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Column: The numbers don’t matter

2010-01-15 13:43

Lance Branquinho

Numbers. I was never particularly good at them, which probably explains why I became a motoring journalist.

Perversely though, the landscape of motoring journalism is awash in numbers and statistics - performance numbers, torsional rigidity percentages (which nobody seems to understand) and power figures.

For somebody who could barely manage a fraction in matric, it’s an unnerving experience.

Many of the numbers in question are imperial and have to be converted to metric for local content, which leads to much early morning profanity emanating from my Wheels24 work station.

In a Ferrari colours (and illumination, especially the blinking kind), instead of numbers, guide your through the driving experience.

So, admittedly I am not a numbers man. This is why I find the many car people who are prepared to argue a perfectly polite dinner party to open hostility in defence of a quarter second here or two odd kWs there when comparing cars wholly disconcerting.

Most things considered, the numbers mean very little.

One nasty little statistic

I am constantly astounded by the misguided sense of importance people attach to what are in fact the most inconsequential of performance figures. The enfant terrible in my mind is the 0-100km standing start acceleration figure.

Who came up with this?

Of what value is it, knowing one car is a couple of a tenths quicker through the gears from 0-100km? Honestly, who dumps a clutch at traffic lights with an engine speed of 3 200r/min and then shifts twice before reaching 100km/h and trundling to a 120km/h cruising pace?

If you enjoy drag racing in your brand new performance hatchback, the 0-100km/h performance could give some indication of how quick you’ll be over 400m. How many Golf 6 GTI owners are aching to run quarter miles as soon as they drive their new cars off the showroom floor is open to conjecture….

Buying a car, even a performance oriented one, on the merit of it being half a length quicker storming from standstill to 100km/h is akin to preferring Lee-Ann Liebenberg to Roxy Louw because one is allegedly 800g lighter.

Unless you are a race engineer, a few tenths of a second here and there is of no consequence.

One a track the numbers count. Everywhere else, well, is my blue your blue or not?

The issue at hand...

Yet you’ll see perfectly decent people threatening to leave a braai and procure an unlicensed firearm to silence doubts cast upon their irrefutable evidence of BMW’s M-whatever being better than the latest AMG-something or other, based purely on some acceleration figure.
Let’s put those hallowed 0-100km/h acceleration figures into perspective. The variability most arguments are based on is very slight. Negligible, in fact.

Before unceremoniously leaving Car and Driver magazine two years ago, esteemed editor Csaba Csere (I can’t pronounce it either) admitted variance is a fact of road testing and perfectly comparable test figures are practically impossible.

In Csere’s perfect world all performance figures would be based on a average of five cars per model, each with between 15 000 to 20 000km on the clock, testing on a perfect surface, in windless conditions with an ambient temperature of around 15 degrees.

Honestly, do you think most 0-100km/h testing subscribes to even one of these prerequisites?

Add to this driver skill and manufacturer meddling (sending "prepared" cars out as test units) and you can see just how nowhere the 0-100km/h debate is.

Before you dismiss Csere as a space cadet, he holds a degree in mechanical engineering from MIT and Car and Driver has a circulation of 1.3 million…

Not really optimal driving conditions... So how about a dice? Then you can tell all your mates how you dropped a F360 with your Outback...

And the point is?

Returning to my affront for loosely correlated number crunching and statistical sophistry, there are only two figures with regards to any car that form some basis for comparison for me.

These are fuel consumption and overtaking acceleration.

Fuel consumption is peripheral to most performance car debates, yet it determines your route planning on vacation and impacts on your disposable income too – quite severely in some cases.

So yes, I pay quite keen attention to fairy tale EU consumption figures and marvel at how unrepeatable they are in local conditions.

The key number which resides in my subconscious is overtaking acceleration – the only performance figure of any applicability in the real world.

Launch a BMW M3 violently off the line with car full of passengers and you’ll be met with stares of derision followed by the ”Jeez, it’s a nice car, but you don’t need to drive it like that.”

When the N1’s solid lines turns to stripes though, and you power past four family sedans and a truck courtesy of a seamless burst of 60-120km/h acceleration, your passengers render themselves awestruck at the safety margin allowed for normally suicidal overtaking manoeuvres.

Whether in-gear or shifting down, the ability of a car to add acceleration to its velocity when already at speed is the only performance benchmark of high regard in my mind.

So next time someone is spewing factual fire delivered with brimstone eloquence as to why their favourite car bests yours, and the unit of analysis is 0-100km/h sprint figures, just grin and humour them.

Whatever you do, don't start quoting standing 1 000m sprint figures - which, as all true enthusiasts know, is the real unit of analysis for performance. It will simply be an exercise in futility...


Bullet: Name, set and match!

2012-04-16 16:47

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