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March 22, 2013

Vent It Out Friday: You've Got Soul

To this day, a lot of people don’t like the new Nissan GT-R. They respect the car’s performance, but they largely ignore it because aside from the aspect of technical mastery, it pretty much threw out everything that the Skyline GT-R heritage stood for.

No longer did it have a bullet-proof, silky smooth turbo-charged inline-6. No longer was it a quirky box with a wing. No longer was it a car that could trace it roots to a staid family sedan. No longer was it the tunable, every-man Godzilla on wheels that prior GT-Rs had been.

Instead, it’s a barely accessible, nearly impossible to tune, absurdly complicated, automatic-only whale-of-a-car that’s still unquestionably fast as hell but largely soulless.

Nowadays, it seems that people focus a lot on the numbers, and I can certainly see that standpoint. But as an enthusiast, I also inherently understand that numbers are just that: numbers. They don’t tell the whole story; in fact, they don’t tell much of a story at all. It’s all about the experience; the way the different aspects of the car come together and form something that’s altogether more than just the sum of its individual parts.

The classic American muscle cars were a great example of this. Really, despite the over-inflated legends of them that you hear now, they were utterly inferior cars, at least as far as numbers go. When it comes to just driving around, they’re plain terrible: They’re loud; they have a surprising amount of chassis flex; they’re a pain in the ass to shift; they have extremely temperamental engines; they have horrid brakes; they’re uncomfortable; and they’re just about as primitive as a protozoa.

Yet, when you find yourself behind the wheel of one, pushing down the open road, something absolutely, positively incredible happens. That roaring engine noise lets you know just what the car’s doing and provided you’re not deaf, will tell you exactly when to shift, tachometer be damned. The chassis flex suddenly goes from annoying to communicative on how close you are to the car’s limits. That pain-in-the-ass shifter suddenly slots into place with the utmost confidence and certainly. Its temperamental engine is happily screaming into a rev-range that no carbureted engine should ever have the right to reach, and it’s producing smooth, tractable power whenever you want, wherever you want. That stiff, uncontrollable suspension suddenly gives you a flawless interpretation of the road’s conditions and imperfections. Those grabby brakes suddenly become your best friend as you dig deeper and explore the limits of each corner in a way you never thought possible. And the caveman construction ceases being a nuisance and provides a direct link between you and the road underneath.

There are no electronic doo-dads to save you here. And you don’t need them. If you’re driving outside the limits of you or your car, you’ll deserve what you’ll get. It’s not about being the fastest. It’s about letting go of everything else in your life for a few brief moments and appreciating the simple things that make you feel alive, and make life worth living.
The moment you’re at full throttle, the car goes from being a collection of haphazardly bolted together parts into being one of the most cohesive, life-altering experiences you’ve ever had. Every imperfection that you bitched about ceases becoming imperfections and becomes doing the one thing it does best: giving you a smile. And you can’t help but wonder if this is the same car at all.

But you’ll never know it just from looking at a spec sheet. It’s something you can only know from getting the opportunity to try it.

It’s this kind of soul that’s lacking in most cars these days. There’s no doubt that cars like the Nissan GT-R are light years faster and light years more advanced that those old buckets. There’s no doubt that cars like these can make a one-armed monkey driving like Michael Schumacher. But it’s never going to make you feel special; it’s not going to make you a hero. When going fast is so effortless and efficient, it ceases to be special. It loses that feeling of reward.

That’s why guys like me don’t really care about some of these new super cars. I simply don’t care about going as fast as possible. I care about going as fast as I want to go and having a good, rewarding time doing it.

Different cars have different ways of achieving that and in the process, have built legends around their ability to do so. But when you start messing with the formula by trying to introduce huge changes or introduce new technologies and fix things that didn’t need fixing in the first place, you start killing the legendary character of the car that we came to know and love. Sometimes, car makers should know when to leave things well enough alone.

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