Chasing Your Own Tail with High Performance
This week’s epiphany. I have been wrong for at least fifteen years. So have you.
Enthusiasts are interested in performance, and if some performance is good, more would be better, leading us with perfect logic to whatever the definition of “high performance” for this year.
And all of us, as we seek to balance our base cravings for speed, acceleration, handling, and all the rest against a budget that is always too small, have been looking in the wrong place. For several years.
To be sure, the high performance cars and motorcycles available today put any of their forebears on the trailer in terms of almost any yardstick, and they do so while getting better fuel mileage and with utter and implacable reliability. The only thing they lack, which you would think we would have thought of much sooner, is… a place to use it.
Let’s take the 2012 Porsche 911 GT3, currently being lauded as the last of the great 911s, a car we will never see the likes of again, and so on and so forth. You can almost write the road test yourself, without ever driving the car. The new base model of the 911, which will inevitably spawn its own GT 3 variant when the buzz (and sales) of the design begin to wane, will share the new chassis – which is a few inches longer and thus less wieldy without the electronic hands of the factory mavens than know better than you what should be happening at any given locus of a curve.
Let’s say I lust for the GT 3, I win the lottery, and I can now easily afford the close to $200,000 it will take to get one ordered and from the dealer and into my new (and considerably larger) garage in my new home. Now what?
Here’s a car that will be breaking the speed limit, by a great deal, if my foot ventures more than half way down the throttle pedal travel in 3rd gear – of 6. So I take it out to the remote roads between Monroe and Granite Falls that I have been exploring at various speeds on various sporting motorcycles for the past 40 years. Can I let the GT 3 have its head here? Not if I care a jot for my own well-being or anyone who lives there. The roads are narrow, and a GT3 is not – the rear haunches look pregnant, as if a Smart car is about to emerge. The roads are often wet, and covered with leaves, and many of the turns have limited sight lines or none. So the GT3 can hum along at 95mph, not even breaking the surface of the deep pudding of its tasty performance, but inevitably heading for a ditch or an anal insertion into a hapless farmer’s tractor.
So reserve the car for track days? OK – I am an enthusiastic driver of unknown potential in pretty good health. I take a few classes in high performance driving. But in the real world, there is little chance that my rapidly aging brain and body and inexorably growing reflex response times can ever catch up to the head start the Porsche engineers have given the GT3. In other words, I will be slower than the car – forever. I’ll have a wonderful time for sure, but soon will come the gut punch realization that high performance is reserved for the car, and I am merely the poseur driving it.
I have ridden the BMW S 1000 RR hyperbike for several hundred miles. It has three modes accessed by simple button on the handlebars. “Rain” restricts the engine to “only” 150hp, and amps up the settings for both the traction control and ABS brake systems. “Sport” gives you the full boogie 192hp and backs off on the ABS and traction control a tad. “Race” simply makes the throttle response more abrupt. For those who are really serious, removing the seat will gain access to a plug, and with a special tool you can access “Slick” where the bike presumes you are at a track day on slick tires and pretty much frees up everything, so you can “back it in” to corners, etc. As you do…
But I don’t. True, the “rain” setting does feel a bit soft, but the “sport” setting provides a bike that is much faster than I am. Forty four years of riding, and 450 plus bikes later, I have a bike that I cannot ride to anywhere near its potential. Anywhere.
For many purchasers, the BMW S 1000RR is a fine choice simply for what it represents. It is the best of the best in sport bikes, and has deep reserves of both performance and safety built into it – even if they are never used. And, of course, it is beautiful.
The same performance limitations, in an ironic way, can be applied to the “plain Jane” Porsche 911. Or a Corvette. Or pretty much any “high performance” car or motorcycle for sale today. Notice how often I have used the word “I”? That is the key. That is the epiphany.
My first motorcycles had between 20 – 50 horsepower. I could accelerate as hard as they could go and be able to process the information coming at me. My epiphany should have hit me a decade ago, when I had a Kawasaki ZX 12R Ninja. I noticed that when that 165hp (at the rear wheel!) monster was accelerating hard in 2nd or 3rd gear, it was gaining speed so fast my brain could not process the information flooding in. The bike could accelerate faster than I could. Since that time new motorcycles and cars have continued to accelerate away from both the capabilities of most drivers and the limits of the road infrastructure where they are used.
So where do we look for “high performance” now? Since so many cars and motorcycles are now “fast enough,” we have to look inside. What we want is not a high performance vehicle, but a high performance experience.
High performance in this sense means to be active in the car or on my motorcycle. You want the benign experience of be using all of your senses to their highest level of performance to enhance the journey. For this to work you need three things that are rapidly approaching extinction in “high performance” vehicles for sale.
1. Manual shift. Just about every enthusiast has pointed out the folly of eliminating manual shift transmissions from high performance cars because paddle shifters are a few tenth’s quicker around a track. The car is already 10 seconds or more a lap slower in most hands than when driven by a pro, so who cares about a few tenths?
2. Limited engine size and power. With a car, a sub-2000cc engine carries two great benefits for our new definition of high performance – less power (but still ample) and less weight. Less power means eliminating the jumbotron tires and the fat ass fenders that cover them – and a narrower car is so much more fun to drive on roads that have not gotten any wider in the past seven decades.
3. Less weight. Less weight allows the car to move around a bit on the narrower tires – the art of “drifting” becomes accessible again. Not the perverted drifting of today where the purpose is merely to create smoke and the illusion that you are doing something, but the drifting of the 50s – the fastest way to get through a corner for a driver who had high performance capability.
As an example, the first version of the Mazda Miata would be a fine high performance car, albeit with a slightly too large engine by this definition. The current version, which I drove a few weeks ago, is (go ahead guess) too wide, too heavy, and you can’t see out of it.
In this fashion, the Fiat 500 Sport in the garage is a “high performance” car. Press the “sport” button to firm up the steering and tighten the throttle response, and you have a car that will respond to your high performance driving, or lay down and idle along like a tired puppy if you are too tired or lack the skill to exercise it properly. The question that looms is whether the Abarth version currently snorting its way toward the showroom will, with another 50hp and a 6 speed gearbox, be more fun to drive or less? I suspect more…
This also explains something that puzzled me for years. Prior to the Fiat I owned a Ford Focus for a decade. With 120hp (I opted for the “high horsepower” variant on offer in 2000 – woop, woop!) and a 5 speed, the Focus was ever so much more fun to drive than the Porsche 911 that preceded it. And much cheaper. And more reliable. Etc.
In motorcycles, three of the most fun motorcycles I have ridden in the past decade are the Triumph Speed Triple, the BMW 800R, and the Triumph Bonneville Scrambler. None of them are at the forefront of motorcycle performance today, and in fact they cannot even see the front. But all demand that the rider pay attention and be involved, and all provide a “high performance” day.
From this day forward I will change the focus of my continual mental shopping spree. After decades of looking for cars and motorcycles that could do more for me, it is time to look for vehicles that will give me the chance to do more for them, and in so doing mine the golden treasure of high performance.
Copyright 2011 David Preston