Driving slow cars fast; why power’s not important

My last column talked about how timing the sprint zero to sixty miles per hour in a car is a near useless measure of performance, mostly because it’s the quickest way to snap things in your car that should be in one piece. I asked for your alternatives that would be a valid measure of worth of a car, but also something you can use for bragging rights in the pub.CHAL Banner

That, naturally, excluded measuring economy. A worthy thing? Yes. An interesting thing? No. The most popular suggestions came down to the exact opposite of 0-60, the 60-0 time. That’s certainly something any driver can manage in a modern car, thanks to ABS brakes, electronic brake distribution and sensationally good tyres, but it’s not very interesting.

Second most popular was measuring the 30-70 mph sprint, representing just how easy it is to overtake in your car of choice. It’ll certainly put less force on your car, but it’s a tricky metric to measure accurately.

And then there was a suggestion from one single user on Twitter: measure lateral G-forces.

Granted it’s not the easiest of measures to take but, being irresponsible for a moment, it only takes a relatively cheap kit you can buy online and an empty car park. Just look for a Homebase or Halfords car park on a Friday night and you’ll see hundreds of Novas, Saxos and Civics doing the same thing…

SMMT Test Day Drives 2012 Chevrolet CorvetteLast month I was in a new Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport. That comes with a G-meter fitted as standard which proved a very dangerous thing. I peaked at a force of 1.16 G (that I noticed) although that was helped by massive tyres and a lot of confidence. It was also on public roads, so perhaps not a smart move.

And so that lengthy preamble brings me round to the rhetorical question I finally want to ask. Is it better to drive a very fast car slowly, or a very slow car quickly?

For all the pleasure that the Corvette gave me, it was hideously impractical on the narrow country roads of Hampshire. It obviously got to speed very quickly, but that speed was rarely above 50 mph. Each and every corner it faced presented no challenge as speeds were so much lower than those that the car could cope with.

A few days later I jumped in to a Vauxhall Astra Tech Line. This is a model designed primarily for company car drivers, with low P11D values, good CO2 figures and plenty of relevant equipment (so there’s sat-nav but no leather, for example). To help with economy and CO2, it’s got relatively skinny tyres and that means there’s not as much grip as there could be.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of grip there. You’re not going to fall off the road under normal circumstances, but when pressing on round the back roads of Cambridgeshire a 40 mph corner suddenly became something to pay attention to. The undulations in the road, the changes of camber, all affect the car in a way they don’t on a supercar at the same speed.

Toyota GT86 2012 DriftingToyota’s fantastic new sports car, the GT86, embraces the philosophy perfectly. It’s got a 2.0 litre engine with 200 bhp available, but that’s coupled with the same tyres that they fit to the Prius; skinny, energy saving rubber. The GT86 has been criticised for being underpowered, but that’s missing the point. It’s not about going fast in a straight line, it’s about enjoying the drive. Even with the computers turned on, 200 bhp and those tyres is enough to have the car moving around, to feel like it’s almost alive.

It goes further. At home there’s a 1992 Toyota Celica that’s so light and pointy that it just darts from corner to corner, but 20 years on there’s barely enough power left in the engine to hit 70 mph. Yet I don’t get to see the car as my other half enjoys driving it too much.

The Corvette Grand Sport might be able to get close to 200 mph, but one of the most fun cars ever made, the Lotus Elise, can barely crack 120 mph. Speak to any owner and they’ll talk of the go-kart handling, the feel, the sensation. They’ll forget entirely that the base model had a 1.6 litre engine putting out just 118 bhp as it’s irrelevant to the enjoyment of the car.

So keep your 1,000 bhp Bugatti Veyron and 730 bhp Ferrari F12berlinetta. I’ll have a car with a tenth of the power, and at a tenth of the cost, that I can enjoy every day thank you very much.

[button link=”http://www.contracthireandleasing.com/car-leasing-news/driving-slow-cars-fast-why-powers-not-important/” rel=”nofollow” color=”orange”]This article was first published at ContractHireAndLeasing.com on 23 July 2012.[/button]

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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, DAD.info and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.

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