Modern cars are amazing at pretty much everything. Even humble cars are safe, comfortable, produce lots of efficient power and are loaded with options that were luxuries just years ago.
But we aren’t talking about those kinds of cars today. We are talking about two toys that were designed with the kind of engineering tunnel vision that makes them amazing at a few things, but deeply flawed at almost everything else.
I present to you the Alfa Romeo 4C and the Jeep Wrangler in two door Rubicon trim.
I have owned the Alfa 4C for two seasons now and you can find my detailed review of that car here.
I added a two door Jeep Wrangler Rubicon last summer, mostly because I wanted something for mountain biking, winter and top down summer days. But I also wanted something that was completely different than the Alfa.
The thing is, as different as these two are, they are amazing and infuriating in similar ways.
For starters they are both modern vehicles built to a vintage brief. They are the complete opposite of the safety first, convenience first, semi-autonomous cars most brands are building their futures on.
Jump into either and you can see and feel anachronistic elements, butted against twenty first century tech. And they don’t hide it, they put it front and center and then slap a premium on it.
In an age when some cars can drive themselves, these two haven’t even figured out the stereo. Surprisingly, the Jeep entertainment system is far better, but not good, and that’s how bad the Alfa system is. But when both cars are being used as intended you can’t hear the stereo anyway, so it might not actually matter.
The Jeep still uses live axles. Fantastic on trails, but hit a pot hole on an off camber bend, and you get the same unsettling shimmy that people felt when we traveled by stage coach.
Neither car features a rear camera and the Alfa seems to have pulled its climate control switch gear from Little Tikes. When was the last time you changed temperatures in a car, by twisting a radial fan dial and another labeled with a series of red or blue dots?
Strangely both feature their window controls in the center of the vehicle and both have windows that are the exact wrong height for paying for parking.
Both have compromised steering. The Jeep is vague and requires you to pay attention as the weight transitions, the Alfa on the other hand is twitchy and seems to unweight at the exact wrong moment.
With the soft top fitted, the Jeep is essentially a tent on wheels. And that top is pain to put up (the flimsy side locks that randomly un-click are the culprit). That’s saying something as I thought the soft top on my Porsche Spyder was easy to put together.
On the plus side, neither have any useful storage. The Alfa makes that apparent as soon as you get in. The Jeep has a small trunk, but it will be filled with plastic side windows most of the summer, leaving no useable space outside of the lockable console.
My daughter summed the Jeep up like this: “Objectively it is the worst vehicle we have ever owned, but it’s also my favourite.”
I happen to agree with her and so do most people. Why do we love these two?
For starters, they are pure fun. You can’t help but smile when you get behind the wheel and people smile when they see you coming.
What other vehicle allows you to take the top and the doors off? None currently on sale. No top, no doors and a warm day is actually more fun than a 500hp car being held on a tight leash in the city.
I have owned some pricey cars that never went anywhere because you always worried about them, not so with the Jeep. The freedom of “zero f*cks given” cannot be underestimated. Reversed into a curb, who cares? Smelly mountain bike gear, who cares? No time to wash the Jeep, who cares? Speed bumps and pot holes, who cares?
Time passes differently in a Jeep. You never feel like going fast, and you can’t go fast, so it’s perfect. I find myself well below speeds I would normally drive and you know what, I don’t care.
The Alfa pulls a similar trick. It makes lower speeds feel fun, because stuff is happening. Noise is happening, blow off valves are happening, steering inputs are happening and gear shifts are happening. Drive most modern sports cars on city streets and guess what? Nothing happens, you just effortlessly move forward.
Surprisingly, the Wrangler makes a good case for being a type of “sports car”. The short wheelbase makes it clear it’s not actually a truck and the drive is strangely spirited.
The Wrangler is the first “car” I have driven on city streets that approximates the dynamics you feel at a track like the big circuit at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (but at really low speeds). You can actually feel this car “take a set” as its weight shifts through corners and over crests. Hit the brakes and the weight shifts forward as the rear lifts and twists.
You quickly understand how planning ahead and drive smoothly is the preferred method. This is actually a driver’s car, mostly because it’s not very good.
The thing is most car companies are designing and engineering the drama out of cars and for an occasional car that is a real shame. These two succeed precisely because they know the drama is the whole point. They eschew effortless in favour of effort-full and are better and more engaging for it.