WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF A PROPER DRIVER’S CAR?

People always ask me the reason of my platonic passion for 90′ sports cars and I say that their drive feel is simply sublime.

But, after all, what made them so special? We know they were at the forefront of the technology of their time, but the few electronic controls (stability, braking and traction) available  served as mere “guardian angels” and not the most efficient ones!

The 90’s reminds us of a time when a good car didn’t need computers as advanced as those that took men to the moon to be driven. The power figures were not as colossal compared to today’s standards. The little experience I had with some of 90’s cars influenced me a lot and taught me the basic assumptions of what I believe to be a legitimate drivers’ car.

 

 
Drivers’ cars are cars totally focused on the driving experience; and  I’m not talking about comfort or ergonomics, but how much it can involve the driver in the process. I don’t know about you guys, but I like to know exactly what is going on with a car when I am going for a spirited drive. I like to have the sensitivity about what the car is trying to tell me in all aspects.
Below are some of the aspects that I feel deserve some attention when talking about driver involvement.

PRECISE AND DIRECT STEERING

I believe this is the first sign of a proper drivers’ car, after all it is the steering that determines initially where the car is heading. Vague and imprecise steering, as usually found in regular or luxury vehicles, is the first sin against a good drivers’ car.

Nowadays, the vehicle market seems to be flooded with electric systems, which, to some extent, manage to obtain a good practical effect in terms of simulating precise and direct steering, however, in my opinion, they lack of feel.

Electric systems fail miserably in transmitting to the steering wheel the road beneath the car. I am yet to see an electric system that communicates road conditions very well. This is the case, for instance, when comparing the steering feel between the Porsche 911  997 (hydraulic system) and its newest incarnation, the 991.

With all that said, precise and direct steering combined with a hydraulic system are a perfect fit for the proper drivers’ car. Steering in drivers’ cars should work as an extension of the drivers’ eyes, ears and hands, sending the most information it can about road conditions.

ACCELERATOR RESPONSE

Back in the day, accelerators’ used cables, which resulted in an immediate response to drivers’ inputs. All you needed was to lay your foot on the pedal to feel the engine. With technological advancements, evolution came and not necessarily to address the needs of those looking for drivers’ cars.

Little by little, electronic accelerators became a trend and then a rule! If by using the cable, the engine’s response relied upon an analogical command from drivers; now there is a bunch of wires reading and trying to understand whether or not the piece between the seats and the steering wheel (i.e the driver) is trying to drive the damn thing hard or just overtaking another car.

Of course, this technology has its praises, since it allows car behavior to change according to the driver’s mood by simply pressing a button, however, when going for a spirited drive, it is important that the car does not lose its mind trying to figure what I want to do.

Another huge disappointment is when there is huge lag in accelerator response because manufacturers are attempting to protect drivers from that utmost surge of power during full acceleration.

The other day I took a 2012 Audi RS3 for a spin. The damn thing had not only a significant turbo lag, but also a huge accelerator delay. So frustrating. I felt like the system was acting as my psychiatrist trying to convince me not to put the pedal to the metal.

THE STICK

I am the first guy to praise the efficiency of a double-clutch gearbox. It can be gentle as well as aggressive at the press of a button. It can help you save fuel or beat another guy down the strip without being embarrassed missing a gear. It will go as far as doing a proper heel-and-toe for you. It is the future. Marvelous, but I can stop feeling a bit nostalgic about the good-old “stick”.

Originally, the driving experience had an intimate relationship with the pedal on the extreme left (I am not talking about the brakes, folks) and a gear lever right beside the driver. For years manual gearboxes were the choice for sports’ cars. Obviously, the need for more speed, faster shifts and evolution made impossible for a person to beat the machine.

Another solid argument in favor of these automated gearboxes is that with power of sports’ car romping through the 500 + HP barrier like nothing, it is necessary to have one less factor for drivers to focus on. I get it! Nonetheless, when it comes to driving a pure driver’s car, nothing can touch the feeling you get from working your way around a good manual gearbox.

It is more challenging. Manual gearboxes are no ground for half-way drivers. They demand respect and training to get the best out. Back in the day, getting there first relied upon your skills shifting gears, not only on how much hp and torque your engine produced.

Double-clutch gearboxes will let you do an automated launch control by optimizing everything from traction control, brakes, aerodynamics etc. Trying to get an old American Muscle V8 to put most power on the ground with a manual gearbox means that you’re in for a change of tires until you finally mastered it.

For me, nothing will scream more “driver’s car” than a manual gearbox. It is the ultimate control mechanism a driver can have over its engine.

RIGID CHASSIS AND REDUCED WEIGHT

A car with good handling characteristics must be light and have a rigid chassis. This will result in a car that will deal very well with sudden changes of direction and will be easier to point at apexes. The thing is: the heavier the car, the more inertia it will have, meaning that it will have a hard time dealing with sharp turns or responding to drivers’ inputs.

Of course, nowadays, markets demand cars to be stuffed with the best driving aids possible to prevent accidents. The problem is that these same “angels” also increase the weight of the car. This means that the industry has made a point that it is better to let a computer settle problems on the road then having a proper light and balanced car.

So, if you have on one side car manufacturers investing in lighter materials, on the other hand, these same guys are stuffing these sports’ cars with plain heavy computers that will sort out how much braking or power each of the wheels need. It is as if these sports’ cars went on to have a liposuction surgery, but instead of throwing the fat from your belly out, you we re-inserting up your ass!?

When I see cars such as the Bentley Continental GT or a Mercedes Benz S65 AMG, I can totally understand the madness behind it, but I struggle a lot to call them sports’ cars. I mean: what type of involvement these beasts give to their drivers? Yes, they can be really fast, but can they offer a proper drivers’ car experience? No way.

I have spent some time in my life getting to know BMWs M5. I tend to love these great BMW super sedans. I have always praised the way the E34 generation handled – it was meant to be a practical saloon car, with enough space to carry four people and some luggage, but at the same time, it presented a huge amount of involvement with the drivers. On the other hand, when you go inside newest generation M5, the F10, it is very difficult to find where the E34’s DNA has gone. I mean, the most recent BMW 5 series feels and drives like a big “boat”.

 

MB S 65 AMG

My conclusion in this aspect is that a lighter car with a good chassis is capable of putting its power down and involve the driver in the whole process. Driving aids should be there to help only when things get out of hand terribly. What happens today is that modern sports’ cars rely on such aids to actually perform, and not to save lives.

ASPIRATED OR TURBO/SUPERCHARGED?

This a delicate aspect. Both types of engines have their fans.

The good thing about a supercharger or turbo is that by forced induction of gases in the combustion chamber, small engines can produce power and torque similar to much bigger engines naturally aspirated.

The bad thing about it is that turbos or superchargers will give you that extra punch during limited ranges of rpm. Turbos have what we call turbo lag; that lapse of time when you stomp you foot down the accelerator and wait a couple of seconds until everything happens. Supercharged cars, on the other hand, do not like to play on higher rpms. Variable geometry turbo is a bless, helping solve turbo lag issues. New superchargers allow some cars to play well above the 7000 rpms, which is good.

Naturally aspirated cars, on the other hand, either have huge engines, such as big blocks american muscle engines, with huge amounts of torque and horsepower since lower rpms; or smaller engines that need to be milked away to wake up. Good examples of smaller naturally aspirated engines are those produced by HONDA, such as the K20 engine.

I tend to like naturally aspirated engines a bit more. First, the feel is more emotional. Second, power and torque delivery are very predictable and linear. Turbos and superchargers are very “peaky” for my taste. Nevertheless, this aspect is more of a “taste” thing then a science.

 

FACTORS THAT DO NOT HAVE AN IMPACT ON GOOD DRIVEBILITY

People always ask me the perfect configuration for a proper drivers’ car. The answer is always: “what do you like?”

All car configurations have amazing examples of proper drivers’ cars. Even perfect weight distribution can be disregarded some times (as with the Porsche 911, for instance).

Let’s see some examples of proper drivers’ cars:

Front engine and front wheel drive: HONDA CIVIC SI.

Back engine and rear wheel drive: PORSCHE 911 GT2 RS.

Mid engine and rear wheel drive: FERRARI 430 SCUDERIA.
Mid engine and all wheel drive: AUDI R8.

Front engine and rear wheel drive: BMW M3 E46.

Front engine and all wheel drive:  MITSUBISHI LANCER EVOLUTION.

But you could also ignore everything I wrote. Do you want to know why? Because a car may have a great feel for me, but not for you. Nevertheless, I believe I have spent some time behind the wheel of several cars and with this post I hope to clarify what matters the most when chasing a driver’s car.

Truth be told, many of today’s drivers are super heroes behind the steering wheel due to several aids sorting difficult situations and simulating the most dramatic heel-and-toe techniques available. It is easy for these drivers to go to a track day and have lap times they could only dream about 10 years ago.

Notwithstanding the above, you also need to be thankful for these modern technologies, because they also serve as a good protection against the most adverse circumstances. They allow people to enjoy their cars in a safer way.

The modern sport car has become more of an amusement park, rather than a challenging experience. All that you experience is pretty much what a computer allows you to. In the end of the day, no one wants to feel scared with something that was created originally to entertain.

Long gone are the days when sports car demanded years of practice and dedication. Nowadays, you can go out to dinner in your track monster and not vomit your meal!

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