Cars: Why not cushy, affordable?

| Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

The first modern foreign car I drove was a revelation. It delivered a very firm ride. But its tight handling felt incredibly responsive when compared to the traditional rear-drive boats my parents preferred.

I knew why.

A firm ride keeps body motions in check, so that engineers can endow a car with a sporty, responsive demeanor. Or that's the mantra I had grown up reading in magazines.

Naturally, these mags looked at cars from the perspective of their audience, who preferred their rides to be sporty. The journalists who wrote for these books shared this belief and espoused it on a regular basis.

Given the poorly engineered and built cars most buyers had to put up with in the 1970s and 1980s, such a position was easy to justify. The journalists who pitched this message did so again and again, decade after decade. Even the most dim-witted auto executive got the message. Today, it's hard to find a soft ride.

Even Buicks, long pilloried for their soggy seats and soft suspensions, now boast cars like the Regal, with aggressive, firm seats and a suspension developed in Germany. Similarly, Toyota and Lexus, whose vehicles are renowned for their isolated driving experience, are looking to make their rides sportier. But will they lose what makes them unique?

I thought about this over the past few weeks as I gauged passengers' reactions to uncommonly rich rides. Each one — a Jaguar XJL, Range Rover and a Rolls-Royce Ghost — had a six-figure price tag and the latest in amenities. But they had something else: a soft, comfortable ride that surprised and delighted passengers who had forgotten that a car can coddle.

For the past few decades, the hard-bodied automotive athletic ideal has been canonized as the consummate motoring experience. And it is — if you're on the track.

But most of our daily drive isn't spent at triple-digit speeds. It's spent navigating the stoplight grand prix at modest speeds. Even on the highway, speed limits, revenue-grubbing municipalities, congested roads and an infrastructure that's crumbling faster than the political will to address it make the idea of driving a hard-riding, hard-charging sports sedan appear to be the work of marketers infatuated with youth. There's a reason for this. There's an old truism in the car business: You can sell a young man's car to an old man, but you can't sell an old man's car to a young man.

The boy racer ideal is fun, and cars that cater to that crowd are fun to drive. But as our crumbling infrastructure clogs with traffic, the idea of an automobile with a semblance of softness is something few automakers are selling. After all, there's an image to project and protect.

The exceptions are high-end brands. Their buyers are mature. They know who they are and what they want. Their lives are hectic. They require a respite, not a racer. Less-expensive cars used to deliver this. But too many brand executives are caught up in the boy racer ideal.

I understand. But not every automaker should be BMW, Audi or Honda. Why shouldn't a brand deliver comfort with the modern gusto of Jaguar, Land Rover or Rolls-Royce, but at half or one-third the price? It's not a crazy idea; it's just absent.

Larry Printz is automotive editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va.

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