This is a re-post, but it neatly answers one of the requests I’ve had for this series of blog posts – what makes a car stand out as special amongst the thousands of options on the market….
Reviewing cars properly requires an objective, unbiased approach, that much most of us car journos can agree on. The fact, however, is that the reviewing is not done by robots, but by humans, and try as we might (and we do), subjectivity and personal preference do creep into the process.
But let me just point out that I’m not talking about brand bias, something which in my experience is a relatively small issue. Here at CAR we all love cars, and we all love a good car, no matter what the badge on the bonnet. In any event, that’s partly why CAR’s road tests are the combined opinions of a very large team, to balance out any possible bias.
No… of more significance than brand bias in determining the outcome of a review (if done by a single person), I think, is personal preference – the little things that sub-consciously turn us on (and off) as road testers – because these depend on our individual personalities, even physical characteristics.
Again, many of these “quirks” are filtered out by testing as a team, but nevertheless I’ve been told by a number of readers that we’re supposed to come to the same conclusion if we’re going about the process objectively, as if there is an exact science to the process of reviewing a car. I’m afraid that’s just not possible, simply because of the human factor. Of course, if it was only about the cold, hard facts and figures, we wouldn’t have a job and you wouldn’t be reading this blog post right now. So it isn’t. The human factor is actually of interest.
To illustrate the point, allow me to share the things that, to me, when done properly, elevate a car from goodness to greatness. None of them are measurable by equipment in our possession. All of them are entirely subjective. And having just come out of a rather fiery test team debate on the new Golf GTI 35 Edition, I know for a fact that each of us has our own, but very different lists of turn-ons. I want to point out as well that I don’t get into a test car with these five items as a checklist. I’ve just learned through the years, that these are the things that identify a stand-out car, to me. Its personal, and even takes place at a sub-conscious level.
Harmony of controls
This is my pet love (or hate, when done wrong). What it comes down to is a consistent weighting to the major controls of steering, throttle, brakes and transmission (when it is a manual ‘box). On some cars you have very light steering, but brakes that are too sharp and a clutch pedal with too much travel. See what I mean about inconsistency? Or the steering is slow, the brakes a bit wooden, and the throttle ramp-up too aggressive (previous-generation Hyundai Tucson V6 Auto, for example). Throttle mapping is of particular importance to me. Take my current long-termer, the Jaguar XFR, as an example… this is the car with the finest control harmonisation I’ve ever come across – the way it always responds with exactly the measurement I had intended is almost eerie. Porsche also does it well, and so does Honda.
The appreciation of design is a very subjective thing. One man’s Nissan Juke is another’s Pokemon-mobile, after all. As those of you who have read my book will know, I’m physically affected by beauty. I cry. It’s a condition known as Stendhal (or Florence) syndrome. Consequently, walking through a classic car museum is a challenge for me. As a result I know when I’m viewing a truly beautiful car (or anything else), because I have an emotional reaction. Current (mainstream) production cars that make me reach for the tissues include the Opel Astra GTC, Range Rover Evoque and Peugeot RCZ.
But I’m also switched-on by challenging design, which sometimes skirts with ugliness but doesn’t cross the line – vehicles such as the Audi A7, Jaguar XJ, Citroen C3 Picasso and VW Scirocco, are examples.
What are the key ingredients to good automotive design for me? Well, I’d say proportions are very important (the balance between overhangs, wheelbase etc). Until recently Peugeot managed to get this very wrong with almost every model (407 and 308 being particularly bad offenders).
I also like a car to have a strong “stance”. Whether a car’s wheels fit flush with the wheelarches is key to this. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not a big fan of oversized wheels, so it’s a fine balance. The Porsche Panamera, for example, is certainly an odd-looking car, but it’s amazing what a difference those optional 5 mm spacers make when specified…
I’ve driven some very expensive cars with seats that can adjust, electrically, in every possible way, even as far as squabs that can be inflated, extended cushions and backrests that can flex. And yet I’ve often found it difficult to reach a comfortable driving position, sometimes, I think, because there are simply too many different settings, so finding the right combination can be tricky. I prefer a good level of height adjustment on a seat, but more importantly, a very wide range of height and reach adjustment from the steering wheel – perennially an underrated feature. Volkswagen and Opel both make some great seats, and Volkswagen in particular usually offers great steering wheel adjustability, as does BMW.
I place a great emphasis on ride comfort, even on relatively sporty machines. A bone-jarring ride is only forgivable, I think, on a car that is going to spend some time at the track. But more important than softness of ride is good damping. This points to the car’s ability to filter out road imperfections, leaving you in no doubt about what’s going on underneath, but without ruffling your feathers. Great damping stands out immediately, because there’s an absence of that wooden feeling when going over a bad patch of road, yet also a feeling of not floating – a sense of being connected, yet cosseted. The previous-generation Subaru Forester had superb damping, for example. Ford also does some superb damping work, as does Lotus.
The human element is particularly influential in the evaluation process when it is directly related to the senses. It is often said that a car’s door handles represent its handshake. And just as none of us like shaking a limp, clammy hand, I don’t appreciate a wobbly, lightweight doorhandle. It’s likely to be the first thing you touch on any new car. Any movement in a direction other than what is required to push/pull to open, immediately makes a sub-par quality impression. I also like a door to close with a hefty thud, and once inside, to have a proper door-pull (often overlooked on modern cars) with a nice-to-touch feel, not just a rounded-off piece of black plastic as is usually the case. It is amazing how one sub-par trim piece can spoil the effect of an entire cabin. Take the superb Hyundai Elantra for example – our Top 12 category winner. The cabin presses all the right buttons but then you pull the interior door handle and find out it possesses the weighty substance of a kiddies toothbrush. Proper metal interior doorhandles would’ve elevated the Elantra’s cabin another notch.
If a car manages to get the above five things right – in addition to the measurable criteria of performance, economy, value etc – it is likely to get a very good rating from me. Now, what things sub-consciously influence your opinion of a car? Let me know.