What Really Makes A Great Driver's Car?

You hear the phrase used all the time - but what actually makes a great driver's car?

3y ago

“This is a great driver's car” - a phrase every motoring journalist will say countless times in their career. It’s one of the great clichés of the trade, up there with “it’s a racing car for the road”, and “it corners like it’s on rails”. The saying is, to all intents and purposes, deeply subjective, which is exactly why two cars that are technically polar opposites can still fit under the driver's car bracket. But subjective or not, I haven't been able to stop myself from wondering: what really makes a great driver's car? Easier asked than answered as it turns out, because trying to find some sort of harmony in this deeply illusive and idiosyncratic topic is deceptively difficult.

One particular religion on the internet will have you believe that if you love driving more than anything else, there is only one car for you: the Nissan GTR. They will romantically orate about the neck breaking grip, the whiplash-inducing launch control, and how any old Joe Soap can captain the GTR to a near professional lap time. This registers the GTR in their minds as the ultimate driver's car, a fact which they believe is fortified by the arousing array of nerdilicious graphs presented in Gran Turismo graphics. Personally however, I disagree.

As an instrument of circuit domination, the GTR is one of the all time greats. And it’s because of its ability to leave the laws of physics sitting in the pits scratching their head that it’s gained a reputation as a great driver's car. But in my view, a more accurate description of the GTR is to call it a great handling car, which can be very different to a great driver's car. 

Yes, a great handling car and a great driver's car can be the same thing - but they're not always the most harmonious of bedfellows. A great handling car can be defined as something exploitable by many; whereas a great driver's car can be something that demands effort in exchange for a rewarding experience.

The GTR's handling represents the very pinnacle of composure. It doesn't so much have any apparent handling characteristics other than the fact that it just goes. No matter what conditions you throw at it, no matter what hooliganism you subject it to, it reacts calmly, like an annoyingly well behaved freak of automotive nature. It doesn’t so much will you on as yawn in your face as you try to get near its limits. And that’s because the computers are there constantly monitoring your actions, making sure you don’t do anything Nissan doesn't want you to do. Any sign of a powerslide, and the computers throw power around to bring the car straight. After all, drifting is fun, and fun is bad because it slows you down; therefore, the GTR cannot allow it.

The GTR’s computers form an awfully robust prison cell in which enjoyment and fun are captive. Their job is to terminate anything that will jeopardise the mission it has been programmed to accomplish: the mission being get from A, through the entire alphabet, and then back to A again in such a blur it'd give instantaneous teleportation a run for its money. And to have something as superfluous as fun interrupting that process is not acceptable in the world of the GTR. 

Examining the GTR then can in some way help answer our original question by affirming two very important things a great driver's car shouldn’t be: overcomplicated, and interfering. In general, purer machines that are bereft of intrusive computers are much better driver's cars. But just looking for purity in a driver's car is a pretty big generalisation, as cars that fit into this category are all very different in their own ways. 

Take a Lotus Exige S1 as a first example. On a bone dry circuit, it will handle in the same sort of unflustered fashion as the Nissan GTR - but that’s where the similarities end. Whereas the GTR makes you feel as though you’re 2nd or 3rd in charge, the Lotus makes you feel as though you’re the primary commander of the whole operation. And that’s all to do with the way the thing feels. 

Every gear change, every raw vibration, every delicious ripple in the tarmac sending a pulse through the steering and a subsequent shiver up your arm, it all culminates in one epic driving experience. It may only have a 1.8L Rover engine, pumping out 177 of Longbridge’s finest strike-prone stallions - but the way the car talks you through every part of the drive spoils you, making many other cars feel shy and muted. It is, to me at least, a truly brilliant driver's car. 

Analysing the Lotus’ more important characteristics, we find ourselves with a list of attributes that define it as a great driver's car: it’s extremely tactile, rear-wheel drive, has a manual gearbox, it's lighter than England’s grip on the World Cup will ever be, utilises an atmospheric engine, and is well behaved on the limit. So is this a list of rules that a great driver's car should conform to? If you think yes, then why does what is arguably the greatest driver's car ever made throw a spectacular contradiction at one rule in particular?

The mighty and magnificent McLaren F1! Tactile it most certainly is, as well as rear wheel drive, manual, lightweight, and normally aspirated - but the F1 is about as well behaved on the limit as a feral, demented Lion, and should be treated with the same caution. 

It’s not that the McLaren F1 is a particularly bad handling car - quite the opposite. It’s just that in order to get the best out of it, you need to possess a level of skill that allows you to process and react appropriately to each and every minute detail the car relays to you. Listen and respond correctly, and you won’t drive anything more rewarding; get it wrong however, and you’ll find yourself entangled in a terrifying world of capriciously altering under and oversteer. It takes no prisoners, and it demands talent. It's a type of driver's car best described as "a car you actually have to drive" - and they can often be the greatest.

So then, if we tick “well behaved on the limit” off our list, and focus on what's remaining, do we now have a list of things that a great driver's car definitely must be? If you think yes, then you’d be wrong, because history shows us that a car doesn’t need to be normally aspirated to be a great driver's car.

I am of course talking about the Ferrari F40. Unlike many modern cars, it doesn’t try to hide its forced induction like a dirty little secret. The F40 is as secretive about its turbocharging as Louis Spence is about being gay. And does that make it any less of a driver's car? On the contrary - it’s the defining and most treasured factor in the whole experience. 

Turbo-lag in an F40 is a deeply religious affair at which you feel duty-bound to kneel and worship. Accelerating off-boost is a process you’ll want to repeat again and again just so you can lap up the suspense and subsequent thrill when the turbos finally finish turning air into horsepower. But the turbo-lag and excitement aren’t the only things that define the F40 - the handling and feel does too. 

One of the biggest descriptive cliches in motoring that’s unique to a single car is the description of the F40 that it’s the world’s fastest Go-Kart - but the handling begs for no other metaphor. If you do so much as edge the nose towards an apex at speed, you find weight escaping from the steering as the back end decides it wants to catapult around. But the tactility of the F40 makes the lively rear a pleasure to control, and crafts a more rewarding experience. 

So, referring back to our original list, we’ve officially crossed off 2 things, and are left with 4 things a great driver's car supposedly must be: it should be communicative, rear-wheel drive, use a manual gearbox, and be as light as possible. That last one on the list seems particularly important. It seems like a perfectly reasonable assumption to think that any car that’s not been put on the strictest diet is no place where enjoyment and engagement can reside. But thanks to the Aston Martin V12 Vantage, the rule has been debunked.

The Aston weighs in at a morbidly obese 1.7 tonnes, which is surprising considering the petite, supermodel exterior. But the presence of lard in the Aston does not for one moment stop it from being a magnificent driver's car. 

You might expect the inner blubber to make the Aston feel unpleasantly unruly as the weight bobs about through the corners - but incredibly, it feels taut and together, like it’s wearing a girdle. The steering is meaty and full of feel, allowing you to listen to the car with ease and pleasure. The handling is biased blissfully towards oversteer, meaning every time even a suggestion of understeer occurs, you can deploy the wonderfully responsive 6L naturally aspirated V12 and its 520 howling horsepowers to simultaneously sing the song of the automotive angels, and gallop up the desired drift. And then there’s the gearbox: a peach of a 6 speed manual that feels fantastically mechanical and precise, as though the cogs were crafted by watchmaking artisans as opposed to mere engineers.

The gearbox plays an important role in crafting the driving experience in the Aston. In fact, if we refer back to that ever-shortening list, we find that having a manual gearbox is one of the attributes that makes a great driver's car. Does that mean then that in order to be enjoyed by serious driver's, a car must be equipped with a manual? It helps…but it’s not a complete necessity.

We’ll get this out the way now: it is and always will be a crying shame that the 991 GT3 and GT3RS weren’t fitted with manual gearboxes. Curse you Porsche for your lust for innovation at the cost of purity! But if you want a manual gearbox, you’ve now got the 911R and 991.2 GT3 to sell your internal organs to afford. Thank you Porsche for listening to the voice of the purists in the end! 

Yes, the 991 GT3RS should have a manual - but just because it uses paddles doesn’t mean that it isn’t a driver's car. There’s so much about the RS that sings to us drivers. 

The handling is sharp and fierce. Tuned in favour of oversteer, it’s happy to set a blisteringly quick time on your first lap, and then evaporate its rear tyres in drift the next. The 4L, 500 horsepower normally aspirated Flat-6 croons one of the greatest automotive high notes of all time. The sonic journey from idle to the 8,800rpm redline is a symphony of swelling excitement. And with the pull of a controversial paddle, the ascent begins again. 

Getting back to our original list - which is beginning to look somewhat malnourished - we find that all the driver's cars I've mentioned so far still have 2 things in common: they're communicative, and they're rear-wheel drive. Looking back at the Nissan GTR you may think that 4WD cars can't possibly be great driver's cars if they act as a kill switch for fun. But guess what: that's not true either!

The 1st generation Audi R8 V10 showed the world that 4 wheel drive systems and driver enjoyment can get along - and get along famously! Propulsion at the front wheels didn't stop the R8 from being a great driver's car - partly because of the 6-speed, open gated manual gearbox; partly because of the beautifully mellifluous 5.2L NA Lamborghini V10; and partly because most of the power was sent to the back wheels, which is where it stayed. Unlike a GTR, the old R8 didn't usher power to whatever axle the computer pointed - you had a fixed, rear-biased torque split, and it was all the better for it.

You could argue that the 1st Gen R8 is so rear biased, that it's an example that doesn't really disprove the rule that a great driver's car must be rear wheel drive. So then, can a car that sends power solely to the front wheels possibly quench a driver's thirst for pleasure? You bet!

The Volkswagen Golf GTi Clubsport S took on the Nurburgring and punched it in the face, setting a new lap record (that's since been beaten by the new Civic Type R) for front wheel drive cars of 7:47.2 - which is roughly what a racing driver would've been able to squeeze out of a Porsche not all that long ago. But it's not the GTi's ability to attack a circuit that defines it as a great driver's car; that comes from how it feels.

Everything has been done underneath the GTi to eliminate understeer. The front end is scalpel sharp, and the back end is forever willing to let itself hang out when you lift off. The engine is a 2L Turbocharged 4-cylinder that throws 306bhp at the front wheels. Naturally, you do find yourself managing torque steer when accelerating hard out of tight bends - but this is just a small price you have to pay for the performance this car offers.

0-60mph takes 5.8 seconds, and even though VW claim the top speed is 155mph, the Nurburgring lap record car managed to sail up to 157! It's a little lighter than the regular Golf GTi Clubsport, mainly due to the fact that VW have removed the back seats. But the best thing is that all the performance and handling this car offers is available to enjoy through the delights of a 6 speed manual gearbox, which is the only option in the Clubsport S because, according to Volkswagen, it's aimed at serious drivers. And it does, most definitely, serve as a great driver's car.

On our quest to try and bring some unity onto the question of what a great driver's car should be, we managed to fathom a list of 6 attributes - of which all but one have been confuted. The last one on the list however - the rule that a great driver's car should communicate with you properly - is one that I believe can't be invalidated. If a car doesn't relay to you the correct information about what's going on, then it becomes less drivable, less enjoyable, and less enthralling. Communicative is definitely something a great driver's car should be.

As you can see then, it's incredibly difficult to sanction any rules onto this very subjective question, because there's always at least 1 car that can provide a bulletproof contradiction. If anything, it's easier to amalgamate a list of things that don't make a driver's car - but listing all the things a great driver's car shouldn't be in some ways implies that everything in between is a great driver's car, which again, can't possibly be correct. But I set out to come to some form of conclusion, and I aim to do just that...depending on what your definition of "conclusion" is!

Maybe instead of trying to say what a driver's car should or shouldn't be tangibly, it's best instead to think about what emotions it should invoke. It should be a car that you want to drive not merely as a tool to save your legs the walking - but something you want to drive just for the pleasure of driving; something you can point down a road, and it makes you want to keep driving until you run out of country; something that captivates your entire being and focuses it purely on the driving, making you forget about any niggles or foibles. When a car inspires those emotions in you, and makes you feel like it is an extension of you, you'll know what really makes a great driver's car.

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Written by: Angelo Uccello

Twitter: @AngeloUccello

Tribe: Speed Machines

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Comments (24)

  • Fun article, though I would be hard pressed to consider something without a clutch pedal to be a driver's car. One of the most beautiful things in the world is perfectly executing a double-clutched heel/toe downshift, heading hot into a turn, then powering out.

    Sadly I've never driven any of the cars on your list, but I have driven many cars. From a pure fun standpoint my 1973 911t Targa was probably top, because of the communication. 2nd place goes to my previous Ford Fiesta ST. Strangely, a FWD hot hatch had remarkably similar dynamics to my old Porsche. In fact I'd argue the Fiesta was a better "drivers car" because everything about it was so accessible. Unlike a 2-seat sports car, you could take the family on the "scenic route " to the grocery store. You could generally drive within the speed limit and still have fun!

      3 years ago
    • Thanks a lot mate :). Yeah, I know what you mean. There are a few paddle shift cars that I would just about describe as "driver's cars", but not many at all. Not to mention that if I were looking for a driver's car for myself, I doubt I'd spend much...

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        3 years ago
    • Just occurred to me that one aspect missing from your list is an aurally entertaining car. Of course my example of the Fiesta ST disproves it as a requirement, it's cert a benefit.

        3 years ago
  • Great article

      3 years ago
  • In my humble opinion any car can be a "driver's car." It isn't about the car's specs, it has everything to do with how it makes you feel when you're behind the wheel. The most "able" car I've owned is my Subaru Legacy 3.6R, but it doesnt give me the same feeling i had when driving my old 1986 Chevrolet Nova (don't laugh!). If you love your car, it's a real "driver's car," point finale.

      3 years ago
    • Amen!

        3 years ago
    • Precisely. A car that makes you want to keep driving until you run out of country; focusing not on any tangible statistics, but on what emotions the car imbues in you personally.

        3 years ago
  • I think the Abarth 124 Spider is quite a nice drivers car. Judging by the reviews of the car, its fun to toss around, sounds good and is cheap to maintain with only a 1.4 engine, but the turbo will make it a great car to tune it up if you want more than the original 170hp. Its weight only around 1000kg and it has a quick steering rack. Looks quite nice to me as well, but not all will agree. It has a bilstein suspension which eliminates most of the tilting. And its based on an MX5, but because its an Abarth, no one will make fun of you being a haidresser (jk). It also comes with a difflock and a monza exhaust. Really the only bad thing I can think about it, is the price. But im sure you will forget all about the price, once you get in it and you wont be able to get rid of the smile on your face.

      3 years ago
  • It all comes down to if the car brings a smile to your face when driving it.

    I rather see a list of cars you can buy under 5K or under 10K makes more sense as the avarage joe cant or wont buy a 50k +++ car

      3 years ago
    • To reiterate what I've previously stated in the comments: this blog isn't designed to list a series of great driver's car, but to define what makes a great driver's car.

        3 years ago
    • I agree with Niels as well. Granted we are told and explained that these are great cars backed by facts, spreadsheets and so on, but it leaves us something to be desired whereas in the Honda Civic, Mazda Miata, BMW z3 and z4 alongside a nice...

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        3 years ago