When More Power’s Not Enough

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It’s interesting that – on the one hand – car manufacturers are making vehicles more powerful than any that have preceded them. GM, for instance, is about to debut the latest ZR-1 Corvette, which will have a twi-turbo V8 and nearly 900 horsepower, if reports are accurate. On the other hand, it will have an array of driver pre-emption (styled “safety”) technology in between all of that power and the driver. And it won’t have or even offer a manual transmission.

It will no doubt be extremely fast. Probably – literally – three times as fast as a Corvette from the ’70s, which had three (or four) times less power.

But how much more fun?

At first, as regards the new, it will be a lot – because it’s a thrill to go that fast. If you’ve never been in a car that can get to 60 in less than 5 seconds, you’ll be thrilled white-in-the-face by the experience of getting there in less than three, especially the first time you experience it. And the second and third time. But the experience becomes less thrilling the more often you experience it – as happens after your fourth or fifth trip up to the 100th floor on a high-speed elevator.

Why? Probably because you haven’t got much to do except go along for the ride. In both cases. You push the button – or floor the accelerator – and the ride commences. You experience the G forces but – other than that – there’s not much else to experience.

And the experience is pretty much always the same.

The experience is quite different in a Corvette from the ’70s, especially one with a manual transmission – even though it’s not nearly as fast. In part because there was nothing in between you and what power there was. The traction was not under control; it was up to you to keep it under control by mastering the art of balancing mashing the gas pedal with lifting off just enough- just in time – to prevent loss of control. There was also the clutch to deal with. (Yes, an automatic was available in those days; but in those days, automatics in cars like the Corvette were for girls and old men who’d either never learned how to drive or weren’t especially good at it but wanted to look good in a car like the Corvette.)

The clutch – in those days – did not have “assistance technology,” either. It was up to you to not allow the car to roll backward – and into whoever was behind you – when the light turned green or you had to come to a stop at the crest of a hill. And when the light turned green, it was up to you to let off the clutch just right – in time with your right foot, which was pressing down on the gas to bring up the revs – so as to launch the ‘Vette just right. This was a question of timing and skill – as opposed to programming.

As in the new Corvette.

Which “controls” the “launch.” Just the right way to re-order the order the wording so as to make it more clear what’s being done to take control away from us. But there are various settings that can be toggled-through.

Except, of course, for OFF. You are not allowed that kind of fun. Which, of course, takes the fun out of it.

A ’70s ‘Vette’s brakes were not great – and there was no safety net, in the form of ABS, to prevent the brakes from locking up if you had not mastered the art of knowing when to let off while you were braking. And had learned not to drive faster than your skill (and the car’s limits). The car’s stability was controlled by you – not a computer.

There was no computer.

No clownscreen, either.

The suspension was not “adaptive.” It was up to you to adapt to the conditions of the moment. How fast you got down the track – and keeping it from going sideways, on the road – was entirely up to you and each time was a little different because each time could never be exactly the same. Sometimes, you’d get it all just right – or close. Other times, you’d mess up; too much throttle, too soon. Or you’d let off the clutch too soon. There was always something to make it exciting that was more than just power – and pressing down on the drive-by-wire accelerator.

All of which made for a lot of fun – even if it wasn’t very fast. Kind of like the experience of piloting a WW I-era open-cockpit bi-plane vs. reading a magazine in the first-class section of an Airbus doing 600 MPH without any sensation that you’re going that fast.

Speed can get old.

But since we’re not allowed to have fun anymore – in cars – the manufacturers keep tying to build faster and faster vehicles as a kind of compensation for what’s no longer there. More finely, because of what is there. All of the “safety” stuff that can’t be turned off. All the electronica that controls the car and so takes away control from the driver.

We’ve gone about as fast as we can – so how about some fun for a change?

Nah. It’s too “unsafe.”

. . .

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31 COMMENTS

  1. We’re in a catch-22 with these new cars. Automakers have been in an insane horsepower and top-speed war since the mid–1990s, which has caught the attention of a lot of legislators and regulators around the globe. That 900 hp is going to be useless with speed-limiter systems that will not allow the vehicle to exceed the posted speed limit, and those are now being mandated. If there had been more restraint, maybe these mandates wouldn’t have happened so quickly.

    Unfortunately, the legislators have a point. The car manufacturers groan about the burden pollution, safety, and efficiency mandates pose, but then bring out another high-power car that can exceed 200 mph. That level of power and speed is worthless and illegal to use on the street. Anyone rational would begin to ask, if you have the engineering talent to produce a halo car like that Corvette, why can’t that same talent work on better fuel economy, breakthroughs in batteries, etc.? And so new legislation further targeting autos passes.

    Discretion might have prevented some, if not all, of the mandates we already have. And it’s going to get worse with the new rules around the corner.

    • The advancements in engine technology (reliability and horsepower) are a positive, and should not be restrained by politicians or self-restrained by auto makers in any way if there is a market demand.

      When I was a child, my mother would tell me not to ride my bike too fast because I might get hurt. Now as a responsible adult, I no longer need parental figures to warn me about the dangers of the world. I am fully capable, as a grown man, to assess risk and act accordingly.

      The “discretion” you mention is mine and mine alone. No politician necessary. I have come to realize that when people start talking of restraint and discretion, they are most certainly talking about controlling the behavior of other people, never themselves.

      If fast cars are scary to you, don’t own one. If someone else wants to own one, and uses it responsibly (causes no harm to anyone, or compensates for harm caused), then mind your own business.

      Suggesting restraint to appease filthy politicians is appalling and antithetical to freedom. If anything, politicians and their inane rules should be cast aside at every opportunity.

  2. A while back, I was cruising in the 71 Charger around town with the family. The stoplight turns red on me, so I slow to a stop. I notice the guy beside me is looking at me and he rolls down his window. Looked to be in his 30’s. I expect a “hey nice car”, but he just smiles and starts revving the engine in his brand new SUV. I notice he’s got some family with him too. He wants to show me what his new SUV can do.

    I’m well aware that even though this was one of the fastest cars around in 1971, this guy’s SUV is probably MUCH faster. So I just shake my head and tell him I don’t race appliances, come back with a real car and I’ll show you what she can do.

    Well, I guess that got him steamed a little, so he punched it when the light turned green and left me like I was standing still in his fancy high powered washing machine shaped vehicle. Down the road about a mile, he was on the side of the road getting a talking to by a local cop. Now, I don’t wish that on anyone. Nobody was harmed. But my wife couldn’t help but chuckle, which made me smile a little bit.

    Looking back, I wish I wouldn’t have called his car out as an appliance and instead said something wittier. “Hey, after this you want to challenge my dad to a foot race?” I don’t know…

    New cars are better in a lot of ways due to new tech, but they don’t compare to cars from the glory days in terms of looks, sound, and feel. It’s like comparing food cooked in a microwave vs. on a grill.

  3. A very good friend of mine bought a C6 with paddles and an absurd amount of HP for his 63rd birthday. Good looking, very fast, but I have much more fun driving my ’92 Mustang 5.0 GT with stick shift. Interestingly, though I can’t begin to keep up with him on the straights, on twisties I leave him in my dust. Same with our bikes: His is much more powerful while mine may be a bit more nimble and he cannot keep up with me on any sort of curvy road.

    All about the driver / rider, I guess. All I know is I have much more fun.

  4. Talk about a walk down memory lane, Eric: Rear wheel drive. Squirrely back end during the Winter months. The learning how to drive with a manual. And the “let’s-stop-at-the-top-of-a-hill-and-stop” exercise…terrified as hell as I learned how to crest atop that hill without popping the clutch and/or rolling backwards. Yes! Learning how to really drive.

  5. The interior of that ’71 Vette is what a PROPER 2-seat muscle car should look like! Never been bettered, IMHO. That new Corvette with the nerd screen inside? Garbage. Not interested.

  6. Quick! Disable der speeder with the APP so that we can catch up and forfiet his property. Then charge him with speeding if they’re a pleb. Righty O

  7. My Vega station wagon didn’t have much power but it was RWD and had the handbrake between the driver and passenger seats. Take Southern county teens, dirt roads, and that handbrake…it was 2500 lbs of entertainment.

  8. I wanna drive this fast car as fast as I can but there ain’t no way anymore.

    Let dotgov do the driving.

    Everything’s up to date in Kansas City, they’ve gone about as fer as they can go

    Way out west in South Dakota in the Black Hills region there is the Wind Cave National Park.

    The cave dips down into the earth’s crust about 590 feet deep. At the approximate 400 foot depth, there was a large sandstone, limestone, rock that had separated from the top of the cave ceiling. The tour guide asked the tourists if they knew the reason why the cone-shaped large rock didn’t break apart when it sloughed off the top of the cave.

    Nobody spoke up, no clue. All of a sudden my eldest brother did speak, he said there was water in the cave when the stone broke away. The tour guide responded that it was under water at the time, the answer was correct. He also announced that professors from Harvard were unable to deduce the logic, perplexed. My brother was one of a few who did know the answer, had to be, makes the sense there is about it.

    Water can compromise the power of gravity.

    Logically, deductions can be used to harness dotgov and their insane policies.

    He also took a big solid punch to his head by some goddamned big bully.

    My mother stared the bully down and the asshole ran away with his tail between his legs.

    “You go ahead and hit me,” she said to the mad man. He knew he was in trouble right then and there.

    It takes a certain amount of guts to stand up to someone who can do you harm but runs away fearing the despicable deed he’s done.

    A lesson to be learned, the didactic, again.

    Courage works.

  9. The cognitive dissonance in advertising is truly astonishing, 900 HP that you will hardly ever be able to use. Tesla’s meme of “ludicrous speed”….try using that ludicrous speed and pray there isn’t any AGW around the bend waiting to slam you with some serious fines, not to mention jacking up your insurance premiums. I wonder if the PTB are mocking us, allowing us to see what might have been but never will as long as they’re in charge.

    • Yup, just a rich man’s cod piece. Can already hear them at the pump boasting about 900 HP to anyone that expresses a casual interest in the car. Ugh!

      Was getting gas in Montana once (80 mph posted). Dude at pumps bragging to guy at next pump about his Roush Mustang, Stage 19 kit (exaggeration), 700 HP, etc.

      He leaves while I’m pumping. I go inside to buy a drink, let the dog take a leak, leave well after he did.

      Later on, down the road, I’m going about 85 mph and I blow past the Stang’ like it was standing still. He must have only been driving about 68-70 mph. Good thing it had 700 HP. Crazy but true story!

  10. I own a ‘93 40th anniversary Vette.
    Been in the family since new, fell into my hands cheap. I would not have sought one out. It’s a fun car to drive with the gen II LT1 @ 300hp / 345 ft lbs torque, 3,300 lbs curb weight after… I turn off the traction control, which reared its ugly head on the C4.
    I’d much prefer a ‘69 427 four speed or 70 LT1 four speed but I’m not wealthy! I also hate the digital Speedo readout.
    I would not buy a C5 or up and especially not a C8 Corvettes are “front engine.” I don’t care what the power #’s are. I want to drive the damn car! If I want more hp in an older Vette, and I always do. I’ll build it / mod it myself.

    • One of my cars is slow but identifys as “peppy”. It’s a little 2.00 liter that loves to rev and the tranny was built to allow that but the car is slow. Fun to drive and handles decent but a fast car it’s not.

  11. ‘we’re not allowed to have fun anymore’ — eric

    Ain’t it funny — ain’t it strange — that while formerly human tasks such as launch control, lane keeping and emergency braking have been automated, other tedious tasks such as visiting the DMV and filling out tax forms remain stubbornly manual?

    Consider this bafflegab question from the educrats’ FAFSA form, which aspiring college students fill out: “Are the student’s parents unwilling to provide their information, but the student doesn’t have an unusual circumstance, such as those listed in question 7, that prevents them from contacting the parents or obtaining their information?”

    https://archive.ph/QC4Sp#selection-3541.0-3545.209

    One struggles to imagine what arcane variety of family breakdown produces parents unwilling to provide information so their kid can go to college. But accepting this bizarre premise at face value, how does a student (barring unusual circumstances) then contact these ogres or obtain their information? Like, pick the lock on deadbeat daddy’s file cabinet and steal his Form 1040? Is this an incitement to juvenile crime?

    Enough with the Lewis Carroll-style paradoxes. Next year, I advocate that the Education Department go full Dadaist and pose this zen-like zinger to aspiring young scholars: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

    AH HA HA HA — answer me that, my little darlings, or no college for you!

    The phone rings in the middle of the night
    My father yells what you gonna do with your life
    Oh daddy dear you know you’re still number one
    But girls they want to have fun

    — Cyndi Lauper, Girls Just Want To have Fun

  12. The real question of our automotive future is what will those that defeat Rome on the Potomac will “allow”? If whomever does take over is not into environmentalist religious zealotry we might see a future of truly magnificent automotive machines.

  13. ‘Programming … which “controls” the “launch.” — eric

    With an Alex Honnold auxiliary brain chip plugged in, I can solo climb the Freerider route up El Capitan, instead of hiking up the back side. Just hit ‘Launch’ and watch me go.

    It’s easy: ‘In 2016, [Honnold] was subjected to functional magnetic resonance imaging scans which revealed that, unlike other high sensation seekers, his amygdala barely activates when watching disturbing images. He however confesses feeling fear occasionally. Through imagination and practice, he has desensitized himself to most fearful situations.’ — Wikipedia

    That’s for fun. For work, I plug in the ‘brain surgeon’ auxiliary chip and rake in the megabucks. Cute nurses call me ‘Doctor Jim.’

    Mr. McGuire : I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
    Benjamin : Yes, sir.
    Mr. McGuire : Are you listening?
    Benjamin : Yes, I am.
    Mr. McGuire : Chips.
    Benjamin : Exactly how do you mean?
    Mr. McGuire : There’s a great future in chips. Think about it. Will you think about it?

    The Graduate (1967)

  14. IDK, I’ll call myself an old guy (58), and pretty capable driver/rider. Race bikes, autox cars (did), and I still very much enjoy the wife’s blackwing. I kinda enjoy stepping it out knowing it won’t go into the trees. Maybe cause I’m an old guy?
    On bikes I very much dislike the nannies as it hinders sliding it as it needs to for max performance, but it can be turned off.
    BUT on a hard climb in the rockies, I could never make it, get to over-max heartrate many times (not good), and the little TC button has allowed me to make it. And after riding with TC on for a year, I then tried turning it off this year, and my buds are saying I’m faster than ever. hmmmmmmm………. so did it teach me? Did I just get better because of effort/practice? IDK
    What’s going to happen to racing if the whole thing is controlled and the driver/rider is just a passenger?

    • I had a marvelous experience. When I bought my Cayenne new from Brumos in Jacksonville they had a one day event called the Brumos Driving Experience
      Briefly you get 3 exercises in your Porsche the cones,-basically the slamon, the skipped figure 8- where you steer with the throttle and finally the timed course.
      You get to sit while a Porsche driver runs the course you watch, 2nd run you drive the pro watches and critiques. Then you can run yourself as many times as the day permits.
      I drew Andy Davis and Hurley Heywood.
      Imagine your driving being critiqued by the actual Hurley-Freaking Heywood. Lol
      The rules were no TC, called PSM ( Porsche Stability Management or Please Save Me)
      Come to find out my Cayenne Diesel could in fact outdo a 911.
      In my 70 years and well over a million miles I found I ain’t damn bad and earned the yellow hat. Now I never use the PSM when driving beyond the local Publix. I find my entertainment wherever I can.

  15. I was behind a 1969 Mustang Cobra Jet yesterday. Everything about it was exquisite. The look, the sound, the lines – everything. The guy took off from a red and my F150 had no trouble keeping up. BFD.

    Guess who was enjoying their drive more?

  16. Does it have “speed limit assistance” or “Parking assistance”
    Why the hell are all the manufacturers trying to make the interiors look like a Tesla with that ridiculous iPad interior?
    Anyway a car does not have to be fast to be fun. Fast is just on element. The 1972 911S had what 200 HP? The old Lotus Elan had 100 HP and that car invented fun.
    I’m so glad I was born during that golden age and had a chance to experience those cars.

  17. I didn’t have a vehicle with ABS until 2017. Not sure how I was able to survive all those years and multiple vehicles without it. Guess I should have been careening off into every ditch and telephone pole along the road. I didn’t even cause any accidents. Must have been doing something wrong.

    Cars used to be like chainsaws. Start them, operate them with the provided controls within the parameters they can be used. We’re not all going out there chopping our feet off due to lack of directional control on the saw. We learn how to use the tool properly. That’s what driving was once upon a time.

  18. That’s the thing about the “new Normal” cars; the “smiles per mile” is a lot lower than the past. Even when the shift timing wasn’t perfect you knew you could get better and sometimes that’s almost as fun.

    Just wait until your 900 HP Corvette is as fun as a riding around in a “Johnny Cab”, geo-fencing will just be an added disappointment,

    • The biggest disappointment of my Audi A3 was the transmission. It included the Bosch 7 speed dual wet clutch gearbox, capable of shifting in ~0.7 seconds IIRC, and had the Triptronic manual (AKA “flappy paddles”) included. I thought this would be the best of both worlds: automatic when stuck in stop and go traffic, manual when I wanted to enjoy the drive. Unfortunately that was far from the case. As I’d enter a corner I would command the transmission to downshift so that I would be ready to power out of the apex. Except that the computer didn’t like that, so it held the gear at whatever it was in at the time, then after I hit the go pedal it would comply, pretty much ruining the turn. Not only that, but that 0.7 shifting time was only in sequential shifts because the clutches shared a control shaft. So if you bumped down two or more gears the whole works had to be changed. This also took far longer than my arm moving a stick around.

      I guess if you’re in a straight line 1/4 mile race the flappy paddles might be useful, but in that individual use case you’d probably be better off just leaving it in auto and go into launch mode.

      • Hi Ready. Remember the good old days when you’d just drop the pan and put in a shift kit from TransGo and it would shift more in line with what you wanted. I’m guessing that with your A3 the BCM, TCM and the PCM would all needed to be reprogrammed just so you could enjoy driving it.

        I suspect if I ever am forced to get a new car I’d be renting it for a week or so first to make sure I could put up with it. My current method is to wander through the local u-pull it auto wrecker, find something the styling doesn’t make me gag, sit in it and if I can live with the inevitable blind spots ask my mechanic if it was reliable car. If it was I look for one of them.

        • It’s about managing your expectations. My first plan was to pick up a Jetta TDI, but they ruined the handling because it took too much business away from Audi for the low end models. What I should have done was pick up a used 2010 Cup Edition, but I was concerned that I’d be buying something that wasn’t treated properly. Had I gone that route I’d probably still be driving it.

  19. There’s a lot to unpack here. Good thought provoking post this fine spring morning.

    Jerry Seinfeld did a bit about the Ford LTD. Something like “LTD is short for Limited. Limited to what? How many of these things we can push out the door!”

    Needing skill is an objection to be overcome. Products are built. Marketing creates desire for product in consumer minds. Consumers want product for the least amount of time and energy and effort. Industry can build a product that doesn’t require much time to own thanks to mass production. But effort wasn’t able to be bought or built, so it was a barrier to selling. A few people might not bother to acquire the skill necessary to operate a high performance vehicle, so they lawyer up after the fact. The Corvair comes to mind, as does the Pontiac GTO. Both of which required a healthy understanding of weight distribution and the effect it has on traction.

    The US auto manufacturers are still very good at mass production. We’re the world leaders in marketing product. Once we start the assembly line it doesn’t shut down, because idle hands are costly. There’s really no place for a Ferrari or Rolls Royce in the United States system of production either. Oh sure, there’s the Ford GT, but that’s really just for the “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday” crowd. No one would realistically drive a GT on the poorly maintained roads here. A GT will spend most of its time in a garage, occasionally coming out for a trip to the auction house.

    The old “go fast, slow” sports car is still a good way to spend an afternoon, but it doesn’t make for much of a side-by-side comparison of models. Lining up a group of supercars on a spreadsheet grid with a 1970s era Corvette wouldn’t find any spots where it would come up on top. But there’s never a row for “Fun” is there? Thing is, I imagine a majority of the buyers of these supercars are very analytical types who earned their fortunes running spreadsheet comparisons (or maybe they’re a bunch of Internet influencers who get them for free because they have nice boobs). So it’s only natural for marketing to push numbers instead of emotion. And to get the extreme level of performance in today’s cars to be manageable you have to introduce automation. Even if it’s at the expense of the fun. Either that or better lawyer up, because someone’s gonna get sued.

  20. “Automatics in cars like the Corvette were for girls and old men who’d either never learned how to drive or weren’t especially good at it but wanted to look good in a car like the Corvette” Good stuff Eric. I mourn the death of the manual Transmission.

  21. These new over weight sports, GT cars, have too much technology between you and the experience, the driver has been isolated from it….the computers are driving it…

    900 HP….but….. you can’t access it….the computer decides how much HP is accessed…..floor the gas pedal and the computer might only give you 300 HP…you might only get 900 HP at high speed where it is required.

    In an old Cobra or Viper you could get all the HP any time you wanted….and go sideways down the street…..

    2024 Corvette curb weight 3535 lb…..too heavy…not a light, fun, tossable car….another GT car a freeway cruiser….

    All the Porsche’s are over weight GT cars now too….911 3300lb…..Cayman 3000 lb…..

    Two GT cars that stayed quite light were ….

    Lamborghini Sesto Elemento – 2,202 lbs. …….562 HP V10
    Gordon Murray T50 – 2,174 lbs……654 HP V12….and it is fully analog…a pure experience….

    The most fun are the ultra light sports cars…..the only driver’s aids they might have is traction control that can be turned off….and they all come with manual transmissions….a pure analog experience…

    KTM X-Bow – 1,740 lbs.
    Donkervoort F22 1600 lb
    Radical SR10 – 1,598 lbs.
    Ariel Atom – 1,349 Lbs.
    BAC Mono – 1,248 lbs.
    Caterham 7 – 1,190 lbs.
    Super 7 clones 1200 lb…there is a lot of them….

    someone said the Super 7 is the most fun car….

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