What’s the best car to drive? European, Asian, American, other? What characteristics should I look for when buying a car? Our answers have varied greatly, but over the past two decades in the automotive industry, we’ve come to some conclusions.
Of the broad choices, European, Asian, or American, little compares to the engineering thrills of European cars. Put another way, American and Asian cars are missing something.
They’re missing passion!
Is this my personal opinion? Or is it an objective expert opinion? It’s certainly based off personal experience, but let’s see…
I never understood what the fuss was about with European cars until I got behind the wheel of a 2004 Mercedes-Benz E-Class for a 12-hour road trip. From the start the car practically drove itself. I merely kept one finger on the steering wheel, regardless of speed. It seemed to anticipate my desires and it responded effortlessly.
When you can push a car into 3 digits MPH, and it feels like you’re only driving 55MPH, that’s engineering…that’s Mercedes-Benz. I never appreciated that!
Now we all can’t afford a Mercedes-Benz, but I noticed similar characteristics in other European cars: SAAB, BMW, Audi, VW, even Volvos.
Quick Audi story:
When my brother got his license at 16 (I was 15), my mother, for some unknown reason, allowed us to take her brand-new 1984 Audi 4000 from Nashua NH to Needham MA—about an hour’s ride at 60 MPH. We made it in 30 minutes.
At the time I did not realize the engineering that was keeping that car glued to the road as we weaved in an out of traffic, as only reckless teenagers do so well. This is not an endorsement for driving like an idiot—but to show how European engineering has been and continues to be far superior than the alternatives.
Sloppy Pontiac Bonneville:
To give you an idea of how much better European cars are, here’s another quick story (another stupid high-speed one). Again my brother and I were on a road trip. We rented a brand-new 1996 Pontiac Bonneville: heavy, powerful, and comfortable. This time I was driving. Despite its newness and its weight, it started to lift off the ground as we buzzed across the Nevada deserts at a buck twenty.
The car couldn’t handle being pushed. The heavy front suspension and front-wheel drive felt unstable. It was a burden, and not just at high speeds. Verdict: poor engineering! You can replace the Bonneville with any mid-sized front-wheel drive American car—Buick, Olds, Ford Taurus…etc, they all handle poorly. To their credit, they have improved in recent years.
Boring Toyota Camry:
I don’t want to leave out Asian cars in our comparison. In the late 1990’s as a Toyota certified technician I grew to love Toyota (especially Lexus). This love started to fade a few years back, however, as I got behind the wheel of so many comparable imports in the same class. Yes, Toyota is dependable and reliable. But these are also words for boring and uninspired.
I got bored with my own Camry after 3 days! Toyotas all feel the same, and do the same thing—they’re predictable and bland. If I’m going to spend as much time as I do in my car, why not have excitement too—better yet: PASSION!
The realization over the past two decades in the automotive industry is this: There is a passion to driving. The Europeans have known this since the beginning.
Asian automakers have missed the mark. They try to elicit passion with fancy car names and accessories, but it’s just not there. Americans car makers aren’t even close. And they get even more creative with their car names: Alero, Fusion, Magnum, Vibe—there are hundreds more that attempt to elicit driving excitement, but that can’t live up to the challenge.
European cars don’t have fancy marketing technique names. That’s because they don’t need to elicit passion and excitement in their vehicles—they’re a given! Passion and excitement are engineered into the cars!
- BMW states it’s the “Ultimate Driving Machine.” That’s because, in many ways, it is!
- Mercedes-Benz states that it’s “Like No Other!” This is true…plain and simple.
- SAAB advertises that it’s “Born from Jets!” Ever sit in the cockpit of a SAAB? It’s pretty cool!
- How about Audi? They claim to “Never Follow.” Again—true. Check out the R8 to see an incredible “expression of engineering.”
Is all the above an advertisement for buying a European car—No. It’s a philosophy of driving. Driving can be fun—AND safe, AND dependable! European technology (safety, mechanical or otherwise) is light years ahead of Asian and American cars.
Even Lexus, who hails “unprecedented triumphs,” is only nipping at the heels of Mercedes-Benz. Sure Lexus ads make it sound like they came up with the latest and greatest technological advancements —they didn’t.
The Ferrari Test Drive: Last Crazy Car Story…I Promise:
I had the rare pleasure of driving a Ferrari. I have driven some incredible cars over the years, but I had never driven an Italian super-car like a Ferrari, nor had I ever understood why anyone would want to, despite their striking looks and appeal.
As you can probably guess, the car was gorgeous—brilliant red, incredible body lines, sleek…very sharp—a true head turner. Oh yeah…I looked great behind the wheel too! Anyhooo….as I sank into the Italian leather driver’s seat it seemed to suck me in and support me from areas where I didn’t know I needed support—at least I didn’t know yet….
As I fired up this rear engine craft, I swear the engine seemed to be urging…”go ahead, make my day.” I am not being metaphorical. The car was eliciting something. It was screaming PASSION, EXCITEMENT, FUN!
Again, we all can’t afford to run out and buy a Ferrari, but there are several “European” cars mentioned above that boast these same characteristics.
It’s not a coincidence that people drive Volvos forever, or that SAAB owners frequently put 300,000 miles on their cars, trade them in and buy another one. Nor is it a coincidence that there are many who will drive nothing but German engineered cars. There is a relationship between man and machine.
To continue, and to add some context, my first Ferrari experience came when I was about 12. I was driving down the highway in the back of my mother’s beige Toyota Cressida. I heard, before I saw, the Ferrari. When I turned to look it was right behind us. I blinked and it was next to us. I blinked and turned, and it was a 50 yards ahead rapidly fading into the distance. At 12, I could see, hear and feel passionate engineering, although it would take 20 years of automotive experience to voice it.
The Ferrari I recently test drove was 16 years-old—a 1990 Grand Touring Targa. I mention the age to show how even “dated” European engineering still trumps the latest and greatest technological breakthroughs of its competitors.
As I pulled off, I was a bit unsure what a Ferrari would or even could do. But the car, very quickly, made me feel comfortable and confident. I mentioned earlier how the seat sucked me in and supported me in places I didn’t know possible. I experienced this in the parking lot of all places when I had to make a very quick, sharp turn—I didn’t move—the car took the corner for me as I remained perfectly seated.
The 5-speed shifter was a simple chrome shaft with a ping-pong-sized ball that fit perfectly into my palm no matter which way I held the shifter. The seat and steering wheel position were ergonomically perfect, and the gauges were easily accessible with a quick glance. Even the rear view mirror reflected so clearly that I thought there was no back glass—this is handy when “traffic weaving.”
In terms of the stability and handling, I’m not sure I have the words to describe it, but let’s use a Corvette for comparison. In 1996, I drove a brand-new Corvette at 90MPH onto an off-ramp (don’t try this at home). The tires squealed bloody murder, the body rolled, and the suspension wobbled. I was a bit hesitant to try that again in a vette.
Of course the Corvette and the Ferrari are not a fair comparison, but again, the point here is to illustrate the superior European engineering that even the best American performance cars can’t touch.
In the Ferrari, cornering was effortless, virtually regardless of speed: no squeals, roll, or wobble—and the technology was 6 years older than the vette. Cornering in the Ferrari was just plain fun! Never once did I feel as if I was pushing the car beyond its limits. In fact, as reckless as I can be, I never found its limits—I ran out of road.
In terms of quickness, the engine redlines at 7500 RPM, so there’s plenty of room to wind er’ up and go, regardless of what gear you’re in. In fact this engineering design took me by surprise; I am so use to driving cars that “do the driving for you.” The Ferrari wants you to be part of the experience by empowering you to work the engine in a very wide RPM range.
The experience of empowerment was similar at high speeds. At 4000 RPM, 80MPH in 4th gear, you have the option (empowerment) to drop it to 3rd and take off like the wind, or just punch the gas and watch the traffic around you come to a standstill as you casually slide into 5th, creeping past 135MPH with so much more power waiting to come out if only the roads weren’t so congested.
I understand now why people have to drive a Ferrari. It’s an experience “like no other.” It’s the “ultimate driving machine.” It’s not “Born from Jets,” but it definitely flies! It clearly leads and “Never Follows”…nothing else can keep up!
Most European cars posses these above characteristics in one degree or another.
Cool SAAB Test Drive:
On a more “practical car” level, I recently drove a 2004 Saab 9-5 Aero with 77,000 miles on it. What struck me immediately was the cockpit feel that SAAB keeps raving about. It really is like an airplane’s cockpit, making one feel very comfortable, and more importantly, in control.
The tone of the engine and the solid feel to the car—even with 77,000 miles—was powerful. It was eliciting emotion—like the Ferrari!
American and Asian cars tend to feel a bit sloppy after 60K whereas the SAAB felt like new, and was ready to go! It even had manual “shift paddles” on the steering wheel—for what?—FUN, EXCITEMENT…PASSION! No wonder people drive these cars forever.
The models above were chosen from a hat. There are dozens of cars I could compare, but the end result is the same. Asian and American cars are no match to the quality, dependability, engineering, and excitement of European cars.
These are the facts: PASSION and EXCITEMENT are standard options on European cars.