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Cars and Adventures that Shaped my Love of Handling Dynamics: Part 1

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Although I grew up in Michigan, musclecars and other American iron aren’t usually on my radar when I think about what shaped my passion for automobiles. I’m into chassis dynamics. When I step out of a car that really impresses me, it’s generally because the handling ticks all the boxes. Don’t get me wrong. I love a powerful engine and brutal speed, but buttery steering, perfectly tuned dampers, and overall handling balance are what really excite me.

So what are the cars and experiences that have guided this passion? Here’s the start of my list.

That first ride in a Mazda Miata

It was a gorgeous spring day in Grand Rapids. It was 1989 and I was 14 years old. My constant pestering finally came to fruition when my father gave me a lift to the local Mazda dealer. I was desperate to see the new Miata in person. Front and center on the expansive lot at Borgman Ford/Mazda sat a Mariner Blue 1990 Mazda Miata. It was stunning. Small, simple, and so damn cool. I’ll never forget sitting in the cockpit of the Japanese roadster for the first time, admiring the basic cloth seats, minimalist gauges, and mechanically precise manual gearbox. After a long, detailed inspection, we were about to head for home when I struck up a conversation with a woman standing by the two-seater. She had just arranged to take the blue demo for a test drive. Impressed with my knowledge of it — all I ever read as a kid were car magazines — the woman persuaded the salesperson to give up the passenger seat. I don’t recall asking my father if it was OK to go for a ride with a complete stranger, but the next thing I knew, we were rocketing down the street. The gurgles and pops from the 1.6-liter engine, the open-air feeling you get from a proper roadster, and the sheer grip and balance of the Mazda are all etched into my brain. Fitting, given that 2014 is the 25th anniversary of the modern classic. If only the Miata woman knew what an influence that ride had on my life.

Exploring the limits in a Nissan 240SX

My high school friend Ryan didn’t care much about cars, despite his dad being the owner of the local Nissan/Porsche/Audi dealership. I’d talk Ryan’s ear off about the myriad cars on the lot. He’d wonder why he should care. Then, at the Burger King where our group met after school, Ryan showed up one rainy autumn day in a brand-new 1992 Nissan 240SX. Before he could order his Whopper, I stole the keys to Ryan’s rear-drive sports coupe. He quickly followed me out and hopped in the passenger seat. I was a bit underwhelmed by the big four-cylinder engine but I was digging the feel of the Nissan on the road. Even more vivid in my memory is what happened when I prematurely applied max throttle in second gear while negotiating a slick left-hand bend. We did a smooth 360-degree rotation and kept going, as if nothing happened. Now, every time I drive a Scion FR-S or Subaru BRZ, it reminds me of the Nissan’s chassis balance.

Realizing your Volkswagen GTI VR6 is a piece of crap

I bought a used 1995 Volkswagen GTI VR6 from an older friend in 1998. The two-door hatchback featured an extensive selection of Neuspeed aftermarket modifications and could hit an indicated 150 mph. The narrow-angle, six-cylinder engine sounded fantastic and the GTI was very quick, with impressive handling. The next May, I spent three weeks in an Opel Astra, driving from Brussels to Spa and then to the Nurburgring. I drove the wheels off the little 16-valve, 1.4-liter-powered four-door hatchback around the Nordschleife — including a rather brutal visit to a gravel trap halfway around the circuit. After Germany, it was over the Alps to Italy and all the way down to Rome. The Astra wasn’t very quick — though on a long, downhill autobahn run I could get the car up to 120 mph. In exchange for the power the Opel gave up to the GTI VR6, the Astra offered steering feel and chassis balance that the VW could only dream of — aided, no doubt, by Lotus Engineering assisting in the Astra’s development. The Opel impressed me while in Europe but it didn’t fully hit me until I returned to the States and got back into my VW, which now felt wooden and crashed over bumps. I tried to get excited about the VW again, even going so far as to drive a stock GTI VR6 for inspiration, but I gave up and sold it instead. Since then, I’ve learned two things. First, a great engine does not make a great car. Second, I’m happy that Volkswagen eventually got its mojo back. It started with the 2004 R32, the only truly impressive Mk4 Golf. The GTI nameplate finally returned to glory with 2006 Mk5 GTI.

Next month: More influential cars and adventures.