Journal: What Truth Is In The Specifications?

What Truth Is In The Specifications?

Michael Banovsky By Michael Banovsky
September 3, 2015
22 comments

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?

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Tim Hewitt
Tim Hewitt

I am going to get some hate for saying this, but i have a 1997 Toyota estima turbo diesel van converted to a camper, and its a ball of fun to drive! And yes i have driven my fair share of quick cars..

Robert Wyland
Robert Wyland

I love the small cars, always more fun.. favorites have been
Honda 600 ( was 14 driving in back yard)
1969 BMW 1600, the faster you went the better it felt…
Fiat 500 abarth, my current ride, makes me smile every ride

Ian Campbell
Ian Campbell

1966 mini 998,
1969 vauxhall viva (tail happy rwd in the wet)
1970 escort 1300
1963 morris 1100
1950 morris minor lowlight
all of them fun. Right now, 1995 Escort wagon: last car I can work on myself

Carlos Ferreira
Carlos Ferreira

’71 Fiat 127 900 cc 5 speed
Thank you for writing this. I’m so tired of arm chair enthusiasts obsessing about hp and 0-60 figures and ‘Ring times. My partial list:
’84 Alfa Romeo GTV-6
’86 Citroen 2CV
’81 VW Scirocco S

On the other side of the spectrum, most disappointing:

’96 Mercedes 600SEC V12 (felt like a lumbering 70’s American family car)
’96 Mitsubishi 3200GT VR-4 (felt like a video game where you pilot a fast vaccuum cleaner)

George Millwood
George Millwood

Morris Mini – every drive was an adventure, it was so low to the ground Alfa Romeo Alfetta 1.8 – so balanced and such a compliant suspension. I picked my brother up in it for the first time and drove across a spoon gutter near his house. He started to yell a warning but the Alfa soaked it up. Still it made me believe the Italians had ways of making plastic rust. Two motorbikes\ Moto Morini 3 1/2 – a 350cc vee twin with heron heads that was the best thing I ever rode Bultaco Metralla – 250cc 2 stroke… Read more »

Ali G
Ali G

Cars I drove that were better than their numbers suggested:
1973 Alfa Romeo Berlina 2000
2006 Toyota Yaris 2 door hatch with manual gearbox
Autobianchi A112
1968 Mercedes 280SL
1973 Porsche 914 2.0
Smart fortwo with Brabus suspension
If I remember others I will post.

Steve Harris
Steve Harris

Frog-eye Sprite. 43hp, under 700 kg, extremely basic suspension, very short wheelbase.

Actually feels fairly fast because you’re so connected to the road, and it’s so tiny. Had one up to about 50 or 60 mph on a twisty mountain road, and it felt great. Absolutely not planted, torquey, refined, quiet, or anything else I’d appreciate in a modern car, but a great sensation.

GBM
GBM

The Acura NSX. Often criticized for its 270hp engine, the driving experience far out weighs the spec sheet.

Jose Guilherme Stefa
Jose Guilherme Stefa

My VW TL, original 65hp and probably 10 more add after some upgrades

feels like a porsche to me 😀

Simone Benedetti
Simone Benedetti

I’m daily-driving a 1993 Mazda MX-5 with 1.6 liter engine. Less than 120 hp on something like 950kg. Lotus seats, slammed down with coilovers, open exhaust and just a bunch more modifications.
You can’t say it’s fast, but it’s the funniest thing ever. Rear wheel drive, extremely analogic feeling: steering, gearbox, gas pedal, everything feels like it’s directly connected to your body. What else can you buy with less than 5000 € that could give you such driving experience?

Antony Ingram
Antony Ingram

That looks like a fantastic example, and really tasteful modifications. How do you find the comfort of the Elise seats? Considering a pair for my own MX-5.

pjrebordao
pjrebordao

My first car was a Citroen Dyane, which was a 2CV with a more angular body. It really teach you how to maintain momentum ! That was 30yrs ago, but on retrospect, those 30hp were a lot of fun ! Some years ago I had a first gen Smart (50hp) and I loved it and still regret having it sold. Despite what most people said, the automated gearbox wasn’t bad. If you took time to learn/adapt to it, you could get almost seamless changes. At 80Km/h, you would be already in 6th, and feeling like you were doing 150 !… Read more »

KTGTS
KTGTS

A Datsun Sunny, 1978 B310 model.

Why?

Because I learned to drive in one.

That is all.

Chris Leighton
Chris Leighton

my 3spd HG Kingswoods spits on your Datto. My first car, a thrashed TE Cortina however, was a lemon.

Antony Ingram
Antony Ingram

Funnily enough, I find the Smart Fortwo a car that delivers an experience beyond its numbers. In many ways, driving one is very much like driving a classic – its physical makeup compromises it in several areas, which in turn requires technique to get the best from. The current Fortwo is far less compromised and therefore objectively the best version yet. But I always found perverse pleasure in driving the previous one. The jerky gearchange could be smoothed with technique, just like being the only person who can shift gears in a well-loved classic without crunching them. The tall, narrow… Read more »

Baskingshark
Baskingshark

I am confounded. How is it that a 1974 Mitsubishi Lancer still exists? (Although I’m very glad it does!)

Antony Ingram
Antony Ingram

It belongs to Mitsubishi UK, so it’s absolutely pristine.

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger

When it comes to the manufactures specs and claims about their new cars …. the TV character … ” House’s ” axiom applies in full ; ” Everybody Lies ” Including and especially the EPA as well as CR , AW , ALD , BS , R&T and every other media online and in print that reviews new cars . In part because they’re financially beholding to the manufactures [ e.g. they’re all in the manufactures back pockets ] and in part because the art of investigative journalism has gone the way of the Dodo bird FYI; Like to know… Read more »

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger

…. ” big surprise ” …. not ” bit surprise ”

Edit function … pretty please ?

Edward Levin
Edward Levin

“Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’ ” Mark Twain

Frank Barrett
Frank Barrett

As a 2CV owner, I concur. The other great thing about shifting is that when going to a higher gear, the heavy flywheel gives you a great shot in the higher gear, typically from second to third. And it’s a really friendly car!

uptheorg
uptheorg

A lot of the vintage car experience is aural — what I hear when I mash the accelerator pedal. I have had a lot of fast cars, but my “slow” Porsche 912 is a blast to run up through the gears, even though it takes a few seconds longer to get to the insane speed of 70 mph!