In praise of difficult cars: PH Blog

So much of modern motoring is about making things easier but, as discussed, so goes the slippery slope to autonomous driving. But even without the gizmos there's a level playing field of competence in even the most basic of cars.

Dog-leg 'box rewarding once you get it!
Dog-leg 'box rewarding once you get it!
It wasn't always this way. As a learner I remember my gran's Fiesta having a much snappier clutch than my mum's Metro, and the subsequent social shame of constantly stalling it while I acclimatised. And how the unassisted steering of a Cinquecento Sporting took a bit of a heave while parking but was preferable to the flaccid response from the wheel of my dad's Renault 11. These days such character traits - some may say irritations - have more or less been ironed out in the name of progress.

I get that. I'm not a Luddite suggesting a proper car needs correct alignment of the stars and a hefty swing on a starting handle just to be coaxed into life. Or require a ride-on mechanic once under way. I value convenience. But the little distinguishing features that can make a car challenging or more 'difficult' to drive can also be enjoyable.

This was brought to mind as I burbled across North Wales in my Subaru Forester, on the way back from driving the new four-cylinder F-Type. The Ingenium turbocharged 2.0-litre in that car is very much on the cutting edge of modern forced-induction engines and has that thumping low-rev torque delivery we've been taught to expect. Obviously it's working in perfect harmony with a cleverly calibrated automatic gearbox but there are never any flat spots in the power delivery and you're rarely left hanging.

Who needs power steering anyway?
Who needs power steering anyway?
In comparison the boxer turbo in my Subaru is somewhat crude. Not a lot happens until at least 3,000rpm, the turbo spools up in earnest by about 4,000 and, although Subaru engines aren't shy about holding revs, the best is over pretty quickly. With a narrow powerband and short gearing you're kept busy, in other words.

But I've grown to love the challenge of keeping it on the boil. The controls are precise enough that if you time the upshift as the boost is cresting, and keep just a tickle of throttle on to maintain it as you dip the clutch, you land right back in the sweet spot. Likewise I'm learning to pre-empt the lag and get on the throttle really early in the corner, the reward for getting the timing right being a subtle shift in balance as the rear axle wakes up and overrides the inherent tendency to understeer.

Were I reviewing it dispassionately as I would a new car I'd probably describe it as flawed. But because it's my car and I've bought into the way old Subarus go about their business I enjoy responding to the challenge.

Dare we even go here?
Dare we even go here?
Looking back there are other examples. The dog-leg gearbox on the Mercedes 190E 2.3-16 I was lucky enough to run for a period being one. I drove another dog-leg 'box recently and was all over the place, reminding me how in the 190 it took some real concentration to hook back and left as the lights went green. Motivation was there though - selecting what you might assume was 'first' and dropping the clutch would have had really, really embarrassing consequences. Once the muscle memory was in place the realigned second to third and fourth to fifth planes were really enjoyable and exploitable too.

The obvious 'difficult car made good' is, of course, also from Stuttgart and the quirks of its rear-mounted engine have become a defining challenge many (myself included) have enjoyed mastering. Or attempting to anyway. I'll work on the basis that particular topic may have been done to death somewhat.

And ask you what supposed minor 'annoyances' in a car have you grown to love and appreciate as defining characteristics? And which are still just, well, irritating?


Comments (45) Join the discussion on the forum

  • suffolk009 22 Aug 2017

    I learnt to drift in a 1969 Hillman Imp. The most fun small cars I've had have been that Imp, an old garden shed shaped Fiat Panda, and a 1960s Fiat 500.

    I've a Ford Model T waiting to be restored as a Speedster (just two seats bolted to the chassis rails), that's going to be a hoot - if I can remember what pedal does what!

    For family estates I miss my old Volvos now I'm in a dull but entirely competent Audi.

    Perfect cars are boring.

  • The_Doc_ 22 Aug 2017

    I had a Fiat Coupe 20vt. Coolest car I ever owned, but I was always nervous it would break, it wasn't the best handling car, it wasn't that easy to work on and it wasn't very practical.

    So, I bought a mk5 golf 2.0 FSI. In every respect it was the better car, but I was invisible in it, bored driving it, it had an engine note like a tractor and I sold it within a year because I hated it so much!

    I then bought an R53 cooper s works. Flaws a plenty (bumpy, impractical, bad on fuel, average build quality), but I love it.

    I've learnt my lesson. Boring cars are for the wife, I'll take something that puts a smile on my face!

  • Alias218 22 Aug 2017

    This has long been my train of thought. I'd much rather a flawed car than a perfect car.

    Take the Golf R - amazing car, superb, superlative, superlative... but boring. I look at it and don't hanker to drive one. It's too accomplished.

  • Ryvita 22 Aug 2017

    Piped in engine noise, or even worse, artificially created engine noise is probably the first evidence of designers and manufacturers seeking to reintroduce (in a controlled and focus group test approved manner) some of this character after having achieved it's utter removal. I guess the same could be said of active exhausts and maybe driving modes as well?

    In theory a blank canvas is the perfect place to create a masterpiece, with clinically clean brushes and computer mixed paints. But there is an alternative pathway that lies with imperfect tools on imperfect surfaces that can achieve a perfection that could never emerge from the lab.

  • sgtBerbatov 22 Aug 2017

    What's perfect though? To me my 1998 Corolla is a better car to drive than my 2010 Peugeot 3008. But my wife-to-be hates the Corolla as it's too low down for her and likes the 3008 because it's quite high up.

    Personally the difference between the two comes down to a few things. Ride height (I like the low stance of the Corolla), the heavy mechanical pump powered steering of the Corolla makes me feel I'm more in tune with the car on the road than on the electric "drive-by-wire" power steering of the 3008, and the throttle response is real compared to the computer controlled throttle of the Peugeot.

    In new cars though I hate the crap visibility, and I didn't realise this was an issue until I got the Corolla. I drove it for the first time and I couldn't get over the amount of glass I could look out of. Sure the 3008 has big windows but everything is so chunky inside I have to shift about to see what's coming. And reversing is a joke.

    I think though my main problem with new cars is the assistance we're given with steering and throttles. ABS is lovely, although my Corolla doesn't have it, but even then you go to an old basic car and you forget how disconnected as drivers we are from the road in newer vehicles. And it's that I hate.

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