The art of building a car that handles well has vexed car designers and engineers for decades. The complexity of suspension systems, weight balance, tires, and running gear all factor into a car’s ability to not only get around corners quickly, but to also produce the driving pleasure we crave as enthusiasts. Although cars become measurably quicker and faster every year, they don’t necessarily get better at the art of handling.
There are special vehicles that nail the formula of handling perfectly which transcend time to become icons of driving enjoyment though. Today we take a look at some of our favorite cars that are benchmarks when it comes to handling and cornering excellence.
Best Handling Cars of All Time
We cannot have a list of best handling cars and leave out the legendary Lotus Elan. This diminutive British roadster embodied Lotus’s mantra of “Adding lightness,” a phrase coined by founder Colin Chapman. The Lotus Elan benefited from a light curb weight of only 1,500 pounds, which meant there was hardly any unnecessary mass to spoil the handling of this spritely roadster icon. The Elan is the poster child for suspension tuning and handling pleasure thanks to a level of focus many manufactures chase to this day.
The Lotus Elan may very well have inspired other cars but none more than the legendary Mazda Miata. The NA-generation Miata not only looked like a Lotus Elan, but was meant to be the embodiment of the perfection and modernization of the British roadster. The Miata retained the lightweight, agile, and nimble handling characteristics of the Elan, but added reliability and modern safety features, bridging the gap and bringing handling perfection into the contemporary age, with Japanese reliability on top of it all. The Miata is an icon when it comes to superior driving dynamics, and even the latest ND Miata continues to refine the concept while delivering one of the best experiences you can buy. There’s no question any generation of the Miata makes one of the best handling cars of all time.
BMW E36 M3
You don’t need a tiny roadster to enjoy a great handling car. Take for example the BMW E36 M3, one of the best handling cars of all time. The E36 M3 followed on the heels of the highly successful E30 M3 which introduced the world to the fast, performance-tuned 3 Series formula. The E36 M3 was a decently larger car than the E30 M3, and also used a larger more powerful and torquey inline-six engine. Upon its debut, the E36 was praised for its neutral handling characteristics that allowed the driver to fine-tune inputs at the limit of grip. Although more powerful than the E30 M3, the E36 M3’s engine was stout but not too much for the refined chassis to handle, making it a balanced, sport sedan icon. As we look at today’s more powerful sports sedans, there’s a great deal we can learn from the balance and connectedness of the E36 M3.
The Porsche 911 is a sports car icon and handling masterpiece with a unique twist thanks to its rear-engine layout. Classic 911s are known for being quite a handful to drive owing to a tendency to oversteer, but thanks to modern tires and advanced engineering, all 911s regardless of generation either already are, or can be made into one of the best handling cars. There’s simply not enough time to cover all 911 variants, but our current modern favorite is the 911 GT2 RS MR. This focused machine takes the top tier 911 GT2 RS and hands it to the largely Porsche owned Manthey-Racing Porsche racing outfit. For credentials, the Porsche 911 GT2 RS MR is the fast production car around the Nürburgring, with a blistering time of 6 minutes 40 seconds. The Manthey-Racing team goes to work on the stock GT2 RS, adding race-tuned suspension that turns the GT2 RS into one of the greatest handling cars on earth. This attention to detail focused on suspension tuning is what takes an already excellent car to another level.
Acura Integra Type R
We can’t forget one of the greatest handling front-wheel-drive cars ever built, the Acura Integra Type R. A quickly appreciating collectible from Honda’s golden era, the Integra Type R is still the benchmark many front-wheel-drive cars need to beat to prove their handling prowess. The refined suspension of the Integra Type R benefits from a lower curb weight and a limited-slip differential to put the power down to the pavement. The high-revving Type R proved that front-wheel-drive cars can handle just as well as anything else on the road—in fact, they’re some of the best handling cars of all time.
Building a car with great handling is like crafting a symphony. There are numerous moving parts, but they must all work in unison to play something that sounds good. Each part must support the rest, and create an experience greater than the sum of them all individually. Today, it’s all too easy to build a quicker and faster car, but a car that engages the driver is much more difficult to craft and requires a level of refinement few manufacturers can afford to cater to.
Photos via RM Sotheby's, Mazda USA, Neil Halin on Flickr.
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