Clarkson on: bumpy rides
This article first appeared in TopGear magazine, 2004.
I was wrong. Back in the last series of Top Gear, I mocked the new Jaguar S-Type turbodiesel, saying that its power, economy and comfort were all irrelevant because it's such a monstrosity. I suggested it was the ugliest car on sale and that if you parked one outside a cathedral, the gargoyles would faint.
I still think it's a lousy looker, with its dumpling backside and its Daniella Westbrook nose, and I still think its extraordinarily good new engine is not enough to turn it into a worthwhile choice. But if it's a comfortable car you want, you'll have to put up with the styling because nothing else in the class gets close.
I drove one the other day and thought the back road which connects my house with civilisation had been resurfaced because the S-Type didn't transmit any of the bumps into the cabin. It was like driving a hovercraft. There's a sense of gliding around on a cushion of air. `Why,' I wondered, as I floated past another slowmoving Rover with the speedo on 90, `do more cars not feel like this?'
For some time now, James May has been banging on about the obsession that car firms have with making their cars sporty -- and I've long harboured the suspicion that he was, by any rational definition, mad.
He has tried on many occasions to explain that sports cars are allowed to be sporty but that saloons are not. I've listened in the same way that a psychiatric nurse will listen to the rantings of a lunatic. But only for so long. Eventually, I had to give him his crayons back and slip away.
Now, though, I'm beginning to think he has a point. Being a keen driver, I like to feel connected to the road. I like to be able to tell, when I run over a white line, whether the paint came from Crown or Dulux. I like to feel the ugly and unwelcome intrusion of understeer the instant it walks through the door, not when I'm five millimetres from the tree. But -- and maybe this comes down to an age thing -- if there's any shock absorbing to be done, I'd rather it wasn't undertaken by my buttocks.
And here's the problem. Gradually, over the last decade or so, cars have been getting firmer and firmer and firmer. It's got to the point now where the harsh ride of an Audi A6 is considered normal rather than unacceptable, and the bone shaking rigidity of an Evo VIII a small price to pay for the panache and poise.
Rubbish. I drove a BMW X3 this week and, put simply, it would be impossible to live with that ride for more than three or four minutes. Yes, the handling is startling for such a tall and ungainly looking brute, but the downside is such a massive chasm, the whole car is ruined.
Think of it as a man who stands at his garden gate giving passers by five pound notes. And then stabbing them in the heart. The goodness in the package is completely overwhelmed by the utter awfulness.
“Cars have been getting firmer and firmer. The harsh ride of an Audi A6 is considered normal rather than unacceptable”
Another recent test car to arrive at Telly Towers was the long-wheelbase 115,000 Audi W12 A8. Now this, to all intents an purposes, is a limousine. It has enough space in the back for an orgy and lots of toys too, so plainly it's aimed at the businessman who has a driver.
Such an owner is unlikely to be 14 years old, so I'm assuming he'll want to glide from place to place in as much comfort as is technically possible. He doesn't slump down in front of the television at night in a bentwood kitchen chair. He flops onto the sofa. So why, you have to wonder, has Audi tuned the suspension as though it were fitted to a rallying quattro?
I could go on. The Jaguar XKR you saw being hurtled round a beach in Wales was fitted with sports suspension that made the ride impossibly hard. The Mitsubishi Warrior pickup truck is so unforgiving it's undriveable. Even the new Golf has a firmness I don't want.
There are many reasons for this, chief among which is the Americans. For them, suspension has always been a black and white art. Comfortable cars have always wobbled like a slapped fat woman, and sports cars have always gone about their business with the rigidity of pig iron.
So, if you want to sell a `sporty' car in what is the world's biggest marketplace, it must ride like a sports car. Which means it must ride like a Corvette. Which rides like it's going down the Spanish Steps on ice skates.
The next problem is the computer geeks. If a car is sold with shock absorbers and springs, it can't be fiddled with by those of a BIOS persuasion. They need air, and then they can set to work with their laptops and electronic nonsense. `Look,' they will wail, `we have made a car which maintains a constant ride height.' Well done. Very impressive. But as is the way with science, being able to do something does not necessarily mean it's a good idea.
I mean, if it were technically possible to genetically fuse a piranha fish and Hitler, would you let the boffins go ahead?
I'm told by Jaguar's engineers that it is possible to make air suspension absorb the impact of pot holes and ridges, but I'm not so sure. Because if this were so, why does no air-sprung car ride properly? The S-Class Merc. The new long-wheelbase XJ. They are as gritty as sandpaper.
The final, and biggest problem, are run-flat tyres. We're told by car makers that they're being fitted for our own good. Why, they ask, waste money on fuel simply to lug around a spare part that you'll hardly ever need?
This argument would hold water if we were being offered a few quid off when we bought a car with bugger all in the spare-wheel well. But I haven't noticed any reductions of late.
What I have noticed is that my vision goes all blurred when I'm in a car on run-flat tyres. Of course, they have to have stiffer sidewalls but this, combined with the need for `sportiness' means an intolerable piledriver ride. The BMW Z4 is a notable example of the problem. The Lexus SC430 is even worse.
One day, someone will fit run-flat tyres on an air-sprung American sports car and then we'll be in real trouble. Because it'll take off every time it runs over a cats-eye.
Jaguar has proved with the S-Type that it is possible to lock away the computer geeks, and sell a car which glides but still manages to handle properly. You'd never call it sporty but you can call it brilliant because it suits both the James Mays of the world and those, like me, who like to drive everywhere as though we have eight seconds to save the world.
What would be nice now is a car which goes as well as this but doesn't frighten the horses.