Sunday, March 20, 2011

What is a Driver's Car?

 Photo by RUD66, Flickr, apart of the creative commons
It was 1964 when Porsche began to sell the 1965 model year 911, the car that has been described as the ultimate driver’s car.  Besides the unique styling, the car had a few other features that set it apart from most cars of its day such as independent rear suspension, four wheel disc brakes and decent power from the 2.0L flat six that utilized overhead cams instead of the more common pushrods.  However the most notable characteristic is the rear mounted engine that gave the car a 40-60 (meaning 40% of the weight is on the front tires, and 60% on the rear tires) weight distribution that gave the 911 interesting handling characteristics.  Because of its relatively affordable price point, refined suspension, and power the 911 became popular in all sorts of motorsports, from road track and autoX to hill climbs and rallys and its popularity exploded from there.

What is it about this car that sets it apart as being the preeminent driver's car?  The rear engine lay-out seems nothing more than some dressed up VW Beetle with some extra power, but that oversimplifies things and doesn't do the car any justice.  It would be like calling a Viper a dressed up truck. Sure, some of the suspension and the engine of the early models were based on a truck, but that doesn't make it a truck. The 911 is strapped with a more sophisticated suspension, and the brakes to handle the extra power. Having the engine in the back means the car has shorter braking distance, is more stable under braking and makes the car very oversteery.  If you didn't know it, drivers prefer oversteer to understeer, and this car has extra helpings. But with the weight hanging out behind the rear axle, if the driver looses the back end, it can come around very quickly. A driver has to be very vigilant and in tune with the car or it will spin, and because of this it reputation of killing many a rich yuppie who thought they were driving some godly car that couldn't possibly spin off the road into a tree and kill them.  Perhaps in defense of the 911 or maybe another car that had similarly dangerous reputation, the 911 was labeled as a "driver's car". I can't say for certain when the term was coined or why, but the 911 has become the poster child for the ultimate driver's car. 

What does this tell us about what makes a driver's car?  If we distill out the features of the Porsche that makes it unique, we can sketch out an accurate definition for what a driver's car actually is.  The 40-60 weight distributions gives the car great braking performance, helps keeps the weight on the drive tires for better traction, and gives it the famous twitchy back end.  Besides that, it is also mixed with some decent power and a well tuned suspension that makes the 911 a very capable car at negotiating road track.  Challenging, yes, but also rewarding and that is really what makes the car worth it.  A Reliant Robin is a challenging car to drive around a track in anger, but its' three wheel layout and weak motorcycle engine doesn't give it a competitive advantage.  Herein lies the essence of the driver's car; it is fast, it shreds corners, and it pushes the driver as much as the driver pushes the car.
If you go looking for the definition of a driver’s car online you would likely see a blog post talking about the car being “fun” or perhaps that it has a good cockpit, a steering wheel that feels good in teh hands or help give the driver confidence in a corner.  But based on what we know about the Porsche, this is all wrong.  In fact a true driver’s car would probably be bat shit scary to the new or lightly experienced driver.  The key is that the car is challenging to drive because if it was easy, the true driver would be bored with it.  For instance, I would consider a Formula 1 car to be a true driver’s car, but I doubt that I would be able to really drive one very effectively.  If you haven’t see Richard Hammond try and drive the Renault R25 Formula 1 car, I would suggest you watch it (here).  The F1 car is the most challenging car to drive that I know of, and it is driven by the most respected drivers in the world.  So for those who think that an Acura Integra Type-R is a driver’s car, I would say you are wrong.  Though I haven't driven one, I assume that its fun, and fast, but its but because its FWD, it can't be a driver's car.  I hate to broadly define cars based solely on drive train configuration, it is pretty safe to say that all FWD cannot be a true driver’s car for two reasons. One is they tend to understeer, which isn’t helpful in racing, and its also a more benign handling response than oversteer, and second is the front wheels perform two functions, steering and acceleration.  This is fundamentally weaker than a RWD layout that has the front wheels dedicated to steering and the rear wheels dedicated to accelerating the car forward.  So in a turn, a rear wheel drive should be able to put more power down to accelerate out of the corner.  All wheel drive is a whole other animal, and it isn’t so easy to categorically praise or denounce them since some are very raw with a rear wheel bias and mechanical diffs, while others are highly tricked out with yaw sensors, traction control and electronically controlled center differentials. 

For perspective I have listed the weight distributions, and stopping distances of some popular race/super cars. 
Weight Distribution
Braking Distance
Formula 1
Indy Car
Dodge Viper GTS*
60-0 in 139’
2005 Corvette
60-0 in 114’
Lexus LFA
60-0 in 94’
2010 R8 V10 5.2
60-0 in 104’
2003 Ferrari Enzo
60-0 in 106’
2004 Porsche Carrera GT
60-0 in 101’
2007 Lamborgini Mercielago LP640
60-0 in 107’

*I believe this is the stat for the first generation Viper and later models had improved their braking distances considerably.

1 comment:

  1. I discovered your this post while trying to find details about blog-related research ... It is a good post .. keep posting and updating information.Taxi Asheville Airport