Of the many things you’ll hear when people talk about cars, perhaps the most ambiguous is the term “driver’s car”. It’s a term that’s used in a variety of contexts; the simplest definition is that it is a car that is designed and engineered with driving pleasure in mind. Beyond that is where it gets a little tricky and highly debatable.
To think of what classifies as a driver’s car, you need only look at sports cars or supercars. Mid-engine Ferraris like the 355 and 458 are archetypal driver’s cars, as are multi-generational cars like the Porsche 911. But even among owners and enthusiasts, there is a great and constant debate as to whether certain cars qualify.
For you see, speed and performance figures alone are not enough. Examples of this would be the Dodge Challenger Hellcat, or the Mercedes-AMG GLC 63. These cars are capable of going very quickly and are reasonably competent around the bends, but they aren’t exactly the type of cars you would enjoy on a back road at ungodly hours on a Sunday morning.
You could blame the marketing machines employed by big-name brands, but the term “driver’s car” gets thrown around a lot more than it should. In what could be considered a disproportionate reaction, there is a growing movement among the old guard that a driver’s car should be something that demands maximum effort when you’re throwing them around.
With this in mind, a lot of modern performance cars are disqualified in their eyes – first for being a little heavier and a little more lenient, and secondly because they come with a variety of electronic aids – regardless of whether they can be switched off or are permanently on. When you mix this viewpoint with a dash of elitism, enthusiast staples like hot hatchbacks are also taken out of the mix, along with anything that isn’t rear-wheel driven.
But why did this come about? It’s mostly to do with the concept of purity in driving – and purity, as well as purists, only exist in the context of the cars we have today. When we look at older “driver’s cars”, we see simpler machines that react in a more linear fashion to driver inputs. The flip side of the coin is that a lot of these machines had inherent flaws that made them difficult, and more demanding, to drive.
Classic Porsche 911s are a joy for quite nearly all your senses (except taste, which would be strange), but they also come from the factory with some curious rear suspension issues that make them excessively wild on the limit. The same could be said of the E30 generation of the BMW 3 Series, which many regard as a great driver’s car.
Over the years, both Porsche and BMW have worked to refine and develop newer versions of the 911 and 3 Series respectively, and each generation gets a little easier to drive in addition to having more performance, better fuel economy, and being far safer in the event of an accident. Somehow in the pursuit of all of this, both companies have also started to push away the older champions of the brand – despite this being the direction the market is heading in.
The demanding aspect has unfortunately become the focus for purists. A car is only deemed enjoyable if it’s a challenge to drive – and yet there are so many examples that fly in the face of this statement. The Mazda MX-5 is a great case study of how a simple front-engine, rear wheel drive roadster is enjoyable as you build up to the limit, without suddenly spitting you off the road if you lose concentration for a split second.
As are cars like the Renault Clio 197 RS and its hot hatchback brethren – despite being front-wheel drive. They are forgiving on the limit and easy for drivers of all skill levels to hop into and have a good time – provided they keep an open mind. All of this lends credit to the idea that a driver’s car is more about how it reacts to your inputs and how easy it is to control, rather than how much mental fortitude is needed to keep it out of the longkang.
As for electronic aids – well, they are an unfortunate “evil” in this day and age. Performance cars have become more powerful than ever, and to keep less experienced drivers from killing themselves the moment they drive their cars off the parking lot, there needs to be an electronic nanny to reel the car back in – or it is multiple lawsuits waiting to happen. Thankfully, in driver-oriented cars, you can usually turn these systems off completely when you’re in a safe enough place to enjoy your car without risk of collateral damage.
So perhaps more than how likely a car is to kill you, we should measure a driver’s car by how much of a smile it puts on your face. If you’re not the kind of person who enjoys driving then it simply won’t matter what car you’re in – but if you’re one who likes to layan the proverbial corner, then you should understand what this means.
It doesn’t matter what kind of drivetrain layout it has or how much power it’s sending to the wheels; if it’s a car that you want to take out on the open road weekend after weekend, then it’s a driver’s car – plain and simple. After all, who are you to be the gatekeeper to someone else’s enjoyment?