Numbers rule our lives. Given a chance, humans will quantify anything and everything, reducing the things we love to cold, heartless figures. Engineers live for this–it gives them a definitive “yes” or “no,” a way to instantly separate good from bad. So, too, with cars: we measure output, performance, and even the number of heads turned, all in the name of calculating end worth. Blinded by stats, people forget that numbers often lie. And so, here we give you our five favorite driver’s cars–cars that entertain above all else, cars that possess that elusive, almost ethereal quality: balance. Some are fast and expensive; some are slow and cheap. But they all have one thing in common. They’re great to drive.
BMW E30 M3
Thank goodness for homologation requirements and the unbridled competitiveness of German industry. If it was to respond to Mercedes-Benz‘s compact new screamer, the 190E 2.3-16, and save face in 1980s European touring car racing, BMW’s motorsport division had to design and build something like the first M3. Based on the successful E30 model, as the second 3-series (1984-91) was internally designated (and which itself marked a return to form for BMW), the original M3 was an instant classic. That it still tugs at our heartstrings twenty years later suggests that it probably always will.
This is, notably, in spite of the fact that all subsequent M3s have been faster, with bigger engines. The original M3 laid claim to the 2.3-liter S14, a robust and rev-happy engine whose humble cylinder count numbered only four. It revved like a banshee and rarely broke, a useful real-world combination. But many people still can’t get past its paucity of cylinders.
Don’t let us hear you making that mistake. The E30 M3 is that rare, latter-day example of the historic ideal–a car fit for both road and track. It reminds us, too, of what has been lost as cars get ever heavier and more powerful. The first M3 possesses the sort of balance, composure, and grace that only a lighter, smaller car can offer. Progress is by no means pitiful, with the M3’s stock 192 hp capable of shifting its 2735 pounds to 60 mph in just under seven seconds. That may not be supercar fast, but it’s enough to explore the underlying brilliance of its chassis. To aid the racing effort and the worthy cause of bigger tires and brakes, the M3’s fenders were box-flared. A Boeing 747-size spoiler bolted to the rear deck lid may not be to everyone’s taste, but it comes in handy on the way to a 141-mph top speed and helps reduce lift.
The M3 was quite the racing car, too, winning more races than any single BMW model ever, including the German, European, and World Touring Car championships, along with endurance races such as the 24 Hours of Nrburgring and Spa.
But it is as a driver’s car that we’ll always cherish the M3. A key benchmark in the history of rear-wheel-drive handling excellence, it reminds us of a time when carmakers trusted drivers to control their own traction and one didn’t have to drive 90 mph to start having fun. It continues to make a great daily driver, and as our well-sorted test car’s owner, assistant editor Sam Smith, reminds us, it’s never going to be more affordable than it is now. Jamie Kitman
The F430‘s allure begins with the sound. Thanks to its flat-plane crankshaft, which spreads the exhaust pulses evenly in each cylinder bank, the F430’s 479-hp, 4.3-liter V-8 emits a high-pitched wail unlike anything this side of a Formula 1 engine. If I were to successfully render the F430 sound track in onomatopoeia, this magazine would explode into flames right in your hands. So I won’t. But I can tell you that in literal terms, it sounds something like a pair of straight-piped Hayabusas drag-racing through the Sydney Opera House.
Adding to the aural drama, there are a pair of vacuum-actuated muffler bypass flaps in the exhaust, one for each set of pipes, and trying to drive an F430 without triggering the flaps is like trying to get Macho Man Randy Savage to use his indoor voice. So, that’s the first addictive part of the F430 experience–that burbling, snarling, caterwauling motor gorging itself on 8500-rpm atmosphere binges just abaft your shoulder blades.
I could fill this entire space rhapsodizing about that engine, but let’s move on to the F1 sequential manual transmission. You can still choose a traditional gated manual, but to me that seems like ordering an Apple iPhone and demanding a monochrome green screen. The rest of the car is cutting-edge, intended to emulate the Formula 1 experience, and the F1 transmission furthers the illusion that even when you’re trundling along with a herd of Chevy Malibus on the expressway, you’re really Felipe Massa fending off Fernando Alonso at Monaco. Dive into a corner, let the optional carbon-ceramic brakes hang you against your seatbelt, and the F1 transmission will crack off downshifts as fast as your left hand can pull the paddle (blipping the throttle for perfect rev-matching all the way).
Of course, we are talking about a driver’s car here, and the chassis figures into that discussion every bit as much as the powertrain. On that front, the F430 isn’t just mid-engined–it’s extremely mid-engined. As in, if you stand at the back bumper and pop the engine cover, you’d practically need to climb into the engine bay before you could lay a hand on the motor. And then, once you take a closer look at said hunk of mass, you notice that those red intakes are perched atop towering velocity stacks, and the actual engine block is so low that the F430’s center of gravity must be somewhere in Middle Earth.
The flip side of the F430’s proportions is that it puts very little sheetmetal in front of the driver, so your perspective on the world is as if you’ve strapped a saddle on a tiger’s nose–it’s all sinew and anger behind you, rapidly approaching world ahead. Grip is, of course, stupendous, but what really causes passengers to reflexively adopt a crash position is the turn-in–if the rubber profile of the F430’s front sidewalls were any thinner, it’d be for sale in a truck-stop vending machine.
The glory of the F430 is that it marries high technology with primitive sensory stimulation, when too often tech sublimates tactility. Sure, the F430 sports dry-sump lubrication, adjustable traction and stability control, and a gee-whiz automated gearbox, but all that gear is subtle shading, background to the primary brushstrokes of noise, poise, and undiluted, visceral feedback. As fast as it is, the F430 enjoys instant-classic status not because of its horsepower number or skid-pad grip, but because it epitomizes Ferrari‘s understanding that driving pleasure is about more than speed. Ezra Dyer
Colin Chapman’s most fully realized and practical production vehicle was also his greatest stroke of street-car genius. If the kartlike, rough-riding, and laughably impractical Lotus 7 was the ultimate streetworthy expression of Chapman’s lightness-at-all-costs mantra, then the Elan was his masterwork, the fantastically balanced Lotus-for-the-people that behaved like a real car.
The 1962-73 Lotus Elan succeeded where the fiberglass-monocoque Lotus Elite before it had famously failed: it was fast, relatively durable, comfortable enough, and surprisingly suited to mass production. In marrying a rigid steel backbone frame to a fiberglass body, Chapman gifted the Elan with remarkable lightness and stiffness. In the same motion, he avoided the structural woes of the relatively fragile Elite, where a thick fiberglass shell bore all suspension and powertrain loads. In contrast, the Elan’s engine, gearbox, suspension, and differential mounted directly to the backbone frame, leaving the bodywork virtually unstressed. As a result, the Elan’s fiberglass panels were free to be as thin (and light) as was practical for a road car.
The upshot was a curb weight of just over 1500 pounds. A 105-hp, twin-cam, 1.6-liter four lived under the hood. Four-wheel independent suspension; 145-section-width, thirteen-inch tires; and four-wheel disc brakes rounded out the package.
Of course, clever engineering and light weight alone do not a driver’s car make. And so we come to the Elan’s greatest attribute: balance. Through a combination of carefully located mass, precisely tuned suspension, and a whole lot of Chapmanian gusto, the Elan ended up . . . perfect.
Everything on the Elan exudes lightness and delicacy. It starts with that spindly little steering wheel–the black-rimmed factory three-spoker is so thin that you have no choice but to hold it with your fingertips. Couple that with effortless, quick steering, and you find yourself turning the car simply by flicking your wrists. The tiny shift knob and gear lever–a grape on the end of a drinking straw–are so small that you fear for their health. The doors, hood, and trunk lid are light enough that they take flight in the faintest of breezes.
Look: there’s a corner. Turn in, and the Elan simply grips, no drama. The car changes direction if you so much as tense up the muscles in an arm. More bends come up, so you take them a little faster, and a little faster, until suddenly, almost surprisingly, the car is drifting. Four wheels are adrift, sliding equally, and four tiny tires are skittering across the pavement at thoroughly modern speeds. You might as well have been asleep for all the talent it took.
Feedback? An endless rush of information buzzes and flows through that microscopically rimmed wheel. Get it wrong, and long before the faintest whiff of understeer shows up, the front tires telegraph their distaste. (You can actually feel their sidewalls deflecting.) The twin-cam barks a hollow, snorty cry, and you snick the shift lever–it actually makes this noise–with another effortless flick of the wrist. Few cars have gotten everything this right.
The Elan is the nearly ideal embodiment of every sports car clich we’ve got, and while other cars may be faster, smoother, and endowed with higher limits, none of them are quite as entertaining, friendly, and brain-dead easy to drive. Therein lies the Lotus’s fundamental greatness. Sam Smith
Enter a roomful of knowledgeable enthusiasts and you’ll not be summarily ejected when you nominate Porsche‘s 911 as the best car ever built, citing its more than forty years in production, peerless build quality, and countless racing triumphs as proof. But if you want to be extra certain you’re on terra firma with gearhead buddies, or if you cannot overcome your philosophical disdain for Porsche’s decades of rear-engine, six-cylinder, and air-cooled hegemony, you need merely say this: the RS is the best 911 ever. You’ll find few dissenters.
Sure, there have been faster Porsches, 911s that looked more mental, are harder to find, are better balanced and easier to drive. But the Carrera RS, built for two years beginning in 1972, stands out as the finest, most elemental expression of an unlikely sports car legend, one with its boxer engine ass-ended outside its wheelbase, an improbably timeless machine that has propelled its tiny maker through close to half a century of success, on and off the racetrack.
The Carrera RS was born in that netherworld where Porsche’s competition bias and its well-heeled customers’ competitiveness with one another causes magic to happen, a homologation special sold to the public to satisfy FIA Group 4 requirements that at least 500 production cars be built. So desirable was it that this threshold was easily surpassed, moving the car into Group 3 for series-production GTs.
The evocative Carrera name harked back to the muy caliente 356 Carreras of the 1960s, limited-production factory specials named after the Mexican Carrera Panamericana races in which Porsche’s former standard bearer, the 356, had distinguished itself. RS meant Rennsport, motorsport in German. Although many an RS went racing, many did not.
The car we’re driving belongs to this magazine’s longstanding friend, Massachusetts bon vivant Jim Mullen. White, like most were, it was not one of the few lightweight racers built. Campaigned nonetheless by a previous owner, it’s since been returned to its original “Touring” spec.
Compared with garden-variety 911s of 1973, the RS gained 300 cubic centimeters to displace 2.7 liters, good for 210 hp. The RS also boasted wider tires, bigger brakes, a stiffer suspension, and an integrated rear spoiler–a ducktail. Such modifications, ironically, presaged every fat-tired, whale-tailed 911 to come, although to look at the RS today, one wouldn’t know that this delicate machine would be the one that set a Porsche-loving world’s taste deficit disorder into perpetual motion. Shockingly brash for its day, the tarted-up RS seems quaintly understated now.
Start it up, however, and there’s nothing quaint or understated about it. A featherweight by modern standards–2150 pounds–this 911 was about as fast as cars got back then, with 60 mph coming up in little more than five seconds. As with all 911s, it is that impossible combination of eminent drivability, total practicality, and huge fun, with an extra veneer of performance and idiosyncratic character. The big tires and the big brakes raise the bar for rear-engine oversteer misadventure that much higher, but chasing the limit in a Carrera RS is as addictive an automotive thrill as any we’ve ever experienced.
Is an RS worth almost a quarter of a million dollars, or roughly ten times more than a nice, early 911 might set you back? Before answering, stand on it. Register the steering feel as it telegraphs the road surface with precision and concision to cry for as you barrel through a tight corner. Hear the mechanically injected flat six loudly sucking air, crackling and cackling on the overrun, then slot into third gear and blast off. Now, you tell us. Jamie Kitman
Volkswagen Rabbit GTI
It is impossible not to hammer on it. Go ahead. Try. Climb into that high-backed, heavily bolstered velour seat, reach down for that little golf-ball-shaped shift knob, and think calming thoughts. Tell yourself that you cherish the color beige, wipe that grin off your face, and for chrissakes, try and drive nice. We can almost guarantee that it won’t happen–and if it actually does, then Volkswagen‘s dinky little Rabbit GTI will probably unclick your seatbelt, pop the door latch, and spit you out onto the sidewalk. (In that case, don’t worry. You’re simply a boring person, and the GTI knows it. No offense.)
By the numbers, it shouldn’t be that impressive. The American-market version of VW’s first GTI, introduced in 1983, produced just 90 hp at 5500 rpm–20 hp less than its European twin–and buzzed to 60 mph in a shade under ten seconds. It was little more than a stiffened, lowered, and shorter-geared version of the standard Rabbit hatchback. And yet, within the space of two short years of production, it single-handedly breathed new life into Volkswagen of America, prompted an entire class of imitators, and changed the lives of more than 30,000 people. If that wasn’t enough, it also produced (thanks to an $8000 sticker price) more grins per dollar than just about anything else on the road.
How was all this possible, you ask? Simple: the GTI had character, spunk, and guts, and it had them in spades. The 1.8-liter, fuel-injected four doesn’t mind being lugged–its torque curve is flatter than a Nebraska afternoon–but you don’t care, because for some reason, all you want to do is go humming toward the rev limiter. You want to beat the snot out of it, shift, and then beat the snot out of it again. There’s a chunky, rubber-mounted, Beetle-like feel to everything that convinces you that the GTI can take anything you can dish out. The whole car feels indestructible.
By modern standards, the GTI’s front struts and rear torsion beam aren’t sophisticated, but they get the job done with touches of brilliance–lines are easily tweaked midcorner with a flex of your right foot, and front-end grip is eye-opening. The unassisted steering is blissfully transparent, and a cheery pitter-patter makes its way from the pavement to your fingers in every corner. The whole package prompts feats of strength; it cries out for full-throttle, giant-killing, lift-a-wheel heroism. From behind that meaty four-spoke wheel, anything is possible. Possible, that is, so long as you don’t drive . . . nice. Sam Smith