Objects of Desire – April 2013

emily-atkinsBy Emily Atkins, Provinz Editor

Driving my car is like skinny dipping.

I’ve only recently realized this as a result of my new role reviewing new cars. Every week I get to drive a different new vehicle. Sweet gig, I agree. There’s something exciting about sliding into the driver’s seat of an unfamiliar car every Monday morning. The novelty is a rush, as I find out cool tricks what each new vehicle has in store for me.

But there’s also a catch. When you review cars you have to drive everything they’re making, and that usually means the everyday, mass market cars that people use for basic transportation. Most cars are not made for drivers. They are all about getting safely from A to B, with kids, dogs and groceries and using as little fuel as possible.

Nothing wrong with this for most people, most of the time. It’s good to have sophisticated vehicles that warn you when you need an oil change, when your tires are low, prevent you from rear-ending the car in front of you, and can not only tell you the weather where you are headed, but they’ll park themselves when you get there.

Sometimes the new cars are hard to give back at the end of the week. But more often than not it’s a joy to be back behind the wheel of one of my own cars, either the 944, or even my little Mazda Protege 5.

The key is they need to be driven. In too many new cars, the driver is becoming an accessory. There’s too much car, too much technology and we’re in danger of falling figuratively asleep behind the wheel.

I recently drove a giant luxury liner of a car. Nothing compares to floating along in its insulated cockpit (or should I say ‘bridge’) with heated steering wheel, hot and cold cupholders, back-up camera and park assist. Hard not to imagine yourself at the helm of a massive yacht, cruising the high seas. Other cars, drivers, pedestrians were all mere blips on the radar, barely real, barely registering from within the cocoon.

Another was the mid-sized family car with a hybrid engine. This one had its speed limited to 130kmh and a locked out volume control on the radio. All you can do as the driver of this one is sit there and dream of driving a car that does what YOU want.

Then there was the wagon with the built-in backseat driver. “You’re following too close”. “You changed lanes without signaling.” “The car in front of you has moved and you haven’t. WAKE UP!” The car doesn’t actually speak those words, but these are the messages it conveys. It’s keeping tabs on your driving, and it will act to correct you if it thinks an accident is imminent.

I’m not interested in a car that’s going to do my work for me. I do not want to be a passenger in the left seat. There may be an argument in favour when all you do is commute in traffic, but I don’t want insulation, I want sensation. I want to see what’s all around me, feel the road, hear the engine and know that when I give the car an input, it will be translated precisely into action. I want my ride hard, low and responsive. In short, I want to drive.

What I don’t want is precisely what these new cars are offering. Insulation, automation and boredom. The landyacht whose corners lie like mysterious far off continents makes me appreciate being able to see what’s in my blindspot and where my back bumper is. The econobox with the slushy continuously variable transmission makes me give thanks for my left foot and right hand working in synch to achieve precise shifts, right when I want them. The mom’n’pop safety mobile with AWD, traction control and collision warning/prevention systems make me love my nanny-free, simple cars.

If you like to swim with a raincoat on, I have just the car(s) for you. Me, I prefer skinny dipping—nothing gets in the way of the pure sensation. There is nothing better than the connection of car and driver and road, unimpeded.

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