Driving Emotion

Posted on July 20th, 2003 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

Score 10/10 for my local roads and 3/10 for the Nissan 350Z…

Be nice to me for a moment. Humour me, put up with my ramblings. I want to tell you where I live. Well, not the geographical address, but the roads that lead there.

I live in the Gold Coast hinterland of Australia, at a place called Mount Tamborine. There are four – maybe five – roads that travel to the top of the mountain, to the volcanic plateau 500 metres above sea level. One road is called ‘The Goat Track’. It is so narrow that only one-way traffic is permitted along part of its length; right in the middle of nowhere is a set of traffic lights, allowing traffic to safely negotiate the single car-width section of hairpins along its winding blacktop.

Another of the roads that leads through green farmland to the Mountain is from the outer Gold Coast suburb of Oxenford. It is the road that I mainly take, and I’ll come back to it in a moment. There’s also another route, somewhat romantically called Henri Roberts Drive. I don’t know who Henri was, but he sounds like he may have been a French explorer, so explaining my romanticism re travel, hope, the finding of new worlds, etc. Then there’s the road from a town on the inland side of the mountain. The hamlet is confusingly also called Tamborine – but dubbed Tamborine Village to differentiate it from Tamborine Mountain – and that road is a simply awesome sequence of tight and twisting, off-camber and no-guard-rail bends that stretches for kilometres.

The roads up the mountain are steep; so steep in fact that the company that did some of the development on the Mazda MX5 SP (the uniquely Australian turbo model of that wonderful car) used Henri Roberts Drive for testing the cooling performance of the standard radiator. On any of the roads, trucks grind up in ultra-low gear; the gradients are signposted at 12 and 13 and 14 per cent.

The road that I drive nearly every day of the year is the one that comes from Oxenford. It is dubbed (so much less exciting that Henri Roberts Drive!) the ‘Oxenford-Mt Tamborine Road’. Apparently it was initially constructed by the Mt Tamborine Progress Association, back in the days when no doubt they were sick of The Goat Track. But – perhaps because it wasn’t made by professional road builders – it is a uniquely difficult road. There are open, high speed sweepers, there are tight S-bends maliciously sprinkled with short-wavelength bumps, there is reverse camber and magically appearing potholes and funny sections where the road just doesn’t go where you expect it to. Like the tightening off-camber right-hander just before the first river ford.

Just about where I saw a water tanker inverted, cabin crushed and driver – well, I don’t know what happened to the driver…

In fact the roads are treacherous. I have lived here only two years and in that time I have seen perhaps ten serious accidents, and there have been at least four fatalities. The Volvo 244 inverted down an embankment – strong, strong cars those Volvos – because by the time we got to the car there were no occupants and no blood; the Excel that crossed the white line and met a Landcruiser coming the other way – that one was a helicopter evacuation but she still died; the tanker that lost its brakes down the only section of double lane – trying to slow, he mowed down hundreds of metres of posts holding up a roadside fence but still went head-on into the cliff at the end hairpin…

The Oxenford-Mt Tamborine road is a tough, unforgiving section of bitumen. It’s a road where I never grow overconfident: I know every corner, every bump – but I never feel nonchalant.


And it’s on this road where there’s The Corner From Hell. I have mentioned it in some of our road tests: it is a big dipping left-hander, with multiple off-camber bumps that catch the car with the suspension already compressed. But it’s so much better – or worse – than that description can convey. Its turn-in is over a crest, unloading the suspension, Then – whammo! – down the car comes, compressing, compressing those dampers until – bang! – the left-hand cornering forces are thrown into the demands. The car is no sooner settled – or unsettled – than a series of wavelike bumps occur, spaced at an especially evil frequency to further discombobulate the car. There’s a moment of recovery time then sharp-edged rises and falls occur before – finally – when you think that you and the car have struggled and conquered with glory, the exit bumps hit the suspension at exactly the same time as the road is again abruptly rising.

I have had many favourite corners in many places that I have lived, but I can say that none – none! – can test a car like this corner. And remember, it’s just one corner along the many, many that this road negotiates.

It is perhaps because I live at the end of this road that I have a different appreciation of handling to many other motoring journalists. This is a real road; it is no smooth bitumen racetrack. This is also a road that I see being driven every day by those unfamiliar with it. Mount Tamborine is a minor tourist destination and many day-trippers drive hire cars up to the mountain. I often follow them, and I can see by their hesitancy, by their braking when they suddenly realise that the corner doesn’t go where they expect it to lead, by their lack of acceleration down a dip when doing so makes it much easier to get up the steep climb that lies beyond, by their sudden change of pace when the road apparently opens up, yes, I can tell that they have never driven this road before.

Perhaps the driver of an early Toyota Corolla that was impaled on the guard rail at The Corner From Hell was a tourist; or perhaps he (or she) didn’t factor-in the slick surface that occurs midway through that bend. It had been raining for the 24 hours before I saw the sorry end, heavy tropical downpours that seasonally come to this part of the world…

These roads are inspiring, they are demanding, they are exciting – and they have a double-dose of delicious danger. They are also roads which throw into an unmistakeable spotlight those cars where the engineers have spent thousands of hours developed and tuning the suspension for real roads – and those cars where stiff springs and sway bars and lots of rubber has been the pseudo-handling fix.

Cars like the Nissan 350Z, for example.

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I’ll be as blunt as I can: in terms of judging newly released cars, I don’t give a shit about heritage (and I have a very close knowledge of the huge impact that those first Zed cars made), and I don’t give a shit about what others write. Too many times the cars that were supposed to live up to the original haven’t; and too many times glowing praise from other journalists has been developed in a rarefied atmosphere a long way from a driving reality.

On my demanding, real-world roads, where I have driven perhaps fifty different cars, the 350Z was simply woeful. Suspension so stiff that on the Tamborine Village road, the stability control light was on perhaps half the time. Can’t get power down if the rear wheels are bouncing off the road, y’see. Suspension so hard that through The Corner From Hell I was way slower than my fastest speed – and I was also finding it hard to see the road as I was thrown around the cabin. (And the fastest car through The Corner From Hell? It’s the Mitsubishi Magna Sport AWD, where I ran out of courage before it ran out of handling. Not grip, but handling. The Lancer Evo 6 would probably have been even faster through there, but I didn’t get a chance to try it in earnest… The Magna was quicker than the Monaro – and soooo much happier – and faster than an Audi S6, faster than, well, all other cars I have driven.)

Look, it is bloody easy to make a car that can get through a smooth corner fast.

Real fast, even.

Dial-out the roll and fore-aft weight transfer, use big sticky rubber and give the car quick steering. Nine out of ten drivers will then sing its handling praises. In the dry, anyway. But real handling is nothing like that.

Real handling gives a measure of body roll, using it to telegraph to the driver just what the car is doing. Real handling takes into account the treacherous spatterings of gravel over bitumen, considers the impact of wet roads, thinks about drivers who make mistakes and then need to catch it. Real handling recognises that a driver being bounced around the cabin isn’t likely to be making the best of decisions. And then even better cars have engineers who carefully consider all these things – then put into place electronic stability control strategies that take real-world handling to the next level.

Handling that saves those tourists when it’s raining and they’re tired and Tabitha in the back is screaming because she hasn’t had her feed and Timothy didn’t get the toy he wanted and wasn’t this supposed to be a good holiday – and Oh Shit, We’re Off the Edge of the Road and Please God, Get Us Back Onto it.

Handling that not only save people’s lives, but also rewards in a way that in happier times makes your blood sing and your skin goose pimple. Handling that lifts your day and makes you so glad to be alive. (And that very handling also makes your chances of being alive so much higher – think about it….)

The sporting Australian car manufacturers are good at it – Holden, with their SS models (and especially in their brother HSV models but especially not their own Holden Monaro), and Mitsubishi and Ford. (I have yet to drive a locally-built Toyota fast on these roads – on interstate roads their cars don’t feel quite as composed as the other Big Three.) And there are also plenty of other manufacturers that develop cars with my roads in mind. Subaru – all of ’em, not just the Rexes – and Mazda, Peugeot and those wonderful Opels (oops, small Holdens) – all are obviously the result of time and the energies used to develop what I would call real cars.

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And it’s not limited to just these manufacturers. The Porsche Boxster is a fantastic car on my roads; communicative, composed, grippy and bloody fast. Porsche engineers obviously don’t do all their development on a smooth race track; they understand that cars have to perform well on all sorts of roads and in all sorts of conditions and with all sorts of drivers.

In fact, when I hear ‘Nissan 350Z’ and ‘Porsche Boxster’ mentioned in the same breath, I just fall about laughing. And I am not talking about characteristics resulting from their price difference (after all, the engine is the single most expensive part of a car – and the 350Z’s engine is a beauty). I am talking about driving philosophy.

The 350Z is way back in the Ark, back in a time where a stiff ride and explosive (and so dreadfully non-linear) throttle response were regarded as something good. It is the result of engineers lead into a dead-end, producing a car where on my roads its shortfalls are shown in ghastly brilliance. In fact its inadequacies are highlighted so clearly that it is left just a pretender car for those who want to impress their mates but who never get it out on real roads and drive it.

I understand that one Nissan 350Z has already been crashed by the Australian motoring media. I am not at all surprised. Its development philosophy is fundamentally flawed – you simply can’t bullshit the roads around where I live…

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