18 Oct 2013

Lightness - the key to driving enlightenment

In the past few weeks I've driven my old Audi S4, my new BMW 323i Touring, a Jaguar F-Type, Jaguar XFR-S, a Bentley Continental GT Speed, a Chevy Camaro, a BMW 435i and a brace of Range Rovers - and then I jumped in my 26 year old Porsche 924S and had a ball.

The handling in the 924S is sublimely sharp and the steering is in direct communication with the road.  It is hardwired with very little in the way between tyres and fingertips.  It's only got 150bhp (probably quite a bit less now) but it only weighs a shade over 1,000kg.

It's that last fact that is key.  1,000kg.  That's a hell of a lot less than any of the others.  The XFR-S and the Rangies are getting on for twice as heavy and the F-Type is 1.6 times heavier.  All those cars are a lot more powerful than my Porsche so are more fun in a straight line but in the corners the 924S has them whipped - although the F-Type comes very, very close.

A car's handling is a product of suspension geometry and set-up, weight distribution, centre of gravity, tyres, steering arrangement and weight.  The 924S's suspension is independent but otherwise nothing special - parts of it were derived from the Beetle.  The tyres are Pirellis but nothing special.

In its favour is an extremely low centre of gravity and 50:50 weight distribution (2 characteristics shared with the F-Type).  I also believe, perhaps delusionally, that the lack of steering wheel adjustment contributes to its great handling.

Other cars with legendary handling characteristics are Lotuses, Caterhams, the Mazda MX5 and the Toybaru GT86/BRZ.  All without the need for expensive tyres, all with basic (but independent) suspension and all light and low.

Weight kills handling and feedback.  It's a simple fact.  Heavier cars require engineering and electronic trickery in order to supplant actual steering feel and handling with something approaching the sensation of genuine control and malleability.

No amount of torque vectoring or posh tyres can counter an extra 600kg (the weight of an F1 car).

Fast, powerful cars are great fun.  The XFR-S is incredible and I'll walk into a Jaguar dealer and buy one the day I win the lottery.

But, essentially, lighter is better if you want genuine, raw, real deal, seat of your pants, fingertip control of your car.
Caterham 7

Article by Matt Hubbard