My car makes me tired an awful lot of the time. It’s noisy, it rides sufficiently rough to cause involuntary exhalations on a regular basis and it’s ugly – pretty much the perfect automotive recipe for female repellent. Pressed into the unnatural half of its dual roles (race car, commuter box), my little Daewoo sucks. I sometimes think I’d be better off selling it and getting something sensible, something like …
Chris Marsh’s newly purchased 2002 Kia Optima. Man, that is a comfortable car. Chris’ Optima glides in silence whether on the highway or city streets or, even, dirt roads. The heater wraps occupants in ergonomically designed cocoons of relaxation, the air conditioning actually functions and the engine is never loud enough to force passengers to raise their voices. On the two occassions I’ve driven it, I got out feeling more at ease than when I’d gotten in. By way of comparison, the Nubira’s air conditioning unit hangs uselessly from the engine block, the induction noise ranges between “annoying drone” and “my ears are bleeding” and the Daewoo greets each pebble and road zit with the intention of beating said imperfection into the earth’s mantle. I’ve been in more relaxing fist fights.
For amateur fools, there is considerably more to automobilia than highway cruising, repelling females and city commuting – things like donuts in abandoned parking lots, full-throttle blasts to 80 mph, perhaps the occassional stop-light grand prix. For professional, highly experienced fools like myself, there’s the chance to drive very quickly through very sharp bends.
My mental simplicity aside, the main appeal of this sort of thing comes down to mixing speed, unbelievably complex physics, fast-twitch reflex and the possibility of ending the process upside down and on fire. I don’t have to push 100% to achieve this simple sort of bliss, but I do need precision and balance from my car.
All of which brings me to the events of this previous weekend. Chris, in no small part because of my corrupting influence, has decided he wants to graduate from amateur fool status to full-on idiot. So we took the Optima and my Daewoo to the serpentine roads, rivers and shear cliffs leading from Daechung Lake to the former military dictator’s retreat in Chungnamdae.
I like this stretch of road because it’s super technical, because there are generally pretty good lines of sight and because it’s so twisty you can really attack without exceeding the speed limit. I’ve left an enthusiastically driven AMG Mercedes for dead on this road without going over 60 mph. Oh, and then there’s the matter of this section of Korea being absolutely gorgeous.
We lined up next to the seafood restaurants at the base of the canyon and rolled down the windows. I rested my hand on the peeling door panels, looked over a paintjob accomplished entirely with furniture paint and copier paper and ignored the Daewoo’s receding headliner (yes, really).
“Hey, Chris, I’m gonna go through here at about 60%. It shouldn’t be too hard to keep up.”
Chris smiled and said yes and sat there in his like-new interior – smug prick.
I kept my word about 60%. No tire squealing, no threshold braking – I don’t think I ever revved the engine over 4,500 rpm. And then, about two miles down the road, I looked back and noticed that Chris had vanished. I’ll admit to a little smugness of my own at this point.
When we switched cars later, I found myself pushing a lot harder than 60% and getting nowhere near as much pace – not that slow is necessarily a problem on its own. Slow and fun is a perfectly possible combination, but the Optima was slow and exciting only in the sense that amateur dentistry is exciting.
It wasn’t really a matter of absolute grip or power that made it so little fun. My car does have much better grip and a little bit more straight line performance, but that wasn’t the problem. Where the Daewoo’s rock hard suspension and uncompromising setup allow for a purity of motion, the heavily compromised Optima is optimized for pretty much nothing. Soft springs and big sway bars make for a heavy feeling and grinding understeer. Squishy, isolating bushings make for a collection of unpredictable binds and weight transfers in cornering. Chris, after a blast in my car, said it best.
“Wow, the Daewoo’s a completely different animal.”
When it all works correctly, when the car becomes an extension of my body and the distractions melt away, when I move with super-human (feeling) precision and utter focus, when the car and I stop driving and start dancing – that is an amazing feeling. That I get such feelings in my ugly science experiment of a car and Chris doesn’t makes me think that, sometimes, it’s best not to compromise.