In psychological terms, a split personality (called ”dissociative identity disorder”) refers to a condition where a person displays multiple, distinct personalities. Mel Gibson is a recent good example of this, but the condition carries over into the automotive world as well. There are many cars that look innocent, but beneath the skin lies something a bit darker. On the flip side, there are cars that should be fast, but whose owners won’t ever drive them at the limit.
Below are our top five cars with split personalities. Some are like that yoga instructor you dated in college: you can bring them home to meet the family, but chances are you’ll be getting naked and freaky on an off ramp of I-25 first. Others look good from a distance, but come with a lot more family baggage than you may be expecting.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
What it looks like: A sensible, affordable roadster that’s driven by the elderly, hairdressers and those flying a rainbow flag.
What is is: Hands down, the best handling rear drive car on the planet for less than $25,000 new. Sure, you can short shift it and enjoy conservative top-down motoring. On the other hand, the MX-5 is happiest when being flogged like a masochist with 48 hours to live. Hang the back end out in corners, run it to redline in all six gears, get sloppy matching revs on the downshift; the MX-5 doesn’t care. It forgives all but the most ham-fisted driving mistakes, provides excellent feedback and will make you a better driver. Maybe that’s why there are multiple spec-Miata racing series, and huge aftermarket support for all generations.
The verdict: Even the insurance companies don’t know this is a sports car. Take one for a test drive, drive it like you stole it and form your own opinion. Me? I’ve owned two of them, so you know where I stand.
What it looks like: A cute SUV that personifies the spirit of adventure, a Jeep Wrangler says you’d rather spend weekends trying to kill yourself in a backcountry rollover accident, hundreds of miles from medical attention, than pursue sensible hobbies like golf.
What it is: A rough, uncomfortable, crudely finished SUV with limited cargo or people hauling ability. That will get you anywhere you ever want to go. It took me a while to get the Jeep Wrangler, but get it I did. Most buyer’s won’t, which is why you find so many clean examples on the used market. Sure, it’s the only convertible 4×4 on the market in the US these days, but even that isn’t enough for most buyers to put up with its harsh personality. In a lot of ways, Jeep Wranglers decide if you’re worthy enough to own them. Posers usually move on to other, more sensible rides in short order, but the Jeep faithful embrace the Wrangler’s quirks as part of the whole “Jeep thing”. I, for one, hope that never changes.
The verdict: If you want a cute SUV for the occasional trip to the beach, this isn’t it. On the other hand, if you want to go places very few other vehicles will get you, sign on the dotted line.
What it looks like: The favorite coupe or convertible of toupee wearing, newly divorced men over 50 who favor shirts that allow their ample chest hair to wave free.
What it is: America’s best, price point driven sports car with an absolutely rabid following. Here’s a classic example where the minority few (defined above) stereotype an entire category of owners; in my personal experience, nothing could be further from the truth. Corvette owners come in all shapes, sizes and income levels. I’ve met Z06 drivers who’ve saved for years to buy their cars, and can recite every fact and figure about them. I’ve met classic Corvette owners who’ve spent years restoring their rides to commemorate a friend or relative’s Corvette. I’ve seen Corvette club racers spend an entire weekend trying to shave just a few tenths of a second off their lap times, for no reason other than achieving a personal best. Laugh all you want at the stereotype, but your average Corvette owner knows more about his car and the marque’s history than any other brand aficionado.
The verdict: Corvette still represents America’s best bargain in a world class sports car. They’ve improved with every generation since the C4, and Corvettes are equally at home on back roads and at the occasional track day or autocross. You don’t need a toupee or gold coke spoon on a chain to own one, and you’d better know your car if you plan on associating with the Corvette faithful.
What it looks like: A sports car for mistresses and trophy wives, or a status symbol for those looking to flaunt their recent stock market success. No one disputes that 911s are fast, especially the 996 and 997 series cars, but, tragically, you see more Porsches at shopping malls and high end restaurants than you do at racetracks or strafing backroads.
What it is: One of the world’s finest sports cars, with over 45 years of refinement. Yes, there are many Porsche owners more concerned with status than with actual performance, but let’s be fair: the same can be said for any high dollar sports car. Last time I checked, neither Porsche nor Ferrari required you to prove your driving ability before letting you buy one of their cars. As for Porsche owners who actually drive their cars, they’re up there with the Corvette faithful. Local Porsche clubs tend to be like a Borg collective from Star Trek; each club has amassed an incredible amount of knowledge about how to tune a Porsche 912, how to keep a 911SC running beyond 250,000 miles, how to tune a pre-1980 911 for autocross, etc. They really are a helpful bunch, and will leave you convinced that 911s really are affordable sports cars if you can turn your own wrenches and buy an earlier model.
The verdict: While there are still two categories of Porsche 911 owners (drivers and status seekers), every single Porsche 911 ever built was meant to be driven hard. They may look like status symbols to some, but those with an understanding of Porsche’s heritage see only the product of decades worth of racing development. If you’ve got the money for one of the world’s classic sports cars, why compromise on something else? Just promise me you’ll track it a few times each year, OK?
What it looks like: A sensible American sedan with quirky looks, one that your conservative, bank vice-president father-in-law would even approve of.
What it is: Simply put, the fastest production sedan on the planet. A car that moves you through space and time with the thrust of a sidewinder missile strapped to your ass, but still manages to stop and turn remarkably well. If you read my recent review of the CTS-V, you know how impressed I was with the. For the price, there’s nothing on the planet that offers comparable performance, handling and luxury, which makes the CTS-V a steal, even at the $61,000 price of admission. The car promotes social harmony much the same way as Dennis Leary promotes healthy, smoke-free living; it begs to be driven hard and will terrorize women and children. It couldn’t be more environmentally irresponsible if it ran on clubbed baby seals and required you to dump its used oil directly into the Gulf of Mexico. One stint behind the wheel, if you’re a driver, and you’ll forget about all of this.
The verdict: Buy one now, while you still can. Cars like this can’t exist in a civilized, environmentally aware society, and it won’t be long before we’re all driving safe but boring interconnected personal transporters on smart roads that set traffic regulations. Twenty years from now you’ll look back and think, “If only I’d bought that CTS-V instead of saving for my kid’s college education”.
So that’s our list, which begs the question, “what did we miss”? Got a car with a split personality? Let’s hear about it.