When was the last time you reached the end of a decent drive in a car and just sat there, listening to the metal cool down, replaying the run in your head? I’d wager that, unless you own a very special car indeed, it was some time ago. What has happened? First, there are external factors, be they social, geographic or environmental. Truth is, in the mistaken belief that it is speed rather than its inappropriate use that kills, it is increasingly frowned upon to enjoy driving quickly on suitable roads.
Second, as populations expand and cities sprawl ever outwards, we need to go ever farther away to find these roads and, third, when we do, they’re likely to be a whole lot more crowded so we’re less likely to make the effort. But there’s a fourth factor, too. And that is when we do bother to find the right road, although the cars we now drive are undoubtedly quicker and more capable than ever, something has gone missing.
It would be easy to give it a trite and catchy name like ‘the fun factor’; but that’s not it. Cars are fun today – great fun, in fact – but now they are also so damn good that it’s that sense of achievement which has been left behind, the pride felt in knowing that yo did more than merely guide the car along the road. You controlled it. You tried to bend it to your will and your presence behind the wheel made a difference. It was not the car providing 100% of the talent because it was insufficiently talented so to do: it needed you as much as you needed it, meaning that you were in it together, a collaborative process leading to safe and memorable passage.
And there was that other thing, lurking out there in the darkness: the knowledge that none of this was a foregone conclusion. Ultimately, these cars were on your side only for as long as it suited them to be so; and were you to push harder, further or faster than they cared to go, they would throw you into the scenery without a blink. And that was part of the appeal, too. Ultimately, these were cars that could be controlled, but they could not be tamed. It made us want to go and drive some more of them. So we did. The oldest of our untameables is the Ford Sierra RS Cosworth – not the Sapphire or the 4×4 but the original unreconstructed Group A homlogation special. Off-hand and 30 years after its introduction, I’m not sure I’ve driven another four-seat family hatchback with two more distinctive sides to its character.
With an engine running an 8.0:1 compression ratio just so enough boost from the Garrett turbocharger could be blown through the 2.0-litre lump to provide 201bhp, there’s a lot of lag, enough indeed to make me goggle at my forebears who reckoned its manners could not be distinguished from those of a normally aspirated engine. Believe me, they can.
But once the motor is percolating and has pushed the Sierra up to a serious speed, you’ll find that even all these years later, it is a fairly devastating weapon on a dry, open road. It generates more grip than you’d think possible from a skinny 205-section footprint, and with stiff suspension with its rubber replaced by solid bushes, its ability to change direction owes far more to the racing car it was designed to be than to the street machine from which it was derived.
But you had better watch out.
As soon as rain starts to fall, it becomes ∆ a very different animal indeed. The traits are always there, as they are in all with split personalities, but water is the catalyst that makes them emerge. Indeed, the combination of uncompromising suspension, super-swift steering and turbo lag would be bad enough even without the true villain of the piece, its Dunlop D40 tyres. Try to drive one fast in the wet and you’ll find grip levels decimated, armfuls of opposite lock and the distinct impression that the car wants to mug you. It’s far better today thanks to modern Dunlops, but when our bright sunny day turned to sleet and snow, the opportunity to drive it fast one last time across the mountain road went unanswered.
The Peugeot 205 GTi poses a different kind of risk, insofar as it’s not in the least fussy whether the road is wet or dry: treat it badly and it will put you in the hedge whatever the weather. The key to the appeal of Peugeot’s finest hatchback is that it turns every journey into an event. You can drive it slowly, but there really is no point. It’s like a lion cub, one of the cutest things you’ll ever lay eyes upon, that wants nothing more than to play and play until it can manoeuvre itself into a position where it can sink its fangs into your backside.
The trick is not to let it. Today, people like me bang on about how throttle sensitive cars are and, pleasingly, there seems to be a will out there to return to the days where a car’s attitude to a corner can be controlled not just by your hands on the wheel, but your foot on the accelerator, too. But it will be a while before anyone thinks it a good idea to make a car as sensitive to the throttle opening in a curve as the Peugeot. The very earliest 205 GTis, those built in 1984 and 1985, were the most reactive and I know this because back then I owned one.
I learned a lot from that car, particularly once I’d spun it up the road a couple of times. It taught me how to drive on the limit because if you could just find a constant radius corner (I used quiet roundabouts), then you could go round and round, easing on and off the gas and making the most spectacular changes to your angle of attack without moving the steering wheel an inch.
They are less adjustable, some would say vicious, today. This is partly because Peugeot retreated just a touch on the suspension settings during production, but also because modern tyres have far more benign breakaway characteristics. Even so, a well-set-up 205 GTi is still a car to steer as much by foot as hand. And they can still bite. The problem, if you choose to characterise it as such, is that they weigh the same as a cup of tea and have the best gearbox ever fitted to a front-drive car and an engine with quite a lot of power and even more torque.
In short, they egg you on. Even on the track, I’ve not found a slip angle from which one will not recover with a sharp boot of power, but you don’t need to guess the consequences if you’re slow or sloppy with its application. It may look like a toy but, in fact, it’s a tool, and a serious driving one at that.
Not as serious, however, as a Honda NSX.
Depending on whose views you have read over the years, you might wonder what it’s doing keeping company with such reprobates as the Ford and Peugeot. Many hold that NSXs are exquisite, viceless cars, a statement that is precisely half true. I can remember doing a shoot with an NSX just like this gorgeous, late, manual 3.2-litre coupé and watching a talented but junior road tester who was trying to make it perform for the camera fling it so far into a field that we had to call the farmer to get it out again. This is a different kind of untameable.
The point is that from the moment you get into the Ford or Peugeot, you know they could be a handful. By contrast, the NSX feels like the most faithful supercar you could ever drive. And, to a point, it is. You can drive one fast – as fast as you can make it go, in fact – and it will reward your every effort with scalpel-sharp steering, world-class poise and impeccable manners. What you must not do, however, is mess with one. Do as my colleague did and turn in a bit too fast with a big lift of the throttle in the hope it will break the back loose, and you’ll find your wish granted with enough interest added to keep your hands full all the way to the scene of the accident.
I have no problem with this. To me, even in this modern world, a proper driver’s car should always offer a challenge, one that can be taken up the moment the driver elects to turn off the stability systems. Ultimately, if the car does it all for you, you are merely a spectator or, at best, its director. If you want to be part of the action, on the stage rather than in the stalls, you need a role to play and that’s what these cars provide.
No coincidence, then, that these cars are remembered already as among the finest driving machines of all time.