Clarkson on: sports cars
So, does a sports car have to be fast? I only ask because parked on my drive are a Smart Roadster and a Ford StreetKa which, superficially, are two of the most confusing machines ever to see the light of day.
It's not just the speed either. It's everything. These cars have forced me to ask a very big question indeed. We know what an off-road car is, and we know what a saloon car is. But what, exactly, is a sports car?
Sport implies speed and excitement, but let's not forget shall we that a sport is any game which requires specialist clothing. If you can do it in jeans, it's a pastime.
On that basis, this duo of steel and plastic and canvas are pastime cars. However, let's not forget, shall we, that you need specialist clothing to play that symphony of tedium and sloth called cricket. So even though it moves with the vim and vigour of a Jane Austen plot, it's a sport.
Perhaps sport, in the case of cars, derives from ‘sporting'. And a sporting car is one which can be used on a track, in some kind of competition. So on that basis, yes, unless you want to be last, a sports car has to be fast.
And yet if we look back through the history of MG, which is like reading Emma in slow motion, we find an endless succession of cars which couldn't have pulled a greased stick out of a pig's arse. The TF, for instance, could only do 80mph, whereas its rival, the Triumph TR2, could do over a hundred.
Then we find the MG Midget which waded into the gunfight with a small butter knife under the bonnet. It had a top speed of 86mph and took more than 20 seconds to get from 0 to 60. But was it a sports car? Yes, and so is the Mazda MX-5, which isn't exactly a streak of lightning either.
Maybe looks have something to do with it. And now the Daimler Dart has just popped into my head, so maybe they don't.
Then there's the Triumph TR7. That was a fairly speedy two-seater convertible. But not a sports car. And yet the tin-top GT6 most definitely was. Curiouser and curiouser.
Strangest of all, however, is the Mercedes SL. It comes with a big engine, bundles of power, two seats, two doors and a folding roof. It's even known at women's lunch groups from Houston to Harrogate as the Mercedes Sports. But it isn't a sports car.
Indeed, if I were to make a list of the five least sportiest things in the world, it would go something like this:
4. The monkfish
3. A gate-leg table
2. The Mercedes SL
1. Terry Wogan
I think it's mostly a question of attitude. A sports car does not have to be fast or pretty. It need not have a folding roof and it can have seats in the back. But it does need to be uncompromising in some way, shape or form. It needs to be hard riding and noisier than necessary. It needs to remind its owner every single yard of every single journey that he or she bought the car to be exciting.
"Every single woman from the salons of Wilmslow to the fashion pages of Vogue magazine will kill to buy one"
It needs, therefore, to transmit its interaction with the road with a series of semaphore signals in the driver's pants. It needs to telegraph every burp of its engine, every squeak of its tyres. A sports car is a state of mind.
And that's why the StreetKa misses the mark. But I like it. I think it's fun to drive.
It also manages to be cheap and cheerful, which is quite a feat since the words ‘cheap' and ‘cheerful' go together like bacon and Sullivan. Or Gilbert and eggs. If a hotel is cheap, it is likely to be miserable. And if someone is cheerful, he's likely to be rich. And yet the StreetKa, with its unlined roof and its fantastically flimsy glovebox, is both.
What's more, I think every single woman from the salons of Wilmslow to the fashion pages of Vogue magazine will kill to buy one. And yet, despite all this, it is not a sports car.
The engine isn't quite raspy enough. The steering's not quite precise enough. It's too comfortable. And as a result, it feels like a hatchback with the roof cut off. It's like a Marlboro Light. Either smoke properly, or don't smoke at all.
I thought, when I first clapped eyes on the Smart, that it would miss the mark by an even greater margin. Nothing, I figured, with a 600cc engine could possibly be called a sports car. Not even MG ever sunk that low.
And yet, it works. There's plenty I don't like. The steering wheel is far too large and the cockpit puts me in mind of a 1982 British kit car - a Midas Gold or a Clan Invader, perhaps. Then there's the gearbox. Holy mother of Mary, what were they thinking of?
It's a manual with a Tiptronic-style shift, which is never alright. In the Smart, however, it's truly terrible. Jerky is too small a word, and because the 600cc engine is not exactly the Flying Scotsman when it comes to torque, you have to change gear a lot. Or you can switch to auto mode.
That may seem more sensible - why buy a self-cleaning oven, and then clean it yourself - but in auto mode, you never know when the jerks are coming. You just turn round to see if... and whoops, your head's come off.
What else don't I like? Well the boot's like a baking tray, the paintwork looks cheap and a price of £13,500 is expensive - mainly because the left-hand-drive models are only £9,999.
Also, it most definitely is not fast. It's not even on nodding terms with the vaguest concept of speediness. I mean, 0 to 60 in 11 seconds. How Jane Austen is that?
But you should hear the noise. To liken it to the Joneses, it looks like ‘Snowman' Aled but it sings like Tom - a loud, Welsh roar bouncing off the hillsides as you flash by.
Well, when I say ‘flash', what I mean is tootle. But that's OK. You have plenty of time to enjoy the wind in your hair.
Well, when I say ‘wind', what I mean is gentle breeze. But that's OK too. You'll arrive refreshed.
Well, when I say ‘arrive', you'll be late almost to the point of rudeness but no-one will mind because you'll be up for a party.
And happy. There's a rightness, not only to the noise but to the steering and the handling too. It feels exciting, like a good pop song, and safe too. Because if anything does go wrong, you will have time to undo your seat belt, open the door and jump.
I wouldn't buy one, but I liked it. Because it's a sports car. Whatever that may be.