What makes a car a pleasure

Posted on August 27th, 2007 in Handling,Opinion,Suspension by Julian Edgar

evo-lancer.jpgThe email was short and simple: Julian – From all your driving experience can you describe which (one) characteristic makes driving a pleasure?

I assume that the writer means which one characteristic of the car – and that’s a bloody good question.  

I have been musing about this today as I have done other jobs, and I think the answer can be summarised in two words – Good Response. How a car responds is the key characteristic in facilitating driving pleasure.  

For example, think about a low powered car. If it’s eager at the throttle – it might not be fast but it immediately responds – then the lack of power isn’t as much a burden. This may appear simple but it’s not – it’s not enough to be eager at the throttle at only high revs, because then it doesn’t respond adequately at low revs. Nope, to be responsive the engine needs therefore to have a flat torque curve – that is, to be responsive at any rpm.  

Furthermore, the rate of throttle opening (either controlled electronically or mechanically by a cam) needs to match the torque development of the engine. It’s no good having all the action in the first 20 per cent of the throttle blade movement. Why not? Well, because then it’s not responsive over the rest of the throttle range. And similarly, the gearing needs to be matched to the engine – overly high gearing will dull the response.  

So you see, “response” actually has a lot built into its meaning.  

And you can make the same argument for brakes – those that wilt at the first sign of effort clearly subsequently lack response.  

And for steering – steering that is dull and lifeless doesn’t have response.

But I didn’t write just ‘response’, I wrote ‘good response’. Steering that is twitchy is obviously responding – but not in a good way.  

And for handling – when the car understeers (or oversteers) and doesn’t respond to steering, power or braking inputs, then it clearly is pretty poor in response. 

In fact, think about cars that you’ve driven that dynamically have disappointed you. Almost certainly, there will be something in the catalog of woes that falls into the category of lacking ‘good response’.  

And conversely, the best driving experiences have very likely to have been in cars that respond, and continue to respond, no matter what you’ve thrown at them.  

(And before I finish, the corollary of this idea is that it is the way that the car’s interfaces with the driver have been engineered that is critical. Very few people into modified cars bother even thinking about this idea, let alone modifying these interfaces – stuff like steering weight, steering ratio, gear lever change weight, throttle ratio, etc.) 

If in a car the driver’s actions always evince a good response, driving it is very likely to be a pleasure – irrespective of the absolute performance available.

5 Responses to 'What makes a car a pleasure'

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  1. James McIntosh said,

    on August 27th, 2007 at 6:58 am

    We all know certain types of drivers seem to choose certain models of car more frequently. Champagne coloured Camrys, for instance. Or electric purple Commodore Utilities. Many of the hot hatches…

    I’ve long thought that the way cars get driven on the road depends much more in their road feel than their absolute level of mechanical ability. If a cars steering or handling aren’t confidence inspiring at three tenths, then they will tend to be bought by people who will only drive them at three tenths.

    The more demanding or knowledgable drivers will pass over that car for one that is. These sorts of cars then get a reputation as fast, good handling cars because we see them being driven that way.

    One Camry I’m familiar with was a work car from the year 2000 – it went, turned and stopped just great when you were “up it for the rent”. Still, it felt like a grey cardigan car at 3/10ths, and that’s how it appealed to its buyers.

    Conversely, a few hours in the current Camry I had as a rental car gave me the absolute irrits – handling during commuter driving was twitchy and nervous, and the delay from the six speed gearbox was awful. I’ve got no idea how it went at the limit, because I didn’t care to try. And other drivers would have seen me drive like a “typical” Camry driver – taking forever to accelerate into gaps, wandering about in my lane and then taking off with a burst of speed.

    This is the image that will then define this car – nothing at all to do with handling limits, entirely to do with good response.

  2. Philip Armbruster said,

    on August 27th, 2007 at 4:57 pm

    Funny, I just recently hired a Yaris, expecting it to be a new benchmark for a cheap small car.
    I hated it.
    On closing the driver’s door, it clanged instead of thunked.
    The seat was uncomfortable
    Most of the go was in the first 2MM of accelerator travel
    The revs hung up on changing gear, making smooth driving difficult
    It had a loud “hetrodyne” pulsing noise/vibration between 90 and 110KMh.
    The car was difficult to reverse, as it tapers outward at the back, and if trying to use the mirrors, parallel to the side was not straight back.
    I do not think there is “one thing” but a number of grating factors that add up. you can usually forgive a couple of bad points.
    Strangely enough it was at its best cruising at 115KMh , a strange attribute for a small runabout.
    I guess for me the most annoying was the non linear power, the hang up on gear change, and the noise. Its steering was OK.
    I felt it was no real advance on my wife’s 92 Mazda 121,it having good response, no hang up, good handling.
    What a piss poor effort by Toyota.Even a Hyundai Getz is better.
    Regards Philip A

  3. Jonathan said,

    on August 27th, 2007 at 8:02 pm

    What makes a car [driving] a pleasure? From a long-term car enthusiast’s view, it is a combination of car styling, key modifications, aural sounds of acceleration, handling and power. The Mini was the 1st car to excite my driving pleasures. It was a pocket rocket & was very easy to handle. The competition Minis were a wet dream – Weber DCOE carb, straight cut gearbox, high lift cam, LCB exhaust & Minilite magnesium wheels. It sounded so beautifully when accelerating – guttural Weber induction roar accompanied by the straight cut gear whine. When it was idling, the lumpy high cam sounds with the LCB exhaust note was pure music to my ears.

    The next car which I was very keen on but couldn’t afford then was the Alfa Romeo GTV (105 series). It had a beautiful design by Giugiaro [Bertone]. When accelerating, the Weber/Dellorto induction roar coupled with wonderful sonic exhaust note was pure aural sounds. The rival at that time was BMW 2002 Tii but the GTV appealed so much more to me. It was many years later that I bought an Alfa 75 – the Alfa sound was still magic but reliability still a dog!

    Mazda RX2 was the next car to catch my attention. The rotary sound was strange – much like a sewing machine but it went like hell! But then the reliability [apex seals] was shite and it went thru petrol & engine oil very quick! There was little torque but it could rev forever. Driving it was pure pleasure but it behaved like a mistress – high maintenance, cranky and drank like a fish!

    Years passed until Honda unveiled the Civic VTEC. The engine note was pure aural sound especially past 5750 rpm. The hairs on your back stood as the VTEC growl menacingly at high-pitch like a animalistic sound. The car was Jeckyl & Hyde; drove it gently – it was a pussycat but going past 5750 rpm, it turn nasty and starts to growl like a tiger. The VTEC sound is unique.

    At the same time, there was a thumpa-thump-thump sound of the Subaru WRX. A 3 inch exhaust system brought out the melodic sound of the boxer engine. Just as the VTEC was high-pitch howl, the Rex sound was a low bass percussion note. At idle, it had a V8 burble but sounds lower & more distinctive note. The Rex was a supercar in disguise – Once I was driving my Rex & came alongside a Ferrari 355 which was revving loudly, punching thru the traffic – a dab of my accelerator & I was able to box in the Ferrari. The Rex’s melodic boxer note drowned out the Ferrari’s high-pitch howl. After that, the Ferrari driver backed off.

    Despite the EVO overshadowing the STi in terms of performance, the EVO still sounds like a industrial vacuum cleaner compared to the STi.

    Aural sounds are the elements that make driving such a pleasure.

  4. Bob said,

    on August 28th, 2007 at 9:10 pm

    What makes a car a pleasure? Spot on Julien! The old “pure driving pleasure” thing that BMW claim to provide can come from many and varied cars but I agree that rESPONSE is the biggie for me. I like to become part of the machine, be it car, boat, airplane or whatever and so the pleasure becomes working in unison with it. Some people however prefer to be the beast – master and to strong arm the machine into action. For them the appeal may not be in the fine almost intuitive steering response of an MX 5/ MR2/ tactile sports car but more in subduing a monstrous HSV beastie, forcing that clunky gearshift through and blitzing all comers in the trafic light GP. Yet others are wooed by gadgets and they may not relate to either of the previous types of car enthusiast yet they too may call them selves enthusiasts and seek more than just transport from their car. However for me it is that RESPONSE thing you identified so well, as well as some good old fashioned G forces and stimulating sounds when the conditions permit! I think of working WITH the car as a friend rather than dominating it or using it as a weapon. thanks for yet another thought provoking article. Bob

  5. Tom Westmacott said,

    on August 29th, 2007 at 7:44 am

    Agree 100%, I’ve thought this for a while now. I would add, the other part of the story is that the car should not only respond precisely and consistently to the driver’s input, but needs to communicate back in the other direction too, giving the driver the information they need to control the car instinctively. I think this is probably something we value, without always thinking about.

    With the engine, the noise is part of the communication, and obviously steering weight is invaluable – some cars have power steering that is nicely responsive, but does not give a real sense of the grip available to the front tyres.

    In this way a good car is similar to a good pair of skis, sailing dinghy, or bicycle. And the enjoyment of driving comes from exercising this response, and then feeling the car respond.

    The question now, perhaps, is how to explain this enjoyment to those who don’t share it; to explain that being a driving enthusiast is not inherently about waking up the neighbourhood with a loud exhaust, driving recklessly in busy urban areas, or destroying the planet, but is a very simple and human pleasure.

  6. Philip Armbruster said,

    on August 29th, 2007 at 9:30 am

    Agree entirely.
    And it seems to me that older cars are better, although the new Mazda MPS has lots of throttle repsonse; and lots of torque steer.
    My son loves them, reminds him of his old Cordia.
    I posted what I didn’t like, but my old E36 M3 is what I like.
    Voted best handling car by Road and Track in 1996, six throttle bodies controlled by a wire, tactile steering, brakes, gearshift,great seats, and a sound that is to die for.
    BUT a lot of people don’t get it. Autospeed tested a used one and damned it with faint praise. Sniffing that it felt like a 7 second to 100 car rather than the sub 6 it is. Maybe it was crook, but the new “Y?” gen seem to like turbos with lots of low down, no top end,and a sound like a vacuum cleaner.
    Tested a Subaru “Sti Spec” and it was just underwhelming compared to an M3.

    Regards Philip A

  7. Mike L. said,

    on August 30th, 2007 at 6:44 pm

    Resonsiveness is the right answer for me too.
    A couple of questions to Tom Westmacott:
    1) Does the car respond consistently when the input from the gas pedal is just one of many to the fuel injection computer?
    2) Do you know of a single catalytic fuel injected car that will respond immediately when releasing the gas pedal?

  8. Tom Westmacott said,

    on August 31st, 2007 at 7:07 am

    Well, I don’t have any firm answers. Taking the second point first, anything that still has a physical link between accelerator pedal and the physical throttle (throttle cable), will respond pretty much instantly – it’s hard for the engine to go on revving with the throttle shut, whatever the electronics do. Anything with throttle by wire has the potential to delay the engine’s response, but that’s only really started becoming widespread in the last few years. I’m not aware of any engines that override a physical throttle cable action according to the ECU, although some do for TCS.

    Going back to the first point, it depends what the ‘other inputs’ are. Taking account of things like air temperature and fuel quality should ensure a more consistent response, rather than a less consistent one. Basically, it’s possible for the manufacturer to program an electronic throttle to be as good or better than a physical connection, or totally unresponsive, depending on their priorities.

    Unfortunately, the instant responses that we love tend to overtake the engine management’s ability to keep up, bringing things like air/fuel mixtures out of balance and causing spikes of extra pollution (in the extreme case, cars that expel unburnt fuel from the exhaust when the driver lifts for an upshift, which then burn dramatically when they reach the oxygen of the atmosphere). So by ‘smoothing’ (delaying) the engine’s response, the little bits of extra carbon monoxide / hydrocarbons are avoided. Of course, I’d rather have a direct throttle and tell the driver that using it smoothly will reduce pollution, rather than forcing it on them, but such is life. All we can do is try to raise awareness of the importance of response. If a company such as BMW could be provoked to start quoting maximum throttle delay times in ms, that might be a step forwards. Ideally you want engine management quick enough to provide both sharp response and minimal CO/NOx emissions.

  9. Vincent d'Almeida said,

    on August 31st, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    I think your second to last paragraph (in brackets) sums it up. It’s not just the good response, but the interface that makes the difference. And it does not necessarily have to apply to modified cars either.

    For example, I like the ‘Black Panel’ feature on my Saab turbo. I can dim the instrument cluster to my liking with just the speedometer lighted, and it’s great for my night vision. The instruments are easy to read even in daylight with peripheral vision.
    On the other hand, my company ride – a fairly new Toyota – has a panel that lights up during the day, and dims only slightly at night. The glare affects my night vision, and you have to really look at the speedometer to determine how fast you’re going whether it’s day or night driving. It looks great in a showroom, but does little to help the driver in the real world.

  10. John Williams said,

    on September 1st, 2007 at 12:00 am

    To me it’s character. I sold my mint condition low kms 1998 MR2 GT to trade down to an old 190,000 km (albeit pretty well looked after except for a minor ding) Alfa 33, and I couldn’t be happier.

    It actually doesn’t handle *that* much worse than my MR2, isn’t *that* much slower, sounds better, and just oozes character! Sometimes I could swear my Bella’s alive …

    My MR2 was far more responsive, but I love my 33 in a way that I neve could love my Toyota.

    Interestingly, when I test drove a 156 I was very underwhelmed. My ’86 Toyota twin-cam was far more enjoyable.

  11. Mike L. said,

    on September 1st, 2007 at 6:36 pm

    Let’s make it plain Tom.
    I value very much a responsive throtle and the catalytic technology has partly spoiled it for me especially on lift-off.
    Modern cars are fine for motorway cruising (although it is not my favorite kind of road) but take them on a winding mountain road and fun is impossible without the intricate playing with the gas pedal.
    What if manufacturers can “program an electronic throtle to be as good or better than a physical connection” when regulations will not allow them to. And, according to my calculations, these regulations that were imposed to protect the enviroment do exactly the opposite.
    Unfortunately this is too big a discussion for any hospitable blog, like Julian’s is, but an in-depth discussion of the matter would be very interesting indeed