Spannerhead Dot

Which Would You Buy?
The Awful-Driving Looker vs.
the Great-Driving Box

November 30, 2012 by Matt

De Tomaso Mangusta Gray Grey Silver Gunmetal

B13 Nissan Sentra SE-R SER Red

Let’s try something a bit more abstract this time.

Our first car—let’s call it “Car 1″—is a stone-cold stunner. The kind of car that stops traffic. Has presence. Dominates conversation at car shows. Gives your neck a perpetual crick from turning around to gaze at it as you walk away.

But Car 1 is dog to drive. Flaccid engine, cramped cabin, leaden controls with all the charm and feedback of a farm tractor’s. Terrible visibility and a sadist’s ergonomics.

Car 2 reverses those attributes. Visually, it’s utterly anonymous. Blends in during the morning commute. Embarrasses your teenage daughter to be driven in. Looks as if it had been styled in five minutes using a straightedge and a t-square.

But Car 2 is a wonderful drive. Has an engine that begs for more. An alert, playful chassis. Alive, talkative steering feedback. A shifter descended from Olympus in a shaft of light. A flawless seating position, airy cabin and faultless ergonomics.

Critically, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that other factors like purchase price, running costs, ease of repair and reliability are roughly equivalent between the two cars. Let’s distill this exercise down to the kernel of looks vs. driving pleasure. You may choose only one. Which would you drive?

In the real world, among other considerations, we car enthusiasts select a car based on our assessment, at that time, of which represents the best blend of those two qualities according to our personal tastes. We may prioritize one over the other, or even prefer different positions at different times in our lives. There are very, very few cars that exist completely at one pole of the spectrum; the overwhelming majority strive for a blend of both according to their manufacturer’s ethos and their price point. So it’s rare that our car choices make us really reflect on our own priorities with respect to how we view our automotive interests.

So, let’s have it then: What’s more important to you in a car? The look, or the feel?

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series wherein I stack up the pros and cons of two broadly similar cars from an ownership perspective. Read the other installments here:

Filed under: Miscellaneous, Which Would You Buy?


  1. As much as I hate to admit it, probably the look. The real world example that is perhaps most salient to me personally is the Miata. The Miata will probably (?) be better to drive, but I’d rather be behind the wheel of an unrestored MGB, Duetto, or TR5.

    • Matt says:

      It’s difficult to distill the question down to its essence, since deficiencies in a car’s “feel” can be (and often are) recast in a positive light as “character,” even in the case of a car as universally panned for its road manners as the Mangusta posted above. I think the same would be true of most classic British and Italian sports cars—we praise them for their looks, their handling such as it is and the rest just gets chalked up to the nature of the beast…

  2. John D says:

    It depends on where you are in life and what is important to you.

    Earlier on, when I was young and care-free, I would have chosen the looker hands-down. If a car looks good enough and gives you a thrill every time you see it…well, that’s almost worth any sacrifice and any work becomes a labor of love. Right?

    But that was before life began unfolding in all it’s glory and complexity. Over time one realizes how difficult life really is, how things seldom go right and often go wrong, that real-world surprises are almost always bad, that everything around you has a tendency to fall apart rather than become more orderly, and how precious and rare the attributes of reliability and predictability really are. Over time, one comes to cherish and appreciate those things that remain simple, yet bring pleasure. Over time, one learns what things are really important and starts to focus in on what really matters and what is simply noise and chatter.

    I don’t know…maybe it’s because, in my life, hobbies have been all but displaced by the responsibilities that I have assumed over the past 6 or so years. At this point I revel in things that work as they should and place a high value on things that do not contribute to my ‘to do’ list on an ongoing basis. I hate to say this…I really do…but if left with no other choices in the world…I’ll take the driving box. Even if a part of me is screaming on the inside. Even if it sort of ruins my evening to realize this about myself. It is a bit depressing, actually. Thank you for that, Matt. I hope you’re happy. A part of me has just died on the inside. Murderer.

    • Matt says:

      Haha; always happy to help. And to dash your hopes and dreams. :)

      The good news is that it’s almost never an either-or proposition in the real world. Now go find that 5-speed Volvo 850 wagon. :)

  3. Phillip says:

    Hate to keep bringing up my E39 540i, but it fits the blend of precision of grat driving dynamics and handling and with the 4.4 backed by the Getrag 6spd manual its a hadnful on back country curvy roads. But its down fall is that it looks like a typical late 90’s early 2000’s 5 series with its amber marker lights and its round front fascia, the only differences is the stance and the staggard style 32’s. Its a sleeper but in a good way its what I tend to look for in vehicles. To change it up a bit, if the vehicle is from the late 70’s to early 90’s I would choose style over driving and handling capabilities simply because the cars that handled horribly died in firey crashes due to the driver trying to push its limits. I would rather have an MG or TR# or an E30 over any equivilant vehicle. The styling is timeless and you dont need to push it to really enjoy it.

    Reminds me of Top Gear when they were comparing going fast in a super car to going fast in a Dacia (spl?).

  4. Automobiliac says:

    I have to go with the looker. I would take a Maserati Khamsin or DeTomaso Mangusta over a comparably priced Cayman S all day long…Driving dynamics are important to me, but specialness and beauty is a whole lot more important than performance for its own sake.

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