‘Fast’ is in the Eye of the Beholder

I am a car guy and can attest to this: It is thrilling to go fast. And it’s also exciting to see a fuel economy display hit 50+ mpg. Similar feelings are experienced when behind the wheel of a truly stylish car, when a favorite song pops up unexpectedly on Sirius XM, or when deplaning after yet another long flight, exhausted, and sliding in the back seat of a car knowing I won’t have to be negotiating heavy urban traffic in an unfamiliar city. I don’t even have to be driving to appreciate that car.

None of these are mutually exclusive.

I noted with interest an auto review that recently criticized an all-new model designed to look fast and sporty as being anything but, with a performance threshold that was disappointing. That got my attention. The car was sharp-looking and would surely find its share of young buyers thrilled to be behind the wheel, at speed or not. My question, then, is this: Would all those buyers really care about going fast? Or would they be just as excited driving a sharp, eye-catching ride at everyday speeds without the ability to churn serious g-forces, with a great audio system cranked up with their favorite tunes?

I know the answer to that one…and my intuition is right.

Consider this: Among the many cars I have owned over the years, there was a serviceable but somewhat unstylish Porsche 914. Essentially, it was a low-slung box on wheels powered by a 1.7-liter four-cylinder engine producing 79 horsepower, with a Porsche emblem on the hood. It was targa-topped and peppy, but not what anyone would call fast. If I wanted that then I would have opted for the 914-6, powered by a 2.0-liter engine sourced from the 911T model, serving up an additional 31 horsepower with markedly better torque.

Did I want the additional horsepower? Not really, since the 1.7-liter powered car was spirited though not fast. But I did want a more stylish, faster-looking car to go along with my high-power Kenwood stereo system and daily open-top touring. I got it by customizing my 914 with a sleek Chalon fiberglass styling kit, custom paint, lightweight Center Line racing wheels, and beefier B.F. Goodrich tires. I had the look, the feel, and the excitement I was seeking. Did I need to go faster than my 79 horsepower four-banger would take me? Nah. That wasn’t the point.

But it is the point I’m making in this column.

There is a ready market for the hundreds of vehicle models sold in the United States, for good reason. Ours is not a one-size-fits-all auto market. We all have our requirements and desires, and these range from safety, quality, and value to performance, status, and luxury. To some, a car is an appliance used to get from one place to another. To many others it is more personal, reflecting an important part of our lifestyle.

Many seeking a sleek-looking car are perfectly happy owning one without ever moving far beyond the speed limit or jumping from one stoplight to another. It’s the overall experience…the feeling…a vehicle imparts that’s important, not necessarily raw horsepower. And with that more conservative approach comes greater potential for maximizing fuel efficiency.

Hmmm…could I be on to something here?

Ron Cogan is editor and publisher of Green Car Journal and editor of CarsOfChange.com