Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Automotive Industry's Double-Edged Sword

(Image courtesy of Motor Trend)

The Automotive Industry's Double-Edged Sword
The good and the bad of higher limits, continuous advancements, and the nonstop power war


Exactly nobody was surprised when photos of the first wrecked Challenger Hellcat went viral, and it surprised even fewer that it was damn-near minutes after deliveries began. Out from all corners of the internet came cries of “it's too much power for the street and the average driver!” and along with it the car with the best name in recent history has forced us to wonder: how much is too much, where does it end, and is this the right path for cars to continue? This isn't just about the ultra-high horsepower monsters but rather the industry as a whole as it develops and advances at the sprinting pace it's maintaining. Making extreme power widely available and on the cheap, the Hellcat is just one example of this; it's a vehicle that single-handedly raises concern as to the general automotive trend and the subsequent good and bad that can and will come from the nonstop push for more power, speed, and flair. 
 And yet this is about more than just the Hellcat; seemingly every manufacturer is taking a turn in the headlines with an audience-capturing “wow factor,” be it any of the statistics or lap times or price figures that were once unthinkable; it's a time when every aspect of the car world is tapping into depths we have yet to prove positive or negative in the long run. But where will we find ourselves as the crossroads of “it's enough already” and “there's no such thing as too much” finally come together? Read on and let's explore this automotive conundrum. Oh, and to contrast the above-mentioned crash pictures almost poetically, a video of Ralph Gilles' first-through-third burnout from the same car's press event caused much drool and a widespread checking of bank accounts. Not that I'm guilty of either.

Jump with me and let's explore...



The Good
First: While the vehicles that make a ton of power do regularly grab mass attention, fun is coming to exists outside of this group more than ever. Although most of the time faster is better, speed a source of fun in itself, there's an onslaught of new cars putting an emphasis on lightness, steering feel, handling, and chassis playfulness.
The Miata, FRS/BRZ, Fiesta ST, and 4C are all making a strong case for the “slow car fast” mantra, and if there's any proof of how good enjoyable this mentality is it lies in the number of automotive journalists who have bought FiSTs or Miatas with their own hard-earned money. The secret that power isn't everything has finally been outed, but just to be clear: massive power is available at a more dangerous price than ever. And though the less pricey, communicative, responsive cars are great on their own, power is still a ton of fun.

Second: from hot hatches to muscle cars, the horsepower war remains in full swing. What's really mesmerizing though is that while the halo and brand-defining cars continue to see power/torque skyrocket, it's bringing along with it an increase in available power in what were once normal people haulers, a prime example being the current six-cylinder Toyota Camry that is (for reference's sake) making early 2000s Mustang GT power and runs equally fast to sixty. If absolutely nothing else, being fast makes otherwise boring and pedestrian cars at least somewhat interesting. But for cars with power as a main priority, there really may be no such thing as “too much” and luckily power/torque increases continue to leap-frog regularly.

Third: new cars are helping to make their classic counterparts more iconic and the moderns more storied, and with cars like the Hellcat selling out it won't be long before the market is “flooded” with them. Such low prices give regular people the chance to own their dream car and also manage to simultaneously build the character of the previous iterations. And if “more Hellcats is better Hellcats” being able to find them on the used market at steep discounts off their original MSRP will be an utterly insane performance bargain that would enable even more people to drive cars they want, and will also continue to make desirable the old-school muscle cars that started it all.

Fourth: the “trickle-down effect” is becoming increasingly relevant in everything from the racing series' contributions to production cars all the way to luxury car tech that eventually makes its way into lower-rent vehicles. Composite materials, powerplants, transmission designs, safety, and aerodynamics are just a few examples of how racing development is helping to make street cars quantitatively better. Looking further ahead we can expect the current crop of new-for-the-street tech (such as using electric motors to fill in boost threshold) to make its way down the line as well, and eventually a lot of what is currently exclusive to exotics or super-luxury cars will become available on a much more widespread scale, bettering cars as a whole.


Let's summarize “The Good:” the nonstop battle to one-up the competition forces continuous improvements in quality, performance, and capability. Though the consumer's dollar may “drive the industry,” it is that the manufacturers consistently fighting for the top spot that advances the industry as a whole. The desire to make a better car, regardless of the class, is helping all cars become better than they have ever been, but as an enthusiast perhaps the best part is that the relentless one-upsmanship makes the auto shows, press releases, and speculation wholly exhilarating, shocking, and important. With eyes glued to the media and saliva readily building for the next unveiling to take center stage, this is an era that car lovers would prefer never ends.

The Bad
Here comes the obvious...

First: This shit is starting to get dangerous. Untalented, inexperienced drivers are getting their hands on cars that can substantially outperform their pilots. Or, rather, the limits of the vehicles that are readily and easily attainable is higher than ever, and this is supplemented by driving tests that have remained largely unchanged on top of minimal if not inadequate mandatory instruction, and no required performance driving school when buying a highly capable car. This isn't a new reality (think of any supercar that had a reputation for being crashed, or even the B5 S4), but with the amount of power available at the price point it is today (i.e. Scat Pack/Hellcat/Z06/GT350/etc.) there will inevitably be people driving these cars who simply shouldn't be. Not everybody deserves the reigns to a 400-hp car without stipulations, and especially not one with over one-and-a-half times that. Joe Schmo can walk into a dealership having only ever driven his 1999 Corolla and shortly thereafter be out on the street with five times the power he's used to resting under his right foot...and absolutely no clue how to handle it.
Sure, you can wreck a 200 hp car just as badly as one with three times that, but allowing somebody's first stint driving their first high-performance vehicle to be out on the open roads is probably a bad call. I'd wager that a mandatory pre-delivery performance driving school for those without any actual performance driving experience would help, but that's unrealistic and people will buy what they want, put themselves and others in danger, and not think twice before mashing the go-pedal. Want proof? Search “Cars and Coffee crash” on YouTube, then vow to never do as the folks in those videos have done. Please.

Second: we may be reaching the limit of what is streetable. Seemingly unlimited horsepower can be great, but when is it useless? With inevitables like speed limits, increasingly congested roads, and even warranties and insurance, we may be getting there if we haven't already hit the tipping point. Even with modern aids such as launch control, how much more can we squeeze out of a 0-60 run short of installing slicks and testing on a perfectly prepped, totally-unlike-the-real-world surface? Further, rear-wheel-drive is still a staple of sports and muscle cars, but soon performance will require driving the front wheels as well to go any faster from a standstill. But going faster as a whole will come with drawbacks as well: more computers and tech to increase acceleration and speed equates to more weight which makes cars slower, so to compromise we have to add power which reduces efficiency (as does added weight), and if we want to all offset this we have to invest in lightweight, expensive materials. Put simply, the drive to go faster has us in a difficult want-it-all-but-can't-have-it-all situation.

Third: modern powerplants have totally skewed perception. For example, 375 horsepower is still more than the average car by a fair margin, is still a ton by 1970s/'80s standards, and is still sufficient in the real world. But on the delusional armchair-jockey stomping grounds that is the internet, 375 is in the realm of being openly mocked. Not only that, but attending any car show is an easy way to see people flock to the new big-firepower arrival and care more about oogling over this than anything else. Remember when I said that “more Hellcats is better Hellcats?” A flood of 700-horsepower cars can make nearly anything seem laughably underpowered, and it also takes away the appreciation for and lust over non-factory powerhouses, and may in turn eliminate some peoples' desire to build one themselves. To those who are obsessed with looking at dyno numbers rather than the feel of the all-important butt-dyno, a car that makes substantial power using aftermarket additions isn't impressive anymore when there are countless others that have quite a bit more power stock, come with a warranty, and cost much less out-the-door than it previously would have to modify post-purchase. “Built not bought” doesn't necessarily reign true today, and it takes away from the stories and excitement of doing things as an individual.


Fourth, and finally: On a grander scale, this is all causing us to lose sight of what's “important.” The internet is filled with arguments leading you to believe that number-obsessed dick-measuring is the gateway to a good time, but this couldn't be more wrong. I'll elaborate: burnouts are fun, going fast is fun, and making noise is fun. And all three together? That's great fun. But doing so encapsulated by a vehicle that makes the experience numb or that takes the driver element out of it isn't unlike instant replay in pro sports; yes, you get more accurate results, but it removes the possibility of human error, the seat-of-the-pants adjustments, and the unpredictability.
A great 0-60 time is far too easy to brag about when the car lends you a helping hand, but it's nowhere near as much fun (nor is it as impressive) as getting it just right yourself and potentially dealing with the consequences of messing up...even if that burnout wasn't totally accidental. As for people that would rather fantasize over astronomical levels rather than a car that is involving, engaging, and demanding? “Important” has many different meanings, but to in this context car lovers should equate it to “rewarding.”

The Bad, in summary: there is in fact such a thing as too much power, and to deal with what is “too much for the masses" the car-makers are having to work as much (or more) to idiot-proof these cars as they are to make them enjoyable. Not only does it remove some of the need to be a good, capable driver, it removes some of the potential to enjoy driving a car to its fullest; and thus, some of the fun of driving as a whole.

The Bottom Line

In hindsight this article really could have been called “The Good and The Bad of The Hellcat,” but that would be too narrow of a scope; it's not just Dodge that has gone bananas, but the industry as a whole. It's a double-edged sword: there are great benefits, be it the advancements in technology or the shock and awe of never-before-seen speed and price, but we're also becoming number-obsessed and intent on making a headline rather than making the best driving experience. Until we come full circle and once again emphasize the sensation, the freedom, the excitement of driving, carmakers will continue to lean in a statistically-focused direction, with the headlines consisting of what the marketing teams deem most important rather than what might make you laugh the most on your favorite road. It remains to be seen where this never-ending push will land us, but as long as it keeps automotive excitement alive and kicking, and as long as it gets us out there and driving, it's fine by me. But I'm biased: more Hellcats are most definitely better Hellcats.

-Ross, 9/22/15



Images courtesy of Motor Trend and Google

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