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What makes a good car?

Glaskowsky muses on automotive technology.

I should write more here about cars. I certainly talk about cars more than enough with friends and coworkers. I've written for the BMW Car Club of America's Roundel Magazine, but somehow my dream job in automotive journalism never materialized...

Good cars are safe, fast, affordable to purchase, economical to operate, reliable, capacious, comfortable, and attractive.

No, of course you can't get all of those characteristics in one car; each conflicts with one or more of the others. Safe and fast, for example... obviously incompatible, right? Well, no. Not at all. The only thing that makes a fast car unsafe is a loose nut behind the wheel. All else being equal, a faster car is safer. A well-designed fast car can accelerate and steer away from trouble and brake to a stop before getting into trouble.

But some cars are unquestionably better at balancing these potential conflicts. Here's how I shop for a car:

  • I define my absolute requirements (four seats, headroom, etc.), which define the set of candidates.
  • I sort the candidates in order of price.
  • I decide my priorities among the features I'm looking for.
  • I find the least expensive car that meets my minimum standards for the most important feature or two, then climb the price list. I ignore any car that doesn't improve on the important features, then consider whether the extra price is worth the improvement.

This process usually leaves me with a car that is the best of its type within a fairly wide price range. The third-best car of some type may be significantly cheaper than the best car of that type, but in my experience, it will come with compromises that make it ultimately undesirable.

My last three cars were the 1992 Nissan Maxima SE, the 1998 BMW 540iA Sport, and the 2002 BMW M3. I still have the 540, and I continue to be amazed by how effective it is in so many categories. It's fast-- I've driven it at an indicated 155 mph on the Autobahn in Germany (see the video here; that's a 4.9MB QuickTime movie)-- and nimble enough to beat a lot of genuine sports cars around California racetracks such as Laguna Seca and Sears Point (that is, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Infineon Raceway at Sears Point).

I had planned to buy a new BMW M5 through the company's European Delivery program and join the International Drivers Training Course at the Nürburgring Nordschleife in August (also see Ben Lovejoy's most excellent Nürburgring site here). I did the same thing when I bought the M3, and wow, it was an amazing experience. Alas, I wasn't able to confirm the order for the car before the March deadline for course registration, so I had to let it go. Next year I'll try again.

In future blog entries I'll explain some of the interesting technologies that go into modern automotive design and address controversial questions such as: why engine torque doesn't matter, why unibody construction will give way to new methods as composite materials become more affordable, and why microprocessors will eventually get the final word in driving your car.