Monday 9th January 2012


PH BLOG: GO WITH THE FLOW

Why flow matters more than horsepower or 0-60 willy waggling


It'll be a concept familiar to anyone who's ever indulged in the so-called gravity sports like mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding and the like. And so too driving.

Flow is a bit of a vague term but then the sensation it describes isn't easy to pin down or quantify. And it once again underlines quite how little the numbers on a spec sheet or performance stats really matter, when all's said and done.

In that gravity sport scenario there are three main ways to enjoy that delicious hit of adrenaline racing down a hill can deliver. You can go steep and technical - scary possibly and demanding of skill and commitment but not always that fast. You can get that speed hit perhaps - that wide open black run that doesn't really require a whole lot of skill but simply tests your bottle and how fast you dare let yourself go. Both claim quantifiable bragging rights: look at how steep and difficult that was/look how fast I went through the speed trap and all that. But the most fun runs are the ones that combine a bit of both in a way that's less measurable. Tricky enough to test your skill, fast enough to thrill and with some other element - perhaps an amazing view or trading places with a mate and pushing yourself that bit harder.

Even a Range Rover can have flow
Even a Range Rover can have flow
And here's where the gear bit comes in. To achieve this you don't want the moment dominated by the board, bike, skis or whatever you're on. You need it to add to the experience but you almost want it to become part of it, a contributory factor rather than the experience itself.

So how do you achieve flow in a car? This is where it gets tricky and, remarkably, the car that inspired this train of thought was the Range Rover Sport Supercharged I've recently handed back to its keepers with 1,000 very enjoyable miles added to its odometer.

There's nothing subtle about the Sport, from its 510hp to its looks and massive weight. And like most modern cars it relies heavily on technology like active dampers and stability control to mask some of its fundamental inadequacies, like where most of that weight is sitting.

But the way that thing flows down a challenging bit of road is simply astonishing and it's here where the human touch, skill and expertise are still vital, no matter how many black boxes you're involving in the job. Where Jaguar Land Rover and, indeed, many other British carmakers succeed is in that final few per cent of chassis tuning that separates cars that are merely effective from those that are rewarding, even when just trundling along.

The opposite end of this spectrum would, inevitably, be a car like the Audi RS5. Looks great. Incredibly rapid by the numbers. Sounds awesome. Great pose value. And, according to achieving its goals on some spreadsheet somewhere it's probably bang on. Fling it down that bit of road that was such a revelation in the Range Rover and it'd probably go faster. But there'd be no fun doing so because it remains aloof and any sense of flow or fun has been ruthlessly calculated out of the equation.

Basic E-Class estate flows with the best
Basic E-Class estate flows with the best
Trouble with this flow concept is you can't really measure it. It's one of those seat of the pants things. And the cars that have it aren't always the ones you'd expect. A base-model Mercedes E-Class has more of it than an E63 AMG. Sure, the latter will demolish it on the Autobahn or 'ring lap time. But, hand on heart, I can say I've had one of the best drives ever in an E220 CGI estate with an automatic gearbox. One of those runs along a classic B-road where it seems the wheel is hardly moving in your hands, your inputs utterly minimal to brake and throttle and yet you're covering ground at a discreetly invigorating rate and enjoying every second of the experience. I've driven the same road quicker - earlier in the same day in an Aston Martin Rapide in fact - but the sense of joy in motion that Merc offered was somehow far greater. Proper less is more stuff.

Same with Porsches. I love, love, love 911 GT3s. But it always takes me a good long while to settle into them and get into a groove. Sure, persevere and the rewards come. But, hand on heart, it's easier to get that sense of flow in a base Cayman or Boxster. A Nissan GT-R can demolish any stretch of tarmac you dare to mention and leave you giddy with the thrill - the fast black run of my earlier analogy - but do you actually get the same sense of sheer fun you'd get from a Lotus or an MX-5?

It's easy to get fixated with the numbers and forget these more intangible aspects of what makes driving fun. Which is why I'm always astounded at the lengths people will go to in order to say their car has 10hp more than before, or their mate's. So what if it's a tenth faster to 62mph? How does it make you feel?

I've a feeling with cars like the Toyobaru and a new Boxster on the way 2012 might be a bit of a watershed year where outright speed and spec sheet willy waggling might, finally, take a bit of a back seat. I hope so. I'm not sure how you measure flow in a car but it's something I think PHers can get behind.

Phew, rant over. And not a 'breathes with the road' in sight, I'm proud to say! The cliche-o-matic did register the inevitable MX-5 mention though...

Dan

 

Author: Dan Trent
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