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Thursday, May 19, 2011

Jalopnik Causes a Runaway Train of Thought

Before I begin to write about the topic at hand, I'd like to address FPH's apology to the readers on Saturday. The apology is a bit preemptive but due to various events and projects, the first of which was Kyle Swift's wedding (Congratulations, buddy!), myself and fellow contributors will be busy with things outside of the blog and may post at a lower frequency for the next two weeks. I hope you won't miss me too much. Actually no, I hope you miss me to death and can't wait for me to be back.

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about cars. So last week, a friend of mine sent me an IM telling me check out a comment from "wheatieboy" that was posted on a BMW 1M Coupe article written by Mike Spinelli of Jalopnik.

This is what my friend thought about the comment, "He's like the loser that says let's all stop trying." There is merit to that. After all, mankind created the microwave, solid-fuel rockets,
the Concorde, the Eurostar, and the birthday cake. Yes, cake! Moreover, Bugatti gave us the 1,001 horsepower supercar that can be used everyday. Finally, according to Futurama, the future promises large pneumatic tubes that shoot humans across the city. None of this would ever be possible if the human race decided to stop trying. And in my friend's ideal world, a bigger birthday cake is what every human being on Earth should always strive for.

His belief caused two thoughts to materialize. Let's start with model bloat and something I call driver bloat (you'll understand when you get to it). With every redesign for the next gen "game-changer," every dimension is stretched just so. The car will provide a little more headroom, a little more legroom, a little more weight, a little more "style," a little more kilowatts in the stereo, wheels that are a little larger, an extra gear in the new transmission, a little more power in the engine with a little more performance and a little more mpg. Oh, it'll cost a little more too. Thanks to a whole decade of "a little", the latest Accord is now anything but.

This isn't exclusive to Japanese midsize sedans. The Germans have been waging their horsepower wars for many years too. BMW's V8 E39 M5 was replaced by an incredible V10 along with what some considered one of the most technologically advanced engine computers and what others consider pure, undiluted, indescribable frustration. Benz's 55 AMG engine was replaced by a supercharged 6.2 liter and another 6.5 liter. Audi uses the same V10 engine found in their sister company, Lamborghini, for its S6 and S8. Yet strangely, after all these years, top speeds are still electronically limited to 155 mph. What's the point?

Wheatieboy's comment addressed 0-60 times specifically, so let's sum model bloat here by discussing two anomalies-- the 2012 Nissan GTR and 2011 Porsche 911 Turbo S. These cars didn't bloat incrementally, but catapulted themselves into the very fringe of what a car could do. Both these six cylinder twin turbo sports cars can blast through 0-60 in less than 3 seconds, and reliably clock in low 3s under almost any surface and temperature condition. They're identical in horsepower, both all wheel drive, both have launch control, and both have a trick  transmission instead of a conventional manual.

But at what cost? The majority of my gripe involves all the digital interference. Ideally, everyone is a proper race car driver behind the wheel and all the aids allows us push the car that much more quickly and safely. However, the reality of it all is when engineers create a new traction control system that's a little more responsive and AWD that's a little more advanced with every new model, the result is "driver bloat." Drivers get a little more lazy, a little more overconfident, and a little more showoffy with every new car they drive. Imagine that sort of driver bloat behind the wheel of a current BMW M5, iDrive infotainment system and all. Oh no.

The second thought came in the form of a question on evolution: why does the majority believe that incremental gains equal improvement in the first place? Does an increase in size or power guarantee a car to be better than its predecessor? Does evolution of the automobile mean that new cars should be made to be faster than old ones?

Evolution is often misused. Evolution doesn't necessary mean enhanced, it's simply the ability to adapt-- to better suit itself to changes in the environment. The past decade has been a roller coaster for the automotive industry and from the volatility, we've been given everything from Escalades on DUBs to crossovers to Toyota Prii.

Large SUVs being the "it" thing five years ago went away to Cash for Clunkers just as quickly. Horsepower must now take a back seat to efficiency as car owners struggle to live within their means when gasoline is more expensive than ever. Let's not forget about stricter CAFE standards either.

During a chat on the phone with Chin two days ago, I told him of my idea for this post and we inevitably asked ourselves what manufacturers should focus on for future vehicles. The answer is desperately obvious and it came to us the moment we formed the question. Weight will be the next big push in future automotive development across the board, no matter the body type. If a vehicle weighed less, then there's less mass to carry, delivering better fuel consumption as well as quicker acceleration and deceleration. Safety is still without compromise and will even be enhanced with clever application of carbon fiber, magnesium, and boron steel. Hell, with less mass and less weight transfer and improved mechanical grip, a car will be nimble enough to minimize collision in the first place. Let's also note that mechanical grip feedback is infinitely more honest to the driver than the artificial sensations of traction control.

These thoughts took a bit longer to convey than I expected and all of you deserve awards for reading this far... or at least deserve a conclusion. I guess my conclusion is, if there's one at all, cars in the future can provide a little "more" if only they could just weigh a little less!

Happy thirsty Thursday day everybody!


  1. I agree with the commenter on Jalopnik. Why does the 1 M need to be rocketship fast? The E39 was that quick only 10 years ago and cost about $30k more. Being a BMW guy - BMW needs to focus more on the feel and feedback of driving and less on outright performance with current and future models - more important to a good car. Right now, most any German sedan/coupe will be an overall, well-rounded performer with a good engine.

    Power isn't the entire equation when it comes to making a great car. Many, many enthusiasts seem to miss this point.

  2. Hi, I'm the WheatieBoy who made the comment on Jalopnik. Your friend is wrong about my motivation and/or meaning. Your comment "This is what my friend thought about the comment, "He's like the loser that says let's all stop trying." is way off the mark.

    My point wasn't that we should stop trying. My point is that we don't know or appreciate what we have created. Nowhere in my pithy little comment did I make a claim that we should be happy with what we have.

    Rather we should take a breather and accept the fact than in a few short years we have eclipsed our previous performance envelope and developed new technologies that will drive us even faster.

    I do agree with you that the cost for this performance is an increase in model size (bloat) and an increase in technological interference.

    What is sad, is that BMW or any other manufacturer could build a the best handling car in the world. This theoretical car could run rings around every supercar in the world but, if it couldn't turn the fastest 0-60 or up the top-speed game, the target market wouldn't buy it. And that's stupid. Why, because for the most part, the target market is a group of driver-poseurs.

    I would suspect that for the vast majority of super (or hyper) car buyers, launch times and top speeds are never going to be realized. And yet, if a company built them a superb cornering car that they could get a rush out of, they'd never know the difference.

    Maybe that's what we should do. Build something that looks like Veyron, handles like a Caterham, sounds like Lambo V12 and then simply lie and tell the target market that it goes 0-60 in 2.5 and hits 230mph. Most will never know the difference. Design the real hypercars for those who understand how to drive them and will wring them out as they should be wrung.