What Truth Is In The Specifications?
Photography by Afshin Behnia, Jonathan WC Mills & David Marvier
What modern car is closest in power, weight, engine location, size, and capability to my ’73 Porsche 914 2.0-litre? A smart fortwo. Only it’s not, because the smart accelerates marginally faster, is more fuel-efficient, lighter, safer, and—given the advances of modern tire technology and my car’s 42-year-old structure—probably handles better, too.
This is all true, of course, because the spec sheet told me so.
I used to review new cars, and quickly learned that the biggest problem was going to be reconciling the difference between what the spec sheet (and marketing departments) told me and the feel of a vehicle from behind the wheel. It’s not a difficult job in the same way that fighting fires is, but to me, the measure of a great review is when it’s able to make the specifications irrelevant.
Capability is far different from but closely related to purpose, which is why a Jeep Rubicon feels at home driving over your neighbor’s lawn gnomes. It’s also why a Porsche 911 can sit at 120 mph on the Autobahn with less fuss than a Pontiac Montana in a drive-thru. I’ve done both—for science, of course.
I haven’t driven the new fortwo, or advocate replacing your beloved classic with a subcompact, but recognizing the relative parity between the two gave me pause. Imagine my surprise if it’s actually more fun to drive than the 914—then what? Then, I suspect, it will be a better car, but not its equal. Imagine if all of our decisions were based on numbers found on the spec sheet—and what a folly that’d be!
What car have you driven that delivers an experience far beyond what its numbers would suggest—and how, exactly, do you explain yourself without numbers to back it up?
I’ll start: one of the most charming things about the 2CV driving experience is that you’re able to feel “peak power” quite noticeably. There’s a point at which the engine runs out of steam thanks to a very short 1st gear, but thankfully, Citroën fitted a “dogleg” transmission that sees the “H” beginning with reverse in the upper right, down to first, up to second, down to third, and a long trumpet-like twist into fourth. (If you’ve driven one, you’ll know what I mean!)
The dogleg layout is my favorite because at sane speeds, it creates a quick, pleasurable shift between second and third. In the 2CV, that must also be the quickest gear change, for fear of losing momentum.
But that quick pull into third gear can be done with your foot on the floor, and after a moment’s hesitation the flat-twin—especially in the morning, when the air is healthy and crisp—belts out a rorty push of torque down the road. Downhill, it’s even more fun, and a chance to earn some much-needed speed for an inevitable uphill grade.
Thing is, it’s not just a push of torque: it’s all of the torque. As the revs climb, a 2CV becomes the casual runner who would really rather everyone go on without him. The spec sheet says just 29 horsepower and 20 lb-ft of torque, but the reality is far different…it’s actually pretty fun.
So: what car have you driven that delivers an experience far beyond its numbers?