Rough Rides in New Cars Bring Out My Bad Side
Noise, Vibration & Harshness
Now that I've traveled deep into the once-remote and mysterious canton known as Middle Age, I am happy to say I find I still like cars an awful lot, even though I am destined as a matter of biological inevitability to spend increasing amounts of my time getting pissed off about them.
But let's put aside any age-appropriate irritation I may harbor concerning the nannying ways of modern cars, the shortcomings of their interconnected electronic architectures, anonymous, copycat styling, the recent phenomenon of vanishing outward visibility, and the scourge of lifeless steering. Let's focus instead on the thing that bugs me most: the steady, willful erosion of automotive ride quality.
J'accuse the lot of you, carmakers. For bouncy, flouncy, and jouncy—which is to say lousy—ride characteristics have become commonplace, more the rule than the exception of late and the great bête noire of my test-driving existence. This is especially noticeable in the luxury-car realm, the one spot where a supple ride was supposed to be standard fitment, a driver's safe place, accented heavily toward comfort.
I'm not naming names here, and I don't speak German, but can I just say—as if it weren't obvious—that there's nothing luxurious about the increasingly familiar sensory intrusion of new-car suspensions crashing over the sorts of surfaces that lowlier cars once negotiated in stride?
It's no secret why the smooth rides of yore have left us to pitch and jolt the days away. Today's big wheels and tires carry a substantial penalty in the form of unsprung weight, and lower suspensions frequently offer less wheel travel. The industry has known since the days of the Duesenberg that adding heft to a car's suspension is a bad omen for ride. Yet in this century almost everyone has suddenly forgotten this fact, laid it aside, racing back to big wheels in a big way, with predictably inferior results.
As I never tire (get it?) of noting, it's like the iPod. One hundred years of progress in high fidelity tossed out the window in half a generation all in the name of a single virtue: portability. So too big rims and low-profile tires are here to stay because they capture your average primate's attention so readily and fill a wheelwell so handily. So what if they destroy a car's ability to silently dispatch expansion cracks and divots in the tarmac? They look cool.
Gargantuan rims with low-profile tires are the fashion, and as we've learned many times before, in the world of selling cars, form is happy to follow dysfunction. Consider here too the related problems of tire profiles so low that they have become more likely to blow out when hitting bumps or how costly aluminum wheels are now at greater risk of being curbed while parking, thanks to rubber band tires from which the wheels stand proud, leading with their easily damaged chins. Is it pure coincidence that accidental rim scuffing and the purchasing of expensive replacement wheels are now regular pastimes? Possibly. But the consumer, who no one asked, lost this round, hands down.
My taste has evolved with maturity, although I like to think I would have always called foul on many of the luxury automobiles I've driven lately. They've shown me all the ride finesse of a 28-foot straight job with no load, hammering down a frost-cleaved Michigan freeway following a particularly rough winter in a Republican wave year when the highway maintenance budget has been cut again.
Maybe, back when no one was inviting me to drive fancy cars, I wouldn't have known enough to decry such ride atrocities. I grew up accepting the stoic notions preached in car magazines in the late '60s and early '70s, how sports cars had necessarily needed to sacrifice creature comfort in their pursuit of outright performance. Only later would I get to drive cars such as the Lotus Elan, Lancia Fulvia, Jaguar E-type, Datsun 240Z, Mazda Miata, and Porsche 911, which taught me that decent ride quality is not necessarily the sworn enemy of true driving thrills.
All of which is a long-winded way to explain why a couple of sports cars I drove last week in Southern California were the most pleasant of pleasant surprises. They recalled like few new cars—mostly Jaguars—that even the big-wheeled fraternity can learn to ride properly.
First up was Ferrari's California T (above), which surprised in every possible way. Once derided as the Modena firm's most "lesser" offering ever, it was said to be a calculating re-skin of a stillborn Maserati, tarted up with king-sized Ferrari badges to help marketers hone in on a lower six-figure price point that opened up in the luxury sports car field with the stock market's meteoric post-recession ascension. Volume was assured, but the car by most accounts was only OK.
Not so the revised, $202,723 California, now with a T to recognize the new 3.9-liter turbo V-8 it's rocking in place of a naturally aspirated 4.3-liter V-8. The thrust of this perfectly sonorous engine, contrary to criticism I'd read bemoaning lag, was always available when needed during my 560 miles with the car, which included a high-speed round trip between Los Angeles and San Diego.
I'm not sold on Ferrari's busy steering wheel situation, with myriad buttons and dials encompassing every function except boiling and draining the pasta. But I do have to compliment its new, uncluttered center infotainment stack for having at least entered the 21st century, if not making it all the way to 2015. Yet the biggest thrill of all for me was the T's ride, which bordered on excellent. Its structure doesn't rattle in spite of a metal folding roof, and the T feels taut and tight, with the kind of decisive but relaxed body control over bumps that reminds us that, yes, the automotive equivalent of walking and chewing gum—handling while riding well—is still possible. And a special tip of the cap here to magnetorheological dampers, which once again prove they are to body control as Fox News is to right-wing mind control, very effective.
Returning the California T to its makers, I came across Aston Martin's V8 Vantage GT while spending a day in the hills above Malibu with Aston's entire lineup. It's easy to forget how good Astons became during the post-Ford Ulrich Bez era nd even easier to overlook the baby Aston. But wait. The Vantage may be entry-level, but on this day I suddenly realized it could be all the sports car you'll ever need. It looks great, goes great with 430 horsepower and a six-speed manual gearbox, and, ta da, it doesn't beat its driver up over rough stuff, with a fluid ride quality that won't remotely affront human decency. Discounted to $101,825, including destination and guzzler tax, it just may be—and I say this in all seriousness—one of the great sports car bargains of our time.
And to think I began this column feeling cranky.