Car Guy

An Ode to the American Driver

American drivers are on Quaaludes. Every last one of them.

By 9.2.11

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Too bad most American drivers are on 'ludes. Or might as well be. They dawdle along at just under -- or slightly over -- the under-posted speed limit. They slow for the mildest of curves; to them, "cornering" is something you do in the commodities market. They routinely tailgate, then drive no faster than the car they just spent 15 minutes tailgating, once they finally get around it. When the light goes green, it takes them awhile to notice. And forget about right on red. Even when it's legal and the way is clear for three football field lengths in either direction.

And yet, they drive cars with 150 MPH top speed capability, three and four hundred horses under the hood, variable cam timing, direct fuel injection, sequentially staged turbos, six, seven and even eight speed transmissions, 17, 18, 19 and even 20 inch wheels, super sticky stiff sidewalled low aspect ratio tires rated for sustained travel at speeds over 130 MPH (that will probably never see the far side of 80 for more than a few furtive seconds). Sophisticated four-wheel-independent suspensions, in many cases "active" or otherwise controlled by a computer to continuously adjust themselves to changing road/driving conditions.

Well, the road may change, but the driving rarely does.

Go out and see for yourself.

I drive all sorts of new cars, including some very powerful exotics. But the truth is that I'm usually still passing everyone around me even when I am driving my beat-up old 1998 four-cylinder pick-up. I find myself passing cars with two (and sometimes three) times the horsepower and speed capability; leaving "sport sedans" in my rearview going "up the mountain" (curves). I'm not driving like a maniac, either. Just a few MPH faster than the posted limit. I run 70 on the posted 55 MPH straight sections and about 5-10 MPH faster than the posted 35 MPH limit going "up the mountain" (curves). But that is fast enough to blow past 85-90 percent of the other cars out there, many of them equipped with powerful V-6 and even V-8 engines, "high performance" suspensions, and so on. I feel just like Spicoli must have as he threaded that T-topped '79 Z28 through the dozers out on Hollywood Boulevard.

The level of interest in driving among American "drivers" is incredibly low. Yet they just need to have these massive wheel/tire packages, high-powered engines and the rest of it. It makes me laugh -- and then it makes me cry. And bang my head against the steering wheel. All this power and capability wasted. Pearls before swine.

Our system puts people in an impossible situation. First, it conditions them from infancy to Submit and Obey -- and most people eventually do, out of dreary necessity. They may show some early exuberance -- for driving and other things -- when they're young, before the toothless but firm-jawed gums of the system clamp down on them in the form of things like DMV "points" that lead to "surcharges" and -- lately -- a poorer credit score. And we all know the importance of having a good credit score, don't we?

The average American is thoroughly beaten down, living in constant dread of The Man. This makes him nervous and twitchy. Now add an overpressured life and minimal to nonexistent actual driver training in the sense of learning how to control a car and work a car so that you are actually making real use of its capabilities vs. learning to Always Slow for a School Zone and be a "responsible" machine-minder... and, violà! The American Driver.

Meanwhile, the poor sap is fed a steady diet of images and cultural pressure that lead him to desire a car -- and capabilities -- he either cannot or will not ever use. But he buys nonetheless and not really knowing what he bought -- or what it could do. Think of all the 'lude-ites out there toddling along in their E and S Class Benzes, their Lexus LSs and Jaguar XJs. Have you ever seen one of these cars "cornering"? Being driven anywhere near 100 MPH? How about 90? (All of the aforesaid models were built to cruise all day at 130-plus.) Whether as a consequence of defeatist conditioning or just plain ol' indifference, these cars are like codpieces on wheels -- for show, but rarely, if ever, for go.

I'd love to be able to perform an experiment. Take a new BMW 3 or 5 series -- any higher-end "luxury-sport" sedan will do. Remove the variable cam timing, direct-injected turbocharged gem of over-done (because under-used) technology under the hood and replace it with a circa mid-1980s Taurus V-6, suitably muffled.

I doubt one out of 20 would notice the difference.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.