Posts by Andrew Comrie-Picard
- Andrew Comrie-Picard at Open Road5 mths ago
I grew up in a really cold place. We had snow and ice and temperatures that got to 40 degrees below zero. And I grew up in the 1970s, which means that besides a few pickup trucks, all cars had one thing in common: rear wheel drive (RWD).
And boy, did winter become a lot more fun.
I eventually became a professional rally car driver, and for more than a decade drove all manner of very fast all-wheel-drive (AWD) cars through all varieties of conditions: snow, ice, gravel, and tarmac. And I became a complete convert: every car in the world should be AWD. The balance and the traction are unmatched. There was no argument against it; relying on two-wheel-drive was like hiding your savings under your mattress – a reasonable approach until things start catching fire.
- Andrew Comrie-Picard at Open Road5 mths ago
You can’t beat fun for a good time. And you can’t beat a really fun car for less than $35,000. No matter how fun your Ferrari 458 Italia is, no matter how great your Lamborghini Aventador makes you feel, anyone who is larking about with a $27,000 grin-mobile can look at you and say: “I bought this with what it costs you to service your brakes.”
At least that’s what I’d say.
So with that in mind, here’s our list of top five fun cars under $35,000. (Why $35,000? It just seemed like a sensible number that had at least five cars that make me smile).
Fiat 500 Abarth: When Fiat left America in 1983, no-one thought they would come back with a charming, well-engineered, and (so far) reliable car like the 500. And certainly no-one guessed that they’d offer a wheel-smoking Abarth performance version. This is why small cars are fun. And, oh yeah, there’s that girl in the ad.
A friend of mine has a simple philosophy about age: as long as you're still nervous around cops, you're still young enough. Once you start thinking you're on the same side - well, it's a short step from there to the grave.
Except I keep meeting cops I like. Take Andrew Steen, chief instructor at the Emergency Vehicle Operation Course at the California Highway Patrol Academy. Here's a guy who loves cars, loves to talk about them, and can drift a police cruiser around the track as well as any hooligan in a slammed 1989 Nissan 240SX no brake lights or front license plate.
I had the chance to be Andrew's passenger/victim on my visit to the CHP Academy, in the video above. And I had several revelations:
1. Most cops love cars; that's one of the reasons they got into a career that involves driving around all the time.
2. Some cops are absolutely outstanding drivers, and all want to be outstanding.
You, I’m sure, are a good driver. You know to apply the throttle, brakes, and steering progressively; you know not to try to brake and steer at the same time; you know to steer into a skid. But do you know how to brake one wheel at a time to change the yaw of a car? Do you know how to cut ignition to the engine to prevent wheelspin? Do you know how to modulate your brakes right at the threshold of traction a thousand times a second?
Of course you don’t. You can’t. But if you have a modern car, it does. The things I just described are, respectively, electronic stability control (ESC), traction control (TC), and anti-lock braking (ABS). They are miracles of modern engineering.
These systems are so effective and the impact so significant that they have become the law. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has done a study that shows that ten thousand fatal crashes would be avoided annually if all cars on the road had ESC, and has mandated that all new cars sold in the US from 2012 on must have ESC.
I flat-out love sleeper cars. I love the way you can slip under the radar with something that nobody notices, and anyone who does notice becomes an instant co-conspirator. It makes me feel smart. And I need all the smarts I can get.
My early cars were conspicuous sports cars: bright colors, making lots of noise, very extroverted. My first car had an enormous “ TURBO ” on each flank to announce my presence. The police used to just follow me around, waiting for me to let my guard down.
But at some point, I grew up ( not really, but stay with me here ). I came to appreciate the virtues of speaking softly, but carrying a big stick. Like a 500 hp stick.
As a rule, I don’t go to enthusiast shows, whether they’re car shows, dog shows, home shows or wine shows. Firstly, I don’t consider myself to be an enthusiast—AKA people who only talk about one thing. Of course, enthusiast behavior isn’t limited to car shows, and if I were ever invited to a Victoria’s Secret show, I would certainly go—but I don’t think there’s a lot of talking there, despite all the enthusiasts.
Second, looking at cars is like thinking about exercising – the wrong verb with the right noun. You do exercise. And you drive cars. Looking at a bunch of stationary cars makes me weep for the cold oil, quiet gears, and non-squealing tires.
But… with every rule comes exceptions, and there are a few car shows definitely worth attending. Most have famous names: Goodwood, Monterey, Amelia Island. But another car show snuck up on me: The 38 th Annual Shelby American Automobile Club National Convention . Which needs a shorter name.
At any given moment, I know to within half a pound what the tire pressure is in the race car I’m driving. There’s a guy on our team whose job is to monitor and adjust those pressures to get the most out of the tires given the ambient temperature, compound, and length of the course before the next pit stop. He checks pressures probably a hundred times in a single day.
On my street car, I’m pretty sure I checked the pressures as recently as 2009.
That’s irresponsible, and it’s because I’m lazy. But that doesn’t make it ok. In fact, after filming the piece above, I was inspired and actually checked the pressures on my car. After digging around in the glovebox, underneath expired insurance docs and spare fuses and, actually, a pair of gloves, I found the pressure gauge. And then I had to remind myself what the pressures are supposed to be.
That’s always the first surprise. Most modern cars require pressures around 30 pounds per square inch (psi) on all four corners. But the sticker on my 1982 Porsche 930 reads like a guide for an all-inclusive resort in Cancun: 2 bar in the front, and 3 bar in the back.
Most automobiles today look the same. Sure, we obsess on little differences between number of airbags and whether the power windows have an “auto-up” function, but modern vehicles have converged onto similar throat-lozenge-looking platforms. Blah.
This wasn’t always the case. Different cars used to be different. In 1959, you could have a then-quirky air-cooled rear-engined Volkswagen Beetle, a tiny front-engine front-drive Austin Mini, an otherworldly Gallic Citroen DS, or a massive Cadillac Fleetwood convertible with those fins . And those were all mass-produced cars, intended for a mainstream market.
So it’s much more difficult to have a unique automotive experience today. You have to look to the supercars, the specialist creations to find something to open your mind to things about driving that you hadn’t thought of before.
Trying to list only five cars for this is nearly impossible. The cars we have above are just a selection. There’s no objectivity about it. It’s a personal thing.
There was a guy we knew in college who threw up a lot – let’s call him “Chunky.” Chunky had a mathematical formula that became known as “The Chunky Quotient” – it was the percentage alcohol of a bottle of something, multiplied by the total volume of the bottle, divided by its cost. It was a handy way to figure out the most economical way of getting… chunky.
I have long tried to do the same thing with cars. Take the top speed, divide by the zero to 60 time, and then divide by the purchase price. It should give you something in units of mph per second per dollar, and be a handy way to figure out the most economical way of getting… arrested.
Behind my shop are some of my old race cars. Most have become the organ donors of the racing world – they’ve given up their engines or gearboxes or shocks for some other race or rally car project: something newer, something faster, something better.
Particularly derelict is my first proper AWD rally car: a 1997 Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution IV. It has over 60 rallies in its logbook and several national victories in its day. Over a decade ago, I won the Canadian Open Rally Championship with it, and I used it at the X Games in 2006, when it was a highly-polished, cherished weapon. Now it sits on a sad angle, missing its driveline, moving slowly into the earth. Ashes to ashes. It’s just an old race car.