Surveys have indicated that about 80 per cent of all people with a drivers' license consider themselves to be good drivers. This has major implications for road safety - imagine if everyone considered himself or herself to be an expert in the handling of guns, or of explosives, or of mains-power electricity. And there's also a corollary - pretty well everyone who drives a car believes that he or she is good at evaluating the handling of a vehicle. I mean, if you're one of the 80 per cent who is apparently a good driver, of course you can tell whether a car handles or not!
In my journalistic career, the topic of car handling has featured more frequently than in most. This is primarily because, after I bought some people's ideas of a paragon of cornering virtue (an R32 Skyline GT-R), I proceeded to fiercely criticise its handling. In standard form, my GT-R had major power oversteer. Far more, for example, than an equally standard VT Gen III Commodore 5.7 SS. (The Commodore's a car I will return to later.)
I believe that any car that has pronounced oversteer or understeer is not a very good handler, so my conviction - after two years and 50,000 kilometres - is that the R32 GT-R in standard form is not a very good handler. The fact that later models dramatically toned down this oversteer is a part vindication of that stand.
(In the next From the Editor column I'll talk about the recent week where I drove three very different powerful four wheel drive turbo cars - a Subaru STi Impreza, an R32 Skyline GT-R V-Spec, and a R33 Skyline GT-R. It's a discussion that naturally arises from this column....)
When emotive belief in publicity takes precedence over actual driving experience, there are plenty who will believe that the R32 is the bee's knees when it comes to going around corners. And those making negative judgements as to the validity of my thoughts used all sorts of rationales - for example, in the computer game that they had 'driven', the Skyline didn't oversteer that much. (Considering that I regard the relationship between driving computer games and driving a real car to be similar to the relationship between masturbation and sex, I wasn't impressed.) The absurdity of this sort of experience versus driving the real car every day for more than two years doesn't even require further explanation...
However, it's the actual criteria that some use to evaluate road car handling that has me continually dumbfounded. Apparently people are happy to take a car away from the environment for which it was designed and place it in utterly alien conditions where other traffic, the width of the driving surface, the predictability of corners, the consistency of the bitumen - and other factors - are all totally different. They then use the car's behaviour in this irrelevant environment to pass judgment on the car's road abilities.
Evaluating the handling of a road car by assessing its handling on the track is quaintly absurd. It's a little like taking your 7¼-inch circular saw along to a lumber mill and complaining that it can't hack cutting jarrah all day. Can't it? Duh, that's because it's not designed to do that, duh..... What are people really saying who criticise - for example - a stock WRX for its understeer on the track? That Subaru didn't design the car very well because it doesn't perform brilliantly in an environment for which it was never intended? That, gee whiz, that circular saw needs a much finer tooth pitch to work in a mill cutting hardwood? Forget the fact that the saw also needs to cut particle board and meranti and pinus radiata....
And the idea of compromise leads me to the question of a car's understeer/oversteer balance. I would have thought it utterly obvious that a car set up for the track will have a degree of oversteer entirely inappropriate for a road car. In fact, that was borne out in spades in a recent conversation I had with a Saab Turbo owner running his highly modified road car on the track for the first time. "I need so much more oversteer on the track," he said. "Otherwise it just won't turn in!" Well, probably, but what implications has that for the road? Not many.
My own Audi S4 has high cornering limits, but when it reaches those extremes, it understeers. I could stick on a bigger rear sway bar - which would certainly change that balance much more to oversteer - but then what happens when I have four people in the car and I need to do a quick swerve-and-recover around a child chasing a ball? A spin? - almost certainly.
My lady was recently racing (erm, driving quickly!) my Audi around a large, rectangular-shaped urban roundabout. It's got very sharp corners at each of the pointy bits, and - unbeknown to her - a set of traffic lights at the apex of the last corner. Alone in the car, she was playing hard, reaching the last corner - and the traffic lights - with the car heavily committed. And the light was red. A last-ditch heavy braking effort occurred with the car heeled over and cornering near the limit. She braked to just less than the ABS cut-in point, the car oversteered, she jabbed on opposite lock, and the car stayed in her lane and pulled up before the marked stopping line. With the suspension set up for more oversteer, she would have spun the car - probably into a curb or another vehicle.
There is a perception amongst some that oversteer is good. Oversteer is macho. Oversteer is for he-men; understeer is for wimps. For girlies.
This is bullshit.
Excessive understeer or oversteer in a road car is horrible. It's dangerous. It's stupid.
Sure, on a track you can keep on making the corner when the car is oversteering - opposite lock can be used rather than an understeer-induced feathering of the throttle. But that's on the track, where you know where every corner goes, where you know the state of the surface, and where the relative road width is huge. How many corners suddenly and unexpectedly tighten-up on you when you're pedalling at a racetrack?
And don't talk to me about rally drivers and their oversteering cornering entrances. I've ridden with one of Australia's best-ever rally drivers - Ed Ordynski - as he put his rally Lancer Evo through a tyre test session on a tight logging trail in Tasmania. I can tell you that his driving ability - as with others of his ilk - is so far beyond mere mortals as to be literally on another plane altogether. To even mention the type of car set-up best for a driver like this - and then in the same breath describe it for you and me - is like talking about setting the controls of a Cessna 210 to match the reflexes and abilities of a FA18 pilot. It's basically irrelevant.
So, need a road car always be a dogged understeerer to be safe and pleasant? Not at all. Two cars that I have driven immediately spring to mind: the Mazda MX5 and the VT SS 5.7 Commodore. Both had gentle understeer on cornering entrances and gentle oversteer on power exits. Predictable, safe and benign, these were cars that inspired confidence. Sure, if you really tromped the 5.7's throttle it could step out pretty quickly - but that was provocative behaviour that it warned you about long before. The Peugeot 206GTi - power-on understeer and power-off oversteer. Again, predictable, safe - and good fun.
And another thing: have you noticed how FWD cars are always criticised in the mainstream motoring media for their understeer, but powerful RWD cars like the V8 Commodore have their power oversteer dismissed in a macho congratulatory line like, "Of course, oversteer is always available by movement of the right foot." Oooh, I feel so tuff - those powerslides! No one ever says the logical corollary of a car like the Peugeot, "Understeer is always available by movement of the right foot." And what of grunty constant four wheel drive cars, which tend to understeer only when on power through the corner? In that case it's never mentioned as "power understeer"; no, the car's categorised as just a "bloody understeerer".....
There's an awful lot of rubbish talked in modified car circles, but this love affair with oversteer - in terms of good handling road cars, anyway - is irrational. In this day and age of constant four wheel drive cars - with more sheer usable grip than ever before - it's doubly silly.
I have a friend who has a highly modified 20-valve Sprinter which oversteers in great, long tailslides. He loves it set up like that - he's happy, and that's fine. But a car that is sliding is slower than one negotiating the same corner without slides - and I'd rather be whipping around the corner, car tracking parallel with the centreline and leaving him in my wake...