- My old 924 - in all its sepia glory

What defines a fun car?

Is it power, dynamics, or control... or something else?

As John, my editor-in-chief, and I returned from the "Chequered Past" event (the link of which is below), we debated what the sweet spot is for a "fun car". In particular, we wondered whether it makes sense to buy a car so powerful that you need to be Ayrton Senna to reach its limits, such as a Nissan GT-R, or something more sedate with good handling, like a Toyota 86, which one can "drift around roundabouts"?

Powered to your ability...

My own experience is two-fold. In 1989 I owned a 1978 Porsche 924. Leaving aside jibes about the "VW" engine, I can state that it was a wonderful car to drive. It had no power steering, a dog-leg five speed transmission sitting over the rear axle and a near perfect weight distribution. When I drove the 924 it felt my butt hovered about 15 centimetres above the road and around mountain bends it was a hoot.

Today's cliche about cars today is they have a "go-kart" feeling; but I've raced go-karts and, hand on heart, my old Porsche 924 comes closer to that experience than any modern car I've driven. Nevertheless, modern cars, with their electronic aids, no doubt handle far better than my old Porsche, but to me they aren't as engaging.

Yet that Porsche 924 had an Achille's heel. Its outright performance, with respect to acceleration and top speed, was embarrassing. It achieved 0-100km/h in a shade over 10 seconds and the top speed, for my model, was about 200km/h. Sad figures that are not Porschesque by any measure, but this did not mean it wasn't fun to drive. Quite the contrary; the Porsche 924, being underpowered with excellent handling, meant I enjoyed driving the car well within limits -- both mine and its.

I suspect the Mazda MX-5 and Toyota 86/BRZs are its modern equivalents.

... or beyond?

These days I drive a BMW E92 M3. No longer the fastest M3, yet its power and dynamics are still beyond my capability as a driver. It's performance figures are still reasonable in this age of super fast hot hatches; with 0-100km/h around 4.6 seconds (in ideal conditions) and a top speed anywhere from 280-290km/h... not that I've ever pushed it even close.

My E92 M3

My E92 M3

But even it has an Achilles Heel. Simply put, there's no safe and legal way to utilise more than 50% of the M3's capability on any road in Australia, unlike my old Porsche 924. What's more, its limits on a track exceed mine, so unless I borrow a friendly racing driver I can't experience its (still very) high limits.

This means it can be exhilarating to drive, as I discovered on a skid pan, but somewhat scary if you plant your foot down too much. Today, and I find this more astounding, a person can purchase this performance, which in 2008 cost over $160,000AUD, for less than $70,000AUD. For example, a Ford Mustang to a Kia Stinger (see the link below).

Too much car or just enough?

So here's the question: is a fun car one with power and dynamics that exceed a driver's ability or one that matches it? Indeed, as a person who's push an A170 to its limit, I can attest to the fact that there's much fun to be had even in an underpowered car.

An A170... sadly, you can even have fun with one of these, if you put your mind to it.

An A170... sadly, you can even have fun with one of these, if you put your mind to it.

Obviously the type car that "exceeds" ones ability depends on the driver and for top drawer drivers, such as Formula One etc., there may not exist any road legal car, outside of a Koenigsegg, they'd find challenging (and even then, who knows?). Conversely, your average, non-DriveTribe reading, driver may find a Toyota Echo intimidating.

And in the end, maybe I've got this all wrong. Maybe fun cars aren't about performance and handling, but something else entirely different? So let me know in the poll below what's your best type of fun car and, if it's not there, please leave a comment.

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Comments (40)

  • You can have fun in almost any car, when the correct environment is given.

      1 year ago
    • True. On a track you can drive like you can't on the road. On the road you can have fun in almost anything. I used to tear an A170 to and from work and the fun part was that it was all within speed limit.

      Unlike an M3... and yesterday tearing past a...

      Read more
        1 year ago
  • Find my car to be enjoyable to drive. only thing is that most of the roads around me are fairly straight. So I haven't found too many twisty roads to get the most out of its 107 kW of inline 4 power.

    Not bad for less than NZ$3,000

      1 year ago
  • Underpowered cars are fun and thrill until you cannot finish an overtake =))) i would choose powerful cars, but cars that i can handle, not cars that handle me. Anyway, great article!

      1 year ago
    • Thank you. You're right about the overtaking, so perhaps dialling back the M3 to a M235i, which is also a hoot?!

        1 year ago
    • I say you should test drive the 235i and compare it to your M3. Both cars are great in their own ways and probably the 2 series suits you better. But you never know until drive them both

        1 year ago
  • Definitely having a manual adds to the fun. Automatics dont do what they're told.

      1 year ago
    • Ah, now that's a good point. My Porsche 924, as mentioned in the article, was a 5 speed manual whereas my M3 has the dual clutch transmission (DCT). Flappy paddles are quicker, but not as full body as foot on clutch pedal, hand on shifter.

        1 year ago
  • There’s not much fun to be had with super fast super capable cars in Australia. 110kph speed limits. Speed cameras with tiny tolerances. Fast cars here are pointless and frustrating. If you want a “fun” car you need something that can be fun at 60-100kph. Not too much performance. Not too much grip. Something that moves around a lot and responds to every control input. Which is why I drive...

      1 year ago
    • The Mazda MX-5s are definitely fun cars at Australia's speed limits. Good choice and stunning car, BTW.

        1 year ago