Noise Vibration and Harshness

Cars That Fit

Machines that did everything right for what they were

As the late Johnny Cochran once famously observed, “If [the glove] doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Of course, had the skilled Los Angeles defense attorney been addressing AUTOMOBILE readers instead of a jury of O.J. Simpson’s peers, he might have shared a corollary rule to which I also subscribe. That is, “If the glove fits, you must remit.”

As a road-tester or a private citizen, sometimes you drive a car that is so instantly right, a machine that fits you so well. I’m talking one whose pieces are so wisely matched—whose ways are so utterly in harmony with your own basic notions of what a great car should be and do—that once you have tried it on, you know you have experienced a sort of perfection on Earth. You can’t shake it. You don’t want to return it. You want to keep that glove on, and one day, if you’re selfish like me, maybe even make it or one just like it your own.

That’s where the remitting comes in. By way of example, I just sent some money overseas to buy a 1988 Peugeot 205 GTI, a cherry red example of a car never sold in America, with no rust and only about 55,000 miles on it. Purchased from a friend of a friend’s dealer friend in Vicenza, Italy, it arrived at Port Newark, N.J., last month. Thanks to the EPA and DOT exemptions available to all cars 25 years and older, it was little trouble to legally import and register. But that’s true for any old car. So why this one?

As a road-tester or a private citizen, sometimes you drive a car that is so instantly right, a machine that fits you so well.

Simple. The glove fits. Back in 1990, in the infancy of my car-testing days, I borrowed a then-new 205 GTI from its maker’s U.K. press office. Foolishly, I imagined I’d be racing up the motorway in it to Birmingham to see a gig that night by my musical charges, They Might Be Giants. I’d read a lot about this zestiest of hot hatches. Built from 1984 to 1992 and highly regarded by the U.K. magazines, it was known for its superior handling prowess and road-munching ability. But instead of high-speed touring I discovered I’d spend the first 90 minutes of my journey crawling through the hateful mess that is afternoon traffic exiting London. My passenger, the band’s U.K. booking agent, Dave Stacey, had known this was our fate but chose not to mention it, he said, out of courtesy. Yet notwithstanding the deeply annoying turn of events, which involved missing dinner and arriving late for the gig, it wasn’t but minutes after I said we should’ve taken the train that I realized I was wrong. Dead wrong. I had the keys to a dream, a car so special I knew while idling in traffic that I would absolutely need to own one, even if it meant waiting 26 years.

As the motorway cleared and I was able to dip further into the rorty runabout’s bag of tricks, the sensation grew. The 205 had all of the joyous, classical virtue of the French automobile—the forgiving ride and tenacious grip—but was newly imagined with neither the legendary Gallic body roll or the traditional French anemic fart factory for a motor. There was plenty of frisky, accelerative power, with 130 fuel-injected horses to move a hair less than 2,000 pounds of Peugeot. Add genius steering and surprising room on the inside, and this stylish, Pininfarina-penned, front-drive pocket rocket served (and serves) up for not much money that instant, totally right feeling few cars can muster at any price. All while being small enough to park almost anywhere.

To my surprise, the 205 GTI made the original Rabbit GTI, which I’d always rather liked, seem cramped and slow. I’d bought new the first GTI successor, the Mark II Golf GTI, (1985-’91,) but against the 205 this Volkswagen of sainted memory suddenly seemed not just slow but dull and a little flabby. True, 205 build quality was state of the art shabby in an era known for its shabbiness; Peugeot’s sadistic experiments in excising cost from plastic trim couldn’t be more obvious. Neither could the tastefulness of the modern design cues it spread around its small-car dash and interior fittings. Good looks and, more important, the frequent eruptions of peak driving satisfaction—accessed easily at legal speeds—went most of the way to permanently distracting me from the thrum of the chic but rattling plastic parts. The car was the optimal first-wave realization of the original GTI ideal.

Lest you think NVH has gone permanently Peugeot crazy, I want to take a moment to reiterate this is an equal opportunity column. Liberté, égalité, fraternité, and all that jazz. Because beside two other Peugeots, the 405Mi16 (1989-’92) and 505 STX (1986-’89,) there’ve been quite a few cars that have had this same sort of magical effect on me as a car tester, and none of them are French. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I’ve been unable to afford to buy most of them. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think of them often.

These were machines that fit, cars that did everything right for what they were, and I salute them. They may not all have been the right car for me or you, but they were somehow perfectly realized.

Because when the glove fits, you’ve got to admit it.

Magic Machines
My list of cars that did everything right. In no particular order:

MG MGA 1600 (1959-’62)
Mazda Miata (1989-’93)
Lancia Delta Integrale (1987-’93)
Jaguar XJR (X306, 1994-’97)
Mercedes-Benz 500E (1991-’94), GLA45 AMG (2014-present)
Acura NSX (1991-2005), Integra GS-R (1992-2001)
Ferrari F355 (1995-’99), Ferrari F360/F430 (1999-2009), F458/488 (2010-present)
Lancia Fulvia (1964-’76)
BMW 540i (E39, 1995-2003), M3 (E30, 1988-’91, and E46, 2001-’06), Z8 (2000-’03)
Alfa Romeo Giulia Super (1963-’75), 164 (1991-’95), 4C (2015-present)
Volkswagen Corrado SLC (1992-’94), R32 (2002-’05)
Suzuki Cappuccino (1991-’97)
Porsche Boxster (1997-present), 911 (1964-present)
Subaru WRX STI Series 1 (1996-2000)
Lotus Elise (1996-present), Evora (2009-present)
Honda Beat (1991-’96), Accords and Civics too numerous
to mention.

Oh, and some fast Volvos and Saabs.