As we were completing the ultimate manly activities like setting up camp (while complaining that the instruction manual is wrong), braaiing and drinking beer, the topic of my car came up. It was being debated at length, not because my friends enjoyed it, but because the Clio RS’s successor would be such a radical departure, switching from a three-door, naturally aspirated manual to a five-door, turbocharged four-pot with a double-clutch transmission.
It got me thinking though: why would Renault do this 180° when the outgoing Clio RS is so highly acclaimed? A look at the new generation of car enthusiasts tells you that there has been a shift in what people expect from performance cars. The experience of driving, where one simply gets up to boost, flick a finger or two and the next gear is engaged, is now favoured over the practice of working for performance.
Who could argue with the masses in any case? Sitting in traffic with an auto-box is much better than straining life itself out of your left calf. When you want to boot it, you simply switch to manual mode and control the shifts. It must be said though that, in some situations, I’m sure even the most loyal paddle-shift driver will miss an exercised left calf as they develop a semi-dystrophic leg.
Case in point: should you purchase the Golf GTI 35 edition with the DSG box, there is no need to worry about launching, because it’s equipped with launch control. A simple software upgrade will see it stay with cars in upper price brackets. You will be king of the robot-to-robot drag race. If you want safety when the going gets twisty, the Golf R, Audi S3 and the mighty RS3 have four-wheel drive and enough understeer to allow even the most enthusiastic driver to feel safe pitching the car into a bend at almost any speed.
Don’t think for a second that I’m some tech-nihilist; I respect these cars and believe that they are the future of motoring, with their great comparative consumption and impressive emissions-cutting technology. I know that the implementation of these technologies is necessary to meet emissions regulations, thus turbocharging and efficient automatic transmissions are and probably will always be the most logical and inevitable route.
My point is that, in terms of driving enjoyment, we are going backwards. Having said that, one can make a case for the Nissan GT-R. More a living creature than a car, it has been named Godzilla in Japan. The monstrous lizard that is the GT-R, even creeks and groans when cold and yet is built in a factory so hell bent on perfection, it has made the GT-R a bit sterile; too clinical in its execution.
The amount of computing power on board allows the driver to go ridiculous fast, enjoy the sheer speed of the thing and still remain safe. However, one can go just as fast, or maybe faster, in a Porsche GT2 RS. Yes, you probably will end up with the lower back of an 80-year-old and eventually wrapped around a tree, but think of how much more fun you would have had.
The “Toybaru” amalgamation that spawned the Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86 gives me some hope for the future though. These appear to be true driving machines that anyone can exploit. When I drove the 86, I couldn’t believe how alive it felt. The Prius tyres make it tail-happy, the short-throw gearbox make snap changes a doddle and the boxer engine has good low-down torque and sounds very WRX-esque.
The two most important things about the 86 and the BRZ are their affordability and the fact that Toyota made a car that for once didn’t make the Nissan Tiida look exciting.
The new generation of fast cars with their sound symposers (Focus ST and BMW’s M cars alike), launch control systems, lightning-fast gearboxes and overly refined ride quality have become sterile, like the GT-R. I view the modern performance car brigade as I view electronic music: I’ve accepted it, I enjoy it and understand why it is so popular. The few exceptional cars in terms of driving enjoyment and purity such as my beloved Clio RS, Toyota’s 86, the BMW 1M and the Porsche GT3, to name but a few, are like Nirvana, Live and Unplugged in New York: once-off creations that will never to be repeated and always near and dear to my heart, as long as I live.