Every club racer knows what it looks like when an “incident" develops ahead of them. The pack of cars breaks in two different directions like a group of city pigeons enduring the insult of a sidewalk-ridden bicycle. It’s often possible to see a cloud of dust and miscellaneous automobile parts shoot MOAB-style into the air above the cars. Right about then, if you’re lucky, you start to catch a glimpse of the car that is causing all the trouble, reeling backwards towards you at a speed differential of anything from ten to 110 miles per hour. If you are awake, alert, and not otherwise occupied, you should already be in the middle of executing the avoidance plan that you mentally filed when you saw the cars ahead of you start to lean and swerve.
That’s pretty much how it went for me today, except I was behind the wheel of a 5400-pound luxury SUV and the “race” in question was happening on a Los Angeles freeway. When I caught sight of the affected car, it was an E90-generation BMW M3 limping along and throwing big chunks of rubber in all directions from the two shredded tires on the passenger side. A muted “thump” in the SUV’s left front corner confirmed the theory that was just then playing out in my mind: The M3 had been rolling along at the 90mph pace typical of L.A. freeways when it struck a six-inch-deep hole in the road and promptly destroyed 700 bucks’ worth of summer tire, maybe a couple of forged wheels to go with them.
The worst part of it, at least from my perspective, was that we had just passed an exit, with the next available option maybe a mile and a half up the road. I checked my right-side mirror and saw the M3 ruefully taking to the shoulder, which was strewn with glass, random pieces of wood, and a few previously-ejected auto parts. Would he make it to the next exit without adding one or even two more tires to the casualty list? Somehow I doubted it.
In much the same way that thinking about a particular car seems to double or triple the population of that car on the roads around you, I spent the rest of my day noticing where the roads of California had claimed their low-riding, low-profile-tire victims. The main street of La Canada was flanked on both sides with steep ramps to restaurants and banks, all bearing numerous gouges. In the residential neighborhoods around Pasadena, the four-way stops often had a considerable amount of approach and departure angle. Down Sunset and across La Cienaga, the outer lanes had strong curvature into gutters laden with sharp objects. Around Terminal Island, some of the potholes looked like they would qualify for honorary Michigan citizenship.
I hasten to remind the reader that we’re not talking about Manhattan or Baltimore or Chicago here. This is the city where the roads are so comparatively good—even if the traffic is so comparatively miserable—that automakers schedule new vehicle debuts here year-round. When I was starting out in the autowriting game and attending a lot of these events, there were months when I spent more nights in SoCal than I did back home. California is the official home of the lowrider, the airbagged compact truck, the lakester, the supercar, the hypercar.
Yet there’s increasing trouble in Paradise for the American motorist, just as there is everywhere else. More traffic, made up of cars whose drivers are sometimes unlicensed, uninsured, or just plain uninvolved. Aggressive behavior from fellow drivers, fueled by soaring ride heights, double-pane windows, and every other possible bit of technology to mentally distance vehicle operators from the conditions that surround them. Roads that are worse every year and unlikely to get better. Last but not least, there is the continual re-imagination of the urban center as a place where cars are deliberately unwelcome. These are not ideal conditions for a Lamborghini Huracan, BMW M3, or even a new-generation Miata on 17-inch wheels and rubber-band tires.
I think that the above conditions are part of the rush to pumped-up SUVs and “active coupes” like the Cayenne and its many descendants. Drivers trade in a sports car for a 500-horsepower crossover and they feel like they’ve taken back some control. The problem is that those vehicles are fundamentally flawed for tomorrow’s roads. They roll on wheels big enough for a B-36 Peacemaker and tires with 80 millimeters of sidewall, pressing that running gear into the ground with the curb weight of a 1995 F-150 and the kind of spring rates that used to be limited to Peterbilts. Just as importantly, they’re all basically updated takes on either the 1984 Voyager or the 1986 Astro, and the next generation will view them with the same distaste that today’s Boomers reserve for anything that reminds them of an old Impala wagon.
There’s room in the market for a new kind of sports car. One that trades ten seconds’ worth of Burgerkingring time for the ability to hit a pothole at speeds, one that abandons the British Touring Car Championship aesthetic for some actual nose clearance. Maybe even one that splits the ride-height difference between a Corvette and an Equinox. It should be ready for the urban jungle or the under-maintained freeway or the gravel road that leads to your summer home.
To some degree here, I’m describing the Bandit’s Trans Am or the Charger driven by those Duke boys—but that's not to say we need another retro take on anything. Instead, I’m looking at the Local Motors Rally Fighter, an “open-source” pony car that rode on tall springs, rolled on old-school high-profile sidewalls, and faced the world with an American Staffordshire’s worth of naked aggression. It was a tough sale on the terms offered by its original supplier, which went something like “bring $100,000 and a couple hundred hours of your time.” Notably, Local Motors has now pivoted to building That doesn’t mean the fundamental concept is unsound. It just means the execution wasn’t sufficiently popular to justify mass production.
In fact, there’s already quite a bit of interest in a very limited take on the formula, namely . Not all of the Paco Miatas out there are running Baja or conquering the Rubicon. Some of them are living happy lives in major cities, enjoying the additional ground clearance, ride height, and sidewall depth. You could also argue that pretty much every manual-transmission late-model Jeep Wrangler registered inside a major city represents a missed opportunity for something like a mass-produced Rally Fighter.
Pretty much any of the major manufacturers could whip something like this up on short notice, but I think it would be a particularly good fit for Chrysler. Take a Challenger, cut the wheelbase even further, add some Grand-Cherokee-spec suspension, flare the fenders, fit 70-series tires on 15-inch wheels. The resulting car should be able to jump a curb at 60mph or pound a pothole on the 405. Give it rubberized door covers so it’s valet-proof. Definitely make it available with everything from the Pentastar to the Hellcat engine.
It would need a name, and the name is pretty much obvious. It should hark back to a time when Chrysler built a “segment-buster” that was aimed at enthusiasts and street-stylers alike. It should sound mean and it should sound fast. You know where I’m going with this, right? Why would any self-respecting Los Angeles resident content themselves with a pothole-vulnerable BMW M3 when they could own a Barracuda?