I had the opportunity a few weeks back to drive a beautifully restored, 1964 Porsche 356SC. It’s one of those cars that pounds all of your senses—the tingling directness of its steering, the hoarse wail of its flat-four engine, and the twitch of the chassis when you lift off the throttle. What strikes me most about that Porsche, though, is just how superior it is to other cars I’ve driven from the same era. Its steering, handling, body control, and overall precision aren’t just better than, say, a 1959 Pontiac Bonneville’s; they’re in a different stratosphere.
Fast-forward a week and fifty years, and I’m tearing around southern Sweden in a 2015 Volvo S60 Polestar. It has 345 hp, all-wheel drive, Brembo brakes, launch control, and adjustable Öhlins dampers. I am moderately impressed. I mean, it’s nice, but I’m not sure the brake pedal feel is as confidence inspiring as that in, say, the Audi S4, or that the steering is as communicative as in a Cadillac CTS.
This is the blessing and the curse of an era in which everything is good to drive. It’s not just that the cars have become quicker and more powerful (although they certainly have). It’s the way in which nearly every automaker has embraced the very German notion that all cars need to ride, steer, and handle sportily. Consider, for instance, that the latest Chrysler 200 rides on a platform developed in Europe and handles supremely well, as do both of its Domestic competitors, the Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion. Or consider that brands like Buick, Cadillac, Lexus, and Volvo all offer sport sedans. Or that the 2015 Hyundai Genesis has a chassis tuned by Lotus and has been to the Nürburgring. Or that the Chevrolet Camaro and Ford Mustang, which used to go unchanged for decades, are now engaged in a yearly game of one-upmanship that involves chassis tuning as much as horsepower gains.
What are we to do with this windfall? Complain, of course. We loudly wonder if cars like the Porsche 911 and BMW 3-series have "lost their edge." We fret about how electric power steering feels. We ask, as we did in our May issue, “Was it really better then?”
Of course it wasn’t better then. I think one reason it’s hard for us to recognize this is because our frame of reference has changed so dramatically and so quickly. The 2015 Volvo S60 Polestar is fantastic to drive, but how fantastic can it be if there are other cars that drive just as well?
Driving an enthusiast car used to mean you belonged to a special, discerning club. “…People with the sense of humor to enjoy its giant-killing performance and the taste to appreciate its mechanical excellence,” wrote Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis, Jr., in his 1968 review of the BMW 2002. People who buy a 2014 BMW 3-series have, let’s face it, pretty much the same humor and taste as those who buy an Audi A4, a Cadillac ATS, or a Lexus IS.
That doesn’t mean certain cars can’t stand out, or that greatness can’t exist among the goodness. It just means we have to look harder.