What is the Perfect Car?
There’s no such thing as the "perfect car." There — said it right off the bat. Not because I subscribe to the platitude that perfection is completely subjective, that beauty is in the eye of the beholder or any of that. Objective standards do exist. For instance, objectively, Scarlett Johansson probably looks better in a bikini than Steve Buscemi. Any dissenting opinion there? No? That’s because we can apply certain dimensional criteria, certain mechanical evaluations to determine who likely wears Spandex best. The same is true for non-human machines, like cars.
Even so, finding "perfection" that way means setting criteria, as opposed to expecting perfection as some kind of absolute. Absolute perfection is always an ideal. It’s kind of like the North Star. You can use it to navigate, to figure out which direction you’re going; but no matter how long you sail toward it, you’ll probably never get perceptibly closer. You’ve got earthly limitations in the here and now that kind of preclude the possibility.
So for this article, we’re going to stick to the earthly limitations of the here and now. We’ll look at our guiding star of ideal perfection first, just to get a navigation point. But from there, we’re on our own, left to sail those uncharted waters to find the closest thing to automotive perfection, sticking as closely as possible to the shores of today’s technology.
A Perfect Car — The Ten (or Eleven) Criteria
Somewhere in a far away galaxy, say 12 parsecs left of the Kessel Run, is The Perfect Automobile. We will never catch it on radar, because its speed-camera-defeating, quantum singularity paint job precludes detection. We’ll never see it, because its anti-theft system uses that hyperspace dimensional shift thing from "The Philadelphia Experiment" (1984). But, like The Flying Spaghetti Monster, it is there.
It has the following qualities, in alphabetical order:
Appearance: It has classic, timeless proportions that evoke nostalgia and emotion, without relying on them. The Perfect Car is dressed for every occasion; it stands out in a crowd but never embarrasses or begs for attention with gaudy doodads.
Complexity: It has zero moving parts. It rides on a carpet of gravity waves, and its engine is nothing but a glowing ball of pure energy. Like the Tesseract, but round.
Cost: The Perfect Car costs nothing to build, acquire or operate, forever. If 99 percent of people can never realistically hope to own or operate a car, it might as well be parked in Avalon and made of unicorn horns.
Durability: It lasts forever and never breaks down. Or if it does, it repairs itself immediately and for free. Cost of repairs counts here. All machines on Earth break; a car only lasts as long as you can afford to keep it running.
It rides on a carpet of gravity waves, and its engine is nothing but a glowing ball of pure energy.
Efficiency: It costs nothing to operate, requires no energy input, and will run forever on whatever is already in its fuel cell.
Emissions: Rainbows, chocolate-chip cookies and new Nirvana albums.
Handling: It reacts faster than the driver can think, communicates information better than a nerve cell, and could produce higher G forces during cornering and braking than its driver could survive. The Perfect Car is always more capable than you; like a modern fighter plane, the only limit to its performance is the pilot.
Luxury: It never makes a sound you don’t want it to make, or in any way deprives you of anything you might want at any time. In place of a Nav screen, it has the lamp from Aladdin, and a genie that grants endless wishes.
Speed: The Perfect Car has infinite power, infinite top speed and instantaneous acceleration to that infinite top speed. Effectively, it’s a Stark Trek transporter.
Versatility: It seats as many people as it needs to, and never encounters a situation it can’t handle. The Perfect Car is as adaptable as a DNA strand, as chimeric as a politician and as quietly competent as a British action hero.
So, this is our navigation point, and these are our criteria; which, in a totally unplanned but convenient manner, number 10 on the dot. These 10 criteria, at their extremes, are how we’ll judge Earth’s most objectively perfect car.
Admittedly, there probably should be some kind of criteria for "Fun." But I happen to think fun is what you make of it, and part of my definition of "fun" is not messing up a perfectly round numbered list by adding an 11th thing to it. So, for the Philistines, let’s just think of "Fun" as kind of a background criteria running through all of them.
Obviously though, there’s no getting around a degree of subjectivity here; less in the 10 criteria, and more in their priority. That much at least really is largely a matter of personal taste, and everyone will order that list differently. It’s no small dilemma — but at least it’s an easy one to resolve. Here’s how: The person sitting at the keyboard is going to type words on the screen, and that will be the priority for this article. Looking forward to reading your words in the Comments section if you disagree.
In order of prerequisite to preference:
Cost, Durability, Versatility, Complexity, Speed, Efficiency, Handling, Appearance, Emissions, Luxury and of course..."fun."
For each car, I’ll assign a number value 1 to 10 for each of the criteria, and decided according to the weighted criteria how close each car is to perfect. The weighting algorithm subtracts 10 percent from each criteria starting from the top, so that "Luxury" is worth 0.10 to "Cost." So, there’s that.
Now, we’ve got our guiding light for this voyage. Not everyone will like it, but that’s the one we’re using this go-round. At least it beats chasing invisible cars. These, you can at least see at journey’s end.
"Setting the bar pretty high for the first car, aren’t we?" Yeah, you’d think. The Veyron is as good a place to start as any, mostly because to so many people it’s the definitive "perfect car." Honestly, how many other cars would you buy with the first million dollars from your big IPO? The Bugatti seems to offer everything anyone could ever want: good looks, fantastic luxury, crushing speed, 1,200 horsepower, a stable ride, spectacular handling for a 4,300-pound car, and...that’s about it.
As wonderful as it is, the Bugatti is everything you could ever want, and nothing you'll ever need.
As wonderful as it is, the Bugatti is everything you could ever want, and nothing you’ll ever need. Versatility is practically nonexistent, unless your life consists entirely of driving your supermodel girlfriend around the Autobahn. It’s as complicated as a small galaxy, gets 14 mpg with a tail-wind (about 6 to 7 mpg in town), and puts out more emissions than an F-250 pickup. Oh, and also, it costs 2 million dollars. Give or take. And that’s not even counting the costs of maintenance and repair.
So, the Veyron scores very highly on the least important of our criteria, but awfully on everything that counts. You can’t even say it’s particularly fun: It’s so controlled that it won’t let you wreck, and so expensive you’ll probably never risk doing anything that might be described as "fun." A good first stop, but the Veyron is still a long way from perfect.
The Bentley Continental seems to offer a lot of the same things as the Veyron, minus 500 horsepower or so. That’s okay, though: the 616-horse W-12 will push this car to a plenty-fast 205 mph, and even the sissy little 500-horsepower V-8 will get it close to the double-ton mark.
Speaking of double-tons, the Continental weighs two tons, plus another 1,100 pounds. Even so, its Audi all-wheel-drive system and adjustable ride height make the continental surprisingly versatile. Look up James May’s "road test," where he took a bone-stock Continental rally racing. Slinging gravel, flying jumps and everything. The last time something this big crashed to the Earth, it wiped out the dinosaurs.
Its Audi all-wheel-drive system and adjustable ride height make the Continental surprisingly versatile.
That display alone has to give the Conti high marks for durability, and its versatility is enhanced even more by the fact that it uses cylinder deactivation for surprisingly decent fuel economy. The W-12 still only gets 17 mpg, but the V-8 Continental manages a very impressive 26 mpg. At $200 grand, it’s still expensive. Especially considering Bentley’s legendary luxury and this car’s stunning good looks, $200 grand almost starts to look like a bargain. Sort of.
But...it’s still five times what most Americans make in a year, is almost as complex as the Veyron, and is still a gas hog by non-Bentley standards. Don’t even look at the repair, maintenance or insurance bills, either. All told, better than the Veyron by a long shot, but not perfect. What we need is something like the Continental, but much, much cheaper, and a bit more versatile.
What? You thought we’d be stuck in Europe on this trip? Yeah, so did a lot of Europeans, until the new 2015 CTS showed up last year. The CTS has come so far from its beginnings that most people have completely forgotten that "CTS" actually stands for "Catera Sport Coupe." And Caddy would probably prefer it that way; let’s just say that the Catera wasn’t exactly Cadillac’s greatest moment. This may be, though.
Since it debuted, the CTS has been crushing its European competition in ways that it’s progenitor could only dream of. The CTS is right at the top of U.S. News’ rankings for mid-sized luxury cars, it won Motor Trend’s Car of the Year in 2014, it’s on Car and Driver’s 10 Best list, and it’s currently the second-ranked mid-sized luxury car today, behind the Audi A6. Even that’s highly debatable, and could easily come down to personal taste in terms of styling and badge cachet.
Versatility is a strong suit for the CTS. It’s got four doors, and easily seats five. The fastest CTS-V models are very fast, easily keeping up with the Bentley V-8, and perhaps the W-12 if its limiter were removed. A CTS-V station wagon driven by The Stig on Top Gear USA beat a Lotus Evora and a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG around the test track. Repeat: station wagon.
In terms of price, the Cadillac doesn’t even compare to the Bentley. True, it’s less luxurious, and not as good-looking; but the cheapest models are barely one-fifth the price of a Bentley, and even the highest-range models are a third the price. The VSport matches the Bentley V-8 for fuel economy, which isn’t wonderful. But the turbo-four CTS gets 30 mpg, which is pretty respectable.
A CTS-V station wagon beat a Lotus Evora and a Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG around the test track.
This would be a pretty close call with Das Germans, if not for one thing: Durability. Specifically, maintenance costs. Remember, all machines break, and a car only lasts as long as you can afford to keep it on the road. In that respect, at least here in America, the CTS decimates all comers from Europe. Bet your last Deutsche Mark: Come 2030, there will be more 2015 CTSs on the road than same-year Audis, Mercedes and BMWs put together. Realistically, there are probably more 2001 Cateras on the road right now than same-year BMWs — and 2001 Cateras were awful.
But, as close as we’ve gotten to perfect with the CTS, it isn’t quite there yet. Luxury has obviously gone down with cost compared to the Bentley, and so has appearance. It could certainly stand to be better looking, less complex and a lot more efficient. However, in most of the top criteria, Cadillac has scored much higher than Bugatti or Bentley. In fact, they’ve gotten so close to perfect with the new CTS, getting any nearer is going to take some...unconventional...thinking.
Everything good you can say about the CTS goes double for the Model S, and then a lot more. It’s more luxurious than the Caddy, at least as good (if not better) looking than the Bentley, and it’s cooler and more modern than the Veyron. Thanks to a center of gravity as low as a Porsche Boxter’s, and full four-wheel torque vectoring from its electric motors, the Tesla handles like a slot car — far better than any 4,700-pound sedan has a right to. It’s as smooth and silent as the fabric of space-time.
Even though it "only" has 416 horsepower, the lighter, "base" Tesla is still a dead match for the W-12 Bentley to 60 mph (4.4 seconds), and beats it through the quarter mile by 0.2 second at 12.6 seconds. Of interesting note is that many Model S’s on the road now are actually faster than they were new, thanks to Tesla’s constant firmware updates. Most recently: In April 2015, Tesla "hot-rodded" the top Model S P85D by remote control, with a firmware update that raised top speed to 155 mph (from 145), and dropped the 0 to 60 time to an eye-watering 3.1 seconds. That’s not quite Veyron territory, but it is 0.5 second quicker than a Pagani Zonda F.
Of interesting note is that many Model S's on the road now are actually faster than they were new, thanks to Tesla's constant firmware updates.
And also: the Tesla can seat almost a half-dozen people, and it gets 90 mpg gas equivalent. So there’s that.
True, it is $70,000, and that is not a small amount. But then again, neither is the approximately $1,000 a year you’ll save per year driving a Tesla versus the Cadillac CTS. And that’s assuming you pay for electricity at all, considering the fact that this is the only car on the list that can run on sunlight. Sunlight, water pressure, wind, the heat from molten lava, gravity from the moon; lots of things that don’t burn or make three-eyed goldfish. It’s also the only car on this list with solid five-star crash test ratings across the board, tying any other vehicle you care to name for the safest automobile of all time.
Also, because it effectively has only four moving parts, this is as close to the mechanically simplest automobile even hypothetically possible. That drastically increases durability and decreases maintenance. True, the battery pack will wear out sooner or later; but as of right now it has an 8-year warranty, and costs $12,000 to replace. That raises total costs some if the battery dies at 8 years and 1 day (which it won’t), and if the cost of lithium-ion batteries doesn’t drop precipitously in that time (which it will).
Read our article titled "What’s REALLY Stopping the Electric Car." It’s got some information on Elon Musk’s new lithium-ion "Gigafactory" in Nevada that may prove enlightening.
True, as of right now, the Model S "only" has 400 miles of range, and it "only" goes 155 mph. But come on, let’s get real: Anything over 150 mph is just — measuring. You know it, and so do I. As far as range limitations go, and how that’ll end up dealt with...read the "What’s Stopping the Electric Car" article. Until then, if you’re taking any road trips, then plan ahead to stop by a Tesla Supercharger station. They’re all over the country now, all along the major East-West and North-South interstates. Just stay out of Central Mississippi, Nebraska, Southwest Texas and North Dakota.
All things considered then, Tesla has come so close, so utterly close to building The Perfect Car, they’re almost breathing down the neck of impossibility. Given today’s technology, the Model S is so practically flawless, going any further almost seems like splitting hairs.
But it isn’t.
The end is almost in sight. Just a few more steps.
So, are you ready? The closest thing to the perfect car would be:
Full disclosure: My original first choice for the world’s most perfect car was a 1986 Grand National, for several reasons, all subjective in nature (so sue me). Prime among them being that I’ve talked up Tesla quite a bit in the past several articles, and didn’t want to end yet another article sounding like an Elon Musk fanboy. Thankfully, at least one person has envisioned a car slightly more perfect car than the current Tesla Model S. And somehow, he’s managed to have an even more unlikely name than "Elon Musk."
I've talked up Tesla quite a bit in the past several articles, and didn't want to end yet another article sounding like an Elon Musk fanboy.
Meet Theophilus Chin. According to his website, this Malaysian design savant is a "HUGE" fan of Shirley Manson and her band, "Garbage." That alone should tell you he’s got good taste. Other Theophilus facts of lesser note include the hundreds of design renderings he’s done, many of which have involved turning famous cars into pickups, SUVs and of course, station wagons. "Talent" does not begin to describe this guy’s eye for design; he might have the name of an 1890s steampunk adventurer, but Theophilus looks nowhere if not forward.
Tesla itself has already introduced an "SUV" concept called the Model X. Appearance is way down on our list of criteria, but come on — a car is only worthwhile if people will pay for it.
I think the Tesla Model X looks like a Pontiac Aztek with extensive plastic surgery.
True, station wagons have had a hard go in America ever since Detroit began pushing SUVs to gain smog credits in the 1990s; but bringing back the station wagon with a design this naturally sexy would be a walkover compared to selling a Pontiac Aztek with extensive plastic surgery, which I think the Model X looks like.
Now, call me a Tesla fanboy again.
Chin’s design takes all that is good about the Model S and enhances the crucial element of Versatility, That versatility has kind of a spin-off effect on Cost, giving even more value for the money. Technically speaking, it probably wouldn’t seat more than the standard Tesla. But everyone who’s owned a wagon knows how that works: Stack enough kid-sized objects like cordwood in the back, and you could probably fit an entire Ford Explorer’s worth of soccer practice in the Tesla Wagon. Just make sure to put your own kids on top — the rest are only there for pothole protection.
Obviously, nobody’s saying you would do that. But you could; and that extra bit of versatility makes Theophilus Chin’s concept the only car in the world more perfect than a Tesla S sedan.
Which, by default, makes it...
The Most Perfect car on Earth.
So, there we are. We’ve looked at some of the best cars there are in our voyage from Good to Perfect. We’ve passed some pretty landmarks in the Bentley, some partying natives at Cadillac and seen the future at Tesla. But as great a job as all these manufacturers have done in their own right, not a one of them has designed a more perfect machine than Chin, blaring "As Heaven is Wide" from his station wagon’s speakers.
Do you agree? How do you feel about where our journey has taken us? Did we find The Perfect Car? I’ll admit, it’s possible I landed us at the wrong port. Unlikely, but possible.