If those with little personality and no detectable level of driving skill get their way, the Google Autonomous Car will be the most welcomed news of their humdrum adult lives. Sure, it has a place in the automotive landscape, mitigating traffic and hopefully decreasing the number of accidents, but it also excites us as much as a bowl of Grape Nuts and skim milk. In the same paint-drying class are the super practical cars of today: small hybrids with wheels the size of Oreos that have less style than a hand-whittled Pinewood Derby car.
It’s the cars that don’t make complete sense whose windows we’re fogging with our hot, lusty breaths. We’re after chutzpah, brazen performance, design, technology or all of the above. Unfortunately, it’s not always a slam dunk case to justify the existence of these fast and flashy automobiles that seem to have no regard for moderation. They duck environmental issues like fuel economy; they foster reckless driving habits and obnoxious showboating; many of them cost far more than we’ll ever be able to afford. In the right cases, though, they’re worth the downsides. They stand out in endless lots of boring sheet metal and slow 0-60 times, not to mention serving a priceless role as boyhood fantasy objects. Sensibility is overrated when it comes to these vehicles.
The Mercedes-Benz G63 AMG 4Matic, for instance. It’s a military vehicle repurposed for the over-rich who like quality, speed and most of all, attention. This $136K wheeled bank vault has a 5.5-liter biturbo V8 engine with 536 horsepower between its front wheels. The G63’s 0-60 time is a tenth of a second faster than a Porsche Cayman’s. Its three locking differentials could pull an oil tanker out of the LaBrea Tar Pits, while its chrome brush guard is probably intended more for shoving annoying paparazzi than for anything resembling a safari. What legitimate need could this vehicle possibly fulfill? Our initial reaction is “who cares?” It’s awesome. But that overlooks something a little deeper. This is a vehicle that’s meant to be big in every way, from its price tag to its performance and its presence. Mercedes’ decision to keep the Gelandewagen alive instead of replacing it with the GL Class was a smart move, because there’s nothing on the market like it.
No one rushes to capture a car-selfie by standing in front of a Chevy Spark or the newest minivan, no matter how many cupholders it has.
That’s the thing: the kind of brash cars we love don’t have to be expensive or exotic, but they most certainly have to make a statement without being tacky. Anyone can put chrome dubs, ribbon tires and curb feelers on a Chevy Caprice Classic, but that doesn’t make it tastefully impetuous.
American automakers have learned to do brash even better than they did in the days of the original muscle cars. A fine example is the 2014 SRT 300. The big Detroit sedan came to us in 2005, looking like a fat Russian limo that was as thick as a Wendy’s Triple Stack. In its current top-line dress, it carries a 6.4-liter Hemi V8 engine with 470 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque. The massive engine moves the 4,000+ pound monster to 60 in under five seconds. Nothing about this car makes any sense, aside from the oh-so-practical four doors. But it exists, rightfully so, because the world doesn’t want a top-end Chrysler to be as boring as a wheeled toaster. It demands to be noticed, coveted and even feared. We can almost guarantee that when the driver of a “regular” Chrysler 300 pulls up next to the SRT, he wonders why he ever joined that barbershop quartet.
Most of us are forced, either by budget or by practical spouses, to drive boring cars. We lose them in lots of identical vanilla models. No wonder indiscreet rides with a purpose other than getting from point A to point B give us hope, even if the trickle-down effect doesn’t always work well. (See Ferrari F40 style spoilers on 1998 Honda Civics and the dude in China who decided to turn his Infiniti I30 into a Lamborghini Aventador replica.) That’s why we’ll keep on loving them and leave the hating to practical-minded folks. The day reckless cars disappear is the day we get in our Google Car and leave the driving to the drones.