Maxim: Flaw Theory

The Maxim:

A car can be engaging, beautiful, powerful, and otherwise incredibly competent and at most it will be widely respected and admired. For a car to be one that you will truly love, it has to have at least one fundamental flaw.

An alternative might be:

A car only needs to do one thing that matters as long as it’s done exceedingly well. That one exceptional quality will more than compensate for the flaws that expose its weaknesses.

I first formed this theory when I bought my Saab 9-3 Viggen back in 2005. The Viggen was a car that had way too much engine for the chassis. It could kill you if weren’t concentrating when you planted your right foot as the car’s suspension struggled to cope with the momentous torque the engine could deliver.

The 9-3 Viggen was a wonderful car to look at it. It had a magnificent interior with amazing seats and a high fruit content. It was amazingly practical for a performance car, too, with a rear hatch that could swallow a small whale. All that plus Saab’s impeccable safety credentials.

Then there’s the engine: that B235R high output four-pot. It’s incredibly smooth and punchy. It builds power beautifully and has a character all of its own. I made my B204R 9-3 Monte Carlo more powerful than my Viggen with chips, exhaust, etc, but it never felt as enjoyable to drive as the Viggen with it’s 2.3T. To this day, I still wonder why.

The Viggen’s flaw – its old and compromised chassis – was the ying to the engine’s yang and it’s the constant battle between the two that makes you engage so much with the car, to the point that you end up loving it.

Maybe that’s the basic truth about fundamental flaws: you spend so much time learning to overcome them that you can’t help but become more engaged with the car and love it more as a result. Maybe it’s the flaws that make you think more about the (at least) one thing that the car does exceedingly well.

My Alfa 33 16V, for example, had tinny construction and an interior that was far below the level of style and execution you’d expect from an Italian car. The engine was such a pearl, however, that you’d learn to love the car despite its flaws.

It’s a bit like family, I guess. Everyone’s got flaws, but you love your family despite those flaws because of the wonderful things they contribute to your life.

Cars can be the same way.

The longer you live with a car, the more you learn to appreciate its good points and it’s the flaws in the car that make these good points stand out even more. Alfa Romeo might have lost their way with build quality in the 1980’s and 90’s, but they could still make one hell of an engaging engine.

The Porsche 911 is loved for its timeless styling, its reputation for reliability and it’s amazing capability on the road. This is despite the classic 911 having poor (read: uncomfortable) interior ventilation and a habit of violently kicking its backside out if you lose lateral control.

Many would say that the 911’s tendency to want to kill you is what makes the driver lift his/her game. The rewards for those who nail the technique of driving a 911 are so rewarding that people overlook the flaw and steel themselves to learn the car’s foibles and overcome them.

I’m sure there are cars that contradict this rule. Carmakers are getting so good at designing and building vehicles that there are a large number of all-rounders that can do a remarkable job across a number of criteria.

What’s more interesting to me most of the time is the struggle. If you think cars can have character, which I do, then flaws are a part of that and getting beyond simple admiration for a car’s capabilities is a matter of accepting and looking beyond those flaws.

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