Last weekend I had a chance to join a group of Audi enthusiasts on a short spurt up to Malaysia for a quarterly drive event. I thought that being a passenger meant that I had to take a passive role, but even then I learnt a little bit more about the cars I was travelling with.
Often, our daily commute does not give us the opportunity to know the true potential, and hence the limits, of our vehicles. However it was clear as night and day during the event which cars were made for fast driving – and by ‘fast,’ I mean not being quick on the track, but being rapid in real-world conditions. The results were rather surprising, a little bit of enlightenment for anyone who thinks the sportier models are by default, the fastest.
I wouldn’t want to claim to have the authority on the definition of traction, but on uneven, bumpy roads, it seems like putting one’s power down is more important than actually having a lot of it. Planted in a Q5 2.0T Quattro, I was under the impression that the car would have its work cut out for it trying to catch up with the rest of the convoy which consisted of the likes of the Audi RS 5 and R8. However, I noticed that where those low-slung cars had to slow down severely to prevent their front-ends from scrubbing the frankly ridiculous bumps, or to risk having their passengers bump their head violently on the roof, the Q5 just took them in its stride. It was not gliding; but neither was it losing any precious traction to all four wheels as the car lifted but the tyres stayed on the road.
The fact that the car was on a softer suspension setup allowed it to ride the bumps confidently as well as to maintain its composure on the road. There is no denying that on a sharp corner, the car would roll due to its high centre of gravity, yet it preserved a genuine poise to its drive. Where stiffly sprung sports cars will fly with even just a hint of unevenness, thereby losing traction and much control, cars that can deal with this can bring more speed along, conserve it and build on it. Dan Trent of Pistonheads coined the word ‘flow,’ and even defined it a few times – and I think that was what I experienced in the Q5.
I will readily admit that this balance between a good ride and sportiness is a tricky one, something that has always split people into two distinct camps, leading people to believe that excelling at one must be at the expense of another. But I think there is a good compromise that is gaining ground, and that is preserving ‘flow’. A car need not be stiffly sprung to be enjoyed on the road; neither does it need to have poor handling in order to give a good ride. There is that middle ground which, ironically, is always fulfilled by the lesser siblings in a model range. Take the Q5 I was in as an example, without any of the fanciful suspension upgrades of the pricier models. Or the Honda Jazz, which rides as excellently as it handles. Look towards the sportier models and things start to go awry. You can have legendary front wheel drive handling in a FD2R Civic Type-R, but you trade it off for an unforgiving ride.
Of course, I am not claiming that all sports cars nowadays have this one-dimensional characteristic. There are gems about that have encapsulated the concept of ‘flow’ very well. I have enjoyed the B7 RS 4 immensely because of that, and even the new F10 M5 – which has excellent handling and ride even with its suspension on Sport Plus. What I am saying, however, is that being fast is not all about speed. It’s about a balance of all the components in a car that can work together to give driving pleasure, whatever the circumstances of the environment. A car developed on a race track might not be suited for the road, if at all. Why not develop a road car that is good on the road instead?