A new all-weather style.
Maybe you think it’s nothing new, but for many of us who were raised on road racing, the quarter mile and Car and Driver magazine, often the only things worth getting really excited involve fiberglass body panels that scrape asphalt or tires with lots of negative camber and a tread that somebody drew on. That was until 2002: a year which saw the introduction of the WRX to the North American market. At that point, if you believed what most of the magazines and internet enthusiasts said, then finally we in North American had a sports car built to manage snowy climates and rural settings.
They were wrong. You don’t need a WRX here, there are lots of other options available, but to the ignorant wannabe rally-boys of North America there really wasn’t any other choice. Just Subaru’s WRX and its big brother the Sti; the latter being reserved for those with… well… I’ll leave it there. It’s not that I don’t like the Sti, it’s just that Sti owners always end up catching my attention with their massive wings, multi-spoke wheels, ridiculous hood scoops and pink highlights on a car that is 95% of the time… … … that beautiful, undeniable, blatant BLUE.
Guys who buy these cars for the 10 minute trip from the apartment to the office. Guys who start foaming at the mouth when they talk with their friends about numbers and specs. Guys who talk about doing DEMO runs at the local Rally-x, but never ever come out and run.
This isn’t the all-weather style I’ve realized. It might look like it, but it’s actually something totally different. Not that I care that much, I’m just making a point. They don’t like me, I don’t like them. It’s all fine. The positive thing is that as of this year the clones don’t all have to look the same. The EVO X is here. Two choices are so much better than one, although now we must all have mild concern that battles will erupt daily on our daily bumper to bumper drives between specification savvy drivers who made opposite choices.
Of course, the real positive thing is that five or ten years from now, those of us who buy to drive will have… these same two choices. For the time being though, we drive different cars, we crash different cars and we break different cars… anytime, anywhere.
My new all-weather style.
The truth is though, that all weather driving doesn’t require 4wd or 300hp and in many ways we are probably better off with out those things. Big power just gets us into trouble, and smashing over rocks and roots and flying through the air puts even more wear and tear on your machine than anything you’ll asphalt will ever do. Reliability is critical, especially when we’re talking about 400km ventures on mountain roads, in the worst blizzards you can imagine.
Or not? My recent reflections have highlighted the fact that some of my favorite past cars, are cars that I spent a lot of time with on gravel and snow. These reflections, my recent experiences with rally-x, and maybe also my new rural home and the roads surrounding it have lead me to establish and define my new enthusiasm.
Before I got into auto-x and before I knew about drifting, I drove an old Twin Cam Rear Wheel Drive Corolla, and I drove it everywhere. It was the first of many Corolla’s to come, but this one wasn’t anything special except that it took what I threw at it: lots of deep Alberta ditches, one chain link fence, and a wood post. I really wasn’t out to do anything crazy, I was just out to enjoy my car, and to me that meant getting away from traffic and onto a road less traveled.
The same held true for a Volkswagen Gti I owned some years later. A beat car with a few simple modifications, it was with it that I really started to explore gravel, and it was this car that taught me that FWD could be fun (something my super-fast auto-x prepared EW Civic couldn’t even do). I remember waking up before sunrise every Saturday to go exploring for a couple hours. I do mean exploring. I wasn’t some guy who ran at ten tenths and thought about time or speed. Almost every day there were new roads, new corners and new open spaces. I never strayed from my desired path, but despite that, my every day pleasures still did serious damage. The car was tossed, after an awkward landing that broke the radiator support.
Most recently for me was an RNN14 Nissan Pulsar GTi-r: a 4WD rocket ship that showed me things I didn’t think were possible. Most would call it a huge step up from my Rabbit and Corolla’s, and it was in many ways. But if we’re talking only about the car’s ability to give me a great driving experience, it fell short. I finally understood why STi owners do nothing but roam the streets looking for fights: their cars are just too scary on the back roads. After all, we are talking about street driving here (albeit wide open empty street driving) and in the end safety and fun are paramount. All out speed is for competition situations, or for impressing your buddies. Your buddies aren’t joining you on Glendale Road at 5 am on Sunday morning.
Beyond the driving fear, I found a new fear: constantly questioning the integrity of my car. What was that new sound? Which one of my differentials was going to blow first? Was that a boost leak? Can I keep launching like that without blowing up my clutch? Or transmission? There’s something significant to be said about simple designs, and 4WD cars are seldom that.
Of course, there is something to be said about 4WD in a nasty blizzard, 300km away from anything. One of the best drives I’ve ever had was on a snowy mountain road returning from a weekend trip with my wife. It had snowed the whole night before we left, and it was snowing still when we crossed into the national park where road conditions were listed as DANGEROUS – TRAVEL NOT RECOMMENDED. We continued on. It didn’t seem so bad at the time, but as we traveled deeper and deeper into the park, higher and higher into the mountains, the snow too got higher and higher. All the rest areas were filled with almost 3 ft of snow. Outhouses were barricaded shut with white and gas stations were left un-manned.
This winding trip that usually takes about 3 hours in the summer at a fun pace, that day took us… 3 hours. Sure I started out slow and cautious, but by the end the car was sideways and drifting entrance to exit at speeds I’ll let you imagine. When we finally exited the park we found the road marked closed. No wonder we saw only one other car, the whole three hour trip.
My new all weather style.
Race cars are nice, but a rally car is the ultimate evolution of what we drive on the street. OK … maybe not in Los Angeles, or Osaka or so many other real urban centers, but this is the Canadian Rockies: a place where 95% of the exits off our primary highways are onto gravel. Where it there could be snow or gravel on our best roads, six months of the year. Where frost heaves and demolishes all that our tax dollars put on the ground.
If we build our cars up like those we see in popular “tuner” media, then we’ll be stuck with a car that looks fast but is just a liability everywhere it goes. I think we should be done with this lowdown, stiff, fragile stuff.
Why live here and seek the impossible, when there is something different here that is just as good, if not better? Do you really think that industrial park is enough of a venue to justify all that money you dumped into your exhaust scraping, lip smashing, 800lb/in can? Maybe you are a respectable guy that only does it in the daylight at the local poorly funded track. I know you dream about Irohazaka and Isui, but move on, or just plain move to a place where you don’t have to fight so hard. This is not the domain of the freshly paved Japanese roller-coaster mountain road. The closest thing we have to Laguna Seca or Mosport is… Laguna Seca and Mosport… thousands of kilometers away.
Realize that we have something here that is just as good as the Japanese mountain passes: thousands and thousands of miles of gravel road. Open roads with no law in sight, and unposted speed limits that do nothing to change your good times. Run winding roads, open spaces and beautiful Canadian scenery.
Run a car with some ride height and tire. Don’t get power hungry; just find something that isn’t going to leave you stranded 100km from the closest human being. Rally typically divides cars into three classes under 2000cc, and clumps everything bigger than that together. Trying to squeeze power out of unwanting drivetrains offers little reward. Make sure you’ve got protection from rocks, roots and other hazards. Take some gear to get yourself out of trouble and go have fun. This doesn’t mean we need to be driving monster trucks, or cars that look like they belong in an early Mel Gibson film. There is a balance. This is still the domain of the sports car, and those who realize this will experience the Canadian car life I’m finally beginning to realize.