Going the wrong way in the ride/handling compromise

Posted on March 10th, 2007 in Handling,Opinion,Suspension by Julian Edgar

Click for larger image There are a few ways of regarding the comments I am about to write. One perspective is that they’re the ramblings of an old, out of touch man who prefers comfort to handling. Another is that I am stuck in the past, ignoring the advances that are self-evident – well, to all but apparently me.

But I think that most car manufacturers are on the wrong track with their current ride/handling compromise.

Having a car that handles competently is important. No one wants to see people spear off the road when they make a minor error; no one wants to see new cars being sold that squeal and wail and wallow their way around corners. But the opposite extreme – cars that are built to handle road conditions and driving behaviour that nearly all will simply never see – is almost as silly. Why? Well, every time you’re in a car, you’re being subjected to its ride – whether that’s good, bad or awful. And while it may be possible to produce cars that both handle and ride well, in the vast majority of production cars, better handling means a worse ride.

As I write this, there are two new cars in the driveway. One is a Mitsubishi Colt Ralliart – an unabashed, out-and-out boy racer performance car. From its body kit to its big brakes to its turbo engine, this is a car that is clearly and unapologetically aimed at the small car performance market. And, as you’d therefore expect, the ride is firm – very firm. I happen to think that in fact it rides better than at least one of its opposition, but in any case, with the clear market orientation of this model, you can’t really complain about its ride.

But the Colt Ralliart is an unusual case; few cars are so specifically aimed at such a narrow niche.

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And the other new car in the driveway – a Holden Astra Sri Turbo – is one that attempts to make a much wider spread of buyers happy. In the market mix for this car are those after just a slightly sporty two-door with some power, through to those buying on styling alone (I guess some people must like the shape!), to those who want an understated performance car. And, perhaps recognising this, the Astra is equipped with adjustable suspension. The dampers are meant to self-adjust continually to the conditions, and a driver over-ride ‘sport’ button is also provided.

But even with the adjustability, the ride result is the mish-mash so typical of current cars. Basically, the ride is all over the place. Leaving the Sport button off, on normal Australian urban roads with bitumen filler strips, man-hole covers and the like, the wheels tend to fall into holes and hit obstructions with a harsh thump. But go faster over an undulating road and the ride is marshmallow wallowing. Hit the Sport button and the wallow disappears but the impact harshness is then pretty close to what you’ll experience in the Ralliart Colt!

The culprit? More than anything else, on this car I blame the tyres. Why on earth is the Astra equipped with 40 series tyres? (Even the Colt has 45s!) Apart from fashion bullshit of being able to say that the Astra wears Eighteens and Forties, there is no real world benefit. Oh sure, the lower profile probably sharpens the steering a tad when you’re turning-in at the limit – like, maybe, an Astra is perhaps 0.00001 per cent of the driving time.

The Astra feels exactly how other cars feel when the tyre pressures are much too high: impact harshness that the suspension simply can’t cope with. In fact, to try to cover for it, I reckon that’s why the engineers have made the standard damping setting so soft. But it doesn’t work.

I am not saying that the Astra’s ride is always poor. It isn’t – in some conditions it is fine; in other conditions I think it’s bad. But it’s the very inconsistency which is irritating, especially when I am sure a lot of the blame can be placed on the selected tyre profile.

Click for larger image And you really need to put the ride into a historical perspective. One of the cars I have in my stable (the Colt and Astra are press cars, on loan) is a 1969 Austin 1800. The car uses rubber cone suspension with damping by a water/alcohol fluid that also interconnects the front and rear suspensions. Tyre profile is also very high. And you know what? That car rides vastly better than any current car I have driven. Much better than an Audi A8, better than Commodores and Falcons and Magnas and Fairlanes and…. We’re talking about such a difference that through a particularly challenging series of 60 km/h bumps and dips that can bottom-out new cars, in the Austin you barely notice the bumps.

Compared with a current car, the Austin feels like it has double the suspension travel and half the natural frequency!

Now you might be thinking: yeah, and I bet it handles like a bag of shit too. But it doesn’t. It sits very flat and hangs on pretty well. (And that’s with its standard positive front camber!)

It would be absurd to suggest that the Austin would out-handle most current cars on a race track, but the important point I am making is that it has handling which allows me to match how new cars are actually driven – while having a far better ride. I haven’t had an extended experience in any of the older Citroens but I’d be surprised if their hydraulic suspension systems weren’t better again than the relatively simple Austin.

In the performance/fuel consumption trade-off, new cars are vastly superior to those that have come before. In NVH and safety and interior equipment, the gains that have been made are astonishing. But in ride/handling, car manufacturers have made the choice to come down hugely on the side of handling at the expense of ride. Sometimes I think it’s just the wish to make a fashion statement about the size of the wheels and the profile of the tyres. Other times I think it is the circular sequence of magazine and newspaper and web new car testers constantly wanting better handling cars, car company engineers responding, and then sufficient time passing that everyone has forgotten what good riding cars are really like.

Go for a drive or ride in a mid-Eighties Mercedes Benz 300E, or a 1960s Jaguar or Citroen or Austin 1800. Put your fingers in your ears to get rid of the noise that is always so much higher than current cars and marvel at the ride quality, a ride that allows long distance, fatigue-free kilometres. If you haven’t previously done so, you’ll be very surprised.

2 Responses to 'Going the wrong way in the ride/handling compromise'

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  1. Frank said,

    on September 26th, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    I recently witnessed a standard old Citroen (dubbed the flying armchair) doing motorkhana tests. It had more roll than a boat traversing the Bass Strait. I almost felt sick just watching it…

  2. Chris said,

    on October 9th, 2007 at 12:28 pm

    I know that car. I bet he did alright.

    Lack of roll stiffness is a quirk of the original Citroen system, but it’s not incurable at the design stage. The real advantage of the Citroen setup over something simpler like a Landcrab is the self levelling. If you know that the system will always pump itself up to the correct height, you can make the rear suspension in particular very soft indeed, without it bottoming out when you load up the back seat.