19 Feb 2013

Power corrupts absolutely - Gimme more!

Tash recently asked if you can have too much power.  Matt Hubbard believes not, and indeed, that there just isn't enough power

I have of late been corrupted by power. We drivers have many and varied tastes, and budgets.  The vast majority of car users have no idea or interest of the abilities of their machine other than it transports their children to school, themselves to work, and their shopping from the supermarket.

But we petrolheads are different.  We take joy in the vehicle as an object of interest, of fun, of power, of it's remarkable ability to allow itself to be bonded by the human prodding at it's controls to make it start, stop and turn.

We, as humans, have an array of idealogical approaches to the motor car and what we find attractive about it. Often we form such an attraction to a particular brand or model that we feel insulted when it is mocked.  I felt this myself when I suggested the Alfa Romeo 4C might start the decomposition process from the day it left the factory.  Alfistas were offended and, to a man, chastised me for it - and were quick to point out their own Alfa had never so much as hinted at breaking down or rusting.

Many of us like a car for it's looks, for what it represents, for how it handles, how comfortable it is, it's uniqueness, it's power to weight ratio, for the sound it makes, how it goes round corners and for the absolute power generated by it's engine.  We all appreciate aspects from that list and, depending on our psychological make-up, appreciate some more than others.

For me, power has always been the foremost requirement.  All the other ingredients are important but the ability floor the throttle and feel the seat push you forwards gives me the biggest thrill.  The problem with this is that I can never get enough.

When I was 20 I owned a Vauxhall Nova 1.3SR, which generated a heady 70bhp.  My previous car had been a Nova 1.0 with 45bhp.  I was given the opportunity to drive a Ford Granada 2.9 Ghia.  It was my company director's car and I was to drive him to the airport and then deliver the car back to his parking space outside the front door of the office.  It had a V6 and 195bhp.  I wondered if I would be able to cope with the power.

I dropped the director at the airport, having driven at sedate speeds, then headed back towards the M56.  Once on the slip road I booted the accelerator.  And was underwhelmed.  What my young self had anticipated would be an almost uncontrollable torrent of power was actually a lazily delivered woosh.

In the 20 years since that experience in the Granada my experience of powerful cars has been that of occasional delight, followed by satisfaction, followed by the feeling the power isn't enough and I want more.  Not always, but mostly.

A front wheel drive car has limits.  Tash reckoned 240bhp was enough, and she's probably right.  A rear wheel drive car has much higher limits.  300bhp is fine with no electronics, above 300bhp and you need electronics to control the power safely on public roads. 700bhp is easily contained in a suitable chassis and with an appropriate traction control system - and with downforce.

But with a four wheel drive car the only limits to power are the ability of the tyres to grip the road and the ability of the drivetrain to transmit that power to the wheels.

I'm not advocating hooliganistic behaviour on our crowded roads.  Don't confuse power with top speed, which is only of interest on the track, the autobahn and in pub debates.  I'm talking about the ability of the car to surge from standstill to the speed limit(ish) in as little time as possible, or from 40 to 60(ish) to 40 again when performing an overtaking move.

I want that surge, that acceleration to take place in a short a time as my body can take it without causing me to black out.

Power is both addictive and enables us to make better informed decisions.  It's been proven in experiments that people (and animals) in a position of power make better conscious and unconscious decisions with fewer excessive errors.  Read this scientific paper for the evidence that power enables us to make better decisions and this article on the addictive qualities of power.

The power that comes from driving a powerful car is so consuming that eventually more is required in order to retain the initial thrill.  I've driven enough 500 and 600bhp rear wheel drive and four wheel drive cars to know that, after owning one for some time, I would still want more power.

My dream is that before I am too old and infirm to drive some car manufacturer will have produced an affordable road going car with four wheel drive car with 2000bhp, and that the tyre companies will have developed tyres to match the power.  I would like it to be hydrogen powered and produce nothing more harmful than water and oodles and oodles of power - and to make an absorbing soundtrack to go with the all that power.

Then, when I am stuck behind that Honda Jazz doing 40mph down my favourite 60mph country road I can safely accelerate past when I see a clear 50 yard stretch ahead.