Too many cars are too fast

·4 min read

"Slow cars fast" are a dying breed. Too few cars anymore shine based on their handling merits alone, and too many dynamic cars can't be enjoyed to anywhere near their fullest on public roads.

I love driving the Mazda Miata. Not because it’s a convertible — I actually don’t particularly care for droptops, but I’ll save that for another opinion piece. I love it because it’s an engaging car to drive, one where man and machine play together at the limits of their ability. And it’s not all play, as there’s plenty of work involved. Shifting gears, holding speed through corners, aiming the car precisely where you want it to be and timing and modulating brakes and accelerator for a smooth, quick transition from one apex to the next.

But the last couple times I drove a Miata, it wasn’t quite as fun as I remembered. There wasn’t that same connection, like the one I used to enjoy between horse and rider when I was young. There was suddenly less anticipation and less teamwork with the Miata.

I blame the horsepower bump — up 26 ponies for a total of 181 — that the MX-5 received for the 2019 model year. 26 hp isn’t a lot, sure, but it’s about 17% more power in a car that weighs less than most, and the torque is also made available lower in the rev range. The result is more effortless speed. I no longer needed to think as hard or work as hard to get what I wanted from the Miata. If I failed to carry enough velocity exiting a turn, I wasn’t punished; I could just plop my dumb foot back down and make up for my mistake, almost like I was entitled to the speed.

This came up again when Autoblog Editor-in-Chief Greg Migliore and I were podcasting about our long-term Acura TLX, not long after the Type S first drive took place. We agreed that the regular TLX, with its turbo-four providing 272 horsepower and 280 pound-feet of torque, was well-balanced, offering ample punch for this good-handling sedan. All I really would have added to make it better would be a manual transmission — too much to ask, I know. I certainly didn't need a turbocharged V6 making 355 horsepower.

I talked to Road Test Editor Zac Palmer after he had driven the Type S, though. He made some good points about the Type S powertrain being a better fit for the 10-speed automatic transmission. That makes sense, and it sounds nice. The better balanced a car is in its dynamics and driver interface is always a welcome thing. I wish the transmission played better with the turbo-four. I understand why automakers put more resources into buttoning down the dynamics of their costlier (which often goes hand-in-hand with more powerful) cars. I just wish that wasn’t usually the case, and that carmakers would more often make handling improvements first rather than reaching straight for higher output. It’s easy to overlook an otherwise bland dish when you dump a bunch of hot sauce on it, and straight-line acceleration is an easy distraction from imperfect driving dynamics or flawed driving technique.

And yes, I’m in the camp that believes the Subaru BRZ (and Toyota 86) was perfectly fine as it was throughout the first generation. I don’t want the extra 23 horsepower it’s getting. Life goes by too fast as it is, almost to the point where it’s difficult to slow down and enjoy the moment, be mindful of it, and work to improve upon myself. I’ll take any chance I can to slow down and appreciate it in detail — to learn to make the most of each passing heartbeat — and the same goes for my car.

Besides, too many cars these days will hit irresponsibly extralegal speeds without even feeling like they’re going that fast. At least in a daily driver, I’d prefer something that feels like it’s going 100 at 80 miles per hour than something to feels like 45 miles per hour at 100. If I’m going to speed, I want to feel that … even fear it.

Sure, a good launch is fun. The adrenaline I felt watching the lights of the Christmas Tree tick down at Lucas Oil Dragway in Indianapolis behind the wheel of the Dodge Demon is hard to match. And don’t get me wrong, the uber-speedy Porsche 996 911 GT3 and Ferrari 458 Italia are perhaps my favorite cars I’ve ever driven, but that’s not specifically because they’re fast. Those cars are engineering marvels and artistic masterpieces, perfectly balanced, almost surgical in their precision. You really need a racetrack to fully enjoy those cars, though. The humble Miata invites you to soak in the experience, to savor each corner, to fix your poorly timed shift or your imprecise application of the throttle in real time, on real roads.

Or, at least until its next bump in horsepower.

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