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How our ‘relationship’ with our cars is changing

By Carl Cunanan Philippine Daily Inquirer January 19,2020

I write this as I sit in a small resort on a beach, and every vehicle other than ours was an SUV or a pickup truck. I brought a sporty wagon, and a rather low one at that. A Subaru Legacy wagon, with the old-school turbocharged boxer engine that many of us have grown to love. That car, in spite of our ability to pull many different kinds of vehicles for long drives, still remains this wonderful combination of enthusiasm and solidity, though admittedly Subarus can still be somewhat quirky vehicles.

But the different SUVs wouldn’t have been bad choices either. With modern SUVs (and, to a point, pick trucks and vans) you have driving aid/safety systems that allow you be far more safe in many situations where before you would be whipping the ungainly things around back to front or bouncing off the road. With all that increased safety though comes increased confidence, and perhaps the decreased ability to understand exactly where the true dangerous line exists. Where physics reaches a point where even the most complicated and attentive computer systems cannot compensate.

I’ve over-driven two vehicles recently that I can remember. Meaning, that I asked more than the vehicle was able to deliver. One was a Bentley Bentayga, on an increasingly tight racetrack corner. The big vehicle is just so chock-full of equipment that compensates for whatever the world and stupidity throws at it: it can do anything. As I kept pushing limits and going faster where I shouldn’t, it got to a point where the car just wasn’t acting in the energetic way it was in previous more intelligently handled runs. And that’s with all the most modern quick-to-act systems on and working overtime. There was no drama at all. I just noticed that the vehicle was behaving more in safety mode than in “let’s try that again but faster” mode.

The other car I overdrove recently was the exact opposite, and one that’s actually meant to be overdriven in many senses. It was a Radical “Sports Racer” SR1, a purpose-built tubular chassis car that can sometimes be made road legal. In some countries. It is what most people would consider a pure racecar on looks alone. Yet in reality it is still a bit more accessible than full-on red-mist racecars. Red mist, by the way, is the term race drives have for what comes over you when you start getting competitive and everything else leaves your mind. So this is more serious than most people would ever get.

Overdriving this was again my fault, and it happened partly because I forgot a lot of things. For one, I forgot that racetrack corners look very different when you are sitting lower than normal. I had driven these particular esses so many times that I know how the bumps feel just by thinking about them. And I love putting together a fast series of corners where in a lot of speed and just feel things move in the car. Feel the weight change but all under your control. As I came off a sweeping curve where I could feel the car already breaking out but still completely controllable, I got excited as I expected to go into the set of corners that I (or so I thought) knew so well. Suddenly, I was entering the series of turns not only faster but lower. Nothing looked familiar. I was out of my comfort zone. I braked too hard and locked up. The other thing I did wrong was actually what I tell everyone to do nowadays in modern cars. I try to get people comfortable with hitting the brakes hard, because in many after-action reports we see that brakes were not applied enough. People still have this fear or acting roughly with the car. We try to show them that it’s a safe do, and in reality may save your life. So basically I listened to myself when I shouldn’t have. In thus case at least. I’m no real stranger track excursions. I’ve gone backwards what felt like the length of a football field, one day after the other, in an open- wheel Formula car on the rolling hills of Donington Park Circuit in Leicestershire, Great Britain, first day in practice and the next day in a race. Another one of those multiple corners I love but never really master. I also went slightly off-tarmac in a Prototype racecar that turned out to be what Michael Schumacher drove in the Race of Champions but was now privately owned and run by someone who graciously invited me to test. And who gave me quite the look when I came back in after my little… peek at the runoff area. Then there was the time…

That’s where things differ nowadays, really. People who grew up with modern cars and modern safety systems have to relearn how cars work without them. Some cars truly need them, like Porsche GT3 RSs and Lamborghini Aventadors, because you have truly massive power you need to tame before it kills you. But for the most part safety systems are keeping more people alive than ever and that’s good. It comes at the expense of the fun and experience that many old-school purists love so much, but even the hardest core of us recognize that all this does indeed save lives.

Fun is actually more accessible than ever, automotive-wise. It’s also safer across the board. And we appreciate all that. There is still something about what you can do with a car on your own. It’s not about overall speed really, or numbers or bragging rights. It’s feeling that’s internal, but one you can share with others that understand. And that’s good too.

Toyota is taking an interesting dual approach for the automotive world, and interestingly it is similar to Porsches. Toyota wants to make people love the experience of the car, but in a different way as it integrates into your life. It wants to make you love your car for the way it does things for you. Yet at the same time Toyota (and Lexus, remember) wants to make people love the sportiness of enthusiastic driving. Modern technology allows both. Porsche wants to make you truly love your drive, but understands you may not always want to do it.

So we can still love driving and cars, but we will need to change a bit here and there. Many of us grew up loving the noise and the feel and the commune with the driving surface and the car, but new buyers may not have those learned appreciations. They may be comfortable with quietness that allows you to concentrate, with steering that adjusts and helps because they never knew the romance or sweat of having to manhandle a steering wheel or a gearshift. There will be loss, there will be gain, there will be change.

But there will be fun.

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