Car Culture: The End of ‘Fun to Drive’

Google the phrase “fun to drive” and you get 114 million results. The phrase is a cliché in many test drives, although some reviewers take pains to explain exactly what they mean by it.

Some say it can be boiled down to a single statistic: 0-60 miles per hour acceleration. “You want to smoke the driver next to you at the red light,” one said.

Others say it’s all about 50:50 weight distribution front-to-rear, a “stiff” chassis or even something as simple as “the car has to look good.”

Now, Google “self-driving car” and “fun to drive” and you get 5.2 million results. A closer look reveals largely negative stories with headlines such as “A World Without Drivers: No Accidents, No Traffic – No Fun” or “Self-Driving Cars Will Kill the Romance of the Road.”

The concept of “fun to drive” seems like an anachronism, especially in an age of road rage, distracted driving and autonomous vehicles.

My husband, a fellow auto journalist, drives me crazy when he talks about “fun to drive” because it means different things to the two of us.

He came into the house recently after a lengthy commute in the 2018 Acura TLX A-Spec, a new trim level designed to inject more sportiness into this premium midsize sedan. Our test car, which was priced at $45,750, featured a 290-horsepower 3.5-liter V6 engine and a nine-speed automatic transmission, a major upgrade from the base model.

2018 Acura TLX“Wow, that’s sure fun to drive!” he said, and repeated it ad nauseam during the course of the week.

To him, “fun to drive” means a car with good acceleration and great handling.

When I was growing up in Detroit, “fun” on the road (to girls) meant having a car that could get you to the local Sunoco station on Outer Drive and Fenkell, where you could flirt with Larry Krozek, the attendant who bore a striking resemblance to the singer Glen Campbell. I was driving a yellow Ford Maverick with black-and-white plaid seats and lousy acceleration, but I sure had fun.

Today, I seek standard safety features if I want to put a smile on my face and look forward to a day when artificial intelligence rules the road. I’m rooting for Elon Musk at Tesla.

It would be fun for my dad, a car lover who suffers from macular degeneration, to be able to “drive” himself to the doctor in an autonomous vehicle and not rely on family members for rides. It would be fun to have a sensor or system that alerts me when an angry driver points a gun at me when I inadvertently make the wrong move on the road.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says our roads are becoming more and more risky. A whole section of its website is devoted to increasingly bad behavior by drivers. The agency regularly issues dire warnings about drowsy driving, drugged driving, distracted driving and drunk driving — plenty of reasons to make you want to put it in Park. I advise you not to check out this website.

Which leads me to the ultimate existential questions for an auto writer. Must you be an enthusiast to write about cars? Must you mourn the end of fun to drive?

A Detroit auto editor (male, of course) recently asked me a pointed question that seemed to get to the heart of the fun-to-drive matter: “Would you buy a sportscar on impulse? Wouldn’t that be fun?”

No, I said.

In fact, my last big-ticket impulse buy was not a car, but a Wolf cooktop (on sale!) for my kitchen. Talk about smoking the competition, even at a slow burn. My lease car is a 2015 Honda CR-V, in white, just like my Whirlpool washing machine and just as reliable. Can’t wait for the self-driving version of the CR-V. And I’m not even ashamed to be like the legions of women who consider their car to be another major appliance.wolf_cooktop.jpg

I take the “kitchen table” approach to critiquing cars. What advice would I give to a girlfriend who stops by for coffee and asks about what’s in my driveway? Inevitably, she’ll want to talk about affordability, safety and style. She’ll never ask if I’m a true car lover in order to take me seriously. No woman has ever asked me how many pounds-feet of torque a car has or if it has a “stiff chassis.”

My younger female relatives seem to be echoing my sentiment about the end of fun on the road. I took my 13-year-old niece Julia for a ride in the sporty TLX after a pizza lunch. “Having fun?” I asked. “Bet you can hardly wait to get a car.”

“No,” she said. “I want an iPhone.”

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