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The 33-Year Engagement

Three decades covering the auto industry seems like a century

Arthur St. AntoinewriterTim Marrsillustrator

Thirty-three years. That's how long I've been in this business—test-driving cars, writing about cars, learning about cars, and telling curious onlookers in the next lane, "This is not my car." But never could I have guessed, way back in 1984, what wonders would await in the automotive world of 2017. I mean, about the only things cars of then have in common with today's cars are rubber tires and a bumper sticker that reads, "I Was Abducted By Aliens."

Think how far we've come. When I started in this business, Hyundai was what you called that afternoon when you and your buddy went to the NFL game dressed in Attila costumes. Today, the South Korean automaker sells more than 750,000 automobiles annually on our shores and, as we go to press, ranks as the seventh-largest auto seller in the U.S. Talk about sacking an empire.

Three-plus decades ago, if you could even find an electric vehicle, chances are it was only good for transporting golf clubs, a six-pack of beer, and an awful pair of plaid pants. The general consensus about electrics back then was, "Who would want one of those?" Then in 1996, along came the revolutionary two-seat, electric General Motors EV1. And in only a few short months the general consensus was, "Who would want one of those?" But EV engineers persisted—to the point that today more than a baker's dozen full-electric rides are available for sale in the U.S. They're good, too. In fact, so many new and appetizing electrics are coming just around the corner, rumor has it that EV maker Tesla is considering unveiling a coal-powered full-size pickup just to stand out from the crowd.

In the mid-1980s the phrase, "Honey, have you seen the car keys?" was almost as common as, "Did you catch last night's episode of 'Miami Vice'?"  Today, though, if you were to ask a millennial, "What's a car key?" he or she might well reply, "E minor?" That's because ever since Mercedes-Benz unveiled the electronic smart key in 1998, conventional keys have been going the way of the dodo. After all, what driver wants to perform a search and rescue through a jampacked purse or briefcase, drag out a standard metal key, and crank open a car door manually—all while juggling an armful of groceries and trying to keep Fido from raising a leg on the Audi in the adjoining space? Fuggedaboutit. The electronic fob dispenses with all such horrors. With the fob in your pocket, simply touch the door handle, and your car unlocks. Keep the fob where it is, press the Engine Start button, and you're on your way. I predict within 10 years even the electronic fob will be history. Instead, using facial recognition your car will see you coming, immediately relock all the doors, and say, in a Siri-like voice, "Not a chance, bub. Last week you filled me up with regular."

When I started reviewing cars, I used to get lost. A lot. When you're out on a test drive, focused on the performance and characteristics of the machine at your command, it's easy to lose track of where you're going. Thus, the time-honored tradition of finding a service station, parking without buying a thing, and asking the nearest attendant, "Where the hell am I?" But sometime around 1985 or 1986 my colleagues and I got our hands on a cutting-edge system straight out of "The Jetsons": the Etak Navigator.

Mind you, Etak was no satellite-guided nav unit. It was way ahead of such technology, preceding the first GPS systems by a decade. (It would be another five years before the feds lifted restrictions on nonmilitary GPS accuracy, allowing the precise navigation we enjoy today.) Instead, you got a small cathode-ray display on the dash with a green dot representing your car and a green line or squiggle representing the road you were driving on. It was like the old Asteroids video game without ammunition. Maps? They were digitally stored on cassette tapes, and each cassette didn't hold much info—so as you drove you'd end up swapping out tapes like a frantic '70s teenager searching for a favorite Stones tune. Despite it all, Etak actually kind of worked.

Way back when, it was simply astounding—real magic!—to see a mapped intersection approach onscreen just as that same intersection appeared out the windshield. Of course, from time to time—especially on long, straight highways (which gave the sensors little positioning info)—the Etak itself would become lost. And then your "dot" would wander across the road and into the trees. To get it back you'd pull out the old paper map and, using buttons, sort of tell the system, "This is where we are." Still, I'm proud to have been a nav-system guinea pig. To all of you whose only experience with behind-the-wheel navigation is of the "Take me to the nearest 7-Eleven" variety, all I can say is, "You're welcome."

Electronic torque vectoring? Are you kidding? If you'd mentioned those words to me in the late 1980s, I'd have guessed you were either talking about the space shuttle or maybe that machine built by public demand to eradicate every known recording of Starship's "We Built This City." I mean, back then I was testing vehicular piles such as the meretricious Maserati Biturbo 425—I didn't give a damn if the torque got vectored; I just prayed it would keep flowing to the rear wheels so my test car du jour didn't come to a shuddering stop right in the middle of Detroit's I-94 expressway. But around 1996 or so, I began to hear murmurs about a groundbreaking system making waves on Mitsubishi's feisty Lancer Evolution sport sedan.

Like other Americans, I didn't get a chance to sample so-called active yaw control until 2003, but it was a revelation. Suddenly, a computer-controlled differential was able to actively split torque to the rear wheels—allowing the wheel with the most grip to take on the most torque, improving cornering speeds, controllability, and most notably, turn-in response. Today, you'll find similar systems on front-drive, rear-drive, and all-wheel-drive cars—among them, the Audi S5, BMW X5 M, Ford Focus RS, and Lexus RC F. Physics defied.

I'm not gonna lie: It's tempting to play Scrooge, file all my years behind the wheel—especially those early days reviewing Stone Age technology—into a folder labeled Creeping Resentment, and declare, "You car kids today, you don't know how good you got it." But then I can hear the ghostly voice of a 1908 Cadillac Model S owner: "Electric starter? Electric starter? I'd have given my official Ty Cobb 'Action Cleats' bobblehead for an electric starter!" So I'll just end with this: "Siri, navigate me to the nearest 7-Eleven. And play track, 'We Built This City. '" For old time's sake.