It has been said that the car was the greatest invention of the 20th Century. Being a little over a 100 years old, the car is no longer an oddity on the world's roads. That's why everyone's expectations of a car are as homogenized as the car has been a product of globalization. Sometimes, global competition can be so fierce that governments get into the act by protecting local markets with tariff walls and punitive taxes. Governments value the contribution of the car industry for any nation's economy and employment.
But first a car has to meet the minimum expectations of the consumer. It should fit him comfortably. It should not need too much maintenance or attention. It should be easy to gain the skills to operate, provide a comfortable environment to ride in and enjoy in all kinds of weather. It should also not cost too much to use and keep. And it should keep its occupants safe and alive in case of mishaps. Cars have to be responsible to the environment not only in emissions, but in recyclability.
Niche of niches
A car can lend itself to individuality, through a plethora of colors, special paints, a vast range of options and all kinds of trim levels from L, GL to GT. A hundred years ago, before Ford's Model T, cars were products for the aristocracy and hence a car's coachwork was always made to order. As always, there will always be consumers who want more differentiation. Nowadays, there is the huge aftermarket industry offering all kinds of customization for engines, suspension, audio, electronic gadgetry and cosmetics.
Car manufacturers indeed strive to give their products this individuality, the unique selling proposition, lest the car becomes just like a refrigerator. Even refrigerators are differentiated by size, price, color, features and the primary catch-all, styling. But unlike a fridge, a car is driven and even lived in so there's more to its being just a mere domestic appliance. Thus to differentiate a car, not only does it have to look different, it also has to feel different in the way it accommodates and drives. It is this perceived character, real or imagined, that makes a loyal fan out of a consumer. If you believe the pamphlets and the car magazines, character is what distinguishes one brand of car from another. How can a mass produced commodity that sells in the millions around the world possess such a quality?
Flying the flag
As recently as sixty years ago, it was easy to determine character. You just looked at the origins. Big and cushy? USA. Drawing room wood and leather? Great Britain. Soft ride and avant garde ideas? France. Rock solid quality and high speed handling? Germany. Sporty drive and stylish? Italy. Small, thrifty and reliable? Japan. And so on. Even in racing, teams were liveried in the color of their country: silver for Germany, red for Italy, British Racing Green for Great Britain, blue for France, etc. Under the hood, the sight of brands like Lucas, Girling, Bosch, Magnetti Marelli, Jaeger, Denso, MoPar, FeRoDo, Dunlop, etc. told you where it came from and sometimes, foretold the reliability to expect.
First mover advantage
In the early days, cars were largely made by inventor-innovators turned entrepreneurs. The smarter ones followed watch industry practice by partnering with financier-marketers. Witness Henry Royce and Charles Rolls. There were also mergers like Daimler and Benz and serial acquisitions that created GM. As always when businessmen get into the act, economies of scale, competition, volume production and expansion of the market supersede the primary purpose of just making cars. Henry Ford possessed this rare combination of being innovator-businessman of the car for mass production and for broader consumer accessibility. This also meant that being first in mass appeal meant first mover advantage, i.e. the chosen technology would eventually be commonly available and cheaper. Just think, if Henry Ford chose to power his Model T with an electric motor or steam engine, what would have happened to the internal combustion engine of today?
From the days of tycoons, inventor-merchants and robber barons to today's mutual funds, car company ownership has become like any typical corporation: driven by the bottom line rather than the pursuit of one man's engineering dream. As markets got bigger, consolidation became the norm. Parts standardization and commonality became the byword in cutting costs, simplifying production and growing profits. For instance, today's cars may have distinct looking climate control panels from model to model and brand to brand, but they may all have come from Valeo or Lear, who, like the rest of the world's manufacturers, can tailor make small volume or a gazillion order of parts based on a few basic platforms of standardized and interchangeable parts.
Today's cars are made by companies that may be domiciled in one country, but uses parts designed by and/or made by manufacturing conglomerates with factories found all over the world. With the widespread use and mass production of consumer electronics and their subsequent infallible reliability, most car parts makers are, for purposes of economies of scale, part of a large, efficient but faceless conglomerate too.
With expectations of quality and reliability, consumer tastes have essentially globalized. That's why it is already increasingly hard to distinguish one brand from another, much less from its country of origin. National origins are blurred as car makers now have factories all over the world producing the same standardized global models.
World market standards
Selling to a world market does improve the breed. Case in point; for a long time, Japan couldn't produce decent handling big cars because their laws penalized cars that had a wide track, as it took up too much space in space tight Japan. But when Japanese car makers decided to tackle the export markets, they had to design for a world with different standards. This culminated in Lexus being the equal of the pedigreed European marques.
The old wives tale that car makers based within a 100km radius of the challenging mountain passes of Switzerland make the best handling cars ring true today, especially when almost all the major car makers do their testing on Alpine passes or have simulated the experience on their private test circuits and computer driving programs back home.
When legalese helps
Government, in the interest of protecting the environment and the consumer have tightened laws in favor of meeting stringent world standards. This has also emboldened the law profession into making sure the consumers are not bamboozled by big business. To protect themselves, service and repair at the authorized dealers have neutered the diagnostic and repair skills of technicians, as now all reliant on what the computer tells them. This usually means full cost replacement of parts instead of repair as parts and complex sets of parts called modules are now manufactured to throw away specs. This is despite stringent recycling laws. For car companies, its not just an economy measure and certainly not the perceived “rip the customer off” allegation; fear of class action suits make parts replacement less risky than repair. This also ensures the manufacturer must retain substantial legal counsel as defense against claims that may be conjured by an imaginative legal industry. Credit both governments and the legal profession, besides consumer clamor, for making today's cars nearly bullet proof reliable, made of high quality materials, meet all safety and emissions regulations.
Today's cars are getting larger and ironically lighter than what their apparent mass suggests. This is due to the use of more extruded metals, special alloys and plastics, all of which need more energy to extract/blend/process. Beyond the benefits of speed and thrift, aerodynamic styling with its shallow radius curves and ovoid packaging, also maximizes stiffness of car bodies surpassing international crash survivability statutes. Though designers may claim that what they pen by CAD/CAM are unique, they tend to follow trends dictated by the limitations of the mass production techniques for the latest alloy and plastics extrusions.
Recent advances in turbo crdi technology have closed the performance gap between gas and diesel. Gasoline engines on the other hand, were able to claw back their performance deficit caused by asphyxiating emissions control with direct injection and turbocharging. Moreover, electric motors, generators and hybrid battery packs have become light and compact so they have come under the engine bay as a boost for economy and performance.
So where do we go from here? Our next compact or sub compact will be provided by a wide choice of truly high quality and über reliable brands. They will all have the same stuff. Styled dashboards with quality plastic and chrome. Touch screens. GPS Navigation. Concert quality audio. Solid switches. All foam seats. Strut front axle and front wheel drive. Twist beam rear axles. Multi valve engines. 6 speed to 8 speed automatics. Power and remote everything. Ultra low profile tires. Rattle free, solid, quiet. Multi-media interface interconnection. Drawn out LED headlights and tail lights. High belt lines for side crash protection. Crash compatible bumper profiles. Minimal grille aperture, which limits grille identity. Front fascias shaped to minimize pedestrian crash injury. Almost every luxury, except space, can be ordered on a compact sized car. Yes cars have indeed gotten better. Like a rising tide floats all boats, its increasingly difficult to buy a really bad car these days. But unfortunately, they will all ride, handle and drive the same, and apart from some detail, even look the same. How do you then distinguish one from the other? Will cars end up like androids, with no individuality?
White and Silver
An interesting irony in all this is as cars got better and lasted longer, used car prices have gone down because of the car industry's overcapacity. Companies keep producing cars even if the world's car market is capable of absorbing only 60% of what all the factories, working full blast, can produce. This is good for the consumer but they too have been influenced by these market trends. With easy financing and costly government mandated vehicle inspections, no longer do they keep their car beyond three years. Thus, the consumer keeps his or her eyes out for eventual resale in three years time which results in the narrowing the variety of colors one sees on the road. Surveys say that silver and white, basically non-colors, find the least resistance when it comes to resale in the trade-in and used car market. Hence the world's roads are bumper to bumper in silver and white cars.
D' 3 S's
Despite all of these pointers to homogenized car character and hence the car enthusiast's impending doom of uninvolved zombie motoring – think GPS guided convoy driving while drivers read their iPads- there are three aspects where car manufacturers can still inject character in their cars if only to differentiate the driving experience. The three S's - suspension, steering and seats - are the nodes by which the driver can qualify his/her responses to the road and the car.
A comfortable ride is what makes a luxury car worth the money. Granted the latest electronic and hydraulic dampers and anticipatory “road reading” computer programs are available for all sizes of cars, it still takes long suspension travel to achieve that cushioned balance and high speed control that used to be exclusive to the Autobahn brands and all luxury marques. A long heritage of winning Rallye motorsports also signal long travel wheel suspension as an article of faith, the better to tackle changing road and weather conditions without loss of road holding. But sadly for some car makers who built their reputations on Rally successes, commercial reasons have forced them to dump adherence to dogma.
Long wheel travel allows a suspension to do its work in the broadest range of road conditions. A suspension has to “suspend” or support the mass of a car body above all the road imperfections while keeping the tire in perpendicular contact with the road surface. A suspension must be able to do this at all speeds, while keeping the body on even keel, lest motoring becomes a dizzying experience. This is where the springs come in. The longer the springs, i.e. wheel travel, the more range to deal with bumps in rapid succession or deeper pot holes. Longer springs also demand better spring damping to control body pitching, bump rebound, reduce vibrations and shocks. This is the role of shock absorbers. To avoid excessive pitch and roll, engineers also fit anti-roll bars or stabilizers in the form of torsion bars. The suspension engineers' objective is to ensure the geometry of the suspension arms and bushings keep that tire contact patch on the road at all times, the ideal for road holding.
Steering is the drivers' source of handling or how a driver feels how the car holds the road. Its inputs and outputs direct changes in direction and the car's reaction to it. Engineers choose steering ratios to compromise between lightness in parking, quick reactions on curves or slaloms and some sense of firmness in keeping steady at high speeds. Since steering, like suspension, is also a path for vibrations and road shock, it is also damped. Power assistance, whether electric or hydraulic, has become the norm nowadays so that the most desirable combination i.e. light at parking, firm for high speeds is achieved. Some manufacturers have tried to simulate feel through artificial intelligence resulting in a detached feel that is not liked by many. Unfortunately, steering sharpness has been dumbed down with built-in numbness for fear of twitch or so-called “sneeze factor”. Car makers assume that the average driver, the 90 percentile consumer, will have a difficult time recovering control of the steering in case his/her hands accidentally jerk the steering wheel.
The g's push
If communicative steering is too costly, better seats not only improve feeling “one” with the car but also sympathizes with our inner ear, the main determinant of balance and feedback of all humans, critical in a moving environment such as a car. In conjunction with both suspension and steering, the seat is the command and control perch from where the driver can exercise his/her control; where all responses are received and reactions dispatched and whatever pleasure can be derived. Being the reference point of what a driver feels, the expression “seat of the pants” define reality as the seat is where the centrifugal and centripetal forces are felt. This feedback route, “wired” to the driver, makes him/her adjust speed, steering wheel angle and brake pedal force. This is where all the fun begins. Motorsports drivers live for that thrill, the feel of the g-forces bearing on your body when going sideways.
All foam, no backbone
Most “commoner” car seats today are all foam as springs for the back rest and cushions have been deleted. Seats are a differentiating factor between luxury and mass market models. Its not just the electronic gizmos – remote electronic power assisted adjustability in all dimensions, Alcantara, leather, heating, massage and air con – but the basic seat structure, springing and careful cushioning in areas to support the lumbar, shoulders, knees, thighs and the torso are upper class in luxury or premium cars. A Rolls-Royce, because of its size, has no excuse to have lousy seats. No matter how small, any MINI has far better seats than any mass market brand compact larger than it.
Showroom “testing” of seats can never substitute for a 3 hour stint behind the wheel in a combination of stand still traffic and highway cruising. Not even the 15 minute 'round the block test drive can simulate how a seat feels after 3 hours on it. In fact, that is the problem of most car seats nowadays; i.e. you seat ON it and not IN it. Instead of being embraced, you feel pushed out so you end up bouncing or sliding around when the going gets rough or when corners come in rapid succession. Worse, some designers, deliberately shorten the seat cushion to give the illusion of more legroom, indadvertedly depriving support to your thighs.
Don't be fooled
Another basic guide for showroom seat testing is that if it feels rock hard on first acquaintance, its not going to feel any better after 2 hours. Glib sales agents will try to convince you that hardness is orthopaedically correct and that you'll get used to it. Yeah, right, at a great discomfort to you when you are already more than a million Pesos poorer. Think of the car as the most expensive seat you will ever buy and that's how much attention you should give it when buying a car.
Don't be fooled, take 2
On the other extreme, don't be misled by some really swell looking soft feel contoured seats complete with side bolsters. If the moment you sit in them and the cushion and all its contours gets squashed at the seams, that is not a good seat either. A tactless sales agent may suggest you lose some weight. That's a good enough excuse to exit and not leave your down payment.
Boring smooth roads
Blame the better state of roads in most suburban settings, the environment where the 90 percentile customer i.e, urban car buyers exist, resulting in dumbed down suspensions, dead steering and mediocre seats. On smooth roads with no sharp curves, large amplitude axle articulation occurs occasionally, hence long wheel travel is deemed superfluous. To compensate for road clearance when laden, car makers install tough springs; short springs with the least possible number of coils. They proceed to ruin the ride further by installing narrow diameter floppy shock absorbers to allow some “give” on only small road joints and stiff anti-roll bars to give some semblance of “handling”.
Cost cutting and neglect
Unfortunately, stiff ant-roll bars stiffens the ride by limiting wheel travel. That's why no matter how smooth and quiet a modern car is on smooth pavement, one gets jolted into drastically slowing down the pace once one hits crumbling asphalt or concrete. The really mediocre car brands from China are guilty of these sins as are most of the other Asian brands in their formative copy-cat years. Car makers shouldn't forget that even developed countries have neglected their older roads, especially inner city roads for lack of time, budget or space for upgrades, and even proper maintenance.
On the other end of the scale, better engineered luxury and sports cars have electronically controlled anti-roll bars which disengage when a cushy ride over bad roads is needed and re-engage at high speeds for rock solid stability. Special shock absorbers now have microscopic metallic elements in the hydraulic fluid. When the car goes into slalom or cornering mode the dynamic driving computer sends an electric charge that magnetizes the metallic elements to make the fluid viscous, firming up the shock absorbers. Some premium cars use pneumatic-hydraulic bellows in lieu of coil springs. As early as the mid-fifties, Citroen already achieved a near perfect ride with oleo-pneumatic suspension without the need for computers. Our list of good riding cars at the end of this article use ordinary steel springs.
Ignorance is bliss
Thus 90 percentile car consumer, not having known better driving cars, is happy with car specs solely specced for only smooth roads even if the same consumers have high standards for electronic amenities, fabric, leather, plastics, audio, climate and sound insulation. By default, limited wheel travel and anodyne steering becomes the norm. Perhaps, this dumbing down of the mass market compact car's driving experience has resulted in the popularity of the Crossover SUV. SUVs offer more space and mass, hence SUV makers can dial in more suspension travel and more sumptuous seats.
The wave of the future
The very young Chinese car market, the biggest car making and car buying culture today, has a broad range of disparate characters, with some 300 official and not so official car makers. After they get over the copying and faking phase, China can and should discover a persona for their cars. A car with Chinese characteristics would do Mao Ze Dong and Lee Kwan Yu proud.
After almost four decades of motoring, we've identified certain cars that came our way which define a composite benchmark of what is ideal character for a car. For steering feel, its the 1968 Lotus Elan. For handling, its a tie between the 1968 Alfa Romeo GTV Bertone coupe and 1972 Alfa Romeo Giulia super. For ride; 1969 BMW 2002 ti,1969 Peugeot 504 with the “hunchback” trunk and the boxy 1976 Volvo 142DL.
None looks the same
Take note that all these cars have great comfortable and supportive seats, though widely disparate in size and appearance. The Volvo's is almost flat and leaves lots of space between doors and console to accommodate bulky winter clothing, necessary in Sweden five months of the year. The BMW has wings like a wing chair to support your body in cornering and so as to compensate for the body roll induced by the soft suspension. The Peugeot has a lot of rounded contour around the driver's seat to allow Madame to go in with both hands full of shopping bags. The 504 also accommodates an overlarge steering wheel, set at the best angle to read “Le Monde” when stuck in the stop-go morass of Peripherique traffic. The Alfa Bertone has sections with different foam densities and even has an open “window” below the lumbar support so that rear passengers should be warned from kicking the driver's back through the “missing” squab. The Elan's looks like it hardly has any padding since space is always at a premium in a purist sports cars. But they all cosset like good seats should.
In the Philippines, two compact cars in the distant and recent past, respectively, possess the soft ride and the absorbent cushioning of the seats of a luxury car; the 1977 Renault 16 TS/TX and the 2003 Peugeot 307. For good benchmarks in steering feel and handling, one would have to have access to rare “personal imports”; 1986 Toyota Corolla Trueno and '88 Toyota MR2. Include a 1986 Peugeot 205 1.9 GTi which found its way via Subic.
Today, all the pricey luxury cars have great seats and great ride. All Porsches, Ferraris and cars of their ilk have really good steering feel. Happily one doesn't have to pawn the future millennium's income to buy a car with good seats. In the compact car/SUV sector, there is a select and probably diminishing bunch of models that still have decent seats. All Subaru models. The outgoing Ford Focus. The current Lancer GTA. And the Nissan X-trail. Curiously, they all have suspension wheel travel that is longer than the average “commoner” car. Therefore, we can conclude that as cars got better and consumers got smarter, car character diffused.
The seat of the pants
Perhaps, if in a car's design brief, suspension and steering is limited to appeal only to the average or 90 percentile consumer, then the only aspect left that can make a difference to counter or compensate for the two dumbed down S's is the seat. So, to any car maker determined to establish character on the cheap, it's all down to the seat. Just don't make them too cheap as the “seat of the pants” feel does separate the men from the boys.
CARS and CHARACTER : Dedicated to the memory of motoring journalists Leonard John Kensell Setright, Ronald “Steady” Barker, George Bishop and Phil Llewellin. And agony uncle Sir David “Shanghai” Tang, just for the heck of it.