We can all think of a time when we got into an argument about what made some car awesome or made one car better than another. Half of the time it seems as if I can’t ignore the rCars Slack channel for more than a few minutes without someone bursting into an argument about why the new ZL1 is a better buy than a Stingray, or why a 370Z is a “real sports car” while the 911 is just an over-hyped GT car. Among car enthusiasts these kinds of conversations aren’t uncommon; We obsess and nitpick over every feature, lap time, and mechanical spec we can get our fingers on and we argue over whatever opinions we strongly hold when it comes to cars. Sometimes these opinions are based on facts: “The Viper ACR put down better lap times than the hybrid hypercar ‘Holy Trinity,’” “The Hellcat brothers will spin their tires to shreds in third gear,” etc. Other times they can come from our actual experiences: ride-alongs, track day experiences, rentals, etc. The rest of the time, they’re only based on how we feel about the idea of a car.
Are the Hellcats good driver’s cars? Is the Viper ACR a better track car?
When these arguments come up we each come to bat with defenses like the “the viper is lighter and will “feel sketchier,” or “the dual clutch in GT3 makes it a less exciting drive.”
All of these feelings are based on observations of cars we’ve often never seen in person, let alone cars we have actually driven.
This is a major aspect of car enthusiasm that has really frustrated me over the past few months. Not the fact that we talk about cars, but the fact that it’s all too common for people to have heavily-weighted opinions on things that they don’t actually have any experience with. I can’t blame some of those people for lacking experience though. Cars keep getting better and better, while simultaneously getting harder and harder to obtain. We obsess over performance, but a lot of the cars that excite us have gotten too expensive for many to afford. The lack of affordable options this decade has led to fewer people buying fun cars, in turn making them rarer and harder to experience. The cars exist in the real world and you may see them day-to-day, but short of track day experiences or wasting a salesperson’s time with a fake test drive, most of us don’t get to spend much time with the cars that were designed for us.
This separation between enthusiasts and enthusiast cars combined with the rapid availability of information in media and on the web is what created us; A generation of bench racers.
Bench racing has been around since the Model A rolled off the line to replace the Model T, but thanks to the internet it has never been easier to do. Whether it is lack of time, living in a remote location, money, social predispositions, car availability, or any of the other perfectly good reasons a person could have, most of us can’t, won’t, or don’t go out and experience a lot of cars. The only way it’s really possible for most of us to learn more about cars and how they compare is to do so vicariously through the things we read and watch. In the wake of the ongoing horsepower wars and ever-present fanboyism within the community which has skewed people’s perceptions of performance, very few people actually have much perspective as to what a lot of cars are truly like.
To some, the car with the most horsepower “wins,” to others, power to weight or driving fun are king. We trust popular YouTubers and car journalists to tell us what cars are best and what we should want out of a car. When they say X car is better than Y car there are crowds of people to parrot them. Many of them have spent decades of their life driving and reviewing cars so their opinions are to be valued, but we all have our own preferences and standards. While their criticisms often come from a place of experience, it is not uncommon for a famous YouTuber to say that a car isn’t for him, but it ends up being a perfect fit for one of their viewers. A Challenger SRT may be lumbering and heavy on paper and there never seems to be a lack of people using its weight as the deciding factor for the platform. In my experience, they carry weight no less effectively than my WRX when driven at 6/10ths, which delightfully surprised me on my first test drive. Obviously, I wouldn’t compare the two in other ways, but it is a very different car than a lot of car circles would have you believe.
Now, some of you might be saying “Well there’s your problem, you only took it to 6/10ths, I’m sure it falls apart past that” and you’re probably right, but 6/10ths in that car took me around a bend at 80mph. In a straight line, I may or may not have hit triple digits before I even had a chance to look down at the speedometer (on a private road as my legal counsel urges me to mention). The true characteristics of the car were just untappable on the streets—at least not without ending up dead or in a cell. So, for all intents and purposes, there was no real way to tell how capable or not capable the car was on the street. The lack of real-world perspective is one of the biggest problems with the current trend of bench racing. People are so positive that a car will fail to meet their expectations based off of the spec sheet, that a lot of cars go underappreciated for what they’re capable of.
I’ve had the opportunity to be in a lot of cars as both driver and passenger this past year and one thing I’ve noticed, as someone who owns lower-powered yet still renowned performance cars, is that a lot of cars, even slower ones, are genuinely competent and fun. Now I’m not going to come out and say that every car is fun or sporty, but as time has gone on, cars have gotten insanely good to the point that last year’s economy cars have the composure of entry-level sports cars from the mid-2000’s. No one cares though. Enthusiasts have put those days behind them and last year’s sporty performance is seen as slow. A modern Focus ST today puts a last gen Focus to shame and would give a stock SN95 Mustang a run for its money. Maybe not in a burnout competition, but down the quarter-mile, they both will do mid 14-second times and in the corners, you can bet the ST will come out ahead, but a lot of people don’t care. It only makes 252hp, it’s only FWD, it’s the grown-up equivalent of a Razor scooter when compared to the Mustang. Admittedly, it’s not a fair comparison to pit a new car against a 10 to 15-year-old one, but there are a lot of people today who would give a thumbs-up to the old GT and a thumbs-down to the ST without ever having driven either or considered what their real-world performance is like.
At the end of the day, I can be okay with the fact that people will just hate some cars on principle. Drive wheel preference and brand loyalty are powerful things. What I’m not okay with is the fact that people always seem to be obsessed with whatever the next piece of hotness is at the end of the drag strip with little to no consideration for what it actually means for the driving experience. The cheap “compromise” cars that people buy are righteously quick and most importantly, fun to drive, but people still think they need a Corvette Z06 to have fun behind the wheel. There is more to how a car feels than horsepower and lap times. Anyone who’s installed a short throw shifter or a new swaybar on their car can tell you how much of a difference the little things can make when it comes to a car being inspiring and fun to drive. Many enthusiasts cars that are boring on paper are electrifying to drive in person. A prime example of this being the Miata. If you have never driven one, words genuinely cannot accurately convey what it is like to drive one. It’s a car that you experience rather than drive and I encourage you to never miss out on an opportunity to do so. It has a cult following for a reason.
Like I said earlier, obviously, a lot of people may not get an opportunity to drive a lot of cars in their life and are still entitled to have their opinions wherever they may stem from. All I can do is encourage the people reading this to not hate on a car you haven’t driven. If you’ve driven it and still hate it, make sure you take into consideration what the car was meant for. While I praised it earlier, a Challenger would make a less than ideal AutoX car, so if you’re inclined to buy one for that purpose I would encourage you to reconsider. Likewise, if you want to do rolling burnouts at 70 miles per hour and tear up a drag strip, the Miata is likely a terrible car choice for you. Those are extreme examples, but a lot of hate for cars comes without considerations for what they were built for. Take the GT86 platform for example. The FRS/BRZ/GT86 has a reputation in the car community as being a car that looks fast, but drives slow. While I can attest to a distinct lack of top end oomph, the GT86 was built as a fun tossable car. Its straight-line performance is lackluster at best, but in the corners, it’s a blast to drive without being a death trap. Sometimes a car’s true nature doesn’t become apparent until you’re pushing them close to the limit whereas others are a hot mess once you push them beyond street levels of driving. You can really only know these things once you’ve had a chance to spend some time driving a car the way it was designed to be driven and compare that to how you want to drive.
So what am I getting at with all of this? I’m not trying to tell you why your obsession with the Dodge Viper is wrong. It most definitely is not. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have any opinions about cars you haven’t driven either. I’m just saying that the car world is not black and white. In the modern performance car market, there are no perfect cars, nor are there completely, irreparably flawed cars, and whether or not a car is good or not is based on you, not the spec sheet. If you haven’t had the pleasure of getting to drive a variety of cars to develop your tastes, you might not be 100% right about what your dream car is. I know I wasn’t. For years I was an AWD supremacist, thought convertibles were stupid, and my dream car was a Nissan GT-R. I still don’t have much of a taste for soft-top cars when a hardtop version exists, but my S2000 managed to steal my WRX’s spot as my favorite car and analog driving experiences have moved higher up on my priorities list.
If there is one thing I would want anyone reading to take away from all this, it’s that you should never miss an opportunity to experience some of the cars out there. Especially if it’s a car that you hate on principle. If you go for it with an open mind, chances are you might find fewer reasons to hate it than you’d expect. If not, you at least will have fully justified your feelings. If you can’t do that, at least make sure to diversify the type of content that you consume. It’s fine if you have a favorite YouTube channel or author and you use their works to sling specs back and forth with your friends, but there are usually 2 sides to every story. For every reviewer who says a car is trash, there is a reviewer who may put it at the top of their buyer’s list, and whether or not they’re right is purely subjective.
Bench racing will always be a part of being an enthusiast in this day and age, but those specs will mean more to you once you’ve learned what they mean and fully experienced them. If you’re feeling even more ambitious to learn the pros and cons of a platform, go out and race your own car. You don’t have to go to a track to get a taste of how your car feels at the limit. The SCCA and NASA (not the space shuttle one) host Autocross, Rallycross, and Road Rally events across the United States (MSA for the UK, CAMS for AUS, and CAC, MCO, and CASC for CAN) and it’s a great way to find out if you’re actually utilizing your current car’s potential, as well as tell you if you have any business lusting after car with 2 times the performance you actually need to be happy. Your own misconceptions about your car could very well keep you from tapping into its true potential and realizing that cars like it can be genuinely fun.
It doesn’t matter how you do it, but I highly recommend taking any opportunity you can to see if your thoughts about a car are truly yours. Remember that your opinions about a car are often half-baked until you’ve had a chance to experience it yourself. Don’t be one of those people who says X is better than Z when you don’t understand why. There’s a lot of misinformation in the car world and much of it is circumstantial so you owe it to yourself to make sure you’re not missing out on how good or bad something that’s your community’s latest circlejerk can actually be. How a car feels to you should be more important than “which car is faster.”