Fast Cars, Danger, Fire, and Knives

by A. Raza Choudhury


Transient

Cars are getting faster.  Despite the anti-car sentiment so prevalent in the media and in the next generation, even normal cars are getting faster and faster.  I was watching some older episodes of Top Gear and I really was amazed at how much faster the reasonably priced cars have gotten over the years.  In the hands of relatively normal people, the Kia Cee’d is approaching lap times set in the Suzuki Liana by experienced Formula 1 drivers—a group of men who most likely have never had more time to think and act on a race track before.  

When I was in high school, just ten years ago, I had a car that was rated by the manufacturer to go from 0-60 in 7.1 seconds.  Pretty quick for the time, but now many economy cars are getting close to that.  My old Passat was not blazing quick, but mid 8s to 60 felt just fine.  But now it would be eclipsed by most modern economy cars.  7 seconds is still 7 seconds and it still feels quick, but compared to what’s out there?  It had a 3.2L V6 making 221 horsepower.  My 2.0L I4 Jetta would leave it behind in a drag race, thanks to the wonders of a turbocharger and 200hp.  Midsizers with V6s hit 60mph in blistering times, often dropping below six seconds to 60.  Think about that.  These aren’t performance cars.  They’re workaday sedans, Camrys and Accords, hitting 60 in times that were exclusive to the top sports cars and sport sedans from what feels like only a few years ago.   That M5 you drooled over while it traded shots with a Peugeot 406 in Ronin would be taken in a straight line by a V6 Camry. 

And performance cars haven’t exactly stayed the same either.  The full size version of my 1:18 scale Ferrari 355 would have trouble at the lights against a lowly Mustang GT—the quintessential working man’s hero car (cue Bullitt; the Mustang is just a good guy car, no matter how you cut it).  And supercars are even more ridiculous than they’ve ever been.  I’m talking stupid fast.  They’re so fast that people are starting to question the 0-60 metric, because they’re beginning to all cluster around the 3 second mark and they’d be better differentiated by looking at a 0-100mph or ¼ mile time.  I mean, my Z4 is not slow; it’s faster than most of what’s out there, but these kinds of cars are in such a different league, they might as well be on a different planet.

Now, it’s not for me to judge whether or not this is a good thing, but I generally do anyway.  There’s an argument to be made that while cars are getting faster almost exponentially, drivers aren’t getting any better at controlling their vehicles and we live in an ever more distracted society; one where cars are beginning to come with Facebook and Twitter built in.  Our phones do things that computers used to do (I have little doubt that my phone would run circles around my college laptop, and that wasn’t very long ago at all) and people have taken to doing those things behind the wheel, hence the often depressing anti-texting-while-driving ads.  Of course, those are depressing in multiple ways.  A reminder that people’s lives are ruined or ended over trivial conversations and it’s also sadly startling to think that we even need an ad campaign about something as painfully common sense as the fact that taking your eyes and hands off the road and wheel respectively while hurtling down tarmac in a near-two-ton missile of metal and glass is a ridiculously stupid thing to do. 

I have my feelings on the issue and I know that other people do too.  I love driving and I love driving hard, and it’s no secret that I’m aggressive behind the wheel and I enjoy pushing the limits.  Though I strive to do this safely and minimize the risk to others and myself, life is uncertain and that candle can be snuffed out without a moment’s notice.  But I do what I can to be fully aware of my surroundings, I drive to the conditions (weather, traffic, my own personal level of alertness, visual clarity, distractions such as music or passengers, et al), and I am completely and totally cognizant that driving is the most dangerous thing that most people will ever do in their lives.  Yes, if you’re a police officer or a soldier or a firefighter or something of that ilk, you stand in the face of present danger daily, but I’m not talking about cops, soldiers, or firefighters.  I’m talking about people who stick Bluetooth headsets in their ears, buy a newspaper at a traffic light, and sip hot coffee while they fumble their way to work in the morning. 

This car is easier to parallel park than my old midsize and compact sedans

It’s not fully the fault of the people behind the wheel though.  Driver education has gone all soft.  Even a dozen years ago when I took a drivers’ ed class, it had become all touchy-feely; the focus was more on the fuel economy ramifications of idling versus turning off the engine and how to parallel park in a spot that’s painted in the middle so you know how to line up your car perfectly.  After getting that sweet ticket to freedom, I took my car to a parking lot and practiced parallel parking every day after school until I was able to do it blindfolded (I didn’t actually do it blindfolded, don’t worry) in varied weather conditions and different parking spot sizes.  I was the only kid in the suburbs who could parallel park without fail.  I also took my car to abandoned streets and industrial parks in off hours to learn it better.  I would find the limits of adhesion; learn firsthand what happens when you go beyond what the laws of physics say you can do, and all in a relatively safe environment.  It wasn’t a totally closed circuit, it wasn’t legal, technically, but it made me a better driver.  And this isn’t just something I did as a teenager, it’s something I continue to do now.  And yes, I stop at my local DMV every two years, pick up a handbook, and brush up on the motor vehicle code.  Driving to me is life—a constant struggle to improve yourself, with real consequences when thing go badly.

Okay, I’m getting off topic now.  My main point is that all this speed is not without sacrifice to enjoyment.  Consumers demand more and more luxury items in even the most basic cars, driving up their weight and cost, and dulling the low speed experience, forcing manufacturers to pump more and more power into the driven wheels and then try and find more ridiculous ways to make EPA fuel mileage standards.  I’ve driven some insanely fast cars that had very little sensation and I’ve driven some pretty slow cars that are just a ton of fun because of how hard you could push them while they communicated through your feet and fingertips.  I’ve also driven some stuff in between that blew my mind.  I’d rather be behind the wheel of an old MX-5 than a new 500 horsepower super sedan, my Z4 is more fun than it has any right to be, and I can still close my eyes and recall every second of my time piloting a Lotus Elise, the greatest driving experience I’ve ever had.  Sure, some of it is because you can’t exploit a car like a 500 horsepower super sedan on the roads without serious consequences to your ability to drive legally or go gravely beyond your talents.  Fun just doesn’t seem to be a goal in a world where cars are boiled down to spec sheets. 

I’ve wasted countless amounts of internet space discussing the finer points of involvement behind the wheel and the wool pulled over our eyes in the form of race technology that makes supercars easier to drive for their target market, wealthy retirees, like auto-clutch and dual clutch transmissions (also known as automatic transmissions to those of us who are not fooled by the tenuous motorsport connection; torque converter or not, they still act on their own, which is the very definition of automatic) and insanely complicated traction control systems (which, I admit, isn’t a universally bad thing, I didn’t use traction control in my old car but I do in my Z4, but I believe you should know how to handle a car without the electronic band-aids before relying on them completely).  It just seems like these insanely fast supercars just couldn’t be all that much fun to drive.  Yes, these things make them easier to drive, but should they really be that easy to drive?  Should someone with no training, no real driver education, no lust for time the behind the wheel (and I’m not saying this applies to everyone who owns an insanely fast supercar, but let’s not kid ourselves; supercars are status symbols and nothing about status has anything to do with ability) be able to step into a car that can only truly be exploited by trained professionals?  And can you get into these cars and have fun without obliterating every single traffic law, legitimate or not?  I have real doubts. 

Of course, this is all conjecture.  I’m just a judgmental guy with a smart mouth.  I’ve never driven a Ferrari or a Lamborghini or even a Maserati.  I’ve been behind the wheel of a few Porsches, but not even a Turbo. 

Image borrowed

So I’m putting my money where my mouth is.  Tomorrow I’m going to a track, where these cars really call home, and I’m getting behind the wheel of what will hopefully be a Ferrari 430 Scuderia (it’s possible they could switch it out on me).  I’m going to find out if they are fun.  I’m going to find out if it is a good thing that someone can just hop in and drive off without even worrying about stalling.  And, I’ll tell you all about the experience.  Full report to follow. 

(And yes, this post’s title is borrowed from an Aesop Rock song.)