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Column: Sweet petrol

2009-07-30 08:08

Egmont Sippel

So, there you are, all ready for a good night’s nap.

Because that’s all you’ll get, believe me, on international car launches. Most of them are quick, hectic, in-and-out trips.

But there’s light at the end of the tunnel, if that’s what you’d like to call something as dark as chocolate.

Now, Columbus it was, who first brought cocoa beans back from the New World – and not the USA. Despite Columbus Day, Columbine, Columbia, the Columbia river, many Columbia Avenues (the most famous being San Francisco’s) and a host of other references to the great man, Christopher never actually set foot in North America.

Being bitter in taste, the Spanish court never gave his beans a second thought, either.

Then Hernando Cortez conquered Mexico where Emperor Montezuma – say that slowly: Monte-zuma – served Cortez’s conquistadors with “chocolatl” (meaning warm liquid).

Montezuma’s “drink from the gods” was still too bitter, so the Spaniards added sugar cane, cinnamon and vanilla.

And voila! Gold dust to the taste buds. Don’t believe for a minute, therefore, that Marie-Antoinette’s “Give them cake” was an act of kindness. It was a ruse to keep the chocolate to herself, simple as that.

Hotels are not that selfish. At the burnt-out end of busy days they leave a courtesy choc on your pillow.

Supposedly it’s a send off to sweet dreamland – except that it’s a bitter chip of chocco. After nearly 500 years of the richest, creamiest taste in the universe, it is now fashionable to use dark chocolate as a barometer of distinguished taste.

Diesel the winner?

Which is not surprising, actually, if you reckon that 50% of cars sold in Europe are diesels. That’s because initial capital outlay might be a bit higher, but from there on in oil burning is a winning game.

Except for the odd extra service, of course. Except for diesel rattle – still – at start-up. Or clatter, under acceleration. Or turbo-lag, especially if you drive a VW Passat.

Or what about a slow-spinning engine, a narrow power band and a shallow rev ceiling forcing you to change upwards in the apex of corners?

Apart from that, diesels are fine. In normal times, cost is low. Mileage is high. And boost take-off is great, especially at altitude, in thin air. With 50 ppm now freely available in South Africa, owners can also look forward to the legendary longevity of oil burners.

But here’s food for thought: Can Porsche ever run a diesel 911? Ferrari a F430d? Lamborghini a Gallardo TDI? Merc a SL500 CDI…?

Well, with Merc you never know. Most of their cars have always been slightly biased towards brille & pille.

For the rest on our little list? Oil burners, any?

And why not, may I ask?

A-hum. Revs. Speed. Soundtrack. Refinement.

Flat-six hum

Let’s face it: a Porsche just won’t be a Porsche without that fantastic flat-six hum at 80 km/h, in 3rd gear.

“There was all of summer in a stroke by Woolley,” Robertson-Glasgow once wrote about the great West-Indian batsman, Sir Frank.

There is all of summer in the hum of a flat-6. It’s better, healthier and more wholesome than the most sonorous note that’s ever been sung by the Vienna Boys’ Choir. I can listen to it all day long, a  911 in third, at 80 km/h.

The Panamera’s V8 growl in lower revs ain’t too shabby, either.

So, it’s not all about that flat-chat scream at 7 000 r/min. A Weissach machine conjures up a much wider spectrum of aural delight, from start-up to top-end.

It’s also a score sheet from which a driver intuitively understands what to do, and when. It’s a symphony of revs, speed and refinement.

Plus – critically – response.

And it’s all born from spark ignition: performance, sound, rhythm, the whole lot combining to whip up the blood, please the senses, engross the spirit and elevate the soul.


Well, there ain’t no phrase like “diesel head”, right? It’s like lift muzak compared to rock & roll. Diesel owners are a breed dictated to by utility, frugality and economics. Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes would have driven diesels.


And yes, you can pull good torque and a fair bit of speed off a single gear, even in a narrow power band, making it easy to amble along in city traffic without constantly lurching between ratios – as long as traffic flows.

But in stop-start jams diesels wait for the turbo to spool up first. Just as boost kicks in, it’s time to drop anchors again.

Or the initial lag may cost you a place or two, three, in traffic. You might also miss the gap presented by oncoming traffic, when trying to blitz across intersections.

And out there, in the middle of an overtaking move or just as you hit the apex, you have to change – hey, wait for it … upwards!

’Cause diesel just can’t take the revs. It doesn’t sing. It won’t dance.

Cog swappers on diesel cars have to handle more torque and are therefore a bit clumsier to boot, recalcitrant even. It destroys the rhythm.

Imagine now, taking business decisions on this basis of being heavier, more cumbersome and less free-revving.

Heavy diesel or graceful petrol?

Toyota does. They’re a prime example of management by committee and they’re the biggest and most successful car company in the world.

But they’re also the most boring. And it borders on the painful to watch their F1 struggle. They need spark, cam adjustability, high-rev thinking, precise timing, fast responses, agile execution.

They need the characteristics, the style of a great petrol engine.

In this sense, it is actually ironic that Toyota has been such a petrol-orientated car manufacturer. That’s all gotta do with American and Japanese markets, of course – just as BMW and Alfa build diesel units for Europe.

But it’s wrong, ain’t it? It’s wrong for an Alfa or BMW to be powered by a slow, clattery, low-revving chookenoo with a muffled exhaust note and retarded reactions.

Okay, everybody understands why, especially the grey suits: to make up sales numbers.

Palm off oil burners to those who balance fuel expenses with brand desirability. Those who understand labels, not soul. Bank sheets, not composition. Mobility, not timing. Direction, not steering – let alone steering on the throttle.

Sell diesels and dark chocolate to all of them.

But don’t tell us petrol heads about the virtues. We ain’t gonna digest any of that.

Not when we’re in the apex, in the sweet spot.

So, nope. No dark pillow choccies for me, please.

I’d rather have a sweet swig of 95 octane.

Egmont Sippel is Rapport and Beeld’s Motoring Editor and SA Motoring Journalist of the Year 2008.


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