Power isn’t everything

Posted on April 3rd, 2005 in Opinion by Julian Edgar

I am sure that this will be news to many of you. But I am equally sure others will simply nod and smile: they’ve known it for years.

The point is simply this: you don’t need an enormous amount of power to have fun in a car.

A good handling car with a sweet spread of torque is fantastic on a winding road; as is the comfort in driving a car hard while knowing that the chances of being inadvertently waaay over the speed limit are much lower.

These ideas don’t sit well with an expectation that more power is better, and so a car with less than 300kW at the treads is just for wimps. But as I’ve covered in another column (see Driving Emotion, November 2004), a lot of the time the extra power is just being used to drag around extra weight – and so the immensely powerful car doesn’t have the performance you might expect after hearing the peak power figure.

In modification, aiming for an all-round fun package without concentrating on just power also gives you a huge advantage – you can make use of the bits and pieces that everyone else thinks are valueless.

I’ve just been browsing eBay for a secondhand intercooler. In my application I don’t need a huge core; in fact, I don’t even need a large core. (It so happens that I need a core with a very specific shape, so I still have to look hard!) But I’ve just been amazed at how cheaply intercoolers that others believe are no good are being auctioned for. I could literally get a core sized to suit my application for under AUD$50 – and so I’m laughing! And I am also seeing intercoolers going for well under AUD$100 I’d be quite happy to run on cars producing up to 150kW.

In fact, with careful ducting and an intelligently-operated, finely-atomising water spray, up to 200kW.

OK, OK, so 200kW isn’t going to win a dyno competition, but 200kW in a 1300kg car is plenty of fun – especially if it’s not a stupidly peaky 200kW.

In fact, when I think of the fun cars I have driven over the last 12 months, the Suzuki Ignis Sport is a one that readily springs to mind (see Suzuki Ignis Sport Test ). Yep, with only a paltry 83kW. Whack a turbo or little blower on it to develop an easy 110kW or so and you’d have a bloody ballistic small car.  (Why so low a gain in forced aspirated power? Well, keeping up the average torque across the rev range will give a much faster car on the road. And doing that is easier if the peak power figure is kept lower and so there can be boost earlier.)

And it’s not just intercoolers that you can pick up cheaply. Everything that flows gas – from the airbox to mufflers to cat converters – can be grabbed from more powerful cars. Recently AutoSpeed’s Michael Knowling bought a secondhand cat converter. It’s from a current Falcon XR6 turbo. Having talked to workshops modifying these cars, we know that the cat flows spectacularly well for a standard factory unit. In fact with a 3-inch entrance and twin large diameter outlets, that’s not surprising. And the price Michael paid for this near-new cat? Try AUD$100. At any power output of less than about 240kW, the cat is likely to pose very little restriction. At 150kW, the flow loss will probably be so low as to be insignificant.

All the parts that people typically upgrade in the search of more power can be used. Standard Impreza WRX turbos are available very cheaply – and are perfect in a host of 1.6-litre turbo upgrade applications. Mufflers from family sixes and V8s here in Australia are so cheap they’re often thrown away – despite the fact that they’re now made from stainless steel and will last for nearly ever. In fact, a year or so ago I was out the back of a muffler shop and saw maybe a dozen Commodore V8 systems hanging up – all available for AUD$100-200 each.

It’s almost worth looking at the non-performance version of a car (eg a naturally aspirated Impreza) and then getting from the WRX the cheaply available exhaust (yes, it will need some modifications up the front!), springs, dampers, wheels, seats and so on.

The lower-powered approach is also something which is likely to become more widespread as governments become concerned at the number of young people being killed in what – in anyone’s terms – are incredibly powerful cars.

Now I’m not saying that I get excited by a near-new cheap shitbox with a canon muffler, ugly alloys and super-low suspension. Without question, that’s a low-powered car with low on-road performance. But a nicely preserved Mazda MX6 Turbo (or the Telstar or 626 equivalents) with a Falcon XR6 Turbo cat, V8 Commodore rear muffler, Supra twin turbo intercooler and Nissan 200SX turbo would be right down the path. (And no, I haven’t checked that all these parts can be made to fit – but that’s where I’d start.)

Over a year I drive perhaps 50 cars, many of them for a full week. And there’s one thing that’s crystal clear – the fun quotient simply doesn’t relate to how many kilowatts are available. Yes – all other things equal – a more powerful car is likely to be more fun, but just as often it’s the smaller, more nimble car – one that happens to have less power – that puts a smile on my face.

And that’s a facet of car performance that opens up a helluva lot of cheap modification opportunities…

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