Written by JG Pasterjak
From the March 2003 issue
Posted in Shop Work
Let’s talk about the Death Star a little bit. Not the first Death Star, the one that destroyed Alderaan and was about to blow up the Rebel Base on Yavin 4 when it was wiped out. Rather, let’s discuss the second Death Star. That’s the one that was hovering over the moon of Endor—home to those annoyingly marketable Ewoks—when Lando Calrissian took enough time away from hawking Colt 45 to team up with a sturgeon to summarily destroy Darth Vader’s latest instrument of terror.
The point is, there were probably people on that Death Star who weren’t really part of the war between the Rebels and the Empire. In its haste to develop its newest ultimate killing machine, the Empire probably turned to independent contractors to bring the job in on time. Obviously they had a rebellion to quell, and your average Stormtrooper doesn’t know anything about plumbing a space toilet.
Of course, this philosophical aside is not mine. I wish I could take credit for it, but I can’t. The credit goes to Kevin Smith, whose film “Clerks” features its two protagonists, Randal and Dante, belaboring just such matters. Smith’s movie dares to ask, Were these independent contractors innocent victims of a war that they were not involved in, or did they, by working for the Empire, directly involve themselves in the evil regime?
We’ll probably never know the answer, but I can at least tell you why I’m bringing this up. See, the last time I saw “Clerks,” I was watching it on the built-in DVD player of the latest Honda Odyssey minivan. This minivan was also carrying David Wallens, Per Schroeder, a host of test equipment, and a couple of sets of tires. We were on our way to Michelin’s Laurens Proving Grounds in Laurens, S.C., a several-thousand-acre facility where nearly any facet of automotive performance can be explored, exploited and extrapolated in the names of science, journalism and a quest to find the truth.
The truth we were seeking was all around us. Literally.
Let me back up a little bit. You see, our publisher recently got himself a fancy new Honda Odyssey minivan. Now, anyone who’s read this magazine for any time knows that we are all great fans of minivans. They’re practical, economical, useful, and although they are what most people really need, they’re still rather underappreciated contributors to our busy society.
If you’ve read the magazine for any time, you also know that Tim can get a little, shall we say, “enthusiastic” about stuff. Soon after the new van arrived, we were treated to lunchtime rides where we were sure we were being chased. He drove that poor van like it was his last day on earth, bragged about how stable it was at 100 mph-plus, drifted it around every corner in the Daytona Beach metro area, and dared Civic Si drivers to race from stoplight to stoplight.
We figured it would wear off, but a couple of weeks into the new van, he said those magic words: “You know, today’s minivans would kick the ass of pretty much any classic sports car.” Go back and read it again. We’ll wait.
A few weeks later, we were on our way to the Michelin facility, anticipating a meeting between the V6-powered Honda van and not one, but two examples of everything that a sports car is supposed to be.
Once we got to the test facility, we’d be met by a Jaguar XKE and a Porsche 356. If you look up “sports car” in the dictionary, you’ll probably see a picture of one or both of those cars next to the definition. I was making up excuses for nearly the entire drive to Laurens.
“Gee, Tim, the van’s awesome and all, but it just isn’t a sports car. I mean, it was designed to haul people and stuff. You can’t get a 4x8 sheet of plywood in an E-Type, can you? That’s the whole point of a sports car.” Some writing assignments I look forward to more than others.
So we watched “Clerks,” some “South Park” and a little “Mr. Show,” all while averaging 75 mph and nearly 30 mpg in air-conditioned comfort.
A few hours into the trip, it was my turn to drive. After all, I should at least get to know the subject of our next cover story before the fightin’ starts.
Pulling onto the interstate, the Odyssey’s VTEC-enhanced, 240-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 engine and five-speed automatic transmission got us into the flow of traffic in a rather—well, okay, I’ll say it—sporty manner. The steering seemed to be communicative, the driving position was upright but not uptight, and the brakes let the driver know just what was going on at each of the four ABS-equipped-discs.
But, look, it’s still a van. Minivans may be cool and all, but once we get this thing on the autocross course, the sports cars will show it the way to the mall.
Once we arrived at the Michelin facility, we were greeted by cold, damp weather. Despite the chilly conditions, the interior of the Odyssey felt like a Holiday Inn.
Sexy Sheetmetal: Jaguar XKE
If sex could be made from metal, it would be the exact shape of a Jaguar XKE. In fact, you can rearrange the letters X, K and E to spell “sex.” Actually, it spells “KEX,” but that’s too close to be a coincidence.
The XKE we had was a droptop, as it properly should be, and it was a good thing, too. For all its impressive length, the XKE is shockingly snug inside. Climbing in with the top up requires a deft slide through the small door and under the large, wood rimmed wheel, where you can finally extend your feet out toward the well-placed pedals. Once behind the wheel, there’s plenty of room, as long as you don’t plan to move around much. Let’s just say that there’s enough room to drive, and that’s about it.
Fortunately, the view out the windshield and over that long, curved hood rivals the view out of pretty much any other piece of glass I’ve ever peered through.
While firing up the big, inline six cylinder and sliding the four-speed manual trans into gear, the word “motoring” suddenly seems appropriate and not the least bit pretentious. Simply driving the Jag is the automotive equivalent of sticking out your pinkie while drinking tea: It just can’t help but make you look classier.
When you get right down to it, though, the Jag feels a bit soft and numb, even though our test vehicle was in pretty good shape. The steering feels a little disconnected, and the car feels a bit floaty overall. But the experience of the Jag is in the sound of that torquey six, the view over that gorgeous long hood and the feel of the wood in your hand. (That’s the wooden steering wheel, perv.)
Luckily, that experience is so visceral and wonderful that it’s not ruined once you push the Jag to its limits and realize that the car is in waaaaay over its head.
Truth be told, the Jag is fun to hustle around an autocross course; it just doesn’t go very fast. It has decent lateral grip, but the torquey six and narrow tires mean that power oversteer is just a nudge of the gas away. And when the rear end does come out, it feels like you’re going with it. The driver sits way back in the chassis, nearly on the rear axle and considerably behind the center of rotation. So when the car oversteers, the driver gets a trip with the back end of the car that you don’t soon forget.
That sexy, wooden steering wheel is also quite a liability when the speeds go up. Since the seats have no real lateral support, you find yourself using the wheel to hold up your upper body—a task at which it fails quite miserably. It bends and flexes like a cartoon gag and politely reminds you that people in civilized society shouldn’t drive this way.
Man, oh man, is it gorgeous, though.
The best time we recorded in the Jag on the rather fast and flowing autocross course was a 51.54-second run.
Quintessential Sports Car: Porsche 356
Next in line was the other car many people think of when they hear the word “sports car:” The Porsche 356. The “bathtub” Porsche is an icon in the sports car world, and it has as its lineage a line of performance cars that competed in and dominated all kinds of sports car racing for decades.
The first thing you notice when you hop out of the Jag and into the 356 is how much more roomy and driver-friendly the Porsche is. The German car’s interior is Spartan, but purposeful, and everything seems to be right where it needs to be. Once you fire up the flat-four engine and get the 356 rolling, it feels surprisingly tight and modern.
It goes down the road rather quietly and comfortably for a 37-year-old-car, and feels very much like it was carved from a solid chunk of lightweight, but strong, metal. The doors close with the same “chunk” emitted by our Porsche 944 project car, and the brakes, despite being older than Marlee Matlin (Aug. 24, 1965), Jon Stewart (Nov. 28, 1965), Björk (Nov. 21, 1965), Charlie Sheen (Sept. 3, 1965) and even Dr. Dre (Feb. 18, 1965), worked like modern binders.
Most impressive was the handling, though. Even on its narrow, period-correct 165R15 Michelin XZX tires sourced from Coker Tire, the 356’s steering was tight, precise, and an absolute joy to operate.
Lateral grip, even in our damp test conditions, was astounding, and the car responded to every control input—not nervously, but with an eagerness to please the driver. The Porsche could be driven neat and tidy, or that easily attainable lift-throttle oversteer was always available should you choose to invoke it.
Whichever way I drove the Porsche, it never felt beyond my control—not by any stretch of the imagination. Going through the slalom portion of the course was a particular treat. All this car wanted were small, gentle, rhythmic control inputs, and it zipped through the slalom like it was born there.
The 356 felt considerably faster than the Jag, and the clocks bore that truth out. The Porsche clocked a 48.89-second time; as I climbed out of it, I was already feeling bad for the poor Honda.
Ultimate Grocery Getter: Honda Odyssey
Then I drove the Honda.
You know, humans have invented a lot of stupid crap in the past 35 years. From the Epilady to the Eggwave to the Pocket Fisherman to the McRib, our scientists have continually provided answers to questions that nobody cared to ask.
Apparently, some of them have been working on cars, too.
Once we unloaded our gear, luggage, tires and a bunch of other junk from the same Honda Odyssey—a minivan, remember—that had just carried us 400 or so odd miles while watching DVD movies in air-conditioned comfort while sitting our bourgeois asses on cushy leather seats, it proceeded to storm around the autocross course in 49.09 seconds. In other words, it cruised to a near dead-heat with the Porsche.
Equaled by a minivan.
Actually, it wasn’t much of a contest. Getting the Odyssey around the course required much less work than driving either of the two “sports cars.” Between the anti-lock brakes, supportive seats and power steering, you could practically watch “The Lord of the Rings” on the DVD player while whipping around the cones just as fast as the paradigm of sports cars.
Another interesting dynamic trait of the Odyssey was the fact that no matter what I did (short of nailing the e-brake), I could not get the Odyssey to oversteer. Honda’s engineers have designed a vehicle that has combined the performance capabilities of the world’s finest classic sports cars with the user-friendliness of an iMac.
Upgrading the Van
Then we tried a little experiment.
The Honda was run in as-delivered condition. (Come to think of it, I don’t think we even checked tire pressures.) What if we upgraded from the stock consumer-grade tires to a simple plus-one wheel and tire setup?
Honestly, we had brought along the upgraded tires in hopes of closing the expected gap between the minivan and the sports cars. We didn’t intend to run up the score so much.
Race-compound, dry-weather gumballs wouldn’t be appropriate, but we figured we could do a little bit better than the Honda’s standard-issue 225/60TR16 Michelin Symmetry tires on the original-equipment 16x6.5-inch aluminum wheels. The stock all-season tires work fine for most people, as they’re quiet and long-lasting while offering good grip in rain and even light snow. They’re just not terribly exciting when it comes to performance.
So we called The Tire Rack, and they offered the Michelin Energy MXV4 Plus as a nice upgrade. Called a performance grand touring tire by The Tire Rack, the Michelin Energy MXV4 Plus raises the performance bar one notch. It’s not a super-duper, max-handling performance tire, but it’s an appropriate upgrade for most family sedans and other people movers.
We also performed a plus-one size upgrade, going to a 225/55HR17 tire. Both the outside diameter and section width match that of the original tire, but the new tires feature a shorter sidewall.
Since 17-inch tires won’t fit on 16-inch wheels, we needed some new equipment in this department, too. A set of snappy-looking 17x7.5-inch Sport Edition Tekno wheels filled the bill. This $1108 package ($138 for each tire and $139 for each wheel) came complete with all lugs, centering rings and other hardware. We were set.
The Porsche never stood a chance.
The minivan dropped 3 full seconds off its autocross time, dipping all the way to a 45.91-second run and feeling more like a performance sedan than a people- and grocery-hauler.
Every performance attribute was improved: straight line grip was up, as were absolute lateral grip and transient response. Areas where ABS intrusion had been quite noticeable could now be negotiated with a much firmer brake pedal, and the car slalomed like a Civic Si. (Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch, but it was awfully impressive.)
So our classic sports cars were not only equaled, but bested—handily—by the scourge of the mall parking lot: the minivan.
But this performance comes with a price.
A Look Back
There’s no doubt that cars have gotten better over the years. As we proved with this demonstration, a modern minivan can best the cream of the crop of sports cars from the 1960s. But maybe instead of just examining our test data, we should examine our concept of the word “better.”
The Odyssey is a modern marvel. It’s as reliable as your wristwatch, versatile and has tons of storage space while maintaining enough people room for the average family to travel in comfort from Point A to Point B quickly and efficiently and with a minimum of fuss.
You could also watch a movie during the trip if you wanted.
But the Porsche 356 and Jag XKE are cars that people make movies about.
In a dystopian vision of a nightmare future where all of us wear gray jumpsuits and go off to our workfun cubes after taking our breakfast pills after 8.2 state-sanctioned hours of “sleep—sponsored by Pepsi,” we’ll all drive Odysseys. No one will ever be late, no one will ever arrive at their appointed function covered in oil and smelling of gas. No one will know how to make SU carburetors work, since they won’t be able to do that by downloading the proper fuel matrix into their handheld “joypod.”
And cars won’t be a damn bit of fun.
Sure, cars are better now, if “better” is a measure of function—of how well an item fulfills its primary duty. But in becoming better, today’s cars have primarily focused on eliminating what makes the Porsche and Jag so exciting—that being the journey itself. Everything on the Honda is designed either to be a distraction from the actual journey—like the DVD, climate control and so on—or to distance the occupants as far as possible from the experience of the trip.
The Porsche and the Jag, on the other hand, are all about the experience of the trip, which is great, because if measured by any other standard, they simply fall short.
So we come to the conclusion that we have indeed been comparing apples and oranges all along. The average modern passenger car, with the benefit of decades more R&D plus modern materials and manufacturing technology, is supremely competent, fast and safe. It can also be rather antiseptic.
And sports cars, we find, are about more than generating numbers—hell, any minivan can do that. They are about the fact that when certain parts are put together in certain ways by certain people, they become something greater than their own sum.
Sports cars—whether they be our 356 or XKE, or a TR3 or an MR2 or an MX-5—are about making the driver feel like he or she is the coolest person on the planet, even if only for a little while. Sports cars aren’t about getting somewhere to have an experience, they are an experience, every time the key is turned.
Go on a trip in the Odyssey, and you’ll remember the destination; go on a trip in a sports car, and you’ll remember the drive.