There are a lot of things about The Car that were rare in thriller films circa 1977, and make it feel younger than its 38 years. It features likeable female love interest Lauren (Kathleen Lloyd), a progressive schoolteacher conflicted about her relationships and whose only concern about a tasteful nude sketch a student draws up is that the perspective is off. The two Native American characters (including famed Lakota actor Eddie Little Sky) are competent, dedicated police offers with surprisingly few stereotypical (read: racist) quirks.
These are the interestingly forward-thinking aspects of a film that, otherwise, is dated and ineffective otherwise. The story of a creepy black clunker of a car (one character accurately describes it as "an upside-down bathtub on wheels") that terrorizes a Utah town by ploughing down its inhabitants, The Car is a horror film that doesn't really get how to horrify.
Plodding dialogue and a too-big cast of characters the film doesn't have time to fully illustrate mean that the audience can't connect with most of the people the titular car terrorizes. James Brolin's swaggering, heroic police chief Wade is a charming enough guy, but he's too wooden to hold the film as a protagonist; the only characters who come close to working are Lauren, who isn't in as much of the film as she should be, and an affable, quirky drifter who is introduced amidst a cloud of promise and immediately killed in his first scene.
The other "connection" problem is a physical one — the car almost never appears in the same shot as the victim it hunts down. It's an issue that could be chalked up to bad editing or not enough budget for stunt work, but in any case, it creates a sense of separation that de-escalates the tension here, and looks very, very hokey 38 years later.
Interestingly, there are a few scenes where The Car does work — they're the scenes in which humans and the car face off directly instead of via a series of jump cuts. A graveyard showdown between Lauren and the car is particularly nail-biting, as is one where the car goes after Wade in his own garage. In these instances, it's apparent that The Car had a lot of promise, and could have been a great Western grindhouse thriller, if only it hadn't been so aloof.