Slow Cars - The Joy of Slow

February 13, 2009
0903 01 Z+joy Of Slow+illustration
Driving a Porsche 911 GT3 RS on the streets of Huntington Beach is like having torrid sex with a fantasy lover - in a public place. It's exhilarating, yes, but you're constantly terrified that you're about to be busted.
I find myself experiencing these warring emotions while driving the GT3 RS owned by Dennis Holloway, who runs Mothers Polishes. From the Alcantara steering wheel to the 415-hp flat-six to the screaming orange, really-officer-was-I-going-that-fast? Paint job, the Porsche is, essentially, a street-legal race car, and it's impossible to resist the temptation to drive it accordingly. Swinging onto Pacific Coast Highway with the traffic light in my favor, I jab the throttle to unsettle the rear end, catch the slide with some opposite lock, and plant my right foot. A fleeting glance at the digital speedometer shows three digits as I scream toward the top of third gear, and traffic telescopes toward me when I grab fourth. So I hammer the brake pedal, snap off two immensely satisfying heel-and-toe downshifts, and slow to the pace of traffic. But even as I savor this ephemeral Preston-does-Sebring moment, I fearfully check the rearview mirror for a black-and-white with flashing lights. I spend the rest of my drive alternately punching the throttle for brief stints of totally irresponsible mayhem and scanning the horizon for cops ready to cart my dumb ass off to jail.
Three hours later, I'm in a Mazda Miata built in 1989 - the fourteenth production car to come off the Miata assembly line in Hiroshima back when Mazda reinvented the two-seat roadster. The first-generation Miata is the spunky and straightforward antithesis to the Porsche's techno-sophistication. Even in full thrash mode, the 1.6-liter four-banger makes a paltry 116 hp. The tires are mounted on puny 14-by-5.5-inch wheels, and the 185-series rubber is so rock-hard that it seems to date from the Jurassic era. After my thrill-ride in the Porsche, the Miata seems ridiculously tame. And yet its very slowness is one of the major reasons that it's so much fun. The GT3 is just too damn fast to be driven anywhere remotely close to its limit on public roads. But in the Miata, every stoplight is an excuse to exercise the stubby formula-car-style gear lever, and every corner is an opportunity to practice your drifting technique. On a racetrack, of course, speed is everything. On the street, slower is better. In the GT3, you're constantly disappointed that you don't have a chance to reach its alleged top speed of 193 mph. In the Miata, you're happy when you're doing 45 mph.
0903 01 Z+joy Of Slow+illustration
Slow is the new fast, and there's a growing Movement-with-a-capital-M to prove it. In 1989, Italian journalist Carlo Petrini - who'd come to prominence leading a protest against a McDonald's outpost in Rome - founded a nonprofit organization by the name of Slow Food. Its goal, according to its Web site, is "to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people's dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes, and how our food choices affect the rest of the world." Today, Slow Food has more than 85,000 members in 132 countries. It's also spawned the development of a larger Slow Movement that includes Slow Living, Slow Travel, and Slow Cities. I think it's high time we added Slow Cars to the list. Not because they're politically correct, but because in our rush to drive from point A to point B, we all too often forget to have fun along the way.
West Coast editor Jason Cammisa tells a great story: "I drove up Mount Tamalpais with a friend a few months back. He was in his 1993 BMW 325is (stock, on all-season tires) and I was in a brand-new Audi TT 2.0T Quattro with magnetic dampers. I was bored out of my mind following him, and when we reached the top, just as I was about to tease him for driving so slowly, he got out of his car smiling, covered in sweat. His lifters were tapping, his brakes were smoking, and his exhaust was clanging like a trolley car. The TT felt like it was at two-tenths. Yawn. I love power, and a few seconds of wide-open-throttle Corvette ZR1 is easily the most captivating automotive experience in the world. But for real enjoyment, I'd rather have mile after mile of full-throttle shifts, 0.75-g sideways action, and an at-the-redline sound track."
Slow Cars are all about connections - between car and driver and between road and car. Steering that provides genuine feedback. An H-pattern shifter to keep the driver's head in the game. Brakes that have to be modulated at the threshold of lock. Springs that take a reassuring set under hard cornering. An engine with a sweet spot. An exhaust that makes the right noises. All of these qualities are showcased in the 1984 Mazda RX-7 GSL that my friend Joni Gang uses as her daily driver in Redondo Beach. There's no power-assist to help turn the steering wheel. The rear suspension features a live axle. ABS? Traction control? Adjustable damper settings? Hell, it doesn't even have fuel injection. The car shudders over bumps and wheezes at the top end. You have to try really hard to go fast, and you can't go really fast no matter how hard you try. But that's part of the RX-7's appeal.
0903 01 Z+joy Of Slow+illustration
I recently spent several days terrorizing the Midwest in a Nissan GT-R. It's a spectacular car; it wouldn't have been named Automobile of the Year unless it brought some serious mojo to the table. The paddleshift dual-clutch transmission guarantees perfect shifts every time. The torquey twin-turbo V-6 gives you the ability to light the afterburners at any speed. The super-slick all-wheel-drive system maximizes traction under all conditions. The result is a car that makes your Aunt Flo look like Michael Schumacher. What a contrast with the second-generation RX-7 I used to own. The rotary engine made 146 hp, none of it below four grand, and the suspension geometry that produced wonderfully aggressive turn-in also meant that the rear end was constantly threatening to bite you. The Mazda wasn't a slow car in its day, two decades ago. But the reason I remember it so fondly is that it demanded attention and rewarded skillful driving, and swiftly getting from here to there was always a challenge.
In the end, what defines a Slow Car isn't slowness per se, but its ability to engage and entertain drivers at speeds that won't inspire the highway patrol to scramble a squadron of interceptors. A Slow Car doesn't necessarily have to be old. But the fact of the matter is that most modern cars are so capable that they're hard to flog on public roads without putting yourself and the rest of the world at risk. The base model 2010 Chevrolet Camaro pumps out 300 hp. (Twenty-five years ago, an Iron Duke stripper topped out at 90 hp.)
A V-6 Toyota Camry scoots from 0 to 60 mph in less than six seconds, and even Toyota's Sienna minivan manages it in a tick over seven. The BMW X6 makes more sense as a track-day plaything than as a people-hauler. And once you start talking about cars designed as high-performance vehicles, you're in the realm of go-directly-to-a-defensive-driving-class purgatory.
0903 01 Z+joy Of Slow+illustration
To find the contemporary breed of Slow Cars, you have to cast your gaze way down the totem pole. Not at the bottom-feeders condemned to rental-car fleets but one or two tiers up, where humdrum economy cars are tweaked to appeal to low-bucks enthusiasts. I'm thinking about the XR version of the competent Saturn Astra and the Mitsubishi Lancer GTS, which shares some of the rip-roaring Evo's DNA. Or a pleasant surprise like the Suzuki SX4 hatchback, a practical car with an unexpected complement of winning features - supportive seats, all-wheel drive, a gratifying gearbox, an engine offering both bark and bite. But the modern car that best embodies the Slow Car ethic is the Honda Fit, a tossable runabout with a tiny but willing engine and an agile chassis enlivened by feel-good steering. Of course, we'd expect nothing less from a company whose CRX was a perennial Slow Car standout.
Would I take a Fit over a Ferrari? Hey, I may be weird, but I'm not stupid. I savor every second of seat time I'm able to beg, borrow, or steal in Lambos and Astons. But for me, driving satisfaction is primarily a function of how much of a car's performance I can unlock, and I simply don't have the talent or the courage, not to mention the bank account, to explore the limit of an Audi R8 anywhere but on a racetrack. Granted, a Slow Car doesn't do much for the ego. But whether you're driving a thirty-five-year-old BMW 2002tii or a thoroughly modern Mini, it can get you to the grocery store and rock your world, all in the same trip, without alerting the authorities or voiding your insurance. That doesn't make a Slow Car the right weapon for every fight. But as the old adage has it, some races go not to the swift.
Our Slow Stories
0903 02 Z+1970 Fiat 500+jean Jennings
I own a 1970 Fiat 500 that has been known to collect as many as a dozen cars behind it on a short trip to the grocery store. I feel like an Italian farm wife when I drive it. It just tickles the hell out of me to drive it (top speed is 50 mph downhill with a tailwind), and it makes me dream of owning a fleet of small cars.
- Jean Jennings
0903 03 Z+1965 Renault 4L+robert Cumberford
I paid about $150 for my 1965 Renault 4L in 1973. It had a 27-hp engine, weighed just 1400 pounds, and had a max speed of 68 mph. The body creaked and leaned in turns, and the heater could cook a turkey. But it taught me that a slow car driven hard and constantly could do long journeys well.
- Robert Cumberford
0903 04 Z+school Bus+don Sherman
In college, I raced a school bus to the suburbs against other buses sharing the route. Losing drivers were booed and pummeled with notebooks and half-eaten fruit. I timed traffic lights, power shifted, and exploited the two-speed axle for utmost performance. It was the most fun to be had in a yellow box full of wild kids.
- Don Sherman
0903 05 Z+1999 Jeep Wrangler+joe DeMatio
My household has a 1999 Jeep Wrangler that we use for plowing in the winter, as a convertible in the summer, and as a general runabout year-round. Even though we have the six-cylinder, this is not a fast vehicle - which is just the way I like it. The lesson you learn from owning a Wrangler is to take life at your leisure.
- Joe DeMatio
0903 06 Z+opel Astra 1 4+marc Noordeloos
In 1999, I made my first trip to Europe and rented an Opel Astra 1.4. The Opel's little engine bounced off its limiter for nearly two weeks straight. Although it was dog slow, its chassis enlightened me to just how bad my 1995 Volkswagen GTI VR6 was to drive. The first thing I did when I returned was sell the VW.
- Marc Noordeloos
0903 07 Z+1965 Willys Pickup+phil Floraday
My 1965 Willys pickup is a simpler truck from a simpler time. Thanks to unsynchronized first and reverse gears, I have to slow down and concentrate before I can even leave the garage. But the sheetmetal looks so utilitarian and cool I wouldn't care if it topped out at 15 mph and never saw a paved road.
- Phil Floraday
0903 08 Z+1968 Mercury Colony+joe Lorio
Despite a 390-cubic-inch V-8, my '68 Mercury Colony Park was hardly fast. But that was fine since, with its heaving body roll, the big wagon needed to be driven slowly through even the most gentle curves, lest its rear end come hurtling around. Perhaps that explains the heavy Valium use among the era's housewives.
- Joe Lorio


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