Some say that power is everything. Well it can be, a lot of the time actually. But I truly believe that power isn’t everything in making a good car worthy of its commending adjective. In the pursuit of the thrill of driving, the holy grail sensation that is pursued by motoring enthusiasts nearly as much as bedroom pleasure, power does not have to be the definitive factor. Rather, I have a yearning not for power, but for connection, feel, and an interesting engine.
An interesting engine doesn’t always have to be powerful. A Honda 2.0 liter from a Civic SI may only make 200 horsepower, but the way it revs and screams to be submitted to the dominance of your right foot is a carnal kaleidoscope. Higher horsepower models of perfection are BMW’s S54 and S65, which follow the practice of an explosive top end married to the sound of Gabriel’s horn. New turbocharged BMW’s, though they may make massive power compared to the old N/A mills of days past, are really not that interesting when you consider they have an table-flat torque curve, which thereby gives lots of power down low, but up top after 5k, there’s little more to give as the rate of acceleration fails to increase. Even new M-cars don’t give that last dash to the redline that their predecessors were known for, though they are devastating power plants in their own regard. To show that outright power isn’t the singular virtue of a terrific car, I’m going to take you through one of the best drives of my life, delivered by a car where power is not first priority, but still stimulating given it’s bodacious sound and chassis and eager nature to rev: my old E36 325is.
Let me tell you a little about this drive/adventure. Santa Barbara, in case you haven’t been, strongly resembles a Mediterranean paradise from the French Riviera. Think Cannes. And like the South of France, Santa Barbara is abundant in great driving roads. In fact, the FIA should hold a round of the World Rally Championship here even. On one of the outer ‘ring’ roads, Cathedral Oaks, lies the turnoff onto the hallowed Old San Marcos Pass, the source of today’s fun. While many know San Marcos Pass as the alternative name to the 154, a superb highway winding through the Santa Ynez Mountains, there is also the Old San Marcos Pass, a snaking stretch of road leading to the same destination. It starts at only 50 feet above sea level before reaching 2,000 feet in not even 5 miles, while also remaining serenely scenic during the ascent through the rolling hills, canyons, and mountains of Santa Barbara. Just be careful for cyclists and skateboarders though. The Old Pass has a collection of beautiful flowing 30-45 MPH sweepers with positive camber, and several extremely tight 1st gear hairpin switchbacks. Power is good, but not entirely necessary here. The 189 horsepower my E36 325 makes is still mountains (no pun intended) of fun, though more would be welcome. I figure the 240 HP an E36 M3 makes would be absolutely perfect – an M4 would frankly be overkill here and likely launch you through the Armco if DSC is turned off.
At the bottom of the climb I pull over to allow the pickup truck ahead of me gain some distance—wouldn’t want to be stuck behind him the whole way up! Waiting what felt like an eternity, a minute and half, I pull back onto the road, get up into third and hit it. It starts off with quick sweepers—the camber given by the road engineers is most welcome. Even at 45 MPH, throwing the Bimmer into the banking allows some freedom of chassis rotation and roll. Thank you 225 width tires. Nothing crazy and exuberant, but it’s great to feel the chassis really work. The natural balance of the E36 inspires loads of confidence too, but I try not to get carried away and push too hard; this is a public road after all.
For the first third, it’s just switching back and forth between third and second gear through the quick direction-changing bends, never even exceeding 60 MPH. That’s fast enough here, especially when braking down to 15 for the first of the hairpins; when the sign suggests 5 MPH, you know it’s going to be tight. Heel-and-toe down a gear, turn the wheel hard, and then just lay the power down. The super slow stuff is the only time an E36 will really show understeer, but luckily a little power later and the rear tires let go a little, allowing a swift drift of oversteer to point me in the right direction. It’s a beautiful feeling and responsible for the biggest smile yet. From there it’s a run of hairpin to hairpin, maxing out second gear between each braking point—addictive stuff, and fortunately it repeats and repeats. Right when the M50 hits 3500, the nature of the engine transforms from docile to a feral fantasy as the VANOS variable valve timing advances, lunging for the limiter. And the noise, with a carbon intake and axle-back exhaust ignites the Santa Ynez Mountains with a Bavarian thunder.
Near the top of the pass I begin to reflect on the journey thus far. First, I’m thankful I didn’t completely bin it anywhere, even driving still well below maximum attack, that’s most important. But I’m also just thankful for roads and cars like this existing.
I reach the top of the pass, pull over and take a quick snap of the scenery behind to capture the moment. My god is the view something—you can see downtown Santa Barbara and a couple of the Channel Islands 30 miles off the coast. Here you feel like on top of the world, looking down at the magnificence of the Earth and my vanquished mountain. This is the thrill of driving, and I’m so glad something in me turned me onto cars all those cars years ago, otherwise I wouldn’t be here right now.
Which brings me back to my first point about power. Sure, power is nice, but it’s not all that matters in a sports car. I’d take a car like this, with a huge sense of feel and immersion but with less power than one muted to gray-scale and all-around numbness but with a startlingly powerful engine. If that’s the case, the car would be so uninspiring and lack the necessary confidence to use the power. I must also ask, when will cars become too powerful to fully enjoy? A powerful motor can never trump an interesting motor, which is probably why my favorite BMW I’ve ever driven still remains the E46 M3 with its masterpiece of a chassis and powertrain. As long as it’s got a manual, of course. I would rather BMW make turbocharged engines with a sense of turbo-lag engineered in and give a huge rush to the red line by restricting peak torque to a higher engine speed than 1500. This would, in a general sense, make an engine inferior and less efficient, but it’d be more interesting as well once boost comes on. Maybe to make new turbo engines better, we must first make them worst. I do miss that E36, but the thrill of driving remains in my newly acquired E46 330i ZHP (six-speed, of course). Next time I’m in Santa Barbara I’ll have to venture again up the San Marcos pass in that. And hopefully one day in an M3 at 8k.