As a car enthusiast, I'd like to think of myself as someone who loves fast cars and lives with the consequences (maxed-out bank account, following Taki Inoue on Twitter, collect way too many model cars for my own good, wake up early to watch Sebastian Vettel dominate a race and promptly complain about it), not someone who prizes comfort over everything else. However, this perceived need for a sport package has been overdone. And I, an individual far too young to even contemplate such a thing, will explain why.
The average Jalopnik reader loves the sport package, since spending an extra $2,000 will mean an autocross time that'll be a half-second better. To be fair, that’s a better deal than in Formula 1 where a half-second faster lap time means five-hundred thousand dollars (if you’re Marussia, that is). Heck, it's probably an even better deal than what Miata autocrossers spend on their cars in search of that extra tenth of a second.
I'll be honest. I'm the kind of guy who tries to determine the apex at every turn on the way home and keeps the driver's seat at racing position (right leg at 90 degrees with the brake pedal with seat high enough to see the road a mile ahead). I even put my hands at 9 and 3 on the steering wheel (goodbye hand-over-hand turning!).
But this sport package thing has become way too overblown. This has become a world where Dodge makes a Caravan R/T and Toyota has gone through the effort to make a Sienna SE with “sport-tuned” suspension and steering. (I never bothered actually test driving them because the conversation explaining why would be like explaining why you like watching The Room.)
After all, no one in a minivan will appreciate sacrificing ride comfort on long trips so you can feel like Lewis Hamilton, albeit in a vehicle with at least twice the weight and things much worse than team orders (named Katy Perry and Lady Gaga) coming from the radio. The extra money is better spent on college funds, saving up for an NA Miata to autocross on the side, and buying headphones for each of the kids.
Even the sport package on SUVs has gotten absurd. My neighborhood is full of X1/X3/X5/X6 M-Sports, Mercedes SUVs with the AMG package, Q5 and Q7 S-lines, and the RX F-Sport. Their drivers are essentially proclaiming, “I wanted to sit high up and will never go off-road. But I also wanted my car to look different from my neighbor with a normal ML350/X5/Q7/RX350. And the salesman gave me a really good lease deal.”
What I say is nobody will give you any courtesy in those. Not when merging lanes, not when stopped on the side of the road, not when loading stuff in the Williams-Sonoma parking lot during the holidays. Not ever.
Let's describe what a sport package does to a vehicle. There is a body kit to advertise that your car is well-suited for the racetrack. There is a stiffer suspension setup for the one time you autocross your car. There are bigger wheels with stickier rubber to tailgate a Camry driver on a banked highway off-ramp. There might be a three-spoke steering wheel which is perfect for 9 and 3. There are seats designed to hold you in place when taking a sharp corner at 15-20 mph over the speed limit.
However, there are downsides to those things. That body kit is more likely to scrape driveways, meaning you'll be on a first-name basis with your body-shop guy. The stiffer suspension and bigger wheels make the ride bumpier, so you'll be on a first-name basis with your chiropractor’s receptionist. (Every chiropractor wants to be referred to as "Doctor.")
The stickier rubber means the tires will be replaced more often, putting you on a first-name basis with Costco employees who hand out food samples while the tires are being replaced. It will be more difficult to use the cruise control and volume controls on the steering wheel. And "larger" people might not able to fit into those sport seats, resulting in being on a first-name basis with a personal trainer.
Yet automakers are insistent that customers get the sport package on their cars. I understand it raises the transaction prices and increases profit margins, but most people don't need it. Somehow, the package has become associated with being lifestyle-oriented, as if buyers will take them on winding roads on weekends or even to the track. Instead, they'll be used for the school run, trips to soccer practice, and attempting to demonstrate to coworkers that they're not boring.
The Germans play the sport package game extremely well. Audi offers the S-Line package on everything except the A8. Mercedes-Benz offers a free sport package option on the E-Class and essentially forces the customer to take a sport model of the C-Class. BMW offers an M-Sport package on everything it makes.
Let's observe how the madness plays out on their flagships. At my local BMW dealer, all the 7-Series cars available had the M-Sport package. And a high proportion of 2014 Mercedes S-Classes I found at local dealers have the sport package. At this point, the sport package is for the most part, standard. No one buys an S-Class for the sportiness, yet so many of them have the sport package. And I guarantee no more than a quarter of the people who buy these cars really wanted the sport package.
I should've come to this realization that sport packages weren't needed more than 10 years ago when my dad bought his E39 BMW 530i (the last good 5-Series) specifically without it. I, an 11-year-old BMW fanboy who steadfastly believed he should have bought an M car instead and told him that at every turn, thought not getting a sport package was inexplicable.
His rationale was that the car was already sporty enough, so why compromise things with a harder suspension and an extra couple thousand dollars? Having driven that 530i a lot since then and having driven other E39 5-Series cars with the sport package, I ended up agreeing with him. (I paid the price for that disagreement by not receiving the 530i as my first car.)
Instead, I saw the light one afternoon when I was driving a new 2013 535i M-Sport with a bunch of M Performance bits on it. While driving down the highway, the car felt as if it was bouncing. And in a car which I have repeatedly criticized for lack of steering feel, that was a major issue. It meant the sport package was making what should have been a good-handling car much worse when simply cruising down the highway. It may have been superb on winding roads, but when a BMW makes you second-guess things on the highway below 80 mph and it's not an M car, it's something of concern.
Don’t get me wrong. On some cars, a sport package is worth taking. For instance, taking the F Sport package on any Lexus transforms the car from the typical Lexus experience, which auto journalists describe using every adjective in the book that doesn't relate to the word "sporty," into something which drives better than the current BMWs, M-Sport or otherwise. The same goes for the Performance and Premium trim levels on the Cadillac ATS and CTS (not to mention its new Vsport trim).
Even Porsche, a company which charges insane prices for any option, gets the sport package thing right. Instead of offering a "Sport Package," they offer a GTS version of each model. They’re honest about what the GTS cars are: a reward for customers willing to wait for a base Porsche with all the performance options at a discount relative to taking them individually.
It seems I've gone soft. I don't want to feel every bump in the road in the name of an extra half-second at the autocrosses and track days that at most I do twice a year. I don’t want to see a physical therapist in twenty years. I don’t want to increase my tire budget. I don't want to look like those posers in 328i M-Sports and S-Line Audi A4s.
And most importantly, I don't want to max out my bank account any more than I have to. Collecting diecast cars is expensive enough.
Satish Kondapavulur runs Clunkerture, named because "Clunker.com" was $82 at auction and would've taken 30% out of the balance of his Corvette fund. Though he drives a Volkswagen Jetta (MkV 2.0T Wolfsburg w/DSG), he intentionally avoids VW forums to prevent anxiety of break-downs (and a German engineer not receiving his wings).
Image credit BMW.