Five Reasons Why Modern Cars Suck

Own a car built in this century? Here's why it's probably rubbish


It's no secret that we at CT have a lot of love for 80s and 90s retro cars. And for good reason - this was the era when all the best cars were made. Whatever your budget, from awesome hot hatchbacks right up to the very fastest supercars, the 15 year spell from 1982-1997 was the peak of a carmaker's craft. Modern cars, by comparison, are crap - and here are just five of the myriad reasons why.

1. Styling

It's not often said that the 1980s were a high point of vehicle styling. There were some desperately pretty cars designed back then however, and some designs that have stood the test of time. Okay, the bulk of cars were two or three box chunks of straight edges that a relatively well trained llama could come up with on an Etch-a-Sketch, but compare this with today's identikit styling nature and you get the idea.

Spot the difference... Spot the difference...

Modern manufacturers find what designs work and sell, then design the cars to fit. Since the focus groups are always the same kind of people, the cars always end up being relatively similar to look at. We're now living in an age where you can only tell a BMW 1-series apart from a Volkswagen Polo, or an Audi A5 and a BMW 3 Coupe, when you can see the badge on the back - and with the Ford Focus and Kia C'eed you need to be a great deal closer than that.


Meanwhile Ford is busy putting an Aston Martin grille on everything including the new Fiesta. Aston, incidentally, is still making the same car they made back in 1993 while Ian Callum (the designer of the Aston Martin DB7 and Vanquish that spawned that grille) is still drawing the same car 20 years down the line for Jaguar.

Boxy they may have been, but older cars were distinctive. You could tell them apart at a glance, rather than today's sea of bland, slightly silvery homogeneity.

2. Size

VW Golf Mk1, actual size VW Golf Mk1, actual size

Remember the Mk1 Volkswagen Golf? Of course you do. Not one of my favourites, but one of the most influential cars and greatest hot hatchbacks of all time. Well, the Mk1 Golf was 3.7m long, 1.6m wide and 1.4m tall.

Fastforward 35 years to the latest car to bear the Golf name and it's 3 inches taller, 6 inches wider and nearly two feet longer. In fact, the Golf got so bloated that VW had to create a smaller car to replace it - the Polo. And then the same thing happened to that so they created a smaller car to replace that - the Lupo. The Lupo grew into the Fox and so VW had to replace that with a smaller car too, giving us the CT favourite VW Up. Which is already wider and taller than the Mk1 Golf...


It's not limited to VW either. Ford's most recent Fiesta is nearly two feet longer and six inches wider than the first - with even the 2nd generation Ka bigger than the original Fiesta.

And this is the issue - today's city cars are the same size as yesteryear's family cars, today's family cars are the same size as 1990s luxury saloons (don't believe me? Look up the BMW E32 7 series and compare it to the Mk4 Ford Mondeo) but the roads, car parks and garages haven't got bigger to match. You can only fit 48 new Fiestas in the same space you can put 63 originals, while I can fit a Land Rover Discovery in my garage but not a Ford Mondeo. Inevitably as they get bigger, they get heavier too.

1997 Vectra vs. 2007 XC90 - EuroNCAP 1997 Vectra vs. 2007 XC90 - EuroNCAP

Of course reams and reams of safety requirements have hastened this fattening of cars. Larger impact absorption zones, stronger safety cells and airbags for your airbags all pile weight onto the car, not to mention the weight increase from all that extra metal.

But why is weight bad? Well, you need to accelerate that weight, meaning you either go much slower or you need more power to achieve nothing more. More power inevitably means more fuel and more expense - but it also means you need stronger (and heavier) gearboxes and stronger (and heavier) driveshafts, needing yet more power still.

Nice tyres. Shame if something... happened to them. Nice tyres. Shame if something... happened to them.

You also need to stop it, meaning heftier brakes - or just chuck stopping distances out of the window and hope you don't mow anyone down when an 80s car would have stopped twenty feet sooner. And you need to move it around corners, which requires grippier tyres - which wear faster and cost you more - lest you end up in a hedge.

Weight is the ultimate enemy of performance, value, safety and efficiency and modern cars are the automotive equivalent of Honey Boo Boo. And I didn't mention the fact the MINI isn't exactly mini even once. Oh bugger.

3. Headlights


I really hate Xenon headlights.

Headlights are good. Headlights let you see things and not die or kill people. But really there's a limit to how much you need to see - and that limit is slightly more than the minimum amount of time you need to react to and avoid something you've seen. That's about five seconds up the road, which is about 200 feet away at 30mph - normal headlights are perfectly adequate for this.


Xenon headlights meanwhile can be seen from Mars - if you're stopped at traffic lights, you can actually X-ray pedestrians crossing in front of you. Fabulous if you're driving the car, less so if you happen to be coming the other way at any time of night. They twinkle irritatingly and fool you into thinking the driver is flashing you. When they do eventually pass you, your retinas are ruined and you're momentarily blinded. Brilliant.


The safety aspect has also seen the death of the "hidden headlight". The last mainstream car you could buy new in the UK with pop-up lights was probably either the Toyota MR2, Ford Probe or Mazda MX-5 - all of which met an end in 1998. A bit more money and you might have got a BMW 8-series (1999), a Ferrari F355 (1999), a Honda NSX (2001) or a Ferrari 456M (2003).

Popups are so rare now that drivers freeze in terror if you flash them, leading to all sorts of amusing road issues - but they are cool. The lack of them on modern cars is yet another reason to heap scorn upon them.

4. Detachment


If you hop into a new car and then its old equivalent, a few things (aside from the interior materials) become apparent. Firstly, you'll chirp the tyres setting off. Next you'll miss the corner you were trying to take due to the very heavy steering. Lastly, you'll feel like you're literally trying to stop the car with your own feet. If you're particularly hamfisted, you'll end up not being saved by the crumple zones and airbags it doesn't have.

Driving used to be a very direct experience. Every input you made was transmitted to the road, for better or for worse, without any intermediate device. Too much of something resulted in squealing tyres at best and sky, ground, sky, wall, ambulance at worst.


Modern driving is a considerably more insulated affair. If you overcook the loud pedal, the traction control lets you off. Too much braking and the ABS kicks in to cadence brake for you. Power assisted steering means you're one step away from feeling the true weight of the car - and if you go over the limits, the soon-to-be compulsory stability control reduces your inputs until it's safe. And if you do happen to cock it up badly enough to crash, the aforementioned safety features keep you relatively safe.

This is all fine for the more inept amongst our society - their cars save them from crashing - but has bred a generation of drivers who don't actually know how to drive. They can't feel the power being fed in, they can't feel the car weighting up in turns and they can't feel the edge of traction. Rather than smooth, progressive inputs, these newbies stab at the pedals and wheel like it's Need for Speed and the car sorts it all out. And when the car can't sort it all out - like that two weeks of snow we get every year - they fall off the roads like George Michael after a heavy session.

Increased vehicle insulation to reduce noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) further isolates the pilot from their actions and with the likely impending death of the manual gearbox, they won't even have gearchanges to screw up any more.

5. Eco-bollocks


Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for saving a bit of fuel and for pointless commuter journeys to be as frugal as possible - every trip in an electric car means a V8 can live another day. But eco-bollocks annoys the hell out of me.

Let's first put aside all considerations of carbon dioxide and global warming. We can even put away the notion that we all have a mandatory box underneath our cars - a catalytic convertor - whose job it is to actually make carbon dioxide. Maybe we can even ignore that a "g/km CO2" rating is just a fuel economy rating turned upside down. No, the bugbear here is that manufacturers are tearing the soul out of motoring in order to meet legislated fuel economy fleet figures.

Have a look at the Ford Focus ST. A few years ago it was a thrash-it 167hp 2.0-litre four-pot. The second generation used a blown 2.5-litre Volvo straight five for a fairly nutty 225hp and an almost unique noise. And now we have the third generation, with another 2.0-litre four-pot with a turbo and 255hp. Great, right? Yeah, except in order to replace the sound of the harsh four, they've employed sound trickery in the exhaust to make it sound more growly in the cabin. And the engine itself is called "EcoBoost" (Ford's marketing term for "we've put a turbo on an inline engine") - as if a 250hp, front-wheel drive hot hatch can possibly be an Eco-anything.

bmw m5

BMW is much the same. The E39 M5 was a 400hp V8. The E60 M5 was 400kg heavier and used a 500hp V10 (if you asked the computer nicely). The F10 M5, for reasons of carbon dioxide emissions, is a 560hp V8 turbo with a fake engine noise played through the stereo (no, I'm not joking), for all those people who ever thought "I know, I'm going to save the planet by buying a two-tonne, V8 turbo BMW." Still, at least they aren't hybrid supercars.

Drop the pretence and leave the green credentials to cars that are actually green - that way they might be made interesting enough to buy en masse.

So there you go. Modern cars are rubbish. In fact, were Toyota designing their very highly rated GT86 thirty years ago, it'd be smaller, much lighter, sport a simple, 130hp, 1.6 litre four pot engine and have pop-up headlights. Wait a minute...


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