I have no reason to write this column other than to regurgitate the thoughts that have been running through my mind in the past five or six weeks, I hope you’ll understand and that I won’t be lynched for my opinions. These musings have been induced by a collection of things that have no real correlation – electricity, macaroons, soy vanilla lattes, Spain and Paris. As someone that has a day job that involves selling services where a man in a van comes and takes away your old computers, I crave the excitement and a creative outlet that cars somewhat fill and entertain like a well executed parallel parking job – it gives me a satisfying warmth inside.
What am I on about and is the title of this just clickbait? No, it’s not, I’ll leave that to YouTube and its comical ‘content’. At lunch next to a pool in Ronda I spat out a string of words that stirred up a furore of debate. I boldly stated, amongst a group of esteemed journalists, that the cars we have had in the past few years and are testing these days are the best we may see. Ever.
Hybridisation, automation, EVs and stricter controls will surely result in the death of such exciting and involving cars.
Change is all good and well. Cars are safer to crash, less harmful to fluffy polar bears and more accessible to the masses than ever before. There is no denying that for the good of the world and the universe that things are better than ever before. On the flip side of the coin, cars are more boring, choked and numb than ever before.
That brings me onto AC/DC. Electricity is something that is here to stay and that upsets me. This is arguably the biggest single change in the history of the automobile that we have seen since the first car was built by one Karl Benz in Mannheim in 1885 – it had a combustion engine. Having a fire burning fossil fuels that create a bang is no small feat and immediately translates to tangible feel and life in a car.
Many cars from as recently as the late noughties didn’t feature a rev counter, but you instinctively know when you have to change gear as there is a raw connection between the buzzing vibrations and the sound coming from under the bonnet. You can feel the strain on the engine, you can hear it and that adds to the connection you have with a car. If you don’t believe me, and if you’re rich, go grab a pair of BOSE noise cancelling headphones and drive with them on. It’s a bit weird. It’s the same with electric cars – just worse. Keep your headphones on and then don a pair of wellies because there is not an ounce of pedal feel. The brake pedal is the most flaccid thing outside of your bedroom after a night on the whiskey and then the brakes overheat under the pressure of the having to slow down the gargantuan weight going down hill. Oven gloves will complete the look and help to emulate the absence of even the vaguest hint of steering feel. There is no sensation, everyone promises me that these are teething problems – teething problems they have 11 hours to tell me about as we waited for the few hundred batteries to charge – lithium batteries that are difficult to build and ones that nobody knows how to dispose of as they ooze a liquid that Mr Fluffy Polar Bear certainly wouldn’t want in his G&T.
Enough of the bad – what inspired me to say that we are in the golden era of automobiles? Well, the cars that I’ve been driving and the experiences they’ve led to. There have been a few cars in the past weeks that have been extraordinarily exciting to drive – cars that make your hairs stand on end and make you sit up and pay attention. Let’s start with one of the less scintillating automobiles – the McLaren 720S. Yes, it’s new dimension fast, but it didn’t have such a blue blooded persona. Seeing as it was nose bleed inducing quick yet promised to be so usable, I picked up a pretty lady and took it to Paris to have a picnic and eat fresh Parisian Macaroons from Ladurée. It felt necessary to stretch the cars legs after driving it in London traffic for three days straight. It made me feel something and want to see what it was about as cars in this category all offer such a wonderful kaleidoscope of idiosyncrasies. Drive a Huracan, Speciale and 720S and you’ll fathom what I’m hinting at.
Moving across the spectrum came a drive in Spain with the BMW M2 Competition and M3 CS, this is where things got interesting because I also I had the keys to the latest iteration of the M5 Competition. The M2 and CS are fairly old school in their approaches. Chassis focused, rear wheel driven cars that are designed to be exciting. The M2 is the entry point to the BMW M family so it’s not necessarily about speed. I had driven both the manual and DCT and both were an absolute joy. Why? There’s enough power and torque to break traction and a chassis set up on a short-wheel-base car that is out to have a good time. It wants you to play and it won’t chop the ends of your fingers off if you take it a bit far. It’s the optimal balance between power, speed and handling. It obliterates it’s RS3/A45 rivals, not on paper, but in the real world where it matters. Then there’s the slightly unhinged M3 CS.
Sunny Spain, terrifying circuit, slippery surface, manual gearbox M2 Comp and lots of things to crash into makes for sweaty palms. Tremendous fun🕺🏽 #BMWM2Competition #M2Competition @bmw @bmwm #TrackDay #Ascari #GoProDriving #SaveTheManuals #ManualTranny
Get in and it feels a generation old after being in the tech festooned M5. It’s sparse and lined in alcantara. There’s a focus here that feels a bit racecar. Then you drive the darn thing and it scares you to the verge of soiling your frilly underwear, even with the traction on and the car in comfort mode. I went to overtake a lorry in third gear, it was almost 40°C and the car is sat on Michelin Pilot Cup 2s (the most racy tires that are street legal) and yet the rear was squirming around like a muddy pig that had caught a glimpse of Mr Flurry Polar Bear in the rear-view-mirror. It’s deranged, hilarious and it makes you need to think twice before flooring it. What’s my point? Remember that M5 Competition I mentioned? I barely did. It’s all wheel drive, it’s just a lot more dull than the cheery M2 Competition and the wild M3 CS. The limits are unreachable and that’s the problem, this M5 is a look into the future of BMW M. The power race has made it all-wheel-drive so it can win at top trumps without killing drivers and their families. Future M cars will likely follow this formula. In July this year it was confirmed by BMW M that hybrid and electric technologies are in the pipeline for all the M cars that we will drive in the not too distant future. The purity and clarity of M2 and M3 CS is destined to be distorted.
Think about the foundations of the drivers car: rear-wheel-drive, lightness, an engaging gearbox, strong engine and tangible connections between car and driver. Put all of those juicy ingredients into a blender and chances are you’ll have a Porsche GT3 Touring smoothie, that’s my chosen drink anyway. A Cayman GT4 or similar would also suffice so I was curious when tasked with driving a Carrera T (991.2 with a turbocharger) back to Stuttgart. It was a manual and had no options. That meant no infotainment, USBs, speakers or parking sensors – no distractions. This is as pure as a modern car that isn’t a GT3 Touring gets (Porsche please send me a GT3 T!) and…it was utterly delectable. On a Thursday morning before driving to the office in the London traffic I craved my basic bitch beverage of choice – a soy vanilla latte. It was 3:22am and I yearned to cheat on sleep with the green mermaid that has corrupted so many souls. I got up and drove for 45 minutes to a Starbucks 50 miles from home. Truth be told, I passed four of other Starbucks that were open on the way, I just didn’t want to stop driving one of the least powerful 911s on sale today. Forget the numbers, it’s not possible to quantify the way the car made me feel watching sunrise, sipping and smiling. Autonomous driving is flavour of the month, in my mind that’s just as exciting as sitting in a taxi. Yes, it may be great for a daily, traffic plagued commute, but I would rather have my latte with with a shot of tomato ketchup than have a Tesla drive me to my saving grace.
These are the best attempts I have to illustrate my point. You may think I’m mad, most do, but cars such as the M3 CS, Carrera T and M2 Competition, amongst others, are not going to be around for much longer. The trio I’ve just mentioned have already been contaminated by regulations so have been turbocharged but still manage, through passion and engineering magic, to be engaging and cars that ask you to be a better driver a reward you when you are. Hybridisation, automation, EVs and stricter controls will surely result in the death of such exciting and involving machines. I, for one, need the thrill and intoxication of the magnetic pull the keys to a fun car have. I fear that EVs and cars chocked by political decisions will mean that the want to get up, pick up a person you want to share special moments with and drive just, will be abolished. In a decade we’ll look back the cars I’ve spoken about in this story, shaking our heads whilst turning to one another uttering ‘those were the good old days’ waiting for our EVs to juice up. I have my fingers crossed that I’ve lost the plot and that the future will prove me wrong. Until then I’ll chase Starbucks and sunrise with a smug smile on my face knowing I’m enjoying what may be the golden age of the drivers’ car.