Get to grips with a small car, and there’s no greater fun you can have behind the wheel.
I’ve been fortunate enough to sample hundreds of vehicles, with all sorts of different engines ranging from a turbocharged two cylinder to a twin-turbocharged V12 and everything in between; with power outputs ranging from 60 horsepower right through to more than 600 hp. Front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, you name it, with engines placed ahead of the front axle, behind the front axle, and right behind the passenger cabin.
But in all those drives – on street and on track – you know which one I found most enjoyable? It wasn’t the Mercedes-AMG GT S; though that’s a story you’ll see soon; I had the most fun in my motoring life in a Fiat Panda – a compact hatchback that shares underpinnings with the Fiat 500. I must be out of my mind – what kind of gearhead has more fun in a subcompact hatch than in a BMW M2? But there’s a reason for that – small cars are simply the most fun you can have behind the wheel, at least in the real world they are.
In the real world, there are speed limits enforced by police officers with Tasers and handcuffs and no sense of humor. Try telling them that the reason you were speeding was because it was fun and the car and road combination begged for it. You'll either be locked up or have your license suspended. But when you’re driving a small car with a tiny engine, the speed limits don’t apply. You’re not magically exempt from the long arm of the law; you’re merely incapable of getting anywhere near the speed limit – regardless of how hard you try. Because you’re immune to speed limits you can live life flat out.
The usual joys of sports cars – wringing an engine out to redline, snap-shifting, chasing peak power in the upper echelons of the rev range – all apply to small cars too. But where reaching redline in 2nd gear of a Porsche Cayman GT4, for example, would land you in hot water, reaching redline in 2nd gear of a Fiat 500 would only see you crawling by – yet the emotions and the feelings behind the wheel are the same; the elation of pinning the throttle flat to the firewall, the joy of hearing the revs rise to redline. You can hammer a small car all you want. The feeling of acceleration and outright speed can’t be mimicked – or can it?
We all enjoy thrashing a high performance ride through a series of twists and turns – long drawn out ones with tightening radii that allow us to exploit powerful engines. But since small cars feature miniaturized engines by comparison, and miniaturized dimensions, it’s quite possible to mimic the feeling of speed a large car gives, merely by scaling down the roads you choose to drive on. In settings where roads feature tight turns and short straights between turns, you can’t exploit big power – so it’s in these surroundings that you can exploit a small car fully.
Cars with diminutive engines can be kept on the boil here, and the roads can truly be exploited. But it’s these vehicles’ ergonomics that truly bring the whole experience together. Most compact cars tend to focus more on clever, practical packaging rather than low centers of gravity. You sit upright and perched, with decent ground clearance to ensure you don’t scrape over speed bumps. While many see these design elements as the enemy of performance, in tighter settings the higher ride height and seating position intensifies the forces exerted under cornering. Suddenly, cornering at 20 mph in a Chevrolet Spark feels like you’re cornering at 60 mph in a Mercedes-AMG CLA45.
The enhanced body lean and high position relative to the floor pan makes it feel so much faster. Going slow never felt this exhilarating or terrifying, as every corner feels like you’re on the verge of capsizing. But what’s fun without a little fear?
Big performance sedans and sports cars are fun, and command respect. But with advancing technologies and the ever-present desire to go faster, corner harder, and set quicker lap times, the technologies at use in these cars far outstrips the talent of the average driver. Technologies such as advanced traction control systems, trick all-wheel drive setups, and ultra-advanced suspensions – all managed by computer programs – are engineered to resist ham-fisted drivers’ inputs that would unsettle the vehicle and result in an accident at speed.
They’re engineered safe, and capable – but because of the abundance of technology, what may have once been a thin veil of separation between man and machine has now thickened to a 6-foot thick concrete wall divorcing the driver from the experience of controlling a vehicle. Most of our modern performance cars merely give you the illusion of control. You feel at one with the machine, and wax lyrical about how well it communicates and allows you to explore the limits, and even go beyond them – yet in actual fact the systems are so advanced that they’re merely allowing you to play within a certain predefined playing field.
You’re not really controlling the car so much as its allowing you to play within the confines of its limits – like a child in a playground, with the illusion of freedom. Small cars are simple, though. They aren’t engineered to chase lap times or go fast – so instead of ultra-advanced all-wheel drive and trick suspension setups, they’re simple, honest mechanical offerings. But because they’re simple, they’re also pure – honest and devoid of hidden intentions. When you corner in a small car there’s natural body lean – lean that communicates as you approach the end of a vehicle’s suspension travel, edging towards the limits of adhesion. In much the same way body roll talks to you, the steering talks too.
The simple suspension setups send signals of intent through the steering that gently inform you of the direction and grip levels of the front wheels. With so much active information being fed back to the driver, small cars offer a purer driving experience – an honest experience.
Small cars are great – they provide legal ways of exploiting a car’s full potential, without the risks of serious injury and death when things go wrong at high speed. It’s a case of low risk, high reward. But because they’re so genuine in their driving experience, small cars are also the greatest teachers – allowing us to explore the limits of a car and find out how to control them beyond the limits. Accidents happen – that’s why they’re called accidents – but wouldn’t it be great to know that should anything go awry you’d have the skillset to keep things under control?
That’s what small cars do – they arm you with the ability to learn advanced driving techniques, and it’s why small cars are the greatest tool in the automotive world. Get to grips with a small car, and there’s no greater fun you can have behind the wheel.