Style vs substance: cars which might surprise you

Recently I revisited the BMW Z8 for the first time since I drove it new. Such a wonderful-looking car; such a disappointment to drive. The only thing that warmed me to it was the pleasure of the naturally aspirated engine, a manual gearbox and no infotainment.

You couldn’t give a Z8 away when it was nearly new, but now they’re worth a fortune. It just shows that desirability isn’t only about the driving experience; great looks can make up for wonky dynamics. Throughout history, there have been cars that look fantastic but drive like a shed. And the reverse is also true: cars that look dreadful but which are absolutely brilliant to drive. One that stands out from memory is the Nissan Primera eGT from the early 1990s. You wouldn’t call the Primera ugly, but bland it certainly was.

I remember going to the late Peter Gethin’s driving school at Goodwood and was surprised to discover that it had a fleet of Primeras. I understood after a lap, because the eGT, as well as having a 150bhp engine, had an excellent chassis, thanks in part to multi-link front and rear suspension.

But I can easily trump the Primera with the supreme example of the good-to-drive but appalling-on-the-eyes machine. I’m talking about the hideous Reliant Scimitar SS1. It’s hard to believe that the genius behind the Triumph Spitfire and Stag, my hero Giovanni Michelotti, designed this Reliant. The SS1 had a feeble Ford CVH powerplant, but the later SST used a 1.8-litre turbo engine from the Nissan Silvia. With 135bhp under the bonnet and well-sorted independent suspension, the SST was great to drive if you were prepared to risk your friends seeing you in it.

Let’s go back to the Z8 and some other incompetent beauties. How about the Ford Capri? Fifty last year and an object of much nostalgia if you grew up in the UK in the 1970s and watched a lot of TV. Wonderful styling, especially in pre-facelift Mk1 form, that led you to believe you were about to drive a pure sports machine. It drove like a Cortina. The Capri eventually became reasonably sophisticated and was always lovable with a 3.0-litre V6 but, with a feeble Crossflow under the bonnet, it was best left parked.



Looking into the future, I see a shortage of cars like these from both sides of the equation. The new BMW 4 Series is bound to be a brilliant car to drive, because the latest 3 Series is, but that massive front grille is obscene. In fact, BMWs in general are becoming cartoon-like.

The popularity of SUVs and crossovers is largely to blame, because hardly any of them are stunning to look at and very few are much cop to drive: centre of gravity is too high, whole plot feels uninvolving. If you don’t agree, sort yourself out a back-to-back test drive in a Jaguar XE and E-Pace.

I can’t see Alfa Romeo doing another car like the 4C, because I doubt there will be a business case, but if it did, surely it would take more care with its dynamics. In fact, the business case for anyone doing a relatively low-volume sports car is looking wonky.

There’s also the fact that very few cars are truly flawed these days. Even Morgan has got its dynamic act together so that its cars’ charming looks and the way they drive aren’t so far apart.

Perhaps it’s a good thing that almost all cars drive pretty well these days, but it’s not so good that design has become so homogeneous. I miss events like driving the Noble M10 (remember that?) for the first time and being staggered that something so ugly drove better than, or at least as well as, a Lotus.