Sunday, 8 July 2012

Driving Fun:- What does that even mean any more?

The new Audi RS4 Avant, as driven by the excellent Georg Kacher of CAR magazine (issue 600) has, as usual, a gargantuan list of tech in its inventory. And, despite this, it still apparently manages to be fun to drive. I've not driven an RS4 since the B5 generation, and the latest offering may well be Manna from Heaven for those who enjoy hauling their groceries at extreme speed  But my question is thus: Would any of this driving fun be possible without that extraordinary list of expensive, heavy electrickery?

Audi know that big numbers are good news when it comes to marketing a car. Their chief engineer, one Stephan Reil, when challenged over the fact that the RS4 doesn't seem to ride properly, countered that:

"...the optional 30-section tyres are less compliant than the standard 265/35/ R19 footwear... but the 20-inchers offer a grip and traction bonus, and....a quantifiable advantage under hard braking".

Yeah, that's great. But quantifiable by who? No doubt the people who calculate Formula One race statistics, with Datron Correvit laser timing gear and vast banks of computer equipment, could probably prepare a graph of where you shaved off that last tenth of a second. But would Clive from The City, who had to decide whether to spend some of his colossal bonus on 20s over 19s, find that difference so readily? More difficult to say, really.

"...right now, the steering is set in Auto, which varies the ratio from...8.0:1... to 16.3:1....., Dynamic mode will speed up the action to a fixed 14.0:1".

Sounds fun. Well, no, it doesn't. Sounds like double maths with physics to follow. Steering for beginners should read something like "turn the wheel to make the car go left or right". That there should be some feedback, a little bit of feel, some notification that the front wheels are doing what you want them to, is nice to have as well. Start shoving in electronic modes and too many variable ratios and, well, you're starting to enter simulation territory. Like listening to a CD player with the Bass Boost turned on; you're not hearing the music as the producer intended it.

Just give us a nice, direct, well chosen ratio and stick with it. Add a bit of assistance; carefully, fine. But don't let our steering lie to us. If I balls up my approach into a bend, then that's my bad. 

"...Diagonally linking the four shock absorbers, the system not only reduces body roll, brake dive and acceleration squat to a minimum, it also lowers ride height to 20mm..."

Or, of course, it could just be set up properly in the first place. Like the olden days.

"...steering, tyres, brakes, torque flow- are deeper and more complex than before.... Redesigned Quattro system, which boasts a crown-wheel centre diff instead of the previous Torsen device."

The Ford Sierra Cosworth had a four-wheel-drive system with a viscous coupling. There was no torqu-vectoring, no adjustable LSDs, nothing; just one clutch between the engine and the gearbox, and another between the wheels and the ground:-  We called it The Tyres.

"Ceramic brakes are available.... for about £5000".

And, in the same race-track and timing gear situation as theorised above, probably worth every penny of that. I put it to The Real World that there is no way in hell that the advantages of Ceramic Brakes can be properly realised without either driving at massively extra-legal speeds, or at the very least driving enormously faster than absolutely all the traffic surrounding you (possible handbook extract:- AUDI WOULD LIKE TO STRESS THAT THIS CAR HAS MASSIVE PERFORMANCE POTENTIAL, BUT ACTUALLY USING IT IS A FUNDAMENTALLY TERRIBLE IDEA). Saying this is obvious to the point of inanity, but Ceramic Brakes, with their miraculous fade-free repeat stop capabilities, are no use on the A604 unless you're going much faster than everybody else.

"The only available transmission is a seven-speed dual-clutch S-Tronic.... offers a choice of three modes: Drive, Sport and Manual. Manual means no more automatic upshifts, which can be useful for cross-country blasts"

Yeah, 'cos one day you might actually want to do the driving yourself. When I got my first Sony Playstation, and Gran Turismo was a fresh name, I would ridicule all my friends who set the cars to "Auto", so they didn't have to worry about the complexity of changing gear and steering both at the same time. Sadly, the near omnipotence of the artificially intelligent automatic transmission is mainly because such gearboxes can change gear much, much quicker and more appropriately than us clumsy humans. We just slow things down.

I've long been suspicious as to whether the bottomless pit of automotive technology actually mines down any further into our fun reserves. But this is where Mr Kacher unwittingly nails it.

"Steering calibration is determined by more parameters than ever, including vehicle speed, g-force, steering angle and turn-in velocity. Driving through the same blend with the steering first in comfort, then in Auto and finally in Dynamic is a real eye-opener. When the car approaches its limit, the dynamic steering automatically adjusts the line ever so slightly to reduce understeer or oversteer..."

This, I put to you, is cheating.

"...the RS4 feels like an estate car relative of the Skyline GT-R."

Recalling my dirty weekend with a GT-R only goes remind me just how little I contributed towards the astonishing ground-covering abilities of that car. My only responsibilities seemed to be switching it on and off, selecting an operating velocity and pointing it in the direction in which I wanted to travel. It would then decide for itself how sideways we'd be going and how much Bridgestone Potenza would be vapourised. That 80mph slide, that had me grinning and cackling insanely, was very little to do with my prowess at the helm; it was as if the GT-R was in a Casio Keyboard style demonstration mode.

My fun car, currently in hibernation, is a Rover 825Si, a freebie from my grandparents. It is a car that doesn't have any handling in the currently accepted sense of the word, it pitches, wallows, squats and dives like a game of Twister played on a waterbed. But this means that threading the car through a challenging corner and  managing to preserve any semblance of momentum comes entirely down to the skills of the driver. I can be proud that staying the right way up and not having a face full of mud was entirely my own work.

Driving hard in an RS4 or GT-R is like playing poker with an endless hand of aces. Gambling is a lot less exciting when you know the odds

Jump in a GT-R or RS4 and you know that you're going to hit every apex, vanish every straight and get safely to your destination while beating your personal best. The only thing that can stop you is if you fly into somebody coming the other way who isn't trying to shave 15 seconds off last nights record.

In the same issue of car, one Gordon Murray (he of the Mclaren F1 and Light Car Company Rocket) bemoans the excesses of machinery like the Bugatti Veyron which, while statistically mind-blowing, isn't exactly functional. Murray actually shares a lot of views with the great Ettore Bugatti, who held a fanatical view that less was more and that the car that uses the fewest components to accomplish the most work, is all the better for it. The RS4 and GT-R use a biblical number of bits, and are fun despite this, not because of it.

I can build myself to a frenzy of excitement by pushing my terrible car to its limit, without 400+hp and every electronic driver-aid in the universe leading me by the hand. I dare anybody to tell me that the GT-R pilot is having any more fun than I am, I've been there, done that. I'm all the richer for having experienced both.

 This all said, if any Rover-curious RS4 owner out there wants to swap keys with me for a weekend, feel free to give me a bell.

(All italicized text above was stolen from the pages of  CAR, issue 600, August 2012. I thank them for giving me something to talk about. Again.