when you can’t (or your driving talent abruptly reaches its limit). These gizmos kill the purity of the driving experience, however, and there are only a handful of products that can still be regarded driver's cars...
Features such as torque vectoring and electronic differentials help you corner better, g-force manipulation improves the car's balance and individual wheel braking drags you into corners on a tighter line: so many great pieces of kit to make you feel like a superior driver and trim down those lap times down so you may bask in the genius of your steering-wheel twirling.
These systems are great, I'll admit. They will probably get your average hack relatively close to a Kelvin van der Linde or a David Perel after a few hundred laps of practice. They help to stimulate sales too; if you can convince a "mere mortal" that they'd be nearly as fast a real racing driver thanks to your technological prowess, they'd feel ownership of your product would entitle them to bragging rights. Every petrolhead worth his salt wants to say he’s a quick driver so it’s an obvious solution for a manufacturer to give them an electronic boost to their ego.
A simple formula of great steering, high-revving engine and limited driver aids, the Lotus Exige is a near perfect driver's car.
However, the advancement of "driver aids" is eroding the purity of the most cherished driver’s car. I think I can say with almost 100% confidence I have not driven a new car with genuine steering feel since I started test-driving new cars in 2009. My race cars had good steering, I was always amazed at how much I could feel through the wheel and how much easier it was to adapt, adjust and position a car when you can discern between the myriad textures, contours and cambres of asphalt through the steering wheel.
Much of the blame for this "remoteness" can be levelled at electronic steering systems, which substitute hydraulics for electric motors. Electricity removes the mechanical connection between the wheels and the steering wheel and no matter how hard manufacturers try to replicate feel and feedback, they haven't managed to achieve what a communicative driving experience used to be – or should be. It’s one of those strange scenarios where technology, in a bid to make things better (electronic steering systems are more fuel efficient), have actually made things worse.
The Mercedes-AMG E63 is an incredible machine, but does it tick the right boxes to be a driver's car?
I’m by no way rubbishing what modern cars can do. I’m absolutely in awe of the performance feats that the Mercedes-AMG E63 can achieve in spite of its size and heft. The Affalterbach sedan's ability to turn-in accurately is incredible, the engine's grunt is torrential and the body's ability to adapt to changes of direction will shame lightweight sportscars. But, and it’s a big BUT, I don’t love it as a driver’s car... there’s no visceral connection that binds me to the machine, has me yearning for more, or makes me feel like I'm one with the machine.
My steering- and pedal inputs are merely relayed to a processor that spits out a formula based on some software written in order to set the car up for optimal performance, in other words: hustle it through a corner I aimed it at as fast as the sedan can go. It’s not just Benz's cars that deliver their performance in that manner either, it’s almost every manufacturer of performance machinery out there. I can’t speak for the top-end Ferraris, Porsches or McLarens as they are too rare a commodity in South Africa to bestow on a laptop jockey like moi.
This electronic interference, if you will, provides amazing results and yields lap-time improvements, of that there is certainly no doubt. Formula One, which was at its fastest in the mid-2000s, proved that the likes of traction control and launch control were faster than the best drivers' powers of car control. It made for a particularly boring era of F1 that lead to single file races and limited overtaking. Both technologies eventually got banned from F1. In our everyday cars, these bits of tech are vital, especially traction control with stability control as it saves lives (by preventing accidents), even more so than seatbelts or airbags.
Most sportscars have a button that allows you to deactivate the driver aids for a purified driving experience. In some cases, there are a million different user settings to choose from to loosen or tighten the traction control’s strictness. It’s a bit messy and you find yourself fiddling in the cabin for the right combination when you should be concentrating on other things. Again, these systems aren’t making you a better driver, they’re making you a faster driver as your bravery levels are inflated immensely when an electronic safety net is in place.
One of the best modern day sportscars that allows the driver to feel like a cog in the machine rather than an unwanted calculation.
So where do you go if you want a raw, unadulterated driving experience? Unsurprisingly, back in time.
There’s a neat period in the early 2000s when sportscars were powerful enough to excite and most of the reliability bugs had been ironed out. Electronics were pretty much limited to things such as an on/off switch for traction control, seat heaters and a trip computer. These are cars devoid of smartphone integration and distractions from the thing that actually matters most, driving. Here’s a quick list of cars that have me digging into the Cars.co.za classifieds: BMW Z3 M Coupe, Lotus Elise/Exige, Honda S2000, Mazda RX8/MX-5 and what’s currently in my driveway, a Nissan 350Z. A few of these tick the expensive-to-maintain box, yes, but have a better driver focus than most of today’s computer-guided commutermobiles.
No, they won’t accelerate faster than a new Volkswagen Golf GTI and the ride isn’t as comfortable, and you’re likely to discern creaks or rattles and spot scratches in places you don’t want them. But, every time I take the 350Z out for a drive, whether it’s to the shops or to the mountains, the rev needle climbs beautifully to 7 000 rpm and everything feels connected. The steering is alive, I can feel the wheels, I have control and it will do what I want and I know what it needs. It’s the perfect combination of man and machine integrating seamlessly where I feel part of the machine rather than the machine driving me. That’s what modern day performance machinery has lost, the art of Jinba Ittai as Mazda calls it – the connection between rider and horse communicated through feeling, not electricity.
The Honda S2000's ability to excite and reward still commands a high price tag in the used market.
They're still out there, a few of them...
So what if you can’t get your hands on a driver’s classic or don’t fancy an out-of-maintenance-plan car? Well, while they lack the purity and steering feel of the classic drivers' machines, there are a few car that have the formula mostly correct. If I was going to buy new(ish), with a focus on driver enjoyment/involvement, these aren’t bad choices for less than R1 million:
BMW 1M (2011)
Porsche Cayman R (2011)