Electric vehicles are probably the future of most personal transportation. I think the best commuter cars are already electric, and other things like vans, light trucks, and logistical machines are also better off with batteries. I'll go as far as to say most of the powersports market will be superior when motivated by electrons, too. But enthusiast cars? I’m still not buying it.
I exist in this industry as both a journalist and a consumer. I spend increasing amounts of time talking about this issue with almost everyone I know. Like me, a lot of other people are very open to buying a BEV as a third car, or maybe even a second car. But when it comes to the kind of stuff we want to drive, the cars that serve as a foundation for a lifelong passion, today’s EVs are not as fun or interesting as their internal combustion counterparts. And I think we have to start being more honest about that if we want enthusiasts to buy into electrification at large.
I understand the consequences of society turning down vehicles with zero tailpipe emissions. I’m not advocating that. I'm stating that the cars I love to drive now are a lot more entertaining than the pricey, heavy, blobby EVs hitting the streets in 2023.
It's a difference that can’t be papered over with marketing, retro nameplates, and ever-shrinking sprints to 60 miles per hour. Inherently, today's electric vehicles are missing the magic that’s defined so many great enthusiast cars, and although I'm desperately hopeful, I don’t see things changing anytime soon.
This all came together recently for me. At the end of a test of a new electric Mercedes EQS, I returned the car to the automaker and soon found myself driving a nearly twenty-year-old, six-cylinder Ford Escape. I was genuinely amazed at how much more interesting to drive it was than the Mercedes, something that occurred to me completely organically (as if I was looking forward to driving a tired old Ford).
The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Almost all electric cars deliver their grunt the same. There’s a jolt at the start followed by rapid acceleration and then, at highway speeds, they begin to fall off. You can extend the duration of this sequence by giving a car insane amounts of power like the Tesla Model S Plaid, which I’ve had the pleasure/discomfort of driving, but it’s always going to be that way. Without a multi-speed transmission, it’s inescapable. The power curve is locked in.
Combustion-powered cars are almost unbelievably more diverse. Most deliver power in a different way, make a different noise doing it, and send torque to the ground through a gearbox with distinct ratios. The transmission even makes the act of straight-line acceleration punctuated by little jolts of excitement—gear changes—and some do that jolt better than others. I could talk more about different engine configurations, induction methods, types of transmissions, and other interesting elements of ICE cars, but I think you get the point.
It’s almost like cars with internal combustion engines were intentionally designed to be entertaining. They weren’t, though. They are just naturally complex and interesting.
Electric cars are not conceptually complex, nor are they particularly interesting, at least relatively. There are simply fewer parts to be interested in. That’s great for something that just needs to get you from A to B. Automotive enthusiasm is not about getting from A to B.
This was reinforced even more when I attended the 24 Hours of Daytona last weekend. One particular class of cars, the GTPs, are hybrids. They get going using electric power and then bump-start their engines. The Cadillacs, with their naturally-aspirated 5.5-liter V8s, sound like an orchestra of combustion that hits you in the chest like a locomotive. “What if that V8 never kicked on?” I thought to myself. I try not to dwell on it.
Acceleration aside, the best electric cars can do to gin up excitement is to imitate ICE cars. Automakers agree in practice. Many can’t stomach electrifying some of their products and know many of their buyers would reject them if they tried right now. They are going to extreme lengths to keep these cars breathing. Others are trying everything to inject fun into their EVs.
Both Toyota and Hyundai are experimenting with BEVs that simulate gear changes and engine vibrations, for example. Indeed, Toyota is going as far as to experiment with a completely software-enabled manual transmission with an H-pattern shifter.
Almost all EVs play synthesized sounds, too, and not just the exterior noises that are mandated by federal law. They play tunes on the inside to add something to the driving experience. Everything from the Hummer EV to the aforementioned Mercedes I drove has fake propulsion noise. Porsche even went to the trouble of recording the real noises made by its e-motors and remixing them into the Taycan’s signature sound. Some of these efforts sound interesting. Ultimately, it’s all artificial. None of it is real.
And those aren’t even sports cars. When it comes to coupes, hot hatches, and convertibles, a lot of automakers are simply declining to go fully electric. Mazda insists on keeping the featherweight Miata powered by internal combustion to maintain its dynamics. Porsche is developing sustainable “efuels” because it believes an electric 911 wouldn’t be a 911 at all. Toyota is even trying to run modified internal combustion engines on hydrogen gas, despite the low efficiency of such a setup and the laughable state of hydrogen refueling infrastructure.
The Bottom Line
Even without new propulsion technology, though, I will not give up the sorts of cars I love to drive. I’ve built an entire career not as a reporter, not as a writer, not even around my actual college degree. I’ve built it as a car enthusiast. Nobody is going to take that away from me. Nobody is going to talk me out of it. And it’s not just me who feels this way; at the very least, it's millions of others.
They just can’t get enough of their Supra coming into boost, their crossplane V8 rumbling at idle, or their M3 screaming to 8,000 RPM. The people I witnessed sleeping in the stands at the 24 Hours of Daytona this year just because they love motorsports? You are never going to convince those people that EVs are more fun to drive unless they actually are. A fake gear change or a tone through a speaker is not going to make them play for the other team. Take a step back. They know too much.
They are, needless to say, not electrified. Neither am I. Not now, not next year, and probably not by the time the first out-and-out ICE bans are signed next decade. I’m open to electric vehicles changing for the better. I welcome lighter EVs, faster-charging EVs, even electric cars in shapes and sizes I know and love. But unless they can get as fun as what I know, unless they can hit those same satisfying notes for me and millions of others who live, breathe, and love cars, they’re going to keep playing second fiddle.
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