POWER! Finding a Balance between Speed and Sensation

9892acceleration
When I go to a beer festival I’ll typically drink quite a substantial number of halves, quite necessary when conducting comparative assessments of several different craft beers. This is the only time I’ll drink more than three pints or so in one session; I find that going far beyond three adds hugely to the expenditure and next morning’s hangover, but doesn’t add anything to my enjoyment of the day.
Drinking to excess is certainly no fun whatsoever. And this, indirectly, brings me to driving.
Is there a point where having too much performance at your disposal actually detracts from your driving pleasure? Where does the magic balance lie?

I 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 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.
gtr4
And then I started to wonder 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. I reckon the most accelerative I’ve ever driven was a Nissan GT-R, but the most violently rapid car I’ve had seat-time in was an Ultima V8 on a track.
Third gear on my Audi is one of the greats. From thirty or so miles per hour the car hesitates before you sense the transition into The Turbo Zone and the car gathers momentum on a gently exponential scale until you’ve reached deeply illegal speeds and it’s time to grab another gear anyway. This is just a regular 1.8T, no ball of fire by today’s standards, but the acceleration in that gear is 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. But just how much do I want?
I recall actually finding the acceleration of the Ultima V8 physically uncomfortable, but that might have been the harshness of the racing gear changes or the fact that it was somebody else at the wheel. Then I thought about the GT-R.
I remember finding the 0-60 dash to not be much of an experience. Provoke the car, it explodes forwards and then that’s it. When everything is over in 3.5 seconds there’s not much time for an experience to be had. You don’t accelerate at all, you just immediately pass from one rate of velocity to another. You become doing 60. Of course, you don’t have to dart about like a diarrhetic checking toilet cubicles for paper, but a car like the GT-R doesn’t encourage you to use the throttle moderately. It’s all or nothing. The car wants to use Ultimate Force, why would it do things half way?
z42
I reckon my ideal would be something like an old Z4M, 0-60 in five-ish seconds, a rate which is still impressive without the sensation being over before it starts.
I love the feeling of acceleration. It’s a warm, tingly sensation, like a pleasant version of the build up to a sneeze or….well, something of a similar nature that you’re less likely to experience on a train, unless you’re with Rebecca DeMornay. I like it when the feeling of acceleration can be sustained, and the higher the rate of acceleration, the less sustainable it is.
This brings me back to drinking, where your choice is either taking alcohol in small, hugely enjoyable doses, or just downing the whole lot in one massive crazy binge.
Do you have a preferred rate of acceleration? All, nothing, or something in between? Is there a sweet-spot beyond which anything more is wasteful?
(First image www.photo-dictionary.com, all other images copyright Chris Haining / RoadworkUK)

About RoadworkUK

RoadworkUK is the online persona of Gianni Hirsch, a tall, awkward gentleman with a home office full of gently decomposing paper and a garage full of worthless scrap metal. He lives in the village of Moistly, which is a safe distance from London and is surrounded by enough water and scenery to be interesting. In another life, he has designed, sold, worked on and written about cars in exchange for small quantities of money.

63 Comments

  1. I haven’t properly tested them, but I’d guess that my current stable has 0-60 times somewhere between 5 and 7 seconds, given their states of tune and stock times. Plenty usable and dramatically exciting in very different ways, which is all I ask of performance cars.

  2. I’d just like to say that a lot of it comes down to where you’re driving. The straighter the road, the more power you need to make it exciting, that’s why Americans usually consider cars with less than 300 hp family econoboxes nowadays, while any number of small, theoretically gutless roadsters will still excite the pants off ya on a mountain road. In fact I’d even argue that on a challenging road excessive power will make your experience less enjoyable actually.

  3. On the road, anything between 4 and 8 seconds can be enjoyable (Corvette to Mini Cooper, for example). On track, where you only have to stop accelerating when you run out of straight… the faster the better. The sweet spot of the whole track experience is hanging right on the edge between a fast lap and a spin… or as someone much better at driving once said, “If everything feels under control, you’re not going fast enough”…

  4. To use your metaphor I believe speed is a lot like drinking. If you do it frequently and in quantity your tolerance or baseline rises thus taking more and more to “satisfy” your desires. For instance, if you were to drive a 911 Turbo for a whole year as a daily driver and then daily a perfectly decent base Accord you’d probably feel quite dissatisfied on more than just a driving quality front. Or at least it would take some time for your baseline to readjust without crushing your soul too much in the process.
    My plan to combat that problem has been to slowly build my way up to the ~500hp mark, while trying hard to appreciate each step on the way. If my timing is on target I’ll probably start physically slowing down and begin to lose the desire to fly on road just after I hit the peak power levels. So far it’s gone well, in the ten or so years I’ve been driving on my own I’ve gone from a ~90hp Ranger to a ~300hp 540i with a steady increase over the years and am quite happy there.

  5. First, a beautifully written piece. Good work.
    I feel a you do about acceleration. It is a beautiful feeling and is normally accompanied by beautiful mechanical sounds. Most brutal car I ever drove was a Boss 429 Mustang that I owned with a friend in the way-back time. Loved the car. Hated driving it. Drove a 348 Ferrari, it too was on the brutal side. Loved driving it though.
    Back in 2001, I bought one of the first Subaru WRX. I think it was April. That was a wonderful car to drive. Fun at all times. Easy to drive fast and very forgiving and quite recoverable. Loved it. But the 3rd gear was just divine. Second would bring you to near the speed limit, but third would take you with an constant strong and delightful pull to near triple digits. Owned it for 8+ years until a guy hit me and totaled it.
    Shortly after I bought my WRX, one of my closest friends bought a 2002 Focus SVT. I drove it many tomes and man, what a handler. I always more power.
    About a year ago, my beater pickup truck was dead, and I bought the SVT from my friend. 80k miles, always garaged, never raced, never to a track. New timing belt.
    The car is immensely fun to drive, and has a wonderful 3rd gear as well. Doesn’t pull like my WRX, but pulls nicely and consistently right up to redline and about 90.
    Nice article. Thanks for making me think of this stuff.

    1. I too owned an 02 SVT. Exhuast, short throw, a tune, filter, and motor mount. I had a similar experience to yours, loved it, but it always needed more power. Perfect size too, i like smaller cars.
      Then i got a 2014 Focus ST. It’s nowhere near as nimble, but it is a muscle car in comparison. Perfect mixture. I just wish the Fiesta ST was as fast stock, as I loved the size far more.

    1. I think the real moral of this picture is a large amount of power becomes more manageable in proportion to the number of driven wheels.

      1. Good point. My ’59 Ford has no working powertrain (nor working brakes) right now, giving a total of zero driven wheels, and coasting it down my inclined driveway in a controlled manner was a significant challenge.

        1. Yet it is certainly the fastest vehicle in your fleet, judging by the necessity of dual ratchet straps to hold the trunk closed at speed.

        1. You seem like a reasonable person,A word of advice.
          Do not prolong the agony
          Ditch the 59 Ford. They were hated when they were new.

          1. Not a single day has passed since June of 1986 in which I haven’t owned at least one 1959 Ford. Trust me, I am not a reasonable person.

  6. I’m a big fan of “dumb power”: If one can just clamp the throttle down without risking to go sideways in an instant, that’s easy fun. I’ve actually never ever driven on a racetrack, even though I’ve been to secure-driving-trainings on closed circuits. And just about anything on four wheels will be able to eclipse legal driving limits today. As a huge fan of “slow car fast”, that’s about it – 120hp or thereabout are good enough for me alone in such a vehicle.

  7. My own favourite cars are almost identical in their fairly pedestrian performance (by today’s standards): 2005 RX-8; 2011 VW GTI; 1989 Mustang LX 5.0.
    0-60 between 6 and 7 seconds; 14-15 seconds 1/4 mile; 150ish mph top speed
    I’ve only ever wished for more power/acceleration when a mildly-tuned Chevy pickup or a V6 Accord sedan has taken my lunch money. However, I wonder if I get that patience from riding my 10-second 1/4 mile motorcycle…

  8. My 2005 Smart Fortwo – the model the USA never got. Mine had 40,000 miles on it when I got it (cheap). It was incredibly slow, but you really felt every iota of velocity it gained. Sheer speed was nothing, the battle with physics was all.
    The engine thrashed; the turbo whistled. It raggedly surfed for grip at suburban speeds. It weighed nothing, yet its suspension was too hard, but somehow still undersprung. It was never a car where you ‘became doing any speed’. By its tiny 700cc heart, it fought for every increment. It got out there and earned.
    My girlfriend hated it, was afraid. I thought the Smart was hilarious, characterful and had the considerable charm of striving ineptitude. I actually laughed in my first test drive.
    Driving an old Smart is like skipping the burger and just drinking mayo and ketchup – not really food, but a heckuva lot of flavour. The Smart wasn’t really a car, but it was a heckuva lot of driving.
    http://www.imcdb.org/i067408.jpg (Not mine, but the same model).
    For me, the sweetspot is only the experience. The Smart gave me that with 60hp and a 0-60 around 12 seconds.

    1. “Driving an old Smart is like skipping the burger and just drinking mayo and ketchup – not really food, but a heckuva lot of flavour.”

      I’ve only driven a Smart car on a grassy runway (long story), so I’m no expert.

      That sentence, however, now that is a masterpiece of prose!

    2. I’ve laughed from outside for years. For the first time, your comment makes me want to experience from the other side of the windshield.

      1. Ha ha, yeah. Get the oldest, cheapest one you can. Thrash it, drive it like you’re in a car chase: the hoonable edge is 35mph. Laugh because you’re having fun, not because you’re making fun.

  9. There is a way to make 3.5s 0-60 visceral and terrifying. Do it on a motorcycle. That extra spice of “hang the ☢£☭€© on!!” really, well, re-wilds the experience.
    Yeah, I know. Bikes with fly-by-wire, ABS, traction control and anti-wheelie setups are becoming more common though. Performance motorcycles are getting that Godzilla domestication of the 3.5s 0-60.

    1. I rode my brother’s GSX-R750 once. That was genuinely terrifying and I never actually cracked the throttle all the way.

  10. The most powerful vehicle I’ve ever driven is probably my dad’s 2000 GMC Sierra 2500, with 6.0L and about 300hp. It’s not a whole lot of fun, though, as it’s has an extended cab, and a long box, causing it to handle and accelerate a bit like a whale.

    The SHO, however, is a heck of a lot more fun.

    It’s a lot lighter than today’s car,and with a 220hp engine and a 7000rpm redline, it can basically do 0-60 in 2nd gear.

    It still takes 6-7 seconds, but it’s pretty enjoyable for me, and isn’t that all that matters?

    1. The most powerful car I’ve driven had 300hp, too. A Volvo V70R, then brand-new, at a Volvo security driving training on ice. Back then, I had a ’77 242 with original 90hp or so, probably a quarter of them dead by 2004. Overtaking other cars with the R was mind-boggling. It passed everything in the blink of an eye. Later that day, I drove a XC90 T6 with 272hp. That one was just too big and whaley to enjoy the ride much.

      1. I noticed that a bit just riding in an XC90.

        I was helping my parent buy a new SUV/CUV, as we wanted something a bit better on gravel than our minivan, and as the family car guy, I was responsible for research.

        I found a 2010 XC90 for a little over limit at a local Mazda lot, so we went for a test drive. My parents found it good, but interior ergonomics and handling weren’t the best.

        Since we were there anyway, I told them to test drive a CX-9 from the same year to compare, and surprisingly it topped the Volvo in most respects, despite the Volvo being significantly more expensive when new.

        I still respect the Volvo, but for our family, the Mazda just does a better job. It handles much better than expected and has a good amount of power, with the only complaint being continental blind spots.

        1. Interesting – there’s just four years of development between them, but I guess the Mazda is build around different principles. You didn’t get to drive the Volvo yourself? How would you compare the GMC and the Mazda? Very different whales, but whales nonetheless…

          1. No, I didn’t have my license yet. Even now I think the salesman would be prickly about letting a kid drive, but whatever.

            Anyway, the GMC and Mazda are quite different beasts, despite being painted almost the same colour.

            The GM was originally part of a cancelled order of fleet trucks and it drives and feels like one. With its long wheelbase, and the heavier duty suspension of a 2500, it actually rides quite smooth. However, all moves have to be planned well in advance, as parking is a pain, drive-thru’s are ill-advised, and due to it’s weight, acceleration is quite lacking. As expected, braking also takes planning when trailering or when the roads are icy. Also, as a fleet truck, it has cloth seats, no carpets, and manual everything, it’s not the most comfortable inside. That being said though, it’s 16 years old, with 200 000km on it, and has only required minor maintenance so far, so we’ll probably be keeping it until it dies.

            Internet lore around Mazda’s proves right with the CX-9, as it is surprisingly nimble. It corners nicely, and can accelerate and pass easily. The manual mode of the transmission isn’t the most effective, but it does help to slow down, saving the breaks. It is a lot more comfortable than the truck, with heated and power leather seats. Surprisingly, it might be harder to park, as it is almost impossible to guess where the corners are!.

  11. I owned a 2005 Corvette at the same time as I owned my 2012 4-cylinder Frontier, and there were some days where I’d choose to drive the Frontier instead of the Corvette because I could run it through more than one or two gears before I was breaking the speed limit and that made it more fun in some ways. Also, it was easier to get the truck to lose traction around turns, and when it did, it was at a slow enough speed that I wouldn’t get killed.

    1. My 4 cyl Ranger is fun to drive legally.
      It’s a lot like my MGB with twice the power and another gear.
      And ti doesn’t leak. And it starts.

        1. Solid rear axle, leaf springs, disk fronts, drum rears.
          But the truck is body on frame, the MG is monocoque.
          It’s close to a wash…

          1. My ’86 would hop on bumps under braking, and lock the rears, but it felt manageable on anything but ice.

      1. I had a ton of fun in my ’86 Ranger V6, going up the dirt Nate Harrison grade, and back down the tight side of Mt. Palomar, but in all other respects, it was lacking. A friend’s base model 2004 Ranger was the scariest pos I’ve ever driven at any speed though.

  12. I used this logic to buy a Mazdaspeed3 last year. It’s working. Just quick enough to feel satisfying, but also enough of a handful within respectable limits to slow me down to near legal speeds.

  13. You’re describing ‘Slow Car Fast’. There are many amazing cars available now, where you can’t possibly explore a tiny bit of their capabilities in a near legal manner on public roads. And at lower speeds, they’re rather uninteresting. Flogging an aenemic econobox at sub-legal speeds is likely to be a whole lot more fun, much more often.
    As for your navigator, there’s a far different perception of events between driver and passengers. The driver can better understand conditions, feedback and opportunities. The passenger just has dynamic inputs to react to in the moment, and they can feel quite magnified and uncomfortable. Maybe you should get her a track driving class for her birthday?

    1. Sort of, but a truly slow econobox is neither invigorating in terms of acceleration or momentum driving where the limits of grip are so low you might as well be in a parking lot. There’s a definite balance point that also brings-in refinement feel as well though too.
      It seems like drive-wheel quirks can play into it as well, with a somewhat frantic, non-linear turbo-powered torque steer freak like my MS3, or the sloppy, open can goodness of a Morgan Threewheeler, or even into the reaches of the over-powered, under-tired fat kid Hellcat Challenger.

    2. Nah, “Slow Car Fast” is about preserving momentum. I’ve punted a Ford Ka and, indeed, Nic’s 306 around the backroads enough to know just how exhilarating that is. I’m talking more about “Slow Fast Car”, where there’s a definite, joyous feeling of acceleration but one which lasts for several seconds, rather than the “kick in the back” that you get from hypercars.
      I’m afraid the navigator is a lost cause, but I’d be afraid to change the way she drives anyway. I quite enjoy being chauffeured around in a state of lanquid torpor.

  14. I’m amused by the comments talking about modest acceleration of 5-6 seconds to 60. The quickest car I’ve ever owned is my 2005 Mazda3 at about 7.5 to 60. Still, it’s plenty to have fun with. Drop it into 3rd at 55 or 60 to pass on a 2 lane and it pulls hard, sounds good and just wants to keep rev’ing. Seriously grin inducing.
    The ti is even slower, but similar. Keep the revs up and it’s a real joy.
    From a handling stand point they’re both fun, but the front drive Mazda3 has quicker responses but plows when pushed hard. The BMW is a little dead on center but it wants to rotate, which I’m still getting used to. I think once I’m more confident in its limits I’ll have a lot more fun with it.
    I don’t have a lot of experience with lots of power, but I don’t really feel deprived. I rode in a friend’s brother’s E55 AMG and was astonished and, frankly, scared by the brutal acceleration. Impressive and thrilling, yes, but it seemed like a bit much to handle. Like you said, it’s over as soon as it’s begun.

    1. Drive one with a turbo and you will change your mind. I’d bought my mother a 350Z a few years ago which established the goodness of low end torque for me, but the reminder came back in spades after a drive of a buddy’s new Tesla 85 (5.0sec version). Within a month I had a ‘speed3 to replace the respectable, but overall boring 7.5sec SUV of the same L x W dimensions. I’d say that manual shifting was a big factor, but the Tesla was still great without shifting. Power did intoxicate, immediately.

      1. Don’t get me wrong, more power would be better, but there’s certainly a lot of fun to be had without it. I’m certainly a long ways from the point where the power level is getting in the way of enjoying the car.

    2. Guys get nostalgic over their old GTO,or which ever old hot rod they had.
      Hard to believe a Tesla electric car can beat any one of them old cars.

  15. The buik of my driving is done with 60km/h speed limits – at a certain point, more power just becomes frustrating from how little it can be used. I remember driving V6 and V8 5th gen Camaros back to back and preferring the smaller engined car because it was quick without crossing the line of blink and you’re arrested.
    Then again, a couple years back, I took a newer 5.0 Mustang on a 1000 km round trip – that kind of power is much more fun on open roads.
    But, for now, 0-highway speed in about 9.5 seconds is plenty. I wouldn’t mind about 20 more horsepower, or more importantly, a slightly flatter power curve, but fast enough is enough.

    1. The most underwhelming car I ever drove was an early 2000s Mustang GT with an automatic. Whether it was truly underpowered or the combo of an autobox and rear-wheel drive, I don’t know, but it was hugely unsatisfying. I had a ’93 Probe GT V6 at the time, which was a hoot.

  16. In today’s traffic, with so few people doing loops in different cars on racetracks for personal comparison, the impression of performance is more important than the actual numbers – a bit the slow-car-fast thing, but also true for most classic gentlemen racers.
    Apparently, the behavior of the tach needle is important for the sensation – the code on a VW ECU for determining the position is dozens of kB, a lot of space for a simple “signal in, counts-to-DC/position, out”. (Source: a report on the German Chaos computer Club’s annual conference. I’ll add it once I find it)
    Assumed functions:
    – smoothing and offset “correction”, especially for (cold) idle
    – increasing the display value at higher revs says “dynamic”
    – At gear shift: accelerating the downward movement, and catching/holding it at the expected rpm for the next gear. This says “doppelkupplungsgetriebe” very fast.
    If you don’t overdo the measures, it will add 15hp at least, because “the gauge says so”.
    I somehow understand it when they do it for the coolant temperature, dumbing it effectively down to “cold, normal, warm, CEL”, but in a world where the haptics of the dash are as important…

  17. I daily drove (for a long suburb to city commute) a 2007 Civic with a 5 speed manual
    for 100K miles. Were it an Si (it was an LX), it might come close to the Audi
    described above, but it was almost “slow car fast” enjoyable. Any acceleration
    required whipping the piss out of the poor thing, and big freeway speed left
    you with nothing in reserve.
    To replace it, I bought a 2014 Mustang GT with a 3.73 rear with roughly triple the
    horsepower and an extra gear. Best Decision Ever. Standing start acceleration
    is phenomenal. Acceleration test numbers from are competitive with a 550
    Maranello, though in truth, I’ve never done a max effort launch in the 2 years
    I’ve owned it. At speed though, the ability to pick a spot ahead of you and get
    into it at will adds a nearly enjoyable dimension to navigating fast moving but
    thick traffic. The first time I merged on to the freeway, I used my Civic
    calibrated acceleration effort (spinning it up through 3rd and 4th
    gear) to get up to left lane speed and looked down to see I was up over 100
    mph.
    So, the full 100% standing start acceleration is fun to test at the track (haven’t done
    it with this car yet, have with others), but a low 13’s/high 12’s car at the
    strip is too much to employ on the street in that way. That said, the extra
    horses on open highway/freeway are more usable and enjoyable than you might think.

  18. My old 1991 Ford Ranger 4 cylinder: FUN
    My 1993 Audi 90 cs fwd: A ROCKET SHIP
    My 2005 Ford F-350 V8: FASTER THAN IT HAS THE RIGHT TO BE
    My borthers 2003 Lexus IS300: TOO MUCH!
    So basically anything that can outrun my lawnmower is fair game.

  19. I think about this all the time and am in the same camp as what some others have mentioned. Fast, hard acceleration isn’t necessarily the best…it’s more the feeling of things happening around you that makes it exciting. Whereas in my Challenger I can barely run through 3rd before I’m at or above the speed limit, in something like my old Avalanche or father’s diesel Silverado you can go full-throttle with a bunch of gear changes happening before things settle down. It’s not just the speedo climbing rapidly, but the feeling that things are happening quickly around you; that’s what does it for me.

  20. Two Wheel Tuesday answer.
    All cars are slow. Try a motorbike for acceleration. Something bigger than 750cc and not a Harley/ US twin.
    As you say ‘ you become doing 60 ‘ (or more).
    That feeling is addictive too.

  21. I’ve never driven anything properly fast, being that I’m only 21 and waiting for wheel-time in a lot of the cars that I dream about. However, I think when it comes to rate of acceleration, the “something in between” range is where I’m happiest. My new (to me) 1997 Jeep Wrangler has the legendary 4.0 straight-6 with a header and a Banks exhaust, and between 2K and 4K in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th gears is a thing of beauty. Am I actually going fast? Hell no. But, am I enjoying myself and feeling like I’m going fast? Absolutely.
    Point being, I think the that midrange torque surge, regardless of the vehicle it occurs in, is what makes a car exciting, whether you’re going from 25-45 mph or 65-80 (allegedly). Top end power (with big numbers) and low-down torque can be fun in their own rights, but midrange power and pull are what gets used every day and what makes the boring day-to-day slog a bit more entertaining. Give me a car with 300hp but a good solid shove at 3-4K over something with an obscene amount of power that I can’t use on the regular.

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