Are we in the modern golden age of performance cars? | Column

Tim
By Tim Suddard
Sep 14, 2021 | Column | Posted in Columns | From the Oct. 2021 issue | Never miss an article

Photograph Credit: Chris Tropea

When the E36-chassis M3 arrived for 1995, it blew us away. It was fast–like, really fast–with a zero-to-60 time of 5.9 seconds. Now? A new Toyota Camry would walk it. 

And today’s performance cars live in an entirely new realm. I spent last week with a new BMW M4, the M3’s spiritual successor. Horsepower has been nearly doubled, cutting zero-to-60 times almost in half. We thought the E36 chassis was trick, but the latest M4 offers a foundation that’s so much stiffer and precise. 

[2021 BMW M4 Performance Package review]

Then look at the rest of the field: The M4 isn’t even the fastest car out there. I recently drove a Porsche GT3 and a Ferrari Portofino, and either would whip that M4 quite handily.

These machines simply represent the latest steps in the performance progress manufacturers have been making for decades. In addition to tailfins, the ’50s brought V8 engines to the masses. The ’60s loaded on power and performance. 

While the industry bobbled a bit through the ’70s as it fought with government regulations, unleaded fuels and increased safety requirements, we wound up with quick, cleaner cars. Disc brakes started to become common, too, so some of these vehicles could actually stop. 

The ’80s brought us the near-universal application of fuel injection, and performance quickly came back. Many of us also enjoyed the practicality offered by the hot hatch revolution. 

The ’90s improved safety–air bags, anti-lock brakes and the like–and added even more performance. A turbo? Why not two, as 300 horsepower became the norm. Engineers also made huge improvements in aero, yielding quieter, more efficient cars. 

The biggest gains in the last 20 years? How about more safety, more efficiency and more refinement? Plus, electrification moved from novelty to mainstream. 

Where people look back on the ’60s as the decade of muscle, that crown really goes to today’s cars. Modern performers like the latest Corvette, Shelby GT500, Porsche 911 GT3 and those Tesla sedans are truly revolutionary and not evolutionary. The performance bar has been obliterated when comparing today’s cars to past offerings.

Let’s look back just a few years. In the ’90s, anything that could reach 60 mph quicker than about 8 seconds was seen as fairly impressive. Now, that figure needs to be in the sub-4-second range to even be considered fast. 

Last year, I took the BMW 318is that we built to a couple of track days at Daytona and VIR. It’s well prepped, well tuned and, I thought, pretty quick. It sports a built engine and tuned suspension. Compared to the slowest of today’s modern cars, my cool little E30 BMW was so badly trounced that it was embarrassing.

And these new cars offer so much more civility than my now-vintage BMW. In addition to otherworldly quick acceleration and performance, they’re also smooth, comfortable and efficient. Credit huge advances in turbocharging, fuel injection and engine timing.

Have you driven the latest Civic Type R? Sure, it’s fast, but it’s also surprisingly civil, too. 

Are they future collectibles? Maybe. Some, like the Porsche 911 GT2 RS and Ford GT, didn’t seem to depreciate. People knew a good thing when they saw it. 

Driving several of these recent performers got me thinking: Maybe it’s time for a truly modern supercar in the fleet. But which way to go? Do I borrow some money or apply for a second mortgage to pick up the latest Porsche, Shelby or BMW

Or do I go the GRM route and drag home a later, standard-issue 911 that needs some work and turn that into a GT3-fighter? It would be a cool project, but am I up for a year of pain and parts? Just once, it would be nice to skip the process and get on the pole the easy way. 

[First-time Porsche buyer's guide: 5 models perfect for scratching that itch]

All good projects seem to start with some bench racing, so that’s where I am now: What would you do–buy or build–and what modern performer has captured your fancy?

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jerel77494
jerel77494 New Reader
9/14/21 12:34 p.m.

If I had the money, ND based FlyinMiata Habu.  For less, I'd take my yellow NB, add :

1)Koni stage 2 kit with sway bars - FlyinMiata

2)Little-big brake kit

3)Butterfly brace

4)Torsen limited slip

5)Lighter 16" wheels with BF Goodrich Sport Comp S 2's

6)Carbonmiata Mazdaspeed replica spoiler with modest splitter, modest rear diffuser and low spoiler, all black carbon fiber or vynil wrapped to look like carbon fiber

7)Repaint the car tri-coat Corvette yellow

8)FFS Supercharger kit

It won't be the fastest thing out there and turbo kits can make more power, but I'd be happy with this.

Jay_W
Jay_W SuperDork
9/14/21 1:11 p.m.

Of course we are!

z31maniac
z31maniac MegaDork
9/14/21 1:28 p.m.

The performance available at relatively affordable prices these days is pretty incredible.

If you're willing to buy a base, last year model Mustang GT. You can get nearly 500hp reliable HP for around $30k.

captdownshift (Forum Supporter)
captdownshift (Forum Supporter) MegaDork
9/14/21 1:29 p.m.

In terms of measurable data, acceleration, mechanical grip and performance capability, yes. In terms of visceral response and engagement, absolutely not. 

 

One of the most aspects with modern cars as that the engineers (or their bean counter overlords) seem to have forgotten that you need a lubrication system capable of handling the lateral loads that 275 tires are capable of delivering. Whether that be strictly through added capacity, baffles in the pan, better pumps or restrictors to prevent over oiling of one side of an engine while another gets starvation. 

JAdams
JAdams New Reader
9/14/21 1:56 p.m.

In reply to jerel77494 :

I did something really similar and I absolutely love it. I've owned faster but I'm not sure there is much else that checks all of my boxes for more "fun."

1992 Miata. TDR Rotrex Supercharger. Flex fuel. FM Fox Coilovers. Blackbird Fabworx GT3. Torsen. Bracing. LBBK (whenever it's back in stock). And much more

It is soooo good! I'd take this car over my old LS swapped FD almost any day. 

Opti
Opti Dork
9/14/21 2:12 p.m.

In reply to captdownshift (Forum Supporter) :

I think that comes down to a usage scenario. 99.9% of cars will never see a track were sustained high g corners are a concern. The cars that are marketed that way tend to have it addressed, and the more pedestrian versions dont. Track cars have needed modification since there was track cars.

I think we are at the golden era of ICE performance cars. New car emissions hit its lowest in like 2005 or 6 and has been rising since. With the current scrutiny on emissions and the emergence of better electric cars, I doubt we will have this performance from ICE powered cars for the everyman. Youll probably still be able to get them, but i doubt it will be cheap. If electric powered performance will be available for the everyman is yet to be seen.

Driven5
Driven5 UltraDork
9/14/21 2:12 p.m.

captdownshift (Forum Supporter) said:

In terms of measurable data, acceleration, mechanical grip and performance capability, yes. In terms of visceral response and engagement, absolutely not. 

In other words: We are entering the golden age of car-performance, but exiting the golden age of performance-cars.

alfadriver
alfadriver GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
9/14/21 2:26 p.m.
Opti said:

I think we are at the golden era of ICE performance cars. New car emissions hit its lowest in like 2005 or 6 and has been rising since. With the current scrutiny on emissions and the emergence of better electric cars, I doubt we will have this performance from ICE powered cars for the everyman. Youll probably still be able to get them, but i doubt it will be cheap. If electric powered performance will be available for the everyman is yet to be seen.

Not really sure what you mean by emissions were lowest in 2005 or 06, as they have been going down every year.  While the current minimum emissions is still sulev30, in a few years, the lowest will be SULEV20 and the entire fleet average will be SULEV30 for new cars and light trucks.  MD and HD trucks are significantly down as well- as I've worked on emissions reductions for pretty much all phases except diesel.

There's been a very significant decline in ICE emissions, and with new EU and China rules- they will just get lower along with the upcoming CARB and EPA rules.

Opti
Opti Dork
9/14/21 3:53 p.m.

In reply to alfadriver :

I cant recall the source a friend sent to me showing emission on cars trending upward in 2005. Maybe it was all cars on the road, or per capita or some weird metric made to frame it a certain way. Even so I still dont believe gas powered performance cars made for the everyman are long for this world.

You can already see the market sentiment shifting. Multiple manufacturers have said they will go all electric in the future, California said they will ban new ICE cars by 2035. 

z31maniac
z31maniac MegaDork
9/14/21 4:02 p.m.
captdownshift (Forum Supporter) said:

In terms of measurable data, acceleration, mechanical grip and performance capability, yes. In terms of visceral response and engagement, absolutely not. 

 

One of the most aspects with modern cars as that the engineers (or their bean counter overlords) seem to have forgotten that you need a lubrication system capable of handling the lateral loads that 275 tires are capable of delivering. Whether that be strictly through added capacity, baffles in the pan, better pumps or restrictors to prevent over oiling of one side of an engine while another gets starvation. 

I don't think manufacturers should be expected to build track cars for street car prices. 

Look at popular cars, a dry sump system is in the THOUSANDS for something like a Corvette/Camaro/Mustang. Why would manufactures incur these extra costs for the bare minimum who need it?

This sounds like more of the "I don't buy new cars, because manufacturers don't build new cars I like, because I don't buy new cars." 


 

alfadriver
alfadriver GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
9/14/21 4:10 p.m.

In reply to Opti :

Well, the "conclusion" is wrong.  That, I'm quite sure of.  New car emissions continue to go down.  I kind of doubt that entire fleet average emissions is going up, too- given the fact that ~8% is replaced every single year with new cars, which have better emissions than the MY prior.

As for the longevity of ICE's, I'll let history decide that.  

But in terms of emissions, ICE's are significantly cleaner than 2005 or 2006.  

Driven5
Driven5 UltraDork
9/14/21 4:36 p.m.

In reply to z31maniac :

That depends. If we're talking about as delivered from the factory, the tires should ALWAYS give out before the engine oiling. Anything less than that is unacceptably poor practice. But that's where their obligations end, and any safety factor beyond that is just icing on the cake. So if we're talking about throwing significantly stickier tires on it, then technically all bets are off.

If it is an enthusiast performance car though, a bit of extra safety factor can go a long way in terms of reputation, for typically not much extra cost.

RichardSIA
RichardSIA Dork
9/14/21 9:10 p.m.

No.
Enjoy while you may, per published reports from most major car companies this is the last gasp of ICE, then it's eltrique freques only.
The consequences will be many, and I predict not at all what has been promised.

As to builds, I have several underway, all from scratch or based on vintage cars.
I do not car if newer cars are faster, more "Comfortable", smoother, quieter, safer, yada yada.

Tom1200
Tom1200 SuperDork
9/14/21 9:24 p.m.

We probably are; decades ago we had cars that went fast in a straight line and cars that went fast around corners but not a lot of them did both. The ones that did were expensive.

I love my 70s & 80s cars but it is hard to ignore the level of performance new cars offer.

Kreb (Forum Supporter)
Kreb (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand PowerDork
9/14/21 11:10 p.m.
captdownshift (Forum Supporter) said:

In terms of measurable data, acceleration, mechanical grip and performance capability, yes. In terms of visceral response and engagement, absolutely not. 

Yeah, pretty well. There's something to be said for working for it. Developing mechanical sympathy, learning arcane skills like heel-and toe, listening to the shriek of machinery.... Now the younger generation will often respond with an eyeroll and an "OK Boomer", but to each their own. 

My feeling is that I enjoy the fruits of modern engineering in my DDs, but for play, prefer something more challenging and engaging to toss about.

Stefan (Forum Supporter)
Stefan (Forum Supporter) GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
9/14/21 11:49 p.m.

In reply to Tom1200 :

Yeah, I grew up driving FWD turbo-Dodges.  This meant you had tons of torque but not a lot of footprint to put it down on.  Add-in the lovely PNW weather and you had recipes for lots of wheel spin and pedaling to get moving.  The fact that so many manhole covers seemed to be aligned with one of my front tires about just about the time I was shifting into second through an intersection was a coincidence I'm sure.

The steering rack bolt holes on my 87 Shelby CSX wallowed out due to a factory defect.  This meant that thanks to the prevalent torque steer I guickly had a about a quarter turn of "slop" in the steering.  Being young and dumb, I acclimated, but parked it at my brother's to replace the K-member.  He (used to own an 86 Shelby GLH-S among several other Shelby Chargers, etc.) tried to drive my car up the road to the grocery,  he made it to the end of the block before turning around.

 I "fixed" the issue with 1/2" bolts, nuts, lock nuts and holes bored into the k-member and steering rack.

Anyway, I learned how to "peddle" turbo cars to keep them going thanks to wet manhole covers and trying to make it across various intersections.  My Focus RS feels like a grown up version of those cars, except that it doesn't care if I hit a wet manhole cover, it just keeps on keeping on.

alfadriver
alfadriver GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
9/15/21 6:08 a.m.

I know there's a lot of gnashing over the lack of "feel"...  and i know I add to that, as I prefer to have raced my Alfa over my Miata.

But that being said, sometimes, fixing handling flaws also removes some of that feel.  Many years ago, I drove my friends's Alfa Spider which was set up to be a real CSP car (this was George Schweikle's Spider), and it drove very much like a modern Miata compared to my GTV, as the rear was most redone with a Panhard rod.  

It's quite possible that the elimination of the handling flaws really does mean getting rid of what we call "character"- so the demand of better and better performance will naturally remove these flaws that we like so much.

ProDarwin
ProDarwin MegaDork
9/15/21 8:21 a.m.
alfadriver said:

In reply to Opti :

Well, the "conclusion" is wrong.  That, I'm quite sure of.  New car emissions continue to go down.  I kind of doubt that entire fleet average emissions is going up, too- given the fact that ~8% is replaced every single year with new cars, which have better emissions than the MY prior.

As for the longevity of ICE's, I'll let history decide that.  

But in terms of emissions, ICE's are significantly cleaner than 2005 or 2006.  

Are you talking per-vehicle average, or total fleet output?  Per vehicle is cleaner and cleaner, but if you grow the fleet, emissions will increase, even if the vehicles you are adding are crazy clean.  

Additionally, there are different types of emissions and its no surprise that the news does a poor job differentiating them.  CO2 is a byproduct of combustion.  Combusting X amount of gasoline is going to make Y lbs of CO2, no matter how clean (smog) the engine is (unless you have onboard carbon capture :) ).

alfadriver
alfadriver GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
9/15/21 9:10 a.m.

In reply to ProDarwin :

the overall fleet is pretty steady- the amount of cars permanently removed from the road every year is pretty close to the number of cars sold- the overall feet is growing roughly the same as the population is.  And the reduction in emissions is faster than the increase in the fleet.  So all of the increase in the feet by new cars is more than offset in the decrease in fleet emissions.

I did separate CO2 from my point, as most of the time, emissions are about the immediate health problem gasses- NMOG, NOx, and CO.  That being said, new car fleet CO2 production decreases as new cars get more and more efficient.  Up until now, this trend has not really followed the fleet expansion, but over the next decade, the rules will reduce overall fleet CO2 with new cars.

Compared to EV's- there are only a handful of locations around this country where there's a real CO2 advantage for EVs.  This, too, will change, but the change takes a whole lot longer due to the far fewer energy generation locations vs. cars (let alone momentum of keeping old power plants).  None the less, the new car fleet does get the local benefit of the EV market, which really was tiny back in 2005/06.

jerel77494
jerel77494 New Reader
9/15/21 9:20 a.m.

In reply to captdownshift (Forum Supporter) :

I hear ya!  One of the major car mags tested 3 "new" BMW's a while back and praised their technology.  Which did they actually want to drive for fun?  A first gen M3, when it had a tuned 4 cylinder.

ProDarwin
ProDarwin MegaDork
9/15/21 9:47 a.m.
alfadriver said:

In reply to ProDarwin :

the overall fleet is pretty steady- the amount of cars permanently removed from the road every year is pretty close to the number of cars sold- the overall feet is growing roughly the same as the population is.  And the reduction in emissions is faster than the increase in the fleet.  So all of the increase in the feet by new cars is more than offset in the decrease in fleet emissions.

Ah ok I follow.  Looks like # of cars on the road goes up by 1.5-3% per year in the US.  You are saying the 8% of vehicles replaced each year results in an emissions decrease that offsets that 1.5-3% fleet size.  So that would mean on average they are ~30% cleaner.

 

alfadriver
alfadriver GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
9/15/21 10:03 a.m.

In reply to ProDarwin :

And since the average car on the road is 11 years old, many of the cars removed are over 11 years old, which had fleet emissions generally much worse when at FUL.

The other factor is that the emissions rules are for Full Useful Life- which is 150k miles, and new cars are cleaner than they will be when used (things deteriorate).  Old cars are either past FUL or at it, where as new cars have to be less than the standard.  So it's not really that much of an stretch to think that the feet average of cars removed is 30% dirtier than new cars.  

As a relative note- back in 2010, the car I worked to certify was about the equivalent of the current ULEV90 standard- and back then, it was on the lower end of the emissions spectrum, only PZEV was cleaner.  Now, the fleet average is just above about ULEV50 or so- ramping to ULEV30 in two more years.  So just going on the standard, the 2021 new car is about 40% cleaner than a clean car in 2010, when in reality, the new cars are *roughly* half the standard so that the old cars are barely below the standard- so the reality is more like 90 vs. 30 or so.

When you look at older cars removed- they count for far more new cars, very much skewing the removal results quite a bit.

John Welsh
John Welsh Mod Squad
9/15/21 11:14 a.m.

The current crop of performance cars are impressive but I mourn the death of the manual transmission.  

z31maniac
z31maniac MegaDork
9/15/21 12:33 p.m.
Driven5 said:

In reply to z31maniac :

That depends. If we're talking about as delivered from the factory, the tires should ALWAYS give out before the engine oiling. Anything less than that is unacceptably poor practice. But that's where their obligations end, and any safety factor beyond that is just icing on the cake. So if we're talking about throwing significantly stickier tires on it, then technically all bets are off.

If it is an enthusiast performance car though, a bit of extra safety factor can go a long way in terms of reputation, for typically not much extra cost.

Of course, my track pack GT Mustang had 255 Pzero's all around. It's not uncommon for people to throw 315/335 RComps on one for a track vehicle. Add a splitter and a wing, you can't reasonably expect a manufacturer to build cars for that .00001% use case. 

93EXCivic
93EXCivic MegaDork
9/15/21 12:35 p.m.

In reply to alfadriver :

Does that include world wide though? Cause car ownership in many other countries is trending upward.

alfadriver
alfadriver GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
9/15/21 12:41 p.m.

In reply to 93EXCivic :

Given the development of the emissions rules around the world, yea, I would expect so.  China, in particular, is cracking down really hard and fast.  Thanks to VW, the EU has taken a very strong development change, too.  Most of the cars in the world are made to US, EU, or China rules....

(a quick check on sales- in 2019, there were 77M new cars, and I know the US, EU, and China are each in the 16-20M area- so probably about 50-60M are just 3 markets)

Pete. (l33t FS)
Pete. (l33t FS) MegaDork
9/15/21 12:47 p.m.
John Welsh said:

The current crop of performance cars are impressive but I mourn the death of the manual transmission.  

Manual steering, for me.

Specifically, cars light enough to have good performance with narrow tires, so you could have really good steering feel while still having light effort.

jharry3
jharry3 GRM+ Memberand Dork
9/15/21 1:30 p.m.

I took my dad for a ride in my WRX. 

I told him it was faster and handled better than the '65 Mustang with a built up engine I had in the '70's.  Headers, Thrush mufflers in the dual exhaust for the 11:1 compression, "3/4 race" cam, 4bbl holly on Edelbrock manifold.  

His only comment about the WRX was "And its quieter too."  

350z247
350z247 Reader
9/16/21 1:59 p.m.

I'd say it peaked in about 2018 with the number of naturally aspirated engines dwindling. At this point, the only car on the horizon I care about is the C8 Z06; after that, I doubt I'll care about another new car again. Cars will continue to get quicker and faster, but considerably less interesting to me.

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