Bark's Bites: The Lightweight, Affordable Sporting Car Is Dead by Our Own Hands
My friends, I spoke to you last week about the dangers of freedom-hating wackadoodles who want to take away your right to own and drive your own car. Some of you agreed with me, others didn’t. Such is the nature of an op-ed. I was pleased to see that only a couple of you tried to no-platform me — either I’m getting less offensive in my old age or you’re getting more tolerant, and both of those are good things.
But today I am here to warn you of a more subtle threat to your driving-related joy, and it’s coming from a rather unsuspected source — the very manufacturers of the cars we love so much. Well, no, that’s not exactly right. It’s actually coming from you. The economic factors presented by the buying behavior of the general public are eventually going to make it impossible for automakers to deliver the cars that enthusiasts want to buy.
I’m not just talking about silly “Save the Manuals” nonsense. I’m talking about being able to buy a lightweight car. I’m talking about buying a car that will allow you to get yourself into trouble without kicking in the traction control. They won’t be dead — at least, not yet. But there’s no denying that cheap, fun cars are very, very close to being a thing of the past.
I spent a few days with the Lotus Evora 410 Sport GP Edition earlier this month (whew, that’s a mouthful), and while there is certainly a significant amount of tech inside, the most pleasant thing about the car was just how connected I was with it. The hydraulic steering, the defeatable traction control, and the ways in which Lotus worked to remove weight from it were all incredibly delightful. I went to visit a PR friend of mine in SoCal, who also happens to be an accomplished amateur racer, and I let him drive the Evora around the parking lot a bit while we chatted.
“It’s amazing. The steering feel, the shifter…the feedback is incredible,” he remarked. “It just feels natural.”
I remember a similar conversation being had about the 410’s stablemate, the 400, with some writer friends about a year and a half ago after we’d all had the chance to drive it around a circuit. “What would we be saying about this car if it weren’t from Lotus, a brand with impeccable racing heritage, but if it were from, say, Hyundai?” one writer asked.
“We’d be throwing a goddamned festival, that’s what,” said another. “I don’t care that it’s ‘old school’ or whatever. It’s fantastic.”
Of course, Evoras ain’t cheap. So what can the man on the street buy right now that’s brand new, that’s RWD, available with a real six-speed manual transmission, completely defeatable stability control, and weighs less than 3,000 lbs for less than $50,000?
Umm. Well. Huh. The Toyota 86 counts, if you can do The Pedal Dance. The Mazda MX-5 and the Fiat 124 Spider.
That’s it. (I’m sure one of you will remind me of something I’ve forgotten. Go ahead. Put it in the comments.)
We lost the RX-8 and the S2000 about 10 years ago. GM isn’t bringing back the Kappa cars, even though they should. Nissan is done with making sports cars. The new Supra is reportedly being targeted at 3,200 lbs, and it’s not gonna be cheap. Neither is the new Z4.
Automakers aren’t immune to financial pressures. They can’t make cars that people don’t buy. The bane of my existence is people on forums and in comments sections who say things like, “I can’t wait to buy one of these things (used, of course)!” If nobody buys them new, they won’t be available used — just ask the Saab community. So while some version of the Miata will always be in the Mazda lineup, I personally find it hard to believe when Toyota promises a second generation of the 86. They just don’t sell.
But I do have good news! You can buy a car like this — you just need a lot of money. You can buy an Alfa Romeo 4C! It’s really light and it’s only about $60k. You could buy the aforementioned Evora 410 for just over $100k. How about a Porsche GT3 RS (it’s 3,020 lbs, but we’ll stop drinking soda and eating donuts and make up for it)? A mere $146,000.
But even Lotus will charge you more to make the 410 lighter than the 400. The GT3’s weight savings sure as hell don’t mean a cost savings. And while it seems silly at first glance to charge more to take a back seat out of a car than to put one in, even the most basic understanding of manufacturing will soon help you realize why.
So what’s the non-wealthy performance driving fan to do? Well, for a limited time, you can buy used versions of the cars we used to be able to buy new (and pay ungodly amounts for them, in the case of the S2000). You can buy the Toyobaru twins and modify them into being fun, I guess, and hope that your purchase inspires somebody — anybody — at Toyota to make good on their promise to build another one.
You could learn to love FWD — the Fiesta ST is still a thing you can buy in 2018 (thank God I was wrong about that) and it’s great, the Honda Civic Si is just under 3,000 lbs (the Type R isn’t, and it’s also not cheap, but it’s still wonderful), and even the Fiat 500 Abarth is still on some dealer lots right now. But only Honda seems committed to continuing to build a car in this segment.
The best hope for the sub-$30k enthusiast? It’s the turbo four-powered pony car. While they’re chunky, and they don’t make great noises, they are more powerful than even the eight-cylinder versions of just a decade ago. There are mods aplenty, even power mods that don’t void warranties, and thanks to independent rear suspensions and track packs, the four-bangers from Ford and Chevy can turn, too.
But I can’t lie. I look at my old S2000 CR and RX-8 autocross pictures on the wall of my home office, and I realize that neither car has been available for a decade. We might have more horsepower than ever, but we’re worse off for not adhering to the great Colin Chapman’s mantra. We haven’t simplified or added lightness. We’ve complicated and made up for it with turbochargers and boost.
And at the risk of sounding like the old man I never dreamed I’d become on the day I signed the papers for my 2004 RX-8, I regret it.
Otaku on Mar 20, 2018
If FWD (and the asymmetrical door configuration) isn't a deal-breaker, then the next generation Hyundai Veloster might meet some of the (relatively) lightweight and inexpensive criteria Bark was talking about in a (relatively) sporty vehicle. I was even considering possibly trading up to one of them myself when they become available, but I haven't seen many reviews yet regarding the driving experience.
WildcatMatt on Apr 03, 2018
I want to pull together a couple of things already mentioned and add a bit to it. There was a time when you could have a two-car household with 2 adults and 2 kids under 12 and have that second car be some combination of small, sporty, and/or light. You could pull this off knowing that the kids could be squeezed into the second car a few times a month and it wouldn't be a big deal. This falls down now that both of those kids have to be in car seats. If you can't shoehorn in two seats, that "fun" car is only going to work as a third car. With wages where they are that third car is harder to swing in the budget, and now that insurance companies have gotten sticker shock over the cost of claims with all the tech being put in vehicles now that third car has higher fixed costs too. I believe this is also a big driver in the demise of standard-cab pickups, too -- I remember when the family would gather at Grandma's house and us non-farm-kid cousins would all pile onto the bench seat (or hop in the bed) of our aunt's F-150 to go for a ride because pickups were a novelty. Those days are long gone.
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