What Truly Makes A Car Great?

What makes a car great? Does it need to have a striking and intimidating shape? Is it all about performance metrics and engine output? Brand image and curb appeal? Today, I’ll cover my opinion on what exactly makes a car special, and it may or may not resonate with you.

Emotion Trumps Everything


What makes a car an emotional experience? For me it’s a combination of a lot of different things, a performance engine, a slick manual transmission, and a decent interior are some important places to start. A perfect example of this would be the 997 Porsche 911 Carrera S, packing a 3.8 liter flat six engine with 355 horsepower. Zero to sixty sprints occur in under five seconds, and can be controlled through one of the best six speed manual transmissions ever assembled. Ultra precise steering, world class brakes, and a simple yet elegant interior design make the 911 so much more than a sports car. The exterior design is timeless, instantly recognizable and absolutely gorgeous. There really isn’t a bad line on the car, and I’d venture to say that the Carrera S is one of the best cars you could ever hope to own.



I’d also like to make a serious case for the BMW 135i, featuring the loved and famed N54 twin turbocharged 3 liter inline six engine. The 135i is a back to basics approach with a 3,300 pound curb weight and 300 turbocharged horsepower quickly on tap. I remember my first drive in a 135i, it was an Alpine white six speed manual M sport model, and it was instantly a favorite. The minimalist interior was exactly what I’d like in my weekend sports car, super supportive seats and just the most necessary gauges and nothing that really doesn’t need to be there. The manual transmission was pretty good, albeit a bit rubbery in feeling. Nonetheless, the 135i clawed confidently through corners, and always had the correct amount of torque to pull me up to speed when the powerful brakes had halted me. What counted here was the fact that the 135i always put a smile on my face, and that’s all I ever needed it to do.


Just the other day, my childhood best friend and sidekick Nathan had taken me for a ride in his new 1990 Eagle Talon TSi. The car is rigged to shit, and he paid $1000 for it from a Craigslist ad. We had worked for a few weekends to get it right, and we took it for the first drive on Saturday, roughly 35 miles round trip. The Talon is mostly stock, it has a 16g turbo with a nice exhaust and a front mount intercooler system. It’s not fast, but it’s certainly not a slow car. With that being said, that was easily one of the funnest trips I’ve went on in a while, we were just two car crazed friends enjoying an old DSM and listening to the massive Tial blow off valve.


After multiple trips in the Talon this weekend, it really got me thinking about what matters when it comes to great cars. Here we were in a 225-260 horsepower Talon, and we were just looking for reasons to drive it, and there wasn’t a single second this weekend where we weren’t smiling like two idiots. The Talon makes all the right noises and just does all the right things. Sometimes, that’s all you really need as a car enthusiast. Sure, Nathan owns a 485 horsepower Dodge Challenger that sits on drag radials, but I couldn’t help but find myself enjoying the non air conditioned DSM even more.


This brings me to a car I had driven Monday, a Nitrous Blue Ford Focus RS. The RS really needs no introduction, it’s an all wheel drive lunatic with 350 horsepower, a 3,400 pound curb weight, and a serious attitude problem. The exterior appearance is unapologetic, aggressive, and perfectly executed. The interior isn’t luxurious, but it doesn’t need to be. There’s a tachometer, speedometer, boost gauge, a nicely designed steering wheel and world class Recaro seats, that’s pretty much all somebody like myself cares about. The manual transmission and all wheel drive system are beyond great, traction is always there and shifts are very easy to execute. The RS has a very mean exhaust note, it’s always reminding you that you paid more for the RS and you make good decisions.


Steering was quite possibly on par with some of the exotics I’ve driven, move the wheel even slightly and the RS is ready to go EXACTLY where you told it to. This isn’t a car you’ll drive one handed or drive while texting. It’s also not blistering fast either. I’ve driven quite a few cars that would easily show the Focus RS some tail lights. In fact, it was a little on the slow side for the level of power in my opinion. The Lancer Evolution 8 had 276 horsepower and definitely runs faster numbers in stock to stock comparison. With that being said, I don’t care. The Focus RS is perfect to me. $36,000, horrendous ride quality, a slightly cheap interior, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The RS isn’t pretentious whatsoever, it is loud, in your face and it’s not ashamed of what it is.

I drove the Focus for roughly half an hour, and during no point did I ever feel like I was driving a Ford Focus. After my time was up, I didn’t want to give the keys up, it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that way about a newer car. If you’re depressed, upset or stressed out, go buy a Focus RS and I can assure you that’ll quickly change.

A Lifestyle

Again, performance metrics aren’t everything, reliability isn’t everything, and luxury isn’t everything. You buy a car because it’s a reflection of you, and because it makes a statement about you. Being a car enthusiast is the best lifestyle in the world, and your car should speak volumes about the type of person you are.

Cars like the Porsche 997, BMW 135i, Eagle Talon and Ford Focus RS are perfect because they’re heavily flawed in the right ways. It’s quite paradoxical, but it’s exactly how I see it. If I have a daily driver, I want air conditioning, navigation and satellite radio. Those luxuries are extremely important in a car I’m going to take big trips in and use it in that fashion. When I go to buy my weekend car, it needs to be a purchase that grabs at my heartstrings. If driving your sports car reminds you of your basic daily driver, you chose wrong.

A sports car should be an occasion, something you look forward to. You had a long twelve hour day at the office, and you take the long way home. You’ve had a bad day, and you go drive your car and cannot stop smiling, that’s the ticket. Every swipe of the shift lever, every kick of the clutch, and every blip of the throttle extracts a silly grin. You park your car to go into work and you turn around and snap three pictures of it, because you truly admire your purchase that much.

Nurburgring times, zero to sixty times, none of that carries serious weight for me. Any car can be fast, and fast is subjective anyways. Buy a car because it makes zero sense, because it has quirks you can’t live without, and most importantly, because you can’t live without it.

The BMW M Division Has Lost Their Magic

From a young age I fell head over heels for several BMW models. The iconic E24 M6, the E28 M5, the E30 M3, I could just go on and on. Silky smooth race derived motors, individual throttle bodies, something special happens when you take a basic model and turn it into an M model. At least, that used to be the case.

I say “used to be” because that spark and magic is no longer present in my opinion. There isn’t a single model available that isn’t turbocharged, no more individual throttle bodies, and the race derived motors are a thing of the past. Instead, the current M motors are heavily based on their mundane production counterparts, and it’s really starting to show. Sure, they’re all immensely fast, torquey, they posses all the makings of a great muscle car, just not an M car.

Let’s Start From The Beginning


The E30 M3 needs no introduction. The S14 four cylinder was good for 192 horsepower, breathing through individual throttle bodies. It was a lower revving engine with a factory redline of around 7,500 rpm. Yet, it was a one off engine built for the M3, and is a true masterpiece crafted from the M division.

The E30 M3 had one of the best steering systems in a production car, feedback and weight was dialed in to perfection and handling is regarded as precise. Boxed fender arches and an aggressive rear spoiler made the M3 like a tuxedo tee shirt. This was the first M3 and it was quite possibly the most iconic and sought after.


Even the hated on American specification E36 M3 is a special car. Sure, it didn’t have individual throttle bodies like the European S50 motor, but it still had the basic M flair. Larger displacement, more aggressive camshafts, a chassis that had been reworked for handling, and a subtle body makeover that has aged pretty well. 240 horsepower isn’t much today, but the car was just hilariously fun to drive. It was a special car back then, and it’s still special today. They are a favorite of racers everywhere and for good reason, the steering is precise and nicely weighted, the inline six cylinder engine is silky smooth and loved to be wrung out, it’s just a great package.


Progressing into the E46 M3, things took a huge step forward. The S54 engine churned out 333 ponies, and had a redline that rivaled Ferrari models. Power delivery was perfect for the track, with torque and horsepower becoming more readily available from about 4,000 rpm and beyond. The E46 body has become a timeless classic, a cult classic. Realistically, it was damn near flawless. Steering was the benchmark of the era and its’ class, the six speed manual was a beautiful piece of automotive art, and the S54 engine has went on to be regarded as possibly the best M engine of all times.


Fast forward to the E9x M3 variants. I’ll break this down for you in case you truly don’t understand the BMW model nomenclature. E90 denoted a sedan, E92 denoted a coupe, and E93 denoted a convertible. With that out of the way, the E9x M3 was a masterpiece, featuring the S65 V8 that could turn over 8,000 revs in stock form. 414 horsepower once again was available from about 4,000 and on. Eight individual throttle bodies ingested air, and the waste was expelled through four exhaust tips. The sound was orgasmic, the driving experience was even better.

Get the DCT transmission and downshifts are a special occasion, the M3 spits, cracks and burbles as the transmission rev matches for the next lower gear. Steering was once again incredible, the exterior was beautifully designed and the overall execution was just done right. This is a car that is capable of being a daily driver, track rat, and everything in between.


Now we’re up to the M4. Yes I said the M4. BMW decided coupes need to have even named numbering while sedans should be odd numbered. Except… You can get a four series grand coupe which is actually a sedan that isn’t all that different from the three series. So that’s what we’re doing now I suppose. Anyhow, the M4 is a serious departure from the old M formula. The S55 motor is rated for 425 ponies, and is actually underrated. It’s based loosely on the production N55, and features twin turbochargers. Yes, no more individual throttle bodies, no more screaming redlines, that’s all old news.

BMW claims emissions standards forced them away from their old ways, which quite frankly, is a load of shit. Dodge has a 707 horsepower supercharged V8, Chevrolet has a billion LS powered models, I could go on. The M4 isn’t bad from a performance perspective at all, it’s actually quite good. It’s blazing fast, the fastest M3 yet actually. The DCT transmission keeps getting even better, and for now a manual transmission is still available. So why am I being a harsh critic?

Losing Core Values

The M3 used to attract buyers based on what it was, not what it wasn’t. It wasn’t the fastest in its’ class, it certainly didn’t have the biggest engine, the most power, it was truly lacking in those departments. The Mustang and Camaro always packed more heat, and they were the faster cars from an acceleration perspective.

The M3 won over hearts because of the driving experience, if you’ve never driven a “good” M car it’s slightly hard to explain. Pushing the needle towards the red, the refined sound of the race derived motors, the precision steering and minimalistic interior, it created a class that never really existed. A basic model made race car, but still daily driver. The M3 was always the best car in the world in terms of being a Swiss Army knife. It could just do everything and do it better than the competition could. Daily driving comfort was there, practicality was there, it had everything. All while being hilariously entertaining and never dull. It was just its’ own experience.

That’s not the case anymore. In place of the minimalistic interior is a oddly placed iPad looking infotainment screen. I assume this design cue was discussed via email because the design engineers forgot to incorporate it at a board meeting. It truly looks like shit. However, the steering wheel does look amazing and the seats are phenomenal, I won’t deny that. That’s right where the good ends.

The engine is phenomenal as I stated. However, it sounds absolutely raspy and terrible. This is something that has brought the M4 harsh criticism. It deserves it entirely, a performance car should have a signature sound. The M4 has a sound that makes me pray for a debilitating hearing injury. Let’s not forget about the legendary M car steering, namely that the M4 doesn’t have it. Instead, BMW moved with the industry trend to go to electronic power steering, and you can quickly tell that it was a bad move. In normal mode the steering is numb and light, offering as much feedback as a mute person. In sport plus mode, it is artificially heavy and offers the level of feeling I’d expect as a quadriplegic.

Still yet, the M4 is a great muscle car. Torque is available really low in the rev range, making it like a Mustang. The chassis is amazing, and certainly boasts excellent handling. The numbers don’t lie, and the M4 doesn’t fail to perform.

So What’s The Problem?

The problem is us as enthusiasts. Everybody wants to buy a car based on performance statistics, they want those last tenths of a second off of the Nurburgring time. The thing is, a small fraction of these cars will ever see the ring, and 90 percent of us couldn’t harness the full potential of a car like this anyway.

So in the name of performance numbers, we’ve lost what truly made the M3 an M3, character. I know I’ll get a lot of hate for this, and I’m not bashing your M4. It truly is an incredible car, I’d venture to say one of the best. It’s just not an M car, and it’s never going to be. M3’s used to be precision weapons, you had to really work for the power, and that’s where so much of the charm was in my opinion. These cars were never meant to be straight line monsters or muscle cars, yet that’s where they’ve evolved. I remember when the M community used to take pride in the high redline, and lack of torque. “Buy a Mustang if you want instantaneous torque” they’d say. Funny how much changes in ten years.

Ballin’ On A Budget

So you’ve decided you’re ready to derail your financial security and upset your significant other with a project car. You’ve got five grand to your name, and you daydream of bombing down back roads, banging gears and relieving some stress. You want a fun car that’s reasonably reliable, attractive, tuner friendly and not a murder on your insurance rates. Luckily for you, I’ve made a small list of cars I’d recommend to fulfill this task. Go grab a cold beer, turn off the television and fire up the printer, I’m about to take you car shopping.

The Criteria

Don’t worry, I’m looking out for you so you don’t end up sleeping on the couch. I’ve set a minimum price of $1,500 dollars to weed out rolling shells and basket cases. The max price as we established earlier is $5,000. I’ve elected to search Autotrader due to ease of use and general popularity among sellers. I’ve taken future depreciation into account, and I’ve compiled this list based on availability of aftermarket parts, decent reliability and ability to retain a fair portion of the original purchase price.

Mazda Miata

The Miata is an excellent choice for so many reasons, it’s lightweight, rear wheel drive, reliable and very tuner friendly. Insurance rates based on my information were lower than the average newer model Honda.

The Miata has a very cult type of following, and companies like Flying Miata have done some impressive things with the factory motors. Regardless of what you’re trying to achieve, the Miata is a solid choice. I can’t imagine values will ever drop much below what they are currently at, so losing your ass in resale shouldn’t be a major concern. Focus on the fun of ripping a lightweight convertible down a twisty road and let the stress of your workday just melt away.

Porsche 944

There were ten listings that I found, with the average price sitting right at $3,500. There was an 86,000 mile example with some maintenance receipts and new tires that looked pretty promising. The 944 non turbo models are pretty reasonably reliable, not a complete nightmare to service at home, and values have been pretty solid over the years.

Plus, it’s hard to beat the fun a Porsche can offer. If you’ve never driven a 944, it’s an absolute blast. Sure the turbocharged 951 is where the real thrills are at, but reliability drops into the basement right about there and the price goes straight through the attic. The naturally aspirated models are more than enough for weekend duties, and are a popular choice for new track enthusiasts. Sharp handling, slick five speed gearbox and excellent steering make the 944 a no brainer. You can’t go wrong with this choice. You won’t have a high horsepower monster on the cheap, but you’ll own the twisties with nothing more than a new set of shocks and struts, some sticky tires and some upgraded brake pads.

BMW 325E E30

You didn’t think I was going to leave out the legendary E30 did you? Superb reliability, insanely easy to work on, a five speed Getrag transmission that is so good it’s almost a privilege to use, and precise handling are just the basic selling points of this model. The E model meant a lower revving, longer stroke engine that makes powering through corners very exciting, and fuel economy through my experience is in the low thirties. I found two really nice examples for $3,400 and $3,250 respectively.

The BMW E30 met legend status long ago among amateure and professional racers alike. There are tons of aftermarket goods that can transform your BMW into a razor sharp precision instrument without blowing through your retirement fund. Just watch out for rust on the shock towers and in the trunk areas. Other than basic rust, these cars are an intelligent buy and have actually been appreciating in value. Buy one now and start taking the long way home.

Eagle Talon

There was only one turbocharged TSi model on Autotrader, but take my word for it, you can get a beautiful all wheel drive model under $5,000 if you’re willing to take a trip to get it. There are plenty of Facebook sale groups for these cars, and they’re definitely out there. Anyhow, this car is an excellent choice for many reasons. Fuel economy is mid to low thirties, extracting more power is simple if you have basic knowledge of a turbocharged vehicle, handling isn’t terrible and you can enjoy it through any weather.

The 4G63 engine is extremely receptive to performance upgrades, and bulletproof reliable if the maintenance is up to date. Beware of rusty examples, spend the money to get the cleanest example you can find. Don’t buy somebody else’s headache and buy the most original example you can find. Assuming you bought a car that has had a recent timing belt replacement and other associated maintenance performed, you’ll have a car you can start making fast for pennies on the dollar, and enjoy daily driving as well. Values on first generation models have started appreciating recently assuming you buy an all wheel drive model. I want to stress again to avoid heavily modified and rusty examples. Spend the money and buy the most virgin example you find.

Volvo 240

Of course I’m going to mention the coolest car on the list, the Volvo 240. Quirky cars are my speciality, and the 240 checks all the right boxes in my opinion. This model has been shooting up in value recently, and turbo models are experiencing collector status. There was one turbo example with a five speed manual for $4,999 which honestly blew my mind. There were thirteen examples overall under the five grand mark, and let me tell you, this car is a safe buy.

Reliable, beautiful, collectible, and highly regarded are all things that come to mind for me. These cars just never die, companies like iPD have been offering goodies for years, so you won’t have to worry about parts so much. Handling can be very good when modified and the turbo models are capable of making huge power. Overall, this is one of the slower cars on the list, but it would be one of my first choices. There’s very few cars that are as cool as the 240 at this price point. Buy one and don’t think twice. Take it to cars and coffee, you’ll be a hit, I can promise you that.

Audi S4

I’m referring to the “URS4” which means the first generation S4 with the famed twenty valve five cylinder. This is the engine that dominated group B rally, the engine that pushed the envelope and raised eyebrows everywhere. Over 200 horsepower in stock form from the turbocharged 2.2 liter, and they’re capable of over a thousand if you want to spend the money.


I wasn’t able to find a single example on Autotrader, so you’ll have to take my word for it. There are several Facebook groups for these cars as well, and they sell for between three and five grand for a nice example. Reliability is somewhere between death and taxes, these cars are tanks assuming they haven’t been neglected. Look for the obvious service records and you’ll be fine. Values have been steady and the market is reasonable. These cars are absolutely gorgeous and have an amazing interior, highly tuneable motor, Quattro all wheel drive, and the sound of that five cylinder symphony. Look out for rust, questionable repairs, and don’t buy a model that lacks service records. Follow those little guidelines and you’ll have a car you can count on and bring you enjoyment for years to come.

Closing Thoughts

Yes I know, there’s plenty of other amazing choices out there, I chose to highlight a few well known examples, and a few you probably didn’t think of. I’m in no way telling you I guarantee stellar reliability, guaranteed resale market outlooks or anything of that nature. I’m simply offering my advice, based on my experience with owning quirky cars of all shapes and sizes. There isn’t a single car on this list that I wouldn’t run out and buy right now, so my advice is truly from the heart. If you want a car that is so much more than just basic transportation, a car that begs you to take the long way home after work even after a fourteen hour day, a car you can take to a car show and get attention, this is a great place to start.