A couple of weeks ago PetrolBlog became an automotive confessional (see http://bit.ly/99tb4T). A chance to share automotive guilty secrets and release the pressure from the shoulders of an avid petrolhead. I was clearly expecting a barrage of abuse and cries of “you’re not fit to wear the badge”. But something else happened, I was instead greeted with cries of “me too”. I was also quite literally inundated with one email that offered an alternative guilty secret and one which the sender was clearly unable to admit to in public. To you sir, I say go let it out. Better out than in. A problem shared. Etc, Etc.
What became abundantly clear was that there’s a whole lot of love out there for the Ford Probe. As a nation we’ve always had a soft-spot for fast Fords and although the Probe might be dynamically challenged, we seem to have taken it to our hearts. Maybe it is the love of the underdog. Or maybe it is a feeling of wanting it to be so much better than it actually is. But whatever the reasons, the Probe has more fans that you might have realised. So stand proud Mr Probe owner, providing you’ve rid your noble steed of the ‘swirling’ alloys, you have something of a hidden gem there. Just don’t expect petrolheads to pat you on the back. Well maybe not in public anyway.
Maybe I should quit while I’m ahead. I’ve shown my hand with two cars and by and large have got away with it so far. But there are more guilty secrets to be shared, so like a crazed poker player I’m going to twist and offer two more delights/horrors <delete as applicable>.
Proton Satria GTi
To the average petrolhead, Proton probably only registers on the radar for the ownership of Lotus and the recent revival of the Lotus F1 team. Despite the company’s ownership of Hethel’s finest automotive company, Proton has yet to fully exploit the opportunity. But there is one Proton that when launched in 1999 actually received a highly respectable 4-star rating in evo magazine. I even have distinct memories of an episode of Top Gear featuring a certain Tiff Needell blasting a Satria GTi around the then new Sepang F1 circuit in Malaysia. My memory is hazy and YouTube hasn’t been too helpful, but I’m pretty sure he liked the thing.
And with good reason too. When Lotus got hold of the standard hatchback, a car based on the old Mitsubishi compact, they actually created something of a B-road delight. More than just a cosmetic exercise, the Satria GTi emerged from the shed complete with a substantially improved suspension set-up and a tweaked 1.8 litre engine also found in the Mitsubishi Lancer. It also featured excellent Recaro seats, tasteful 6-spoke alloys and unique bodykit. This latter addition gave the car a purposeful, aggressive stance, but the jury’s certainly out on the exposed rivets found around the wheel arches. No such problem for the jury when it came to the exhaust tailpipes – the square ends were the least successful element of the makeover. But even the boys at Lotus get it wrong sometimes.
But to concentrate on the cosmetics would be missing the point. I ran a Satria GTi for a few months in 2003 and was impressed with the handling. Although it would need to be revved hard to get the best out of the performance, once on the twists and turns it really came alive. More down to mechanical grip than outright handling, but still possible to put a smile on your face. The downside was a huge thirst for petrol and the cheap feel of the interior.
But this is car confessional and there are no rational or emotional reasons for liking the Satria GTi. I just do. Indeed, many people have experienced the Satria GTi, as in 2002 the car was used as part of the driving experience days at the Silverstone racing circuit. And if it is good enough for them…
Many Satria GTis appear to be suffering from neglect these days, but there are still a number of well looked after examples out there. For some reason, when a Satria GTi gets tatty it actually looks quite nasty. But a cherished car looks good and looks every inch the 80s hatch – even if it was delivered a decade or so too late. Certainly a candidate for a future classic though.
The little Smart Roadster has been dead since 2005 and for me it represents one of the greatest missed opportunities of recent times. Here was a small sports car, with distintive styling that was capable of up to 65mpg. Perfect for modern times then? Not exactly.
The Roadster’s biggest issue was the woeful gear change which was capable of ruining any spirited B-road blast. Then there was the power steering which took away the sense of connection you’d associate with the likes of the Elise, VX220 or MX-5. And because of the all ‘toys’ that Smart decided to load the car with, it was way too heavy. Shame. The final problem for the Roadster was the price. For a similar price you could pick-up an MX-5, a car that delivered a better experience on pretty much every aspect.
But none of this matters to me – this is car confessional after all. I also know I’m not alone in my admiration for the Roadster. It could be said that Gordon Murray knows a thing or two about automobiles. He also happens to like the Smart, particularly the most basic model. Sure he found fault with the transmission and the steering, but he wrote these off simply as “foibles”.
As is well documented on PetrolBlog, I’m not particularly keen on three-spoke alloys, arguing that the only car ever to look good on them is the Saab 900 Turbo. The Smart Roadster doesn’t change my opinion. But I love the simplicity of the basic model and I feel that it was killed off too soon. With ever increasing motoring costs and the chances to enjoy driving getting more and more scarce, there should be a real market for the Roadster. But claimed warranty costs of $3,000 per car made it a commercial flop for Smart. It had to be killed, so in 2005 it was no more.
Who am I to disagree with the legendary Mr Murray, but my personal favourite is the bells and whistles Brabus Roadster-Coupe. It somehow looks more complete and purposeful. Sure, it adds even more weight and complexity, but car confessional isn’t based on rationality, this is an irrational love.
I guess as far as petrolheads go, these cars share a similar problem. Image. Proton suffers from a distinct lack of image meaning that even if it had built the world’s best hot hatch, it would have still struggled to be a success. The Satria GTi is to the Renaultsport Clio what the VX220 is to the Lotus Elise. The Smart Roadster on the other hand suffers from an identity crisis. The complete opposite of masculinity, it also suffered from the perception of delivering a poor driving experience. But forget all this. In the car confessional, all sins are forgiven.
More car confessions to come soon. If my credibility holds up.
Credit to evo magazine for Gordon Murray info: http://bit.ly/bwCycP