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In Defense of Small Cars

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On: Mon, Oct 28, 2013 at 4:38PM | By: Nick Bakewell

In Defense of Small Cars

If you’re among the particular subgroup of people for whom driving can be more than just a necessity, then you probably hanker after a car with “sporty” qualities. Something like a BMW M3 or a Mistubishi Evo. The problem that you’re inevitably faced with, however, is that sporty cars tend to be expensive; automakers levy a “performance tax”, if you will, on the keen driver, and you end up paying not just the dealer, but the insurance company, a premium for the privilege of sharp handling and roaring, snorting engine noises. Even at the bottom of the chart, your least expensive options are things like the Mazda MX-5, Subaru BRZ or Ford Focus ST, all of which will run you $25k at the very least, and for a lot of people, especially in my age group (and let’s face it, the younger you are, the faster you probably want to go), that’s just too much. Allow me, then, to posit a solution that obviates the need for a single purchase in favor of a simple attitude adjustment.

As I’ve mentioned recently, I recently came into possession of a Kia Rio, the cheapest car that can be bought new in the United States. With a mere 138 horsepower from its tiny little four-cylinder engine and front wheel drive, this is not a car that’s in any way sporty. Merging onto the highway, for instance, is a fraught process simply because it doesn’t have the power to exploit a gap, even if someone should be kind enough to leave you one. Despite this, however, I manage to derive enormous enjoyment from my daily drives around town, or a jaunt along a nice, twisty bit of road that runs along the edge of a nearby lake. Driving my small, underpowered car is fun because I can drive it hard, mashing the gas into the floor and hurling the steering wheel this way and that without ever breaking the speed limit. The car’s limits are so low that you can reach the edge of its performance envelope, feeling as if you’re driving in a spirited manner, on more or less any road in any conditions.

If you have a genuinely fast car, you spend all your time driving around in a state of restraint, unable to unleash even a fraction of your car’s potential. It may be fine for taking to a track day, or for those occasional moments when you find yourself on a nice bit of twisty backroad with no other drivers in sight, but a car’s ability to do 150mph is irrelevant in a world where the speed limit is, at most, 75. A fast car knows how little of its ability you’re using and consequently, feels entirely unrewarding for 90% of the time you’re driving it. But small, excitable cars can make going around a corner at 25 or 30mph feel genuinely exciting, because while you’re not even pulling 1g in cornering force, you’re at the edge of the car’s ability to control its roly-poly body and revvy little engine.

So there’s my solution: if you can’t afford the kind of fast car you want, don’t despair. You can find fun anywhere, so long as you adjust your attitude. And the best part is that you can do it without breaking the law, or your wallet when you get to the pump.

Authors note: I do wish to emphasize that the approach to driving delineated in this article is not intended to enourage driving dangerously, or outside the letter of the law. Remember that while on the road, you have a responsibility to not just yourself but to all other road users. Drive safely first, drive legally, and have fun.


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