image 1
Write What You Drive

A showcase of independent motoring journalism and automotive travails

JTurn's Cars to Drive Before You Die - Part 2

Last year, I read an article in CAR magazine entitled "25 British Cars to Drive Before You Die"; included in the list was a '60s Lotus F1 car, a £15m vintage Blower Bentley and the current McLaren P1 GTR - a car you'd be lucky to even see before you die, let alone drive.

Call me a cynic, but I feel that the bulk of the list was out of the reach of the common man and the list in its entirety likely out of reach of anybody at all. To be fair to the magazine, I think it was mainly designed to serve as a launch pad for the publication of various recent road tests, interspersed with some of British Motoring's "greatest hits" to emphasise the renaissance currently being experienced by the country's performance car manufacturers.

JTurn's mantra has always revolved heavily around public-spiritedness and accessibility. To that end, I have compiled a much shorter list of more attainable lifetime motoring goals - refusing to be a slave to base-ten conventions, the list numbers just 7.

Flying in the face of a recent referendum result, it also seems needlessly small-minded to limit the list to British cars so Japan, Germany and, erm, Norfolk are also included. In no particular order;

3. Mazda MX5

As a long-time MR2 owner and advocate, this one in particular sticks in the throat but trust me, no matter how many things you hear or read from the uninitiated trying to put the MX5 down due to image or lack of performance - you need to drive one.

I've driven Mk2 and Mk3 MX5s (co-incidentally, both around race tracks) and can't convey how little you care about on-paper statistics or looking like a hairdresser when you're ringing its neck and threading it oh-so-satisfyingly through a series of bends. Everything is so brilliantly tactile and falls so easily to hand that you can't help but drive the thing with a huge grin on your face.
Driving position, chassis balance, control weights and feedback are all right on the money in a way that makes you feel like you're a driving hero when really; the car's happy, helpful, enthusiastic but forgiving nature means you can't really do much else.

The lack of ultimate power from the engine in any MX5 incarnations serves two surprisingly useful purposes; 1) forcing you to carry speed through corners and really drive the car rather than lazily booting your turbocharged toss-wagon and riding the wave of torque once things straighten up and 2) making you ring everything you can from the sweet-revving longitudinal four pot under the bonnet and rather than being made to feel like a sadist; it telling you that "actually, that was fun - can we do it again in the next gear?"

In fact, I was wrong, there's also a third purpose those weedy powerplants serve and that is a power level to suit the car and breed confidence and enthusiasm. When you're trying to hustle a 300bhp monster, on road or track, the consequences of judgement or talent failure are all the greater. In a sorted chassis with less than 200Nm to play with - you've got enough to unsettle the back end if you really want to (and know how) but are unlikely to run into any problems when you're just trying to get around a corner.

How often, practically, do you perform a 0-60mph standing start anyway? This car proves the insignificance of that measure in terms of performance perception and, more importantly, enjoyment.

It's difficult to go wrong when seeking out an MX5 really; Mk1s and most Mk2s are anywhere between 28 and 12 years old these days and subsequently there are a lot of rust-buckets and mistreated little chaps out there but options are plentiful and prices low. My personal tipple would be a late Mk3 Roadster Coupe (with mechanical folding roof); prices are still on a downward trajectory but currently hovering just over £10k. The interior is surprisingly nice and you get modern accoutrements like SatNav and heated seats (so you can look like a badass with the roof down on cold days without getting a cold, erm, ass). I'd also strongly consider a visit to BBR to give my MX the Super 200 treatment... Generally not a fan of aftermarket mods, there's something appealing about this nicely packaged suite of BBR upgrades encompassing both good old fashioned breathing mods along with ECU changes. They'll also sell you some lowering springs and dampers to improve your stance, as I believe the kids call it.

Looking back to the start of our list, when I finally got to drive a Mk1 Golf GTI, I didn't feel it lived up to the hype...the MX5s did. The embodiment and distillation of everything a sports car should be. Truly, honestly, shut up for a minute and try one.

4. Lotus Elise (or Vauxhall VX220)

Further distillation of the aforementioned sports car values can lead to an altogether headier brew. Sports cars, in my view, are defined to some extent by their accessibility and ease of use; and whilst both are available at relatively modest prices, ease of use is not something that either the Lotus Elise or Vauxhall VX220 count amongst their many attributes.

It's fairly easy to lump these two together as they were both built down the same Lotus production line at Hethel and share similar (but not identical) extruded aluminium underpinnings. One thing we all learnt about aluminium in GCSE Science is that it's light, and that really is the whole point with these two. Unencumbered by carpets, a decent heater or even a fixed roof, the interior of either really is a very raw and rattley place to be.

When I tried a VX220, I decided even during the brief test-drive that it was too much to live with; I was however looking to buy one as my only (ish) car. There was a coin or bolt or something rolling around on the aluminium floor, which didn't do the tin-can feel any favours, and a broken engine mount that made it feel like we'd been rear ended every time I went anywhere near full throttle; so perhaps not the fairest sample in terms of refinement.

One thing that wasn't diminished, however, was the purified driving experience. If the MX5 is a 10/10 for sports car principles, the VX220 is an 11 - everything gets another notch louder, more serious and the headache afterwards for overdoing it that much more headsplitting. Therein, in my opinion, lies the appeal of the MX5's easy-going nature; but I've already waxed lyrical about that. The purity of the driving experience in the Elise and the VX has its own value.

There's something very idealistic about looking into one and seeing all the things that aren't included and would otherwise separate you from the singular task of driving. At some point you'll realise that although you don't need those things, they're often quite nice or even useful to have.

Whilst all the other entries on the list (so far) could feasibly be used as an every day/only car; it's probably best to enjoy the romance of the Elise/VX200 "good life" existence as a secondary vehicle - not that it's unheard of for them to fulfil regular commuting duties. I really do think you'd end up hating the thing if you tried using it on a cold winter morning; one quote from a former VX220 owner sticks in my head:

"You scrape the frost off the outside of the windscreen, then the inside, then after 10 minutes of driving you pull over and scrape the inside again"

When I was looking for a slice of the action, I ultimately decided to limit my search to the 2.2L (out of an Astra) engined VX220s; I thought it would be a more reliable, torquier version of an Elise but I'm not so sure I made the right choice. I remember being disappointed by the outright performance and the feeling that it was no faster in a straight line than the MR2 Turbo I had at the time, and that had carpets and a heater. The turbocharged VX220 would certainly solve that and is the highest power/performance derivative this side of a supercharged S3. Is a hairy chested turbo (also out of an Astra) really what you want in a delicate precision tool like this though?

I'm also not that big on the Toyota options; I own a 1ZZ (entirely predictably, in another MR2) - and have driven/been driven in 2ZZ equipped Lotu...Loti? Both were supercharged (2-Eleven and Exige), massively fast around a track and almost completely devoid of charisma in their power delivery.

In the 2-Eleven, there's no windscreen so it's hard to separate the lack of character from the sensory onslaught but in the hard-topped Exige, the lack of reward for pushing towards the higher reaches of the front-loaded rev range was noticeable. Naturally aspirated 2ZZs are a little too much the other way with a cam lift switch at 6,000+ rpm before you can enjoy the step up to peak power.

What I really wanted, but reasoned myself out of for some reason, was the 111S S1 Elise. I still think the S1 is the best looking of the bunch, despite having been with us for over 20 years now, and the 111s accoutrements (six spoke alloys, wider rear arches, headlight cowls) serve to make the little fellow look even more unstickable.

The VVC flavour K-Series is also a fantastically tractable and rev happy little thing and incredibly light compared to contemporary 4-pots; and the Variable Valve Control is a work of art. I'm not going to sully the little K-Series by mentioning its well known shortcoming; well known being a key phrase in that sentence as it really is well understood and very easily rectified. Those 1ZZs are well known for ovalling their bores and gumming up their piston rings, leading to high oil consumption and predictable consequences so don't rush to take the "reliable" Toyota and "unreliable" Rover engines on face value.

S1s are obviously quite long in the tooth now and parts supply can be an issue; they're also annoyingly going up in price, especially special editions like the 111s. An early K-Series S2 might not be a bad shout, they hopefully haven't reached the bottom of their used value curve yet and parts supply should be a bit easier. If you want even newer, at the time of writing the S3 Sprint was announced and looks like a lithe 800kg return to form if you can stomach £40k (!!) for an Elise.

Model nuances aside, any Elise or VX220 can be appreciated and applauded for bringing some unarguably more serious performance and dynamics compromises to prices and people that would otherwise have been in hot hatch country. There's now a similar choice on the used market and there's really no argument which option the purist find more alluring.