In our automotive imaginations, we like to pretend that every road winds through a magical traffic-free California canyon where there’s no speed limit and the terms “understeer” and “oversteer” are actually relevant. We cherish high-rpm horsepower and disparage front-wheel drive. We exalt the Lotus Exige as a paragon of virtue and scorn the Toyota Avalon as an affront to all that is righteous. And in that imaginary land where we always drive for the fun of it, this attitude would make sense. But the reality is that we rack up most of our mileage out of necessity. In the real world, we spend a lot of time commuting.
Commuting is to driving what a prison meal is to dinner at elBulli—there’s a big difference between doing something because you want to and doing it because you have no other choice. I don’t care how great your car is: when you’re stuck in traffic, wearing a rut between your house and your job, the finest Bentley is but a gilded cage.
Commuting changes your priorities. Consider this scenario: You’ve got a one-hour daily commute, each way. You average 20 mph. Traffic is terrible, as are the roads themselves. In this situation, would you rather have an automatic-transmission Ford Focus with satellite radio and Sync . . . or a stick-shift Porsche Boxster Spyder with no radio or air-conditioning? Be honest.
The correct answer, of course, is neither. If you commute an hour each way, you need to build a robot who sits at your desk and chats with coworkers while you log in from home and prove that your physical attendance only clutters the office refrigerator. But if you must commute, you should acknowledge your unpleasant reality and select your weapon accordingly.
The awful truth is that everything that makes a car great on a racetrack will make it horrible in the daily grind, and vice versa. If there were a magazine called Commuter Car, the cover lines would scream, “Soft seats—where to find them!” and “High-profile tires that are quiet and last a long time!” I was thinking that the Boxster Spyder might be the worst commuter car, until I remembered the Gumpert Apollo, with its sequential-manual racing transmission, all-or-nothing power delivery, and outward visibility of an old-time dive helmet. My apologies for the tired reference, but is it possible that Charlie Sheen was commuting to the set in a Gumpert Apollo? Because that would explain a lot about his state of mind.
As a writer, I have to be careful not to get obsessed over perceived shortcomings that are important on the track but irrelevant in the real-world, traffic-snarled life of a given car. For instance, after driving a BMW 550i on GingerMan Raceway’s road course, my notes were filled with scathing comments about its open rear differential. The 550i uses the brakes to approximate a limited-slip rear end, but when you deactivate the traction control system, you lose your virtual Posi. So when you’re exiting a fast third-gear corner, the inside rear tire gets murdered by 400 hp, creating the most impressive one-wheel burnout this side of a Top Fuel unicycle.
Why, I asked, would BMW put an open diff in a car with 450 lb-ft of torque? Are its engineers insane? Don’t they know that people will drive these things on . . . the . . . on the track? And it dawned on me that nobody is ever going to drive a BMW 550i on a track. The M5, maybe, and that’ll be built for the job. But forming an opinion of the 550i based on its third-gear corner exits is like deciding that you don’t like dogs because they can’t fly hang gliders. And the most common gripe about the new 5-series—that it’s too refined—becomes an asset in the context of commuting, where the majority of 5-series use will occur.
The 550i might be one of the finest daily drivers on the market right now. It’s got massive torque, so it never seems to be working hard. The turbos mute the V-8, which cuts down on your behind-the-wheel fatigue. The ride is cosseting but precise. And you can get all manner of electronic helpers to make your life easier. Don’t strain your neck looking down at the gauges when you’ve got a perfectly good head-up display floating across the windshield.
If there’s a drawback to the 5-series, it is its price. And I believe that one objective for a commuter car is to cost you as little as possible, because commuting is more about minimizing the pain—including the financial kind—than maximizing the fun. Which brings me to Saab. As someone who used to spend ninety minutes a day behind the wheel of a Saab, I can tell you that the car had certain talents that couldn’t be measured with a stopwatch.
For one thing, consider Saab seats. Have you ever heard the expression, “As comfy as a Swede riding shotgun”? No, you haven’t, because I just made it up. But it’s the truth, I tell you. If you’re uncomfortable in a Saab bucket, you have your knees on backward. Four-cylinder Saabs, by dint of their turbochargers, have plenty of low-end torque, yet they get decent fuel economy. And, despite their ambitious sticker prices, you can lease a Saab for roughly the cost of a daily ham sandwich. (I’m only half-joking there—Saab is offering a lease on the 9-3 that works out to about $13 per day.) Think about it like that and a 9-3 starts to make sense. Wow, I think I just justified Saab’s business plan for the past twenty years.
Driving a car at least an hour every day can either endear it to you or cause you to develop irreconcilable differences, usually over some strange quirk that you didn’t notice in the showroom. I know a fellow whose daily drive revealed that you can’t overlap brake and throttle inputs in a Volkswagen Phaeton—the computer just cuts power to the engine. He likes to use his left foot in traffic, and that detail ruined the car for him. I think the Jaguar XJ is generally stunning, but the optional heated windshield makes me crazy: once you notice the filaments in the glass, you can’t un-notice them. And I don’t think I’d buy a car that forces you to push an “on” button for cruise control every time you start a trip. These are the details that really decide the winners in Commuter Car’s vaunted “It’s Not The Worst Place To Spend A Couple Hours A Day” awards.
In general, the most gadget-laden cars tend to be the ones that are best at the commuter slog—Infiniti’s Distance Control Assist is the best thing since the radio preset. While a lot of people bemoan the growing automation of the car, I’m all for it: Give me that Google self-driving car sooner rather than later, please. Let the car do the commuting, and I’ll be happy to do the driving.
Illustration: Tim Marrs