What makes the perfect car?

Image of Alisdair Suttie
Author: | Updated: 13 Feb 2017 13:48

What makes a good car? And is there a formula car companies use to deliver great models time and again? Repeatable, reliable success is the Holy Grail for car makers as they seek to retain existing customers and win over new ones with every new generation.

Many marques can claim to make great cars, but heritage no doubt helps.

We don’t profess to be experts, but here’s what we thought were the best cars of the last 12 months…

Of course, there have been many notable exceptions to this rule where firms have squandered all the good will and reputation built up by one model only to see it obliterated by the next. Alfa Romeo 156 and then the 159 anyone? And the least said about the Ford Escort Mk5 the better.

The prime example of on-going familial accomplishment where the genes of greatness are passed down the line is the BMW 5 Series.

Thankfully, in recent years, there have been far more hits than misses. Perhaps the prime example of on-going familial accomplishment where the genes of greatness are passed down the line is the BMW 5 Series. Going right back to the original iteration of the 1970s, this saloon has never failed to deliver on the core demands of the executive class.

There’s never been a dud in the line-up and every new generation moves the game on in some important way. With the latest 5 Series that’s just being launched now, BMW has taken another step forwards while maintaining that essential right-ness about the car.

The BMW 5 Series' lineage has made it one of the most successful saloons of all time, and one of the greatest.

Elsewhere in the BMW empire, Mini seems unable to put a wheel wrong with its models as they find ever-eager buyers queuing to buy its wares all over the world. From the first cars 15 years ago that were huge fun, if a little cramped inside, we now have a rounded range that offers more space, comfort and yet hangs on to the enjoyment that makes them worthy of the Mini name of its ancestors.

If those two don’t float your boat, how about the McLaren Sport Series models?

If those two don’t float your boat and you want an example that doesn’t rely on a long lineage, how about the McLaren Sport Series models? Sensational performance wrapped in a body that’s as sleek as it is efficient at cutting through the air. It may be a new kid on the supercar block, but it has all the right ingredients in the correct order just like a Porsche 911 that has taken more than 50 years to evolve to its present form.

This isn’t to do down the Porsche. Far from it, it’s praise for both of these cars and many others that makes us wonder if there are common traits that you need to make a great machine.

McLaren or 911?

First off, let’s be clear that a brilliant car does not need to be expensive. Take the Ford Fiesta, for example, that you can order today. Affordable, practical and immensely pleasurable to drive, this is the epitome of the supermini.

Let’s be clear; a brilliant car does not need to be expensive

The same is true of the Volkswagen Polo, Mazda 2, Skoda Fabia and several other contenders in this sector, as well as others from the city car and small hatch arenas that are just as hot on delivering value for money.

Something we can put a finger on is quality. All of the cars mentioned above have this in common. They are well made and should last a very long time with nothing more than regular maintenance and a modicum of driving sympathy.

The Ford Fiesta is the most popular car in the UK, and for good reason; it's one of the best.

Granted, some might need more expensive and intensive routine servicing due to their more exotic specification, but you should still be able to get into any car that qualifies as among the best in its class and fire it up without worrying about it starting and going in the proper fashion.

No one is going to argue a Ford Fiesta is better looking than a Ferrari 488, but this isn’t really about comparing apples with apples.

Okay, so quality of materials and engineering is a box that has to be ticked, so what about others? Well, styling comes into the equation, even if it’s a very subjective topic. We wouldn’t presume to tell you what to think is good looking, but if you look at all of the best sellers in any classy, they have a certain appeal to the eye.

No one is going to argue a Ford Fiesta is better looking than a Ferrari 488, but this isn’t really about comparing apples with apples. Instead, look at the Fiesta and you see a car that’s ideally packaged for its intended purpose just as cleverly as the Italian supercar is.


Where this leads us is to note that fitness for purpose is a must for any car to rank among the best in its sector. While this is a catch-all phrase, it’s one that you can use in any situation. Does a Range Rover deliver luxury in a 4x4 form better than a Bentley Bentayga? Yes it does because the Range Rover is more able off-road and every bit as brilliant on-road as the Bentley, so the Land Rover product is more fit for purpose.

The same thought process applies to any other sector, so a Mazda MX-5 is a better roadster than its competition simply because it fulfils its brief more fully and better than anything else. Of course, some will bridle at these choices and say there are better cars, but as we said above there is some subjectivity involved or we’d all be driving the same grey boxes – variety is a good thing.

Mazda's MX-5 might not be the most powerful, but it's been heralded as the best roadster on the market.

Which takes into the territory of wondering if a car needs to have some minor flaw to make it appeal, almost as it proves just how good the rest is? For example, over many years the BMW 5 Series was criticised for not offering quite enough rear legroom. The first BMW-built MINIs had seat mechanisms seemingly made from Christmas cracker plastic and the McLaren 570S could be accused of being too close to the 650 in too many ways.

However, we forgive these minor discrepancies because of the last trait that any car needs for it to be destined for greatness: that is it must be superb to drive. We don’t mean in a Nurburgring-busting lap time kind of way. Now, what this means is in the manner that someone who doesn’t care about cars and sees them as a mere mode of transport will comment that one car is better to be at the wheel of than another.

Many claim that the Golf GTI's lineage is the receipe for a perfect hot hatch.

It’s hard to pin down what makes one car more pleasurable to drive than its rivals, but it’s often the deciding factor in the make and model we choose as our own cars. Yes, we know the other one is a fraction more economical or has three millimetres more boot length, but when you’re at the wheel it just doesn’t feel as good as the one you really want.

That’s what makes a truly great car – the one that makes you want to drive it, and have it on your drive.

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