I know this headline isn’t going to win me any friends, and I’m even a little surprised I’m writing this, but I’ve recently come to a realization: I haven’t had much fun in the recent 400+ horsepower cars I’ve driven.
It’s not because I’m so depraved that I don’t enjoy speed or power—I absolutely do. It’s sort of because I enjoy those things that I’m finding driving powerful cars a chore.
While I’ve always been more in the slow-car-fast school of thought, and while my own idiosyncratic preferences tend to ridiculous, low-HP cars, I’ve had amazing times in fast cars as well. I’ve driven 700 HP Lambos and evil-sounding 662 HP GT500s, the 662 HP SLS AMG Black, the 640 HP Viper SRT, and the famed 707 HP Hellcat—mostly on tracks, though.
And I’ve had a blast driving those cars, no question. That visceral gut-punch of power, the noise, the force of the acceleration trying to give you a kidneyectomy through the seat... I get it. Oh, I get it. There’s nothing quite like it.
But recently, three things conspired together that made me really re-evaluate how I felt about high-horsepower (which I’ll define as anything over 400 HP) cars: a 467 HP Lexus GS-F, a trip to Washington DC, and my home state being a jackass yet again.
I had a nice, fast, bright orange car to take on a little weekend trip, and I had it right on the week that North Carolina got a big bug up its state-butt about speeding. I was driving on the weekend of maximum enforcement for their new no-tolerance speeding rules.
That trip may have been one of the most painfully frustrating driving experiences of my life. The Lexus GS-F is a rewarding car to drive, but not when you’re keeping it to 55 mph on an open, straight highway in the middle of a clear day. Then it’s a bright orange torture device.
There were cops everywhere, pulling people over left and right, and my aggressively citrusy, loud, fast-looking car made cops like dogs and me like a meatball wrapped in bacon wrapped in the approval and love of a human: an absolutely irresistible treat.
Driving that car at speeds of 55-65 mph, even in the miserly ‘ECON’ mode, was hell. Absolute hell. It was like being in a narrow hallway trapped behind an old lady in a Rascal scooter with the battery almost depleted. It felt plodding, lethargic, sloth-like.
You could feel the car lumbering along, wanting to give more. Every little bit of acceleration sent endorphins pumping through my body, only to be frustratingly stopped before any of the real fun could begin.
I was reminded of a time a friend of mine decided he was going to give up masturbation, in some sort of misguided attempt to better himself. A week or so into it, we looked into his crazed eyes, one pupil visibly larger than the other, and asked him how it was going. We learned a terrifying secret: he was masturbating, just not allowing himself to, um, finish the job.
That’s so much worse than just stopping cold turkey. Why would he do that to himself? Getting to that point, and then just stopping? That’s insane, and helps nobody. Idiot. That’s what that trip felt like.
There were times I was driving that GS-F and I could feel the response of the car as I feathered the throttle, and I could see the open, clear road ahead of me, I could just start to get that intoxicating sensation of power and speed, and then I’d see a cop on the shoulder, and I felt like biting right through that fucking steering wheel.
And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how often I’d encountered that feeling when driving 400+ HP cars. I looked back at some reviews, and saw this same sentiment popping up again and again. For example, look what I said in this review of the 542 HP BMW Dinan 550i:
It’s genuinely fun, and when you get that right combination of corner and speed, really rewarding.
But also incredibly frustrating. It’s my same complaint with almost any of these incredibly fast, well-engineered cars: unless you regularly track this thing, there’s no way you’re getting a tenth of what this car can do. So, I’m always left conflicted after driving cars like these: they’re incredible, but I know if I had one my inadequate self-control would end up with me getting the thing impounded. And when I’d be sitting with one in traffic I’d feel like I was doing the machine a great injustice.
That feeling of frustration keeps happening to me when I drive these powerful cars. Maybe I’m an idiot with no self-control, but when you feel that power in a car, a big part of you wants to use it. It doesn’t matter that I’m usually not even close to qualified to use it, or that the situation I’m in is the absolute worst place to use it– the feeling is still there, and powerful.
I mean, is that a feeling you want when you drive? The sensation of always holding back? Do you want to live with some prissy angel on your shoulder telling you to slow down, or a little demon in hot pants telling you to speed up?
I even felt this on tracks, sometimes, in cars where the power available was just so far beyond what I could reasonably do with it, it wasn’t even funny. Here’s what I thought about the cop-spec Charger compared to the Hellcat on the track:
The 392 engine has 475 lb-ft of torque that gives great acceleration, and the whole cop package includes beefed up suspension and a set of heavy front brakes that stop just about as well as the Hellcat’s more exotic, lighter setup. The guy in charge of the police car division made the excellent point that if you’re looking for a ready-to-roll track day car, you can do really well by picking up a used cop Charger from an auction.
I think he’s really on to something, as I found the cop car setup to be the sweet spot of the cars I ran on the track — quick, surprisingly nimble for its size, fantastic stopping power, and about 200 pounds lighter than the Hellcat.
Even on the track, I didn’t feel like I needed 707 HP.
When I drive a lower-horsepower car, though, it’s totally different. You feel like you can push the car, and a car when pushed is a fun car.
The little Fiat 500 Abarth, for example, with its meager 160 HP, is a great example of this. You and the car work together, pushing each other, and you have a great time of it, and you’ll almost never be going at jail-or-death speeds.
Now, I get that there’s plenty of people who take their high-HP cars to drag strips and tracks and have the skills and maturity to handle the cars just fine. That’s fantastic, and perhaps those people just have important life/adult/chromosome abilities that I lack. That’s absolutely possible.
But, collectively, I realize that I’ve had way more driving fun driving cars making 250 HP or less than I’ve had driving 500+ HP beasts. Sure, the beasts and I have had good times on tracks, but once they enter the real world, they’re just more onanism without completionism.
Now, as a career idiot, I’m sure I’ll never stop trying to make myself deal well with driving a high-HP beast on regular streets, but I’m not optimistic about my chances. I know who I am: an idiot.
I also now know that if I was granted a wish by a drunken magic horse to spec out my own ideal car, I know it would be a rear-engine, cab-over machine that makes, oh, 250 HP or so. And I’d be just fine with that.