Finding a Balance between Speed and Sensation
I love the feeling of acceleration. It’s a warm, tingly sensation, like a pleasant version of the build up to a sneeze. In pursuit of that experience, I recently hustled my long-suffering A4 through a roundabout at a speed that my wife wasn’t expecting. It was nothing outrageous, I had the grip, the turbo was spinning nicely and my way was clear, so I accelerated through and it met her complaint. She likened her experience to the feeling you get at the precipice of a roller-coaster when you feel completely out of control. She didn’t like it.
Now, in Flight Of The Navigator terms, that hadn’t even been a third-class manoeuvre, just rather more than her own Peugeot 306 could manage. I then mentioned to her that, had we been in an actual FAST car it could have been much, much worse. Now, she genuinely hates roller-coasters, (no trip to Busch Gardens for us, then, ever) and isn’t great on water, either, but I suppose we all have different tolerance thresholds.
And then I started to wonder where my own threshold lies, and began a fascinating in-head journey back through all the cars I’ve ever driven, and what they felt like. Is there a sweet spot beyond which faster isn’t more fun?
Of everything on my “driven that” list, my little old Audi A4 is the car that I’m by far the most familiar with, and I’m a huge fan of how it behaves in third gear. Foot down from 30mph or so, the car hesitates for a beat or so, then you sense a transition into The Turbo Zone and the car gathers momentum on a gently exponential scale until it’s time to grab another gear. This is just a regular 1.8T — no ball of fire by today’s standards — but the acceleration in that gear is still a hugely enjoyable wave that it’s great fun to surf every single time. I’d love a bit more of it, of course. I’d like it to be that much fun in every gear, but there’s not the power and, importantly, not the torque.
On the other hand, at the properly fast end of the scale of cars I’ve driven is a Nissan GT-R. Unleashing the full 480bhp for the first time was certainly memorable, but the anticipation ultimately outstripped the overall experience. It’s mind-bendingly quick, of course — it positively explodes forwards when provoked, and as such is fun because speed is exciting. But sudden, abrupt highs aren’t as good for the soul as long, sustained ones. When everything is over in 3.5 seconds, there’s really not much time for an experience to be had.
As a passenger, I’ve experienced 0-60 in under three seconds in a Ludicrous-enabled Tesla P90D, and found that an even hollower experience. Frankly, in the Tesla, you don’t accelerate at all, you just immediately pass from one rate of velocity to another. You become doing 60. What’s more, as acceleration is that car’s party piece — the one thing that it can do better than pretty much anything else on the road — this seems now to be the way every Tesla is driven. In urban areas, P90D’s flit between traffic lights as if driven by panic, like music festival diarrhetics checking toilet cubicles for paper.
And what happens when you reach 60mph? If you’re in the UK, there aren’t that many places that you can safely go significantly faster than that. Adhering to our national 70mph speed limit is dead boring, and while it’s become accepted that there’s a bit of a margin between following the law and actually being naughty, you’re asking for trouble if you venture far beyond 80mph. Foot hard down in the GT-R and the rate of acceleration isn’t any less fierce at 80 than it is at 60. Abruptly lifting off will throw you forward in your seat, like slamming the brakes on from a cruise. What’s the point in putting yourself through that kind of discomfort?
Acceleration is something to be savoured, not rushed. When you’re eating a steak, it’s not the feeling of being full that you’re pursuing. When out for a drink, you don’t go straight for the hangover. Surely the actual process of acceleration is the fun bit. What it leads to increasingly isn’t, unless you find yourself somewhere that sustained high speeds can be sustained without severe legal consequences — that kind of rule UK roads out.
So, for me, with the A4 being pleasurable enough but a bit pedestrian to thrill, and the GT-R ejaculating rather prematurely, I reckon my ideal partner would be something like an old BMW Z4M. It covers 0-60 in five-ish seconds; a rate which is still impressive without the sensation being over before it starts.
In the Z4M, that five seconds is unadulterated bliss. Where the GT-R and Tesla put you in the role of Soyuz rocket payload, merely strapped in for the ride until orbit is reached, the Z4M actually puts you at the helm. There’s good, honest work being done, by you, as well as by the car. The force of acceleration doesn’t hit you like a truck in the face, but builds organically, a thrust that warms but doesn’t electrocute.
Yes, 0-60mph in 5.0secs is my favourite rate of acceleration. What’s yours?
(All images copyright Chris Haining / RoadworkUK)