Another Pound of Car Flesh?

2010 VW GTI Mark 6

A couple of articles today struck a chord with me. Both deal in different ways with the increasing size, weight, and complexity of modern cars—particularly sports cars.

In the first piece, on Autosavant, James Wong drives two cars, the 2010 VW GTI (Mark 6 at right) and the Audi A3 2.0T Quattro, and apparently comes to the conclusion that the FWD GTI just doesn’t cut it anymore. The car has more complex systems than it used to have (my 2003 1.8T is basically a much simpler car than today’s), what with added luxo features like electronic stability programs and even stuff like automated wipers and lights. All this has added weight and required increasing power to match the performance of earlier models.

And the puzzling growth of the physical size of cars also contribute to this serious obesity problem. Cars of every new generation are usually wider, longer, higher to provide more of everything, from larger engine capacities to longer rear legroom. Where exactly are we heading to with all the upsizing? We’ve reached a point where the phrase “less is more” is really relevant here.

So, FWD with more power provides basically less grip, more wheelspin, and more torque steer. The system is being asked to do more than the laws of physics permit. So, says Mr. Wong, devices like Quattro are brought into play, and they work extremely well to improve handling and traction in all kinds of weather: It’s got grip. What Wong doesn’t say is that it adds hundreds of pounds of excess weight and cost and requires yet more power. So the obesity cycle continues.

2010 Audi TT RS Roadster

2010 Audi TT RS Roadster

Jeremy Clarkson reviews Audi’s TT RS Coupe and finds it “an absolute star” despite its too-great size and weight, its dash read-out telling you when to shift (sometimes found on older cars too, as I remember), and a trunk that won’t open from inside. But the car is just too big, and “why the sudden need for vast cars?” Clarkson blames market researchers who talk people into bigger and better. I think, as Wong said, it’s the pressure of new technology, incorporating “better” to create “bigger.” But I’m with Clarkson on the functionality and logic of smaller is better, especially in sports cars.

It’s much the same story with the little Austin Healey Sprite I drove around Mallorca on Top Gear recently. Among modern sports cars it looks as preposterous as a ballet shoe on a building site. But, actually, it’s the other way around. It’s the modern sports cars that are too big.

2010 Audi S5 Cabriolet

2010 Audi S5 Cabriolet

I recently saw a yellow TT RS roadster pulling out of a parking lot here in Oaxaca. I have to admit it was gorgeous, well-proportioned, and I thought I was looking at an S5 Cabriolet. Then I saw the badge on the trunk and thought, “My God, how the TT has grown in just a few years.”

Can we stop the obesity blight without stopping “progress”? Can it be done, at least for performance sports cars? Should it be done?


1 Comment

  1. There’s should be no mystery that all wheel drive adds weight to a vehicle. After all, you’re adding the drive train from both front and rear wheel drive as well as an extra transfer case to proportion torque between the front and rear. The result is 200 to 400 pounds more weight, as well as substantially more engine power needed to give performance similar to a 2WD version of the same car given the extra drive line friction and weight.

    On the other hand, there is no real weight penalty from adding stability systems. For best performance, you usually need 4 wheel, 4 channel ABS disk brakes. Since the vehicle likely already has this brake system, adding the stability control ability requires a yaw or lateral acceleration sensor (a few ounces) and controller. (integrated into the brake controller, no weight penalty.) The vehicle may also need a steering wheel angle sensor, if it can’t get the steering angle from the steering system. At the most, adding stability control will likely add only a pound or so given additional sensors and wiring, which is one of the best bargains you can get for added weight.

    The real problem is this institutionalized need for car manufacturers to make given models larger and larger. I’ve never figured out this effect but it seem universal. Look at any manufacturer announcement of a refreshed vehicle platform and they always seem to be larger. (and heavier, although the manufacturer never tells you heavier.) Perhaps it’s more driven by marketing needs to make the vehicle seem bigger and better while remaining in the same price niche.

    Another problem is our demand for added options like rear a/c, dvd and navigation systems, elaborate sound systems, sunroofs (often multiple ones), running boards, external racks, and complex seating systems. On a large vehicle, these options with 4WD can add a ton or more to the vehicle weight. Buyers not only rarely take this added weight (and the fuel penalty of hauling it around) into consideration, it’s almost impossible to get information from the manufacturer on how much weight the options add without going to the dealer and finding a similar vehicle on the lot to check weight.

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