What Makes a Car Special?

While driving across Michigan this past week, I happened to see a billboard that loudly proclaimed that the 2014 Mazda 6 sedan achieves 40 mpg. This was supposed to make me want to give Mazda my money so that I too might own a car that did this well at the pump. That sounded quite nice. I thought of how badly I wanted a car that sipped fuel conservatively. Surely my face would mirror the happy smiles of the young millennials whose painful over- enthusiasm radiated from the billboard. My wallet would feel heavier. My cares would be erased. And I would love my car.

Or would I?

The short answer is no. Or, at least, not necessarily. You see, there’s quite a long list of factors that go into making a car something that you want to own, rather than a large mechanical contrivance, cobbled together out of different pieces of metal and plastic, that makes a loud noise and moves around quickly. If there was no difference, we would all whiz around on vacuum cleaners and that would be that.

While fuel economy is more important than ever, it really isn’t that high on the preference list of the majority of modern gearheads. While it’s certainly true that some people care deeply about fuel economy, they are often not in a position to buy a new car. Those that actually care about fuel economy and have the spare cash to blow on a new car have opinions that don’t matter and should best be ignored. Their politely confused expressions and the beige Corollas they buy en masse can often identify them.

So what really matters then? For the most part, looks are highly subjective. A general rule of thumb is to check if you’re driving a Pontiac Aztek. You aren’t? Good. Carry on. Anything else is acceptable.

The same goes for technology in the car. While some people like to have seats that gently massage them and an infotainment system that will sync with all of their i-things, just as many people are happy to stick with a radio and air conditioning. A good way to judge in-car tech is by simply asking yourself, “Does this enhance my experience or detract from it?” You’ll be surprised how easy it is to separate what you don’t want. Cruise control? That’s useful. Fully adjustable lumbar support and heads up display? Unless you’re an arthritic fighter pilot, you’ll rapidly discover that you really don’t give a damn and either turn these off or just ignore them completely.

This isn’t to say that the factors above shouldn’t play into your decision in a small way; they can certainly influence a purchase, but they pale in comparison with one thing: noise.

Noise is the most important attribute of any car. If I’m testing a supercar, it better make a sound like a magnified choir of angels that happen to be on fire. Likewise, if a luxury car has pronounced road noise, it is an automatic failure in my book. It doesn’t matter that it has 65 different in-seat massagers, all cast from the hands of Taiwanese child laborers. I don’t care that the steering wheel is made from polar bear hide or that it runs not on gas, but on strips of Rembrandt paintings. If it does not block all sound from the outside world, it is a complete failure.

Noise is a deal breaker. It’s like a car’s signature. Take a Ferrari California, for example. It’s not a hugely exciting car to look at. Your dentist neighbor would probably confuse it with a Subaru BRZ. As a matter of fact, if you painted a BRZ red, the similarity would be uncanny until you turned them on. The BRZ isn’t necessarily quiet, but if you rev the Ferrari a bit, you’ll set off car alarms. That’s the difference. That’s how you know what you’re dealing with.

Noise is the closest thing that each car has to a unique voice. It’s part of the reason that we can become so attached to certain vehicles. It can almost make them seem alive. That, more than anything else, is why noise is important. Not only is it the soundtrack to your automotive adventures, but it’s something unique and defining for each vehicle.