Getting a Grip on Handling

When I was growing up in a 1990’s bench-racing forum society, the hot numbers were usually horsepower and 0-60mph times.  Those are still modern benchmarks, as is the ¼ mile acceleration of course.  However as Americans started seeing their cars being developed at Germany’s famed Nurburgring, handling and track times became more common to compare.  Cars like Corvette would make sense on such a twisting, handling intensive coarse (well over 120 corners in 13 miles of track).  It was the four-door Cadillac CTS-V, and Chevrolet Trailblazer SS and Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 SUV’s that seemed to really bring handling home.

Notice how major magazines are more apt to compare cars on actual race tracks, posting swaths of data about entry/exit speeds and g-force readouts through multiple points of the track.  That’s what handling is all about… or is it?

The cars of today are very heavy because of safety and size requirements, with very large brakes and tires to accomplish those high-grip g-forces that so many young men go gaga bickering about.  Want better handling?  Bigger wheels and tires, lower and stiffen the bejeezus out of the car—done.  It’s not that easy.

What a lot of supposed enthusiasts seem to ignore is that grip and handling aren’t exclusive together, nor are massive tires.  Examples of this can be found in reading reviews, examining test material, and listening to those who have voiced adoration and acknowledgment to this.

One great test example of a car that pulled respectable g’s but couldn’t transition particularly well is the Mercury Marauder.  When Car & Driver tested the Marauder in 2002, the two-ton sedan pulled .86g on the skidpad.  That means that in a sustained turn at speed, it pulled a nearly sports-car averaging .9g.  For those not accustomed to g-load talk, 1g is the equivalent of your own weight pulling on you… more or less.  I’ve never had a physics course in my life, but essentially you turn fast, you’re being pulled to the outside.

The story of how a car handles (not grips) comes in for the transitions—the slalom or chicanes. When Motor Trend tested the Marauder, it did so with a slalom speed of 59.5mph.  For some idea of where that sits, most sports cars (again, pointing at Car & Driver’s skidpad number) would post around 67mph through the cones at that time.  The Marauder was sub-par for compact cars (around 62mph), and even some minivans could swerve at a higher pace.  That still doesn’t beget good handling as a whole, but confidently changing directions is an important part of it—more so than all out grip.  To give it credit, the Marauder is a well balanced package that Car & Driver wrote, “more surprising is its near-perfect balance: No component—engine, tires, suspension, steering, brakes—over- or underwhelms any other or feels inappropriate to what is.”  For that, I admire the Marauder.

To further distinguish grip from handling, Car & Driver demonstrated the difference simply changing tires can have by strapping them to a tadpole Nissan Leaf electric car.  The tall, front-drive battery bomber went from the stock .78g to a very impressive climb reaching .97g while still “in the Leaf’s stock 205/55R-16* size.”  That did take a track tire, though.  Performance tires (Yokohama S.drive’s) pulled a still impressive .84g for the Leaf.

*For those who don’t understand, that means the width of the tire is 205mm, the sidewall (the part of the tire between the metal wheel and where it meets the road) is 55-percent of that 205mm width, and the wheels are 16” in diameter.  This size has become standard across the average cars of today.  Understanding what these numbers mean is note worthy as there are other examples of this later on.

A car doesn’t need massive or sticky tires to cover corners quickly, Motor Trend’s test of the 2011 Mini Cooper (with sport package) yielded a surprising feat through their patented, all-inclusive Figure-Eight test (putting braking, grip, and direction change into one test).  “The Mini Cooper’s figure-eight time of 26.6 seconds at 0.63 average g is the big bright spot in performance testing,” said tester Benson Kong. “Out-tired, out-powered, and out-priced, the British icon heroically flung its way around our course in the same time as a V-6-powered Chevrolet Camaro we recently tested. And the new Honda Civic Si. And the Mazda RX-8, a cornering superstar.”  All that of mere 195/16 run-flat tires (tiny by todays standards).  Replacing with better rubber, and getting even lighter wheels (Kong points out a lofty weight for the Mini’s alloys) would further improve this joyous occasion.  Run flats and heavy wheels are enemies in ride, handling, braking, and fuel-economy because, after all, they are the one thing that actually touch the road.

One of the best known manufacturers for light, handling focused cars were Lotus.  The video shared below goes into detail of how the magic of the Lotus Elan sports cars of the 1960’s was made possible.  One of the most interesting aspects was (if you click on the link) the tires and wheels being laughably small—only 155/13’s, which are then compared to his Maserati wheel of today (the gentleman’s Ferrari, if you will).

Driving enthusiasts (not to be confused with car enthusiasts) and journalists seem to want more and more for these antics that fun doesn’t have to be fast.  I’ve long held that cars are too focused on grip and times, and not about the level of fun they instill.

More recently, Toyota and Subaru have brought the low-grip-fun a new entry through their joint developed GT-86/FR-S/BRZ models.  All three are essentially the same, with very minor trim changes inside and out (grilles, bumpers, headlights, dash material), and a couple tweaks to the suspension for different uses.  The Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ are sold in America, while the GT-86 joins the BRZ in Europe and Asia as the FR-S’s Toyota-badged clone.  Even one of the most speed, grip, and power-shilling people on the planet—Jeremy Clarkson—is one of the biggest fans of this car.

Yet another to bring up the fun to be had is Chris Harris.

Harris summed it up well with a similar notion of slow cars driven fast are more fun than fast cars driven slow, by saying “on the street, fun is better than speed.”  Hell, all of these guys have far deeper pockets and greater credentials than myself, yet feel the same way.  More enthusiasts need to recognize and appreciate this.  Doing so will make for a more enjoyable (and less expensive) hobby.

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