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Aaron Gold

Fun to drive: Does it matter?

By December 28, 2012

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Reader HarryB posted what I found to be a thought-provoking comment in response to this week's Nissan Sentra review:

"I pay attention to observations on seat comfort but not as much on handling, I live in Florida, there are no top secret curvy roads other than on and off ramps associated with the interstates."

For those who haven't read it, one of my criticisms of the new Sentra was its uninspired handling and low fun-to-drive factor. But if you live somwhere like HarryB does, does it matter?

Here's my take: Fun to drive goes way beyond good handling. A few years ago, I test-drove an Audi R8. Yes, it was a blast on the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road, but I had just as much fun driving it down the street to the store. Another (cheaper) example is the Ford Fiesta -- every drive of that car, no matter where I was going, put a smile on my face. I've also driven some great-handling cars that weren't much fun at all -- the limits were so high as to be unreachable, even on the A.cTSCTR, where there's the danger of doing it wrong and sliding off a cliff.

What about non-enthusiasts? Well, I think there's a little bit of enthusiast in everyone. I'm hardly a food connoisseur -- in fact, I'm a fussy eater, which George Carlin said is "a euphemism for 'big pain in the ---" -- but even I can taste the difference between a good steak and a bad one. And I submit that any driver can feel the difference between a Nissan Sentra and a Mazda3. Granted, most of us drive for convenience, not for pleasure. But by the same token, we all eat for survival -- and yet we almost always choose enjoyable food. So if there are no other compromises, why not choose an enjoyable car?

Anyway, that's my opinion -- what do you think? Vote in our poll and posts your comments. -- Aaron Gold

December 28, 2012 at 1:56 pm
(1) George in Ohio says:

Count me firmly in the “depends on the car” category. My Sonata is not an exhilarating drive. However, it is very comfortable, has a lot of luxury features we enjoy (heated seats, XM radio, navigation, leather) that made it a great choice for us, especially at the price we bought it. It’s a great interstate cruiser that we use to visit our sons/families all over Ohio.

On the other hand, two of the cars I have recently driven were the new Sentra and the Focus. Absolutely no contest – the Focus was so much more fun to drive, I would take it 100 times over the Sentra. The Sentra has more interior room and a bigger trunk, but with a smaller, second car, my criteria are completely different. In this case, the fun to drive factor for shoe trips or possible winding roads carries the day.

So I say it depends on what specific purpose you have for the vehicle. Fun to drive is important, but there often are other factors that take precedence.

December 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm
(2) DFI says:

I agree, even if you are driving an econobox commuting to and from your slave driving job you dislike along stretching flat highways in bumper to bumper traffic, having a fun car to drive along the way might put a smile on your face for a brief moment during the journey. I used to own an Infiniti G coupe and that was surely one heck of a fun car to drive. Recently my financial situation forced me to downgrade to a Hyundai Elantra, and though it’s not as fun to drive as the G, it has it’s moments. Of course my driving style apparently equates to an average MPG of 28 instead of the 29c/40h/35a that was promised by the sticker. But hey, at least I still have a smile on my face along the way.

December 28, 2012 at 2:17 pm
(3) Ross says:

I can see some making it a low priority but, – all else being equal – I don’t understand why you would opt for the poorer driver vehicle when so many others drive better.

December 28, 2012 at 3:06 pm
(4) Zdravko - Toronto says:

Sometimes the most unexpected factor determines the car you buy. I currently have a Corolla which I bought new, and the biggest reason for the purchase (after being able to afford it, of course) was the fact the driving position was the best of all cars I tried (pretty much all compacts and subcompacts).

I think the driving position is the most underrated factor in general when people buy cars. I was developing a knee problem in the previous car I drove (2010 Elantra), but the issue is long gone with the Corolla. I am specifically referring to the way we place our right foot around the pedals. Many cars force an unnatural outward bend in the knee (Subaru is the worst offender of all, the old 3 series is a close second), as there is simply no space to rest your foot while driving. Maybe this is not an issue in driving on a fun road, as you constantly play with the pedals, but it quickly becomes a problem while driving long stretches with minimal braking where cruise control is not an option.

Aaron, can you try and post some information on that topic? Maybe my own posture is bad, or maybe other people also have similar problems. I know you like the Impreza a lot, me too, wasn’t it for the footwell for the driver.

December 28, 2012 at 4:05 pm
(5) lwatcdr says:

Fun to drive is so hard to even define. I had a Fiat Spider and boy was that car fun to drive. It sucked when it was cold, or hot, or I needed to do anything and it broke all the time.
I had a Golf GTI in the early 80s. Again lots of fun to drive and got good mileage. I had a friend with an old Jeep Cherokee and that car was a blast on long trips and was fun to drive. I wouldn’t want to take it on a curvy road but it was great to take on adventures.
I have not driven the Nissan so I do not know just how dull it is but for some people dull is good. A car that always gets you from point a to point b without drama or stress is a good thing.

December 28, 2012 at 4:51 pm
(6) Hawaiian Don says:

When buying our last cars, we bought based on three major criteria:
1. Fun to drive. 2. MPG. 3.Safety rating.
We looked at several cars and went with the VW Golf, both times. The fun to drive factor was off the charts compared to the competition.
Though Japanese compacts are not considered fun to drive, I drove a pal’s early 90′s Sentra SR-1 on Maui to Hana and back and that was more fun to drive than anyrhing, short of a Lotus!

December 28, 2012 at 5:53 pm
(7) patgolfneb says:

Fun to drive usually translates to a vehicle which keeps the driver more involved, handles better, especially emergency situations. Sometimes enthusiasts fail to link expectations and vehicle category. Most buyers aren’t interested in vehicles where ride is significantly harsher, or noise is excessive. In other words fun to drive must come with only a small cost . FWIW I purchased a Mazda 3 hatch with 2.5 and manual over the elantra, updated focus wasn’t available yet, spring of 2011 because it was more fun to drive. That is why the Toyota, Subaru idea rocks. To often huge horsepower coupes or over priced special editions are offered instead of offerings with basic goodness that can be appreciated in real world driving.

December 28, 2012 at 6:21 pm
(8) ChrisF says:

I don’t know if it’s important that a car be FUN to drive, but your car should be something you WANT to drive.

Sometimes, what makes a car appealing to somebody can be somewhat intangible. Over the last two years, I’ve owned two cars. Both 5-door hatchbacks, both with ~158hp engines, both 5-speed manuals. First one should have been a “fun” car, but I hated it enough to sell it and buy the second car. No car enthusiast would call my second car “fun”, but I love driving it. Go figure.

December 29, 2012 at 11:14 am
(9) Brent says:

“Fun-to-drive”, and comfortable for the masses, used to be mutually exclusive (think of the traditional English sports cars), w/out spending Ferrari or, at least, Mercedes bucks. For enthusiast drivers the basic underlying requirement to even get on the fun-to-drive list was a manual transmission. It is dismaying how few people today realize what that visceral connection to a car’s drive-train means for appreciation of a car’s true abilities… and theirs. I deliver new VWs and drive everything in their stable. My personal car is a CC R-Line w/ a manual. The only car VW has that comes close to the enjoyment factor of this is a manual GTI and the Golf/Jetta TDI w/ manual, both lacking significant creature comforts that I have come to overly appreciate in the CC. There are so many choices for quality, fun, comfortable cars today, manual or no, I cannot understand why anyone willing to do some basic investigation would choose any car that offers sub-par braking, handling, and safe acceleration capabilities at a reasonable price. That means there are Mazdas, Focuses, Hyundais, Subarus, and a few GMs to be test-driven. Unfortunately, their are hardly any Toyotas or Hondas on that list anymore, although Honda may have finally awakened.

December 29, 2012 at 4:57 pm
(10) Eric says:

Fun to drive is one of my most important criteria in a car, although I think ChrisF nailed it also with his suggestion of “want to drive.”

I recently sold a 2006 Ford Crown Vic and purchased a 1988 BMW E30 3-series convertible for my daily driver. I can’t begin to tell you how much better the Bimmer handles and drives over that Ford. It isn’t a speed demon, but, I love the firmer suspension and steering, and the more contoured and comfortable seats (for me). It also has a really good driver’s position, and is a very nicely balanced car. It’s a joy to drive. The only thing it doesn’t have that I really like is a manual trans. I can’t wait to drive it no matter where I’m going.

December 30, 2012 at 12:22 pm
(11) mike says:

Never had the chance to drive as many cars as Aaron (of course), but I looked for a great driving, safe, great handling car everywhere. Started with a Legacy, but found that at 60 it was under powered. Bought a WRX and found that it handled beautifully but was difficult to manage at LOW speeds. Traded the WRX for a Cooper S and found nirvana! The Cooper had everything I wanted until the timing chain broke at 30K miles. Sold the Cooper and bought my second Element and am happy than ever. Room, OK MPG, traction and a great driving position. Not the best handling (it is a SUV) but gets me where I need to go. Would love to have the Cooper S but at what cost? Reliability is everything. Love my wife’s A4 but the automatic programming sucks unless you use the S mode. Great highway cruiser. 6th gear in town at 40 just doesn’t make sense.

December 30, 2012 at 3:32 pm
(12) Eric says:


I’d be using S mode in a new automatic all the time too. That’s why I prefer manual transmissions. I know lots of people don’t like to row their own gears, but I like having control over how the car shifts, and it gives me a much better feel for the car.

December 30, 2012 at 4:15 pm
(13) Ross says:

Kind of offtopic, but the last two posts really resonate with me. All these new cars that are trying to get great MPGs are a huge headache.

I had the perfect chance to illustrate this to my fiance over the holidays. There’s a number of passes between here and my folks house. We took her automatic escape. Even in hill mode, it hangs onto the highest gear possible and makes driving extremely annoying.

It’s the perfect time to explain the benefits of a manual or very least a automatic with manual control. Everytime we approached a hill, I’d say watch this, I know I want a lower gear in order to carry speed up the hill. But everytime, even mashing the pedal to the floor, it takes a good second or two before it would decide to kick down. In the mean time, we’d lost 10mph or more.

I think more people would appreciate manuals if they really got to know how a car can be driven for the situation. Modern “driver training” simply consists of “turn here”, “park there”.

December 30, 2012 at 7:36 pm
(14) Kevin from Bellingham says:

I think it comes down to expectations as to what defines “fun” My 94 Dodge Ran 3500 Diesel Dually is hardly enjoyable I’m the twisties…but on the other hand, toss a giant load of stuff in it and haul it where it needs to go in a fully paid for bulletproof monster vehicle that gets 20 MPG…kinda fun!
My Chevy Volt…7000 miles and only 3x needing to put gas in it….that is fun for the wallet! The challenge of seeing how far you can get on batteries…geeky fun. Watching the faces on other drivers as you spin the tires off the line in a “hybrid”…Electric Torque in sport mode from zero RPMs…way fun! As fun to drive as my old Z-06 Vette in the corners…nope, but fun none the less.

December 30, 2012 at 9:53 pm
(15) IGOR says:

I think people buy cars for the following reasons incl what they feel they can afford at the time:

1- Necessity of decent transportation, may incl good milage
2- Sporty Lifestyle, off road, hunting, fishing, skiing, etc
3- Shopping and kids, travel, SUVs
4- To race with, they hop it up and hit the track. Generally most
5- Comfort, travel, seniors
6- To keep up, pass the Joneses, ego trip, may also be very expensive
7- Comfort, handling, fun on back roads

I am a No. 7 I have a very good i325 BMW manual shift with a few tuned items and love my car. Also it gets actually good milage when driven normally and is comfortable and was not that expensive considering all things.

January 2, 2013 at 9:57 am
(16) Brian says:

I suspect, like many things in the US consumer market, we are seeing an increased separation between “quality” (which to mean, includes fun to drive) and “whatever’s cheapest”. As manufacturers focus on the mass market, Walmartized version of their cars, a lot of focus is shifted away from individuality, enjoyment of driving and unique styling. It certainly explains the glut of boring, uninspired econoboxes out there. What say you all?

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