Although admittedly, I'm doing that now. I've recently had a chance to drive a couple cars and came away entirely unimpressed. I must not be a typical driver, because how these cars are tuned is pretty much entirely unsuitable to me, and these cars are mainstream cars that get pretty good reviews.
Now, admittedly until last summer my ride for almost 7 years was a Subaru Impreza WRX STI. Yes, they need more acronyms in that name. But that car kicked ass. The handling was great, the power was sufficient (300hp and 300 ft-lbs) and the traction made the car unstoppable. It was just as much at home jumping railroad tracks, blasting through traffic or making really good time in the snow. I actually got a ticket in that car, in the snow, for "Excessive Acceleration". I'm rather proud of that one!
Before that I had a Nissan 350Z, one of the first ones available in my area. It was also an excellent car. But in a car shuffle, my daughter got my wife's car and I traded my STI on something more suitable for her, a Civic SI. The Civic's handling was sub-par, but a new rear anti-sway bar tightened it up some so it doesn't ride like a Buick anymore. But it's entertaining enough for a commuter car.
Life event conspired so I ended up driving my brother's car for a time, an almost new Hyundai Elantra. I was left with the impression that it sucked. On paper, it's a solid sedan. In practice, I didn't like it at all. It had a 6 speed automatic whose main job in life was to shift repeatedly when you just wanted to go a little faster. Any attempt at acceleration was met with a downshift or 3. I just wanted to go from 55 to 58, and it would downshift repeatedly before actually going any faster. I didn't care for it. Add to that electric steering that completely insulated you from what the front wheels were doing and it made for a rather numb driving experience. On top of it, the suspension wallowed in turns and on bumps on the highway. Because of that, I felt this car was unsafe to drive over 80mph. The bouncy suspension coupled with dead feeling steering and swerving and hitting a bump made me think I'd end up in a ditch. By contrast, my old Subaru would blast along over 100 mph and be well within the bounds of safe handling.
But it got me thinking. When I was looking for a car last summer (late spring, perhaps) my requirements were: Decent gas mileage, Entertaining enough (power / handling), Good seats (I'm a sucker for a good seat), and decent resale value. One of the cars that made my short list was the Ford Mustang, specifically the base 6 cylinder model. It's rated at 300hp and 30mpg highway. That is, until I drove one. It sucked. There were only automatics available in my area and I got the impression the transmission sucked the life out of that car. It exhibited the same issue as they Hyundai, you want to go faster so you push down on the gas a little bit, and the transmission spends 5 seconds hunting around for the right gear. Quite honestly I walked away from that drive thinking the car was a dog. The Civic SI, with only 2/3 the horse power and front wheel drive was a far more engaging and entertaining car to drive. I chalked it up to the automatic in the Ford.
The reason I was in possession of my brother's car was because he asked me to help sell it. While I was doing that, the transmission reminded me of the Mustang test drive, and I decided to give the Mustang another chance. This time, there were some manual transmissions.
Nope, the car still sucks. If someone told me that car had 300hp without documentation I'd think they were a damn dirty liar. I don't know what Ford did to that engine, but that car is a dog. I was sorely disappointed because I really want to like them. They look great in person and on paper. My Civic still feels faster though.
While I was at the Ford dealer I noticed they had a used Focus ST. The ST is the darling of the automotive media right now, it's supposed to be the bomb in it's class. I gave it a try, and it was certainly more engaging than the 6 cylinder Mustang, but still left me lacking. I was expecting to be impressed and walked away rather meh. Again, a shame. A hatchback that you can toss around and have fun with is my ideal car, but the Focus ST left me wanting more power. I will say they fixed torque steer in that car. For a front wheel drive car it can turn under power quite well. It flies in contrast to my experience with a Mazdaspeed 3, which seems to have too much power for the chassis and torque steers like nobodies business.
The last time I was on a quest for an entertaining car a few months ago the Mazdaspeed 3 was the one I wanted to like. I have to say I enjoyed the engine and the dynamics of the car, except for the torque steer. Give it gas in a turn and the front wheels seem to get a mind of their own, it's so easy to overpower the traction. It's the modern day version of a 60's muscle car, a bad-ass engine in a chassis that's not quite ready for it.
But that day I drove a Mazdaspeed 3 back to back with a 6 year old Porsche Cayman and a 1 year old WRX hatchback. I walked away thinking the WRX was the superior car of the 3. Couple that with my most recent experience and I think I've realized something.
My Subaru ruined me for other cars.
That STI was so balls-on kick ass that it's set the bar inappropriately high. When I drive cars like a Porsche and walk away thinking "that was nice, but where was the power?", I think my standards are too high. But this pretty much relegates me to spending way more on a car than I want. New STI's are in the mid-30's, more than I'm interested in spending right now. Although admittedly, it's a first world problem.
For now I'll keep driving my beater truck when I need a car and transport myself via motorcycle. I won't be spending real money on a car for at least two years, so I should probably stop trying to find that car I like that only costs $20k. Maybe I need a crotch rocket instead......