entry level

I recently drove the new-ish 5.0 V8 Mustang GT. Rather unsurprisingly, it is not a sophisticated and nuanced sports car. It felt more like a brute instrument, and I mean that in the best possible sense.

McQueen Bullitt green please

dark green in a nod to McQueen’s Bullitt Mustang

Serious horsepower and torque coupled with relatively soft suspension provides for a lot of drama. Step on the gas and the rear suspension squats, pushing the long hood even higher into your field of view while the engine’s wave of torque pins you back. Heavy braking does just the opposite, with the car pitching forward giving you a better view of the immediate pavement. Commit to a turn at decent speed and the car leans hard on its outside wheels. There’s a real sense of speed and momentum that makes the Mustang a genuinely exciting drive.

A shameless part of me really wants a muscle car because it’s just so much fun. For driving on the street, I’m betting the base Mustang GT is more fun that the hardcore GT350R model with its screaming 526hp flat plane V8 and ridiculously wide (305/315 front/rear) carbon fiber wheels. The reason being that you can’t push the GT350R to its limit often in the real world. It’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow.

gross exaggeration

gross exaggeration

This notion of the entry level car in the ranks often being the most fun extends to a surprising number of cars. McLaren’s newest model, the 570S, is getting a lot of love. McLaren intentionally focused on driving enjoyment, leaving the lap record to the more expensive and less renown 650S. BMW’s 1M was more highly regarded than the corresponding generation of M3, and the upcoming M2’s seems poised to continue the trend. How about Porsche? The GT4 has too much grip and is effectively geared for top speed runs on the autobahn, leaving the base Cayman (not Cayman S) as the real driver’s car.

So if money was no object, do people have the self control to spend less and get the more fun but more basic cars? Probably not. Sports cars are about the theater, and it takes many forms. Is the GT350R’s fancy kit really necessary for a road car? Not even close but the appeal of a car is as much in the story behind it as anything else.

because not race car

A McLaren P1 spitting fire mid-drift around the Bahrain circuit at night is mesmerizing. It borders on automotive nirvana. It’s also totally removed from reality, just as it should be. While supercars may scream to be measured objectively, it is ultimately a misguided exercise. If anything, it destroys the mystique of the car. Quantifying a car’s performance is effectively embracing its obsolescence.

I want to be there.

I want to be there.

There is this perceived correlation between performance and driving enjoyment. Newer = faster = better. It’s a form of planned obsolescence through technical advancement. Road cars are built to manufacturer’s individual objectives, not the rulebook of a race series. There is nothing stopping them from adding wider tires, more downforce, more power and more aggressive gearing. The lap times that people obsess over have no real context. Any legitimate race series takes these performance imbalances into account, separating cars into classes and further leveling the playing field by limiting power, grip and weight discrepancies.

Road cars are not race cars, even in light of how fast and powerful some have become. This relentless increase in performance neglects the fact that road cars are experienced in subjective isolation. Back roads and track events are about the driving experience, not the performance of one car/driver relative to another. Road cars should not share the same priorities as race cars.

The Nissan GTR, a turbo’d double clutch AWD sled, may keep 14 year olds up at night with its gaudy performance numbers, but I’ve never heard anyone with a driver’s license commend the car for its driver engagement. Do you think a Ferrari 250 GTO’s value is pegged to where it sits in the pecking order of Nurburgring lap times? The lasting appeal of a car is tied to everything but its outright performance.

reference point

The 918 is undoubtedly the most polarizing car of the moment. A supercar focused on MPG? Ferrari and McLaren have hybrid supercars, but they’re for all out performance, not bragging rights at the gas station. Occasionally driving a battery-laden hybrid supercar in pure electric mode doesn’t make up for the fleet of gas powered cars their owners drive on a daily basis. Why cripple the weakest offender? It just feels backwards.

Shift your perspective

People talk about the purity of the driving experience as if it’s some sacred cow, not to be desecrated by electronics or anything synthetic. But when we break it down, every driving experience is synthetic. At its core, the car is a machine, and machines are inherently artificial by their nature. The term people are really searching for is predictable. Great cars feel intuitive because they operate in a predictable manner. They fall in line with our understanding of how cars are expected to behave.

My first driving experience didn’t convey much confidence. I remember sitting in a grocery store parking lot stabbing the brake as the automatic transmission crept the car forward without any provocation. It felt foreign. I simply had no frame of reference. I developed an understanding of how cars should react with that conventional car as my reference point. So I look at the 918 and see a car that is fundamentally different from almost everything before it, a new form of synthetic. It requires a dramatic shift from those familiar reference points.

Driving aids on

We often associate electronic systems with being a restrictive add-ons to the underlying vehicle’s dynamics, but the 918’s are just the opposite. They are essential to the car’s behavior. In full race mode with the electronics turned off, the systems are still juggling torque between the engine and motors. There is no true “off” switch.

Chris talks about the 918’s electronic systems deciding what the driver can enjoy. I fail to see how this is any different from the choice in spring rate or steering ratio. The engineers tested different iterations of software just like they tested different suspension setups in an effort to get the car to behave in a certain manner. Driving is about the experience. If that experience is enjoyable, does it matter the process?

How many hot laps?

My initial criticism of the 918 (here) still stands. There was never any doubt that the car would deliver tremendous performance. The question is more for how long can it go flat out? One hot lap in your million dollar supercar before you have to recharge your batteries? That would be ridiculously impractical, even by supercar standards.

don’t call it a comeback

The McLaren F1 is a hard act to follow. Designed to be the ultimate road car, it pretty much delivered on that premise. Gordon Murray, the man responsible for its development, abhorred the idea of a road car compromised for the track. The F1 was a no-expense-spared approach to a sports car built specifically for the street. Its outrageous performance (it won Le Mans outright) was a byproduct of Murray’s uncompromising approach and McLaren’s vast technical know-how.

Everything about this photo is awesome

Everything about this photo is awesome

So it was a little discouraging to learn that the P1, McLaren’s followup to the F1, was designed to be “the quickest and most rewarding series production road car on a circuit.” There is much to abhor in that awkward PR-fluffed mission statement. Throwing out the F1’s winning formula seems like a poor place to start but to repeat the F1 would be an even bigger mistake. Supercars need to point to the future. They can’t live in the past. They are about being first. The first for new design, new technology and new levels of performance. Their astronomical pricing is merely the cost of early adoption.

wild

Strangely beautiful for reasons I don’t quite understand

Love it or hate it, McLaren’s P1 has a look entirely its own. An amorphous blob of Hot Wheels styling, it’s a big middle finger to the F1’s clean and utilitarian 90’s styling. While McLaren doesn’t have the rich history with road cars of its rivals Porsche and Ferrari, the omission of F1 homage is refreshing. Heritage is a burden, just ask Porsche. Show me a car made faster by compromising for the sake of tradition.

With a power-to-weight ratio that is a terrifying 20% greater than a Bugatti Veyron, the P1 is sure to be obscenely fast, and yet all this performance stems from a hybrid drivetrain that was hardly fathomable five years ago. Is it perfect? Of course not. Conventional hybrid systems feel like a crude band-aid solution, and while some systems clearly have more potential than others, to discard them so prematurely in their development would be a mistake.

Technology doesn’t progress in some linear predictable fashion and to sit on the sidelines waiting for the perfect solution would see you waiting forever. There is always room for improvement. It is a never-ending process. In ten years, the tech in these supercars (P1, 918 and LaFerrari) will be laughable. Look at cell phones ten years ago; the Motorola RAZR was king. Even at the painfully slow pace of automotive innovation and implementation, it’s not hard to see the potential.

track toys

Evo picks their favorite track toy from a list of cars that will never make it to the US…

Skip driving in traffic and just go to the track.

With such an heavy emphasis on outright performance, modern sports cars are better suited for the track than the street. They are just too fast for most public roads. So why buy a car that is compromised with the rules and regulations of the street when the only place you can really enjoy it is at the track? Go all out. Get something that doesn’t have to meet pedestrian impact rules or get 25 mpg.

Who cares about lap times?

Even at the track, comparing lap times between cars insanely pointless. Evo rightfully picked the car that was the most fun to drive, not the fastest. The notion of being fastest only applies to club or series racing. Head to head racing doesn’t happen at open track days. You’d get kicked off the track real quick for trying to out brake another driver at any DE event.

turn it up

Functional design is timeless so I hope the look of the 458 Speciale grows on me because this is the direction sports car design is headed. With so many new vents and winglets on the car, I’m struggling to find the beauty so abundant in Ferrari’s previous mid-engine specials like the 360 Challenge Stradale and 430 Scuderia. The 458 Speciale’s radical modifications relative to those found on the Stradale and Scuderia signal one thing: the competition is growing fiercer.

makes the regular 458 look pedestrian

aero team beat out the design team

As mentioned by Chris Harris when he drove the 991 GT3, large sports car manufacturers like Porsche, Ferrari and McLaren simply can’t launch cars that are slower than their predecessors. As the performance envelope continues to escalate, design will increasingly give way to function (note the rise in popularity of hood mounted air extractors like the Speciale’s shown above). So while I’m not a huge fan of the Speciale’s awkward aero, I appreciate the impetus behind it. You can’t see those bits from the driver’s seat anyways.