Cars and the Souls of Nations

Posted: July 27, 2011 in Cars

As a self confessed car enthusiast I try to get my hands on all sorts of car based literature, the better to keep up with recent vehicular releases. As such, amongst other publications, I always buy the Friday Herald-Sun for its Cars Guide. I like the Cars Guide editor, Paul Gover. I’ve never actually met the man, but he writes from his motorist soul and usually makes a great deal of sense. I don’t agree with everything he’s written but I’m sure that doesn’t bother him in the slightest.

One of our recent disagreements came up about six months ago, when Nissan chose to unleash the brand new GT-R on our roads. The Nissan GT-R has always been a favourite of mine, but it has been missing from the local showrooms since around 1992, when it was known worldwide as the Skyline. For years after World War 2 when Japan’s industries were getting back up and running, Japan’s various car brands only really built quirky little fuel efficient cars. Eventually, they tried their hand at building supercars and to do this copied the obvious source, Ferrari. Their versions were solidly built, reliable and the performance was almost there, but something was missing and they were relegated to being what they were: cheap knock-offs.

The Skyline GT-R changed all that. This was Nissan saying to the world “we don’t need to copy you or anyone else and we are quite capable of making our own supercars thank you”. The GT-R brought performance motoring to the masses, with supercar qualities at a reasonable price. The new generation of GT-R continues this tradition. It has better performance than a Lamborghini Gallardo but, at around $160 000, is a third of the price. It has also controversially broken the 7:30 minute lap around the famous Nurburgring circuit in Germany, usually the domain of much more expensive Porsche 911’s.

The source of my disagreement with Mr Gover is this. He claimed that the GT-R did nothing to excite him. The problem is, the car, being so technologically advanced, made normal driving boring. Everyday road use is so far below its capabilities you may as well be driving a Camry for the feel you garner from it at regular highway speeds.

I haven’t driven this car and unless the lottery gods smile upon me I probably never will, but Gover’s sentiments are being echoed by all motoring journalists around the world. The GT-R does not come alive until you are on a racetrack taking it to the very limit of physics and very probably approaching quantum. In essence, he wrote that for everyday driving the car has a wooden feel and it has no soul.

To fully explain my point of view, and what I mean by a vehicle having soul, I’ll have to go back a little further. All cars have a national identity and to prove it I’ll throw a few brands and their performance cars at you.

It is hard to think of Italy without thinking of the prancing Ferrari stallion at Maranello. Ferrari build cars full of fiery red blooded passion, which will kill you if you even think of taking liberties. This sentiment is copied down the road at Lamborghini even if it is now run by Germans.

When you think of Great Britain, you think whinging poms, bad food and worse weather but, you also think of James Bond which inevitably leads you to Aston Martins and Jaguars. And, nothing says British like a Rolls-Royce. I know that Rolls-Royce is now built in Germany, an Egyptian consortium owns Aston Martin and Indian car giant Tata owns Jaguar but the soul of Britain has been retained.

Speaking of Germany, just try and tell me their cars don’t remind you of the people, the Mercedes-Benz C63 AMG, the BMW M5 and Audi’s RS4 in particular. They are taciturn, stern cars but when you let them out of the box they are out for a good time. The French on the other hand, have better things to do than build cars; imbibing wine and cheese while making love but, when they take a break from these things they build quirky, fashionable cars that fit the people like a glove, I’m thinking mainly Renault and Citroen here.

America’s national motoring identity is without a doubt the Ford Mustang. It is big, brash and has trouble thinking laterally (read cornering), but, Americans introduced the world to muscle cars. They tend to be simple creatures with basic chassis, brakes and interiors but they have huge engines and I am a fan, not so much of the people but definitely their vehicles.

We Australians should be proud of our performance vehicles, while not as complex as the British they are more advanced then the Americans; particularly when it comes to lateral thinking (again read cornering), and, I’d like to think representative of the people that live here.

This brings me back to Japan. Japan is the enigma of the motoring world. Looking at their brands does nothing to help matters. Suzuki builds fun little cars for young people, Honda builds cars for pensioners (don’t try and deny it Honda the evidence is there), while Toyota builds cars for people who aren’t paying attention. The other Japanese brands Mitsubishi, Subaru and of course Nissan basically try and build all things to all people. Nissan are perhaps the most confusing of the bunch. They build the Micra which, despite a funky outer appearance, is as dull as wallpaper paste, all the way to the all-conquering GT-R and the source of my disagreement with Mr Gover.

You see, I think the GT-R and other Japanese cars do have soul. When I think of Japan I think of an industrious people, efficiency and cutting edge technology. When I think of cars like the GT-R, Mitsubishi Evo and Subaru WRX I think the same thing. The GT-R is an amazing technological achievement, which has electronically controlled active everything. There is almost more computer power in this car than at NASA. For example, it assesses the position of the car 100 times a second and makes adjustments to the suspension and power output automatically while never bothering to ask the driver what her or she thinks about it. While this gives it performance second to almost none, I have no doubt, at 60 km/h, it dulls the driving experience somewhat.

My argument though, is why can’t technology and efficiency be the Japanese answer to the passion you get from Ferrari, the old boys network of Britain and the strict German uncle who occasionally, lets his hair down and heads out to see Kraftwerk. I realise that buying a car like the GT-R and trying to drive it to work every day may not be that much fun but, that one day, when the racetrack is open to the public and you release the GT-R’s full potential, I promise all will be forgiven.

This article first appeared in the March 2010 issue of The King’s Tribune.

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