I’ve stated this in various ways and at various times in various comments on the FP over the years. But since they have basically banned me (again) f0r not falling in with the crowd, I feel like it would be useful to post this here to see what people think. Of course, I also happen to think I’m right.
It’s become almost a knee-jerk, compulsive response by most on this site to whine about the weight of basically every new car that isn’t an Alfa 4C, and furthermore to go on long, unhinged diatribes about how cars are too heavy now, too fat, can’t possibly be any fun to drive, and probably had sex with someone’s mother last night to boot. It’s really getting to be almost a religion around here, and in the so-called “enthusiast” circles online.
They’re all wrong. Let me tell you why.
Modern cars (modern meaning, say, the last 5-15 years, especially since CAD became a huge factor in design) are simply not comparable chassis-wise to what was being built for decades and decades before computers came along to make everything more better. Neither are tires, or suspension, or really any component of the modern car. All thanks to our good friend silicon. Computational modeling and design has allowed for nearly unbelieveable advances in chassis design, suspension design, tire design, and car design in general over just a very short period of time. This is absolutely beyond discussion or debate, it’s simply a fact.
So, what does that mean? It means that the modern car is much, much stiffer than anything, even “hypercars” from about 20-30 years ago. It means modern suspension is so good, it can both give you a comfortable ride and also provide the reaction and damping/resistance necessary to endow even the cheapest cars with reasonably good handling. It means tires are quiet, long-lasting, grippy, predictable, and comfortable. It means that more than ever, the average car chassis is truly a great place to start for building an enjoyable driver’s car.
What it also means is that the old, ever-present enemy of weight is far less a concern than it was before. Back when cars had tiny, awful drum brakes, terrible, skinny tires that had no grip, suspensions akin to ox carts and chassis that had less structural integrity than a cardboard box, weight was crucial. Every pound was another pound the already-tapped-out chassis couldn’t afford to deal with. Of course weight was terrifying then - most cars literally couldn’t handle any more of it. The ability of the car to mitigate the effects of weight were very, very limited.
Now, however, this isn’t the case. Modern cars are balanced, stiff as a rock, have tons of grip, genius suspension, fast steering, and excellent brakes. Weight is simply not the issue it used to be. And, lest we forget, there were plenty of heavy cars built in the “glory days” of “cheap and light” decades ago. It seems many have chosen to forget this. By the way, think back to how poorly a 4,000 pound car from the 70's or even the 80's handles. Scary to think about. Now, that’s a fairly common number for a larger sedan to hit, and it’s safe to say that pretty much all of them would embarrass all but the very fastest cars in the world from just a few decades ago.
Case in point - I’m privileged to own 2 BMW 5 Series sedans that are almost exactly 30 years apart. One is a 1988 E28 535i, almost all options, manual gearbox. It’s an extremely cheap-feeling car by modern standards, but in its time it was one of the finest cars money could buy. The other car I own is a 2008 E60 M5. Most options, SMG gearbox. It’s a Brinks Truck compared to the E28, although certainly a lot lighter (and less substantial-feeling) than the several S-Class AMGs I considered buying before I purchased the M5. Everything is relative, after all.
Both cars are fun in a way the other could never be. The E28 truly feels ancient, and is fun in a sort of “so bad it’s good” type of way (although in some ways it is just very good). The sound of the (somewhat low-revving) I6 as it soars towards redline, the weird notchy-yet-indeterminate gearbox, the heavy clutch, the barely-adequate brakes, the super-slow, super-numb, super-heavy steering. It is not a car that necessarily handles well in stock form. It has massive tire sidewalls, on tires that are fairly skinny. The brakes are decent, but don’t like repeated high-speed stops. It’s extremely nose-heavy. The brakes and clutch have adequate feel, but the steering is pretty damn numb. The massive steering wheel means it’s almost comical to heave this thing around tight country roads sometimes. But god knows I’ve done it, and have many, many hours pushing this car to the limit on all kinds of road surfaces. It’s not too fast, but fast enough to make the chassis feel overwhelmed in various situations. It’s fun, but imprecise, sloppy, and not very capable. I’d hesitate to say it’s more raw, as the steering and brakes are certainly boosted and I’ve driven modern cars with much more feel. The thing you notice most is the utter lack of sound deadening and creature comforts as compared to any somewhat modern car. You arne’t insulated from the machine very much, certainly hardly at all compared to a modern 5 Series. Not in terms of the controls, but in terms of what you see, hear, and feel as it goes down the road. Sometimes it’s fun, but when it’s the only car you own, it becomes rather loathsome in the modern era.
The M5 could not possibly be more different. It weighs about 800-900 pounds more. Yet it’s perfectly balanced. The brakes, which many think are underpowered, are insanely powerful compared to most cars. The gearbox is precise, violent, immediate, and unforgiving. The engine feels like it’s wired to your brain, the suspension is adjustable from “Wow this is almost comfortable!” to “Wow this is only useful on Paul Ricard!” - yet it’s insulated, luxurious, technologically advanced. The steering has lots of feel, given the fact that the tires are wide and it’s carrying a 5 liter DOHC V10 between the front wheels. It is confidence-inspiring in a way few cars could ever be. It’s not easy to drive at first, but once you learn how to use it, it flows like water from corner to corner. It becomes easy to drift around nearly any corner, and never feels as if it’s about to go bounding off the road because the chassis simply can’t handle what you’re doing. Instead, it feels as if it demands more than you have to offer, potentially. It feels far more driver-oriented than the “light-weight”, “pure” and “raw” E28. I’m sure an E28 M5 would feel solidly more performance oriented, but still suffers from many of the same innherient shortcomings.
In the end, I enjoy both cars for what they are. I certainly enjoy my “heavy” 4000 pound M5 more than any other car I’ve driven, except for a 5000 pound S65 I considered buying as well. My point is this - modern cars aren’t too heavy, although perhaps some are too insulated. But that’s just how it is now. That’s what 97.6% of people want. And to be honest, sometimes that’s what I want. Even its most docile of configurations, the M5 is exceedingly aggressive and raw. You cannot really drive slowly in it, or relax yourself. To relax is to drive it as intended. Driving it slowly is frustrating. The S65 was perfectly happy to be driven sanely, only just. The E28...what can I say. Compared to a modern car, it’s miserable all the time. But, there are moments when it puts a smile on your face in a way that no other car could. The rest of the time I wish the damn HVAC worked.
Realized this - modern cars will continue to get more insulated, and there’s no way around it. Appreciate every car for what it is, and understand that perhaps we have sort of reached the point of peak driver involvement. There’s plenty of cars with massive driver involvement to be had that were built in the last decade, to pretend otherwise is silly. But for god’s sake, stop blaming the weight. It’s got nothing to do with it. Many of the best cars I’ve driven have been over 4k pounds. All else being equal, less weight is better, of course. I’m not saying it isn’t. But comparing a 3000 pound “sports car” from the 70s to a 4000 pound sports sedan from 2008 is silly and counterproductive. My M5 is one of the least ponderous cars I’ve ever driven. My E28 (and various other lighter cars) are some of the most. Let’s all try to be a bit more reasonable when it comes to the ever-present weight issue. It’s not as bad as you think.