Are we all becoming fixated on quantifying performance? I'm starting to think that we are - and perhaps it's the fault of the performance car media.
I remember back when I first started writing about modifying cars, about a decade ago. In those days, I contributed articles that were primarily about the modifications I performed on my own cars. I'd develop a boost control, or a new air intake, or have an exhaust fitted, and I'd be very careful to make measurements both before and after the mod was completed. Generally I'd include times such as 0-100 and a rolling 60-90 km/h, and I'd also flesh out the story with graphs of pressures - both positive and negative.
Incredibly, in those days very few people writing about car modifications - at least in this country - did that. I fact when my car journalism career progressed to the point where I edited a new paper magazine, I decided that we were going to quantify nearly everything. I wanted published dyno graphs - again, then a rarity - in as many stories as possible, and I wanted to test against numbers every performance improving device that was reaching the market.
As time moved on, the use of dynos became much more widespread, and lots and lots of people started taking their cars to drag meetings - and so getting those little black and white numbers on a timeslip. A few years earlier, new car magazines had started investing in elaborate timing equipment and by that stage they were quoting performance times to two - and sometimes even three - decimal places.
Quantification of performance now mattered. No, more than that - it was nearly all that mattered.
In the US, the move to numbers went even further, with slalom, skid-pan and braking times routinely included in tests and modification stories. However, the local Australian media baulked at doing that - there is more to handling than ducking though witches' hats or sliding around a big circle on flat concrete.
But what exactly am I complaining about?
After all, if one car does 0-100 in 8 seconds flat, and another does it in 7.5 seconds, the second car is faster, right? Well, of course it is - in a 0-100 sprint performed under those exact conditions. But in the real world of traffic, and traffic lights, and passing manoeuvres, and short-shifting, and hot and cold weather - well, then the story's probably completely different.
Take a turbo car. That's pretty well any turbo car - maybe the glorious sequential twin turbo Supra excepted. If you're lined up at a set of traffic lights next to a large, naturally aspirated engine - and you don't want to launch with a huge clutch-dump at high revs - you'll probably lose the race to the urban speed limit. Like, a manual turbo car capable of a magazine-timed 0-100 in 6.9 seconds can often be caned by a 3.8-litre auto V6 that the same magazine rated as mid-eights in the 0-100 sprint. Or, to look at a completely different example, a V-TEC Honda with great paper performance can be w-a-y off the pace in the cut and thrust of city traffic against a dinosaur V8 - one that's much slower over the quarter mile.
Of course, the publicity material generated by manufacturers, and the new car road tests produced by the media (us included), and the bar-room discussions, well, they never go by anything other than those gospel-like figures.
Look, I think that quantifying data is important. If a car has more engine power than another, I like to know that. If a modification makes a dyno-measured difference, well, that's pretty interesting. And if a car does a quicker quarter mile than another at the drags - yep that's a valid input of information.
But honestly, just as handling can't be measured by a skidpan, these figures are just a part of the overall picture.
Just a part - not the whole.
Over the years there have been attempts made to quantify the unquantifiable - driveability. I've seen approaches where certain acceleration increments in certain gears are used in a complicated equation... all of which to my way of thinking defeats the point. And it's also not something that can be ascertained by looking at the torque curve... despite numerous newsgroup posts from people who that appear to think that everything from the best gear-change rpm to the ease with which a car can be driven through traffic can be ascertained from this (full throttle, made on an engine dyno) curve.
To enjoy driving a car, to take pleasure in its response to your inputs at the controls, to feel the way in which it behaves - its feedback - and to relish its performance. These aren't things that can be pared down to numbers alone. If they could, a Peugeot wouldn't drive with that very special trade-off between comfort and handling, a Porsche wouldn't have steering that is so special, and an MX5/Miata wouldn't have a chassis that communicates with you like there's an optical cable connection between its soul and your brain. If all this stuff could be jotted down in numbers, all the car companies could produce cars of this excellence; after all, the engineers read mostly the same well-published stuff.
And these ideas apply also to modifications. If you run a faster quarter mile time or have bigger figures on the dyno (or - sometimes - even both!) but the car is a pig to drive, is it better? Of course it is if you are solely a quantification person. After all, it's faster!
But is it better?
Or what about the mods that make absolutely no difference to quantified performance - but make the car much more enjoyable to drive? If you've ever swapped a thin-rimmed factory steering wheel for a smaller diameter, fat-rim aftermarket sports wheel you'll know exactly what I mean. It didn't make the car go faster, it didn't give the engine more power, the race track time didn't change - so how come the car now feels great?!
And still on steering, each time I drive the car I relish the electronic modification that I made to my Lexus LS400's power steering ["Modifying Speed-Sensitive Power Steering"]. And what actually was that modification? Well, just an increase in steering weight. It didn't make the car faster, or handle better, or..... but it sure as hell improved my joy in steering it.
I am beginning to think that the dyno and quarter mile are invading our space - that area devoted to a love of driving a modified car. The idea of "well it's now a bucket of shit to drive but hey, look at the dyno figures" is becoming ubiquitous. But a relatively slow car can be enormous fun to drive - that's so much the case that sometimes when I've been driving one of these rare breed of low power fun machines and someone asks how hard it goes, I'm occasionally lost for an answer. A Pug 206 Gti isn't a fast machine... but it's a helluva fun car!
And as modified cars get faster and faster - hey, these days a 13-second car is pass? - newcomers to modifying cars are beginning to assume that you need an eleven second road burner if you're even half-serious. Well, you don't. What you want is a good package that suits your needs - not the phallic aspirations of public opinion makers in the media or anonymous big-noters in web discussion groups.
Maybe it's time we re-evaluated our fascination with figures. They're important, but surely to car nuts like us anything which makes the car feel better to drive is good? After all, most of us are driving just the one car - and if we gain a tenth on the quarter but lose hugely in comfort or handling, is it worth it?
Your answer to that philosophical question may well be 'yes', but it should be a very considered decision...