Monday 13th February 2012


Passat joins Harris stable permanently, inspires musings on the perfect amount of power

To compound the anger of those who despised my affection for the new diesel Volkswagen Passat recently I can now announce that I own a diesel Volkswagen Passat. It has 100hp and leather heated seats. I think it's brilliant.

It is in no way fast, but in that torquey, oily way it manages to trundle along perfectly adequately. I gave someone a lift in it last week and he chose to use that most apt of British phrases to describe the performance: "Goes well."

After five days in the 100hp Passat I had become completely accustomed to its pace and behaviour. And I have to say I didn't once find myself cursing it for not being faster. Maybe I just wasn't in a hurry to get anywhere that week. Perhaps the 48mpg at a sensible cruise was so pleasant for my wallet I subconsciously made allowances for the lack of urge? Maybe having a 375hp Morgan in the garage helps?

Who knows - but I was happy.

Too much of a good thing?
Too much of a good thing?
What I do know now is this: if you step from a 100hp Passat into a modern performance saloon car, the first few miles are not enlightening, or even surprising - they are plain unnerving.

This got me thinking about what constitutes a sensible amount of performance for everyday driving. Of course I love the new M5. And, if I had the cash, I'd be out there enriching La Famille Michelin. But, back in the land of real people, is an M5 actually too much of everything: speed, consumption, temptation?

Sometimes we forget how dramatic the performance increase in mainstream, and fast versions of mainstream cars has been since the late 90s. The first large, sports saloon I drove at Autocar in 1998 was an E39 528i Auto. It was a honey: a tick under 200hp with the legs to hit 100mph in a touch under 20 seconds. It was rightly considered a fast car at the time. A new 520d would probably take care of it in a straight line. Today, the same people who bought those 528s new in 1998 would probably consider its performance not only disappointing, but inadequate.

Is that really a surprise? Progress is inevitable and it's only natural that mechanical improvements in the motor car manifest themselves as greater efficiency and performance. But there's this nagging feeling that we're not actually getting places any faster than we were 10 years ago. Of course speed isn't about curtailing journey times - that goes without saying - but I do find 550hp saloon cars pretty bloody frustrating in 2012. Just simple stuff like smashing your right foot into to the carpet and holding it there: the simple thrill of being 'flat-out' is available so infrequently and in such meagre quantities that it can become amazingly irritating. Like being the custodian of an especially juicy secret you are desperate to blurt-out to the world but know you simply cannot.

What is enough performance for everyday driving? Search me. What I can say is, over a 12-month period it probably fluctuates between 100hp and 700hp. The problem I seem to have is always being in the wrong tool for the job. You know the situations, a playful, skilful biker joins you on a Welsh A-road - you skip down a gear to have some fun and then realise you are in fact piloting a Passat TDi PD 100PS Highline. At which point the bike disappears into another time zone, you curse the old shed and think wistfully how that situation would have developed were you driving your weekend toy. Next week, you take the Caterham and it rains like Noah's in town.

Actually maybe this is all you really need...
Actually maybe this is all you really need...
This is the case for the defense of the comically over-endowed everyday car: it means you are prepared, 365 days of the year, for anything that arises. The man, or woman, who drives an MTM-spruced RS6 Plus Avant, knows that not many driving situations will appear that leave him, or her, inadequately equipped. It's a great feeling of empowerment just knowing you have the necessary firepower to swat away lesser machinery. In the right hands it breeds a serene driver who chooses moments to express that performance carefully, and for the most part actually drives quite slowly. It's like that story of the two bulls standing on a hill overlooking a field full of heifers. The sager of the two questions his pal's need to run down and have his way with the first lady-cow he can grab as the others scarper. Better, he suggests, to calmly walk down and service them all.

Driving the Toyota GT 86 gave me a decent idea of how much performance I probably need in a car: one of those would be just about right for me, which means my speed requirements haven't actually altered that much during the recent power-explosion years, because of all the amazing cars I've been lucky enough to use, the one with the most suitable amount of speed was the Mk1 Focus RS. It was just fast enough to be naughty if driven flat-out, but didn't feel horribly constrained and under-exploited on a daily basis. It had 212hp and weighed 1,300kg.

So there is an answer, and it is 163hp per ton - notionally, the ideal power-to-weight ratio for everyday driving. Working to that calculation, the Passat's 61hp per ton will probably become irksome in the coming weeks; at which point something tasty from the shed will emerge for spring and the old bus will become a trusty camera stooge which, to be fair, was the original reason for its purchase. Don't worry, I'm not going soft just yet.
De La Soul were wrong, as was Douglas Adams. 163 is the magic number.

Author: Chris Harris
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