Quality means doing it right when no one is looking. – Henry Ford*
The worst crime is faking it. – Kurt Cobain
I spent much of February car shopping, a process rational people hate, but I enjoy. I enjoy it for a couple of reasons. First, I worked in car and motorcycle sales until Maximum MOron Sean rescued me by hiring me away from a Cadillac/Volkswagen dealer (an odd combination which actually makes perfect sense when you consider it was in Berkeley), so I relish turning all the tricks I learned while moving metal around on the salesmen (“So, what do I have to do to make your sales manager take this deal today?”).
I also enjoy test-driving a car solely for my own personal education and enjoyment. I don’t have to ride 400 miles through a desert that smells like cowpoop to go get it, I don’t have to sweat coordinating photography or coming up with 1,200 words about it – I just drive and enjoy while the sweaty salesman pretends the clown-car-tiny back seat of a Fiat 500e is comfortable. “Gosh, it sure is roomy back here!”
Driving different cars made me realize how good we have it as motorcyclists. Here’s a big difference between cars and motorcycles: the number of motorcycles I absolutely would never want to own are very small (okay, I’ll say it: any pre-Hinckley Triumph. Please send hate mail here), but the number of cars I hate are, to quote the book of Exodus, a great nation, mighty and numerous. I’m talking about cars that feel like punishment to drive, from great honking turdwagons like the Ford Crown Vics that served as my sweaty-smelling vinyl prisons when I was a cabbie, to the Toyota Prius, a car so miserable to drive, so devoid of any kind of interest or joy that it makes me want to eat a bowl of cold Cream of Wheat while reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past so I can say I did something relatively fun that day.
Without naming names and offending the unfortunate readers who live with these rolling piles, many, many cars are built with what seems a comically high level of contempt for their drivers. Cheap and nasty-feeling upholstery and interior trim. Seats that torture their occupants. Buzzy, noisy and underpowered engines. Sound and climate systems that are so difficult and unintuitive to operate you can only imagine they were engineered by meth addicts and beta tested by the clinically deranged. Build quality that makes you wonder if the Soviet Gulag system is still in business somewhere building car doors – clank! My own car, a Ford C-Max, has a Microsoft operating system in the entertainment and information display, controlled by a Siri-like female voice, inexplicably programmed to have hours-long semantic arguments with the driver.
(Chime!) “Say a command.”
“Call Sally White.”
(Chime!) “Getting directions to Lawrence, Kansas.”
“No, I said call Sally White.”
(Chime!) “Sending vehicle history report to Ford. Would you like to schedule a service?”
“No, CALL SALLY WHITE!”
(Chime!) “Okay. Renewing your satellite radio subscription.”
(Chime!) “Calling Maaaaaaarge.”
Fakery is rampant in the four-wheeled world. Twin exhaust tips for no reason. Plastic moldings and trim designed to fool you into thinking a Chevy Spark is a high-end luxury car, or that a 2015 Fiat 500 was built in the 1950s. Plastic wheel covers molded to look like expensive alloy wheels. Aggressive front fascia on a car that has trouble keeping pace with a U.S. Mail Jeep. I guess car buyers are happier being fooled – or they just don’t care. Get me from A to B.
There’s fakery on motorcycles, but it’s not as obvious or obtrusive. I recall my 1998 Superhawk had moldings on the instrument panel to make the speedometer look like it was detachable for easy race conversion, complete with a dummy fastener. Some motorcycles have fake carbon-fiber trim and other chintzy touches, but they rarely dominate the bike. You could argue that cruisers are all fakery, laden with ornamentation good only for replicating a functionally limited style, but you could counter by saying that styling, even questionable styling, isn’t fakery if it’s honest and functional. And cruisers are pretty functional things if you stay inside their intended uses (and a wacky good time if you go astray).
Even if a motorcycle is overloaded with plastic geegaws, you can’t fake craftsmanship or good design. The link between a motorcycle and its rider is so direct and intimate, you feel bad design and build quality every second of every ride, a constant reminder of what an idiot you were for buying that bike. Our new Fiat has wicked-feeling oversteer that freaks out my wife, the Smart ForTwo ED we tested has such leaden steering it drives like a Tata delivery truck, and when I brake the C-Max too hard from high speeds it sways from side to side, reminding me of a Jerry Springer episode about morbidly obese people into freak dancing. But we buy and drive them anyway, because, well, screw it – it’s just a car, and driving a car kind of sucks anyhow.
We’d never want to own a motorcycle that exposed us to such continual punishment. Every motorcycle I’ve owned has responded almost transparently to steering input, accelerates at least briskly, and feels safe and manageable at whatever maximum speed it can get to. Motorcycle brakes, even equipment from 20 years ago, provide good feel and power. Suspension suspends under normal condition and clutches and transmissions feel pretty good.
You can’t hide poor design and fakery from the trained eye of a motorcycle enthusiast. A glance at a motorcycle reveals how well it will perform the task you’ll ask it to do. The number of cylinders, shape of the bodywork, ground clearance, height of the footpegs, construction of the frame, suspension and swingarm, tire type and size – all clues to what will happen when you ride that bike fast and hard. Look at a car and you see a sheet-metal box that could be filled with honesty – or lies.
To get a quality car that makes you feel better about yourself when driving it usually costs you enough money to blow a big hole in your lifestyle, which explains why some cranky old dudes keep their cars for decades. But you can get a hand-crafted motorcycle for a fraction of what you’d pay for a decent car, new or used. I haven’t ridden Yamaha‘s new YZF-R1, but if it’s half as good as other modern superbikes, it’ll make me feel like a coked-up superhero for just $16,490. Or, for $160 less I could buy a 2015 Nissan Versa Note SV and feel like a Prozac-ed-up IRS junior analyst.
Gabe Ets-Hokin runs a training school for miniature golf caddies and raises potbellied pigs in his bathtub.
*Yes, Ford was an anti-Semite and opposed going to war with Nazi Germany (or even just regular Germany). That don’t mean he be wrong ’bout everythang.