Light cars are not the answer: Tell Me I'm Wrong

Colin Chapman's mantra to "simplify, then add lightness" is all the rage at the moment. In the minds of most, light equals fun with the added brownie point of low emissions. But to me the car's kg weight reveals very little about how much I'm going to enjoy it.

The less is more argument, embodied by Lotus
The less is more argument, embodied by Lotus
In fact, I'm almost happy when manufacturers sneak out the weight of a new car long after the launch excitement has died down for fear of it getting labelled a lard ass.

Don't get me wrong here: a Lotus Elise is a beautiful thing and I'll jump at the chance to drive anything that's been expertly pared to the bone for better track performance. But shaving kgs just to get the magic kerb weight figure down is usually a detriment to the drive experience, I find.

One company I like very much is Jaguar Land Rover. Oh it plays the lightness publicity game for all it's worth, for example bellowing about the weight saving achieved by the new aluminum body on the forthcoming Jaguar XE. But when the kg figure was finally revealed at 1,470kg for the lightest petrol-engined version, there was disappointment in these parts.

Shouldn't the Jag XE be lighter? Perhaps not...
Shouldn't the Jag XE be lighter? Perhaps not...
Wise investment
Thing is though, the engineers have banked the weight saved on the body and appear to have spent it wisely elsewhere. For example the rear suspension is a class-unique 'integral link' setup with a separate subframe, while the front suspension is double wishbone rather than struts. JLR's head of engineering Wolfgang Ziebart reckons the extra kilos are worth it. "Yes double wishbone is more complicated and it weighs slightly more, but you can do so much more in terms of controlling the vehicle," he told me back in October. This is a car I'm looking forward to driving.

Same goes for the Jaguar F-Type. The weight of the V6 Coupe is 1,577kg - no flyweight by any stretch. But the car feels so responsive through the steering wheel and eager to change direction you soon forget about weight. I asked the car's line director, Ian Hoban, about this and he argued persuasively that stiffness you get through targeted strengthening of the body structure (i.e. throwing more metal in there) is vital to achieving a precise steering response. "It's a balancing act between weight and stiffness," he said.

XE's complex suspension worth weight penalty
XE's complex suspension worth weight penalty
Of course where you place that weight is important - Jaguar for example puts the windscreen washer bottle in the rear to help get a 50/50 front/rear weight balance.

Out with the old
Myself and a mate discovered the benefits of strengthening a car about 10 years ago when we turned a perfectly decent £950 Ford Fiesta XR2 Mk2 into a Stock Hatch racer.

Stripping out the rear seats and tons of plastic trim didn't do much for the handling. Sticking a 30-40kg rollcage inside really did. With the extra stiffness of the rollcage and before we'd fitted the ride-destroying race dampers and shortened springs, the car was huge fun on the road.

Nick with his Stock Hatch Fiesta
Nick with his Stock Hatch Fiesta
Big weight with sophisticated suspension can be a glorious combination. Recently I drove a Bentley Continental GT V8 S, including on B-roads in the Peak District that had been laid with great sensitivity to the contours underneath. In other words there wasn't a flat bit on them. But this 2.3-tonne car just glided over the frequent camber changes - the compliant control it delivered was a sheer joy. I remember when the current Land Rover Discovery first came out back in 2004. The thing weighed 2.7 tonnes but the ride was sensational, beyond any SUV available at the time.

Because weight also adds refinement too. I know it's unfashionable to talk about this - I should be happy with ear defenders on, feeling the car squirming under me, steering wheel literally shaking with excitement with all the things it wants to tell me about the road surface. But I want to enjoy driving the car on all roads, not just the increasingly elusive empty, snaking ones.

Too much sacrificed in the pursuit of lightness?
Too much sacrificed in the pursuit of lightness?
Alpha male
The Alfa Romeo 4C is one car that has got this wrong, in my view. I've only driven it briefly but it was enough to tell me it's too hairshirt and weight obsessed for my tastes. Okay, so the carbon fibre tub is just 65kg and the carbon composite seats a puny 12kg, but the engine noise seemed too intrusive and the ride/handling too punishing. Fun for an afternoon definitely but not to own.

Even Lotus's new boss is making noises about making the Elise, Exige, Evora more refined, comfortable and easier to drive day-to-day. But this isn't all about adapting sports cars for commutes on the M40. Weight is also good for grip, as the man who created the Nissan GT-R, chief engineer Kazutoshi Mizuno told us back in 2009.

GT-R makes a virtue of its heft says Nissan
GT-R makes a virtue of its heft says Nissan
"The weight of a Formula 1 car is 600kg, but with 1,000kg of downforce in the high-speed bends," he said. "The GT-R is a normal sized car and cannot use 1,000kg downforce. So 1,750kg makes for a good tyre-grip load." His message was that light weight might be good for braking, but it's not so great for stability. While highly skilled professional drivers can deal with the sudden grip breakaways that bedevil lightweight cars, the rest of us can't so easily.

The younger me would be disgusted with this article. Light equals fun is a mantra that's hard to shake. But the older and more measured I become (okay, boring), the more I appreciate the control, refinement and predictability of heavier performance cars. Go on, tell me I'm wrong.

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (269) Join the discussion on the forum

  • mikesalt 08 Jan 2015

    I'll let you know when I've finished building

  • kambites 08 Jan 2015

    There's certainly a place for both.

  • MogulBoy 08 Jan 2015

    Indeed. Horses for courses etc.

  • BritishRacinGrin 08 Jan 2015

    Horses for courses, obviously. This is Pistonheads, it's barge for daily and lightweight sportscar for the weekend.

    Having said that, Lotus suspension is fantastically compliant considering how well they handle, this is a trick many manufacturers can't pull off.

  • Axionknight 08 Jan 2015

    kambites said:
    There's certainly a place for both.
    This, different tools for different jobs!

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