Why the 2000s were the best era for performance cars

Car enthusiasts notoriously slow to warm up to new models, technologies, and trends in the auto industry. They’re quick to claim that water-cooling ruined the 911, and that electronic power steering neutered the 3-series’ famously sharp sports-sedan character.

In reality, most of these changes are for the better, and broaden a car’s potential audience, and just make them better to own and live with. This means better sales for OEMs and thus more profits for them to reinvest into the development of the cars that we love.

So I tend to “roll with the punches” and accept, for example, the electronically-assisted steering in the 3-series. That’s because I know that it’ll lead to more BMWs sold, more money in BMW’s pocket, and thus better BMWs in the future. 

So, I’m not one of those purist enthusiasts who hates every new piece of tech. (I know I’m really about to sound like one, but I promise that I’m not!)

In this article, we’ll go over why I (and many others) believe that the 2000s were the best decade for performance cars. I know I’ll sound like a disgruntled purist, but really I’m just fondly remembering a “golden age” of performance cars—not saying that we should go back to them, or dismissing the good reasons why we had to, at some point, advance out of this golden age. So let’s get started: here’s why the 2000s were the best era for performance cars, from the perspective of a perfectly non-disgruntled (gruntled?) enthusiast.

It Was the Last Era of Analog Performance Cars

The mid-2000s were the last era where you could actually purchase analog-feeling performance cars new. You can certainly make a case that the 2010s also produced some analog performance cars, but not nearly as many as the 2000s.

Performance cars built in the 2000s were frequently outfitted with hydraulic steering and naturally aspirated engines—two features that lend themselves to a more connected, rewarding driving experience, something critically important to a good sports car. The driver can actually feel what’s happening with the front tires in their fingertips, with hydraulic steering, and the naturally aspirated engines offer a smooth-building, linear power band.

Most key to the analog experience, however, was the fact that 2000s performance cars were frequently available with manual transmissions, the key to any engaging driving experience. Manual transmissions are sparsely available in performance cars nowadays, but that was not the case just a decade ago.

The Audi RS 4 (image credit, edmunds.com)

As an example of all of this, the U.S. spec 2007-2008 Audi RS 4 came with a manual transmission only, hydraulic steering, and a naturally aspirated V8. Now, the RS 5 Sportback (the modern equivalent to the RS4, the newest version of which is not sold in the U.S.) is available with an automatic transmission only, electronic power steering, and a turbocharged V6. The RS 4 to RS 5 10-year transformation are examples of just how far we’ve strayed from the analog performance car.  

The 2000s Yielded the Most Crazy, Iconic Cars of any Decade

V10-powered sedans and manual transmission Porsche flagship supercars. Is there really anything else to say? Evidently yes, because I’m still writing, but we’ll surely never see either of those again.

The 2000s yielded, in my opinion, more iconic performance cars than any other decade. The E46 BMW M3, Ford GT, Porsche Carrera GT, Mercedes-McLaren SLR, Bugatti Veyron… the list goes on. All of these cars are lauded as true icons, the last of their kind, and they were all born of the 2000s.

The Ford GT

In addition to producing icons, the 2000s also produced some truly bonkers cars that it’s impossible to imagine being sold new today. The 2000s brought us the V10 German sedans: the E60 BMW M5 and C6 Audi S6. These were luxury sedans fitted with V10s, one of which was plucked straight out of a Lamborghini!

The car world would be absolutely floored if BMW or Audi decided to sell a V10 sedan today, but it wasn’t all that long ago that they actually did. The 2000s also blessed us with the Porsche Carrera GT, another V10-powered German, but this one was special for other reasons. It was a supercar in every way, so the V10 isn’t too surprising, but what is surprising, by today’s standards, is that it was a manual-transmission-only, flagship supercar from Porsche. It was an analog supercar in every sense of the word, and was truly the last of its kind (more recent Porsche flagship supercars are hybrids, for goodness’ sake. Excellent cars, but… hybrids). 

The 2000s Started the Hypercar Craze

Finally, I can’t write about how great the 2000s were without mentioning perhaps this era’s greatest and most lasting impact: the 2000s started the hypercar craze. More specifically, the 2000s brought us the Bugatti Veyron, and the Bugatti Veyron started the hypercar craze. Before Bugatti, the word “hypercar” didn’t really exist. But then came the Veyron in 2005, and a whole new segment was born.

The Veyron decimated the competition with more horsepower, more turbos, more displacement, a higher top speed, etc. etc. It was arguably the most impressive car of its day, so much so that its cultural impact transcended the car world. Everyone knew how much horsepower the Veyron had, how much it cost, and how fast it could go. It was an icon of the purest form.

The Bugatti Veyron, the first hypercar

This sudden domination inspired, other, more popular OEMs to fight back with hypercars of their own. Porsche, McLaren, and Ferrari bit back with their 918, P1 and LaFerrari models respectively, and though these cars didn’t come out of the 2000s, their inspiration most certainly did. These cars are in many ways icons themselves, and their manufacturers continue to compete feverishly today, and a good bit of credit for that goes to Bugatti and the 2000s.

Final Thoughts

So, as we look back fondly on the 2000s, it’s clear why I and many others consider it a golden age of performance cars. We were given some truly crazy cars, some lasting icons, and a whole new segment that continues to comfortably sit atop all other segments in terms of performance. While new cars and modern technology are great for many reasons themselves, I believe we’ll continue to look back on the 2000s as a sweet spot between analog and modern, a time when you could have Bluetooth connectivity and a naturally aspirated, manual transmission sports sedan. I don’t mean to be cliché, but they really just don’t make them like they used to. 

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