Why the Ride/Handling Balance is Underrated

David Semple
#Audi, #3.8
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Four-hundred ninety horsepower and 0 to 60 mph in 3.8 seconds! Did that get your attention? I thought so, because those are impressive numbers. Unfortunately, I made them up, because I love impressive numbers and wanted to make sure I included some before I get to the subject at hand--the apparently unquantifiable netherworld of the ride versus handling compromise. Wait, come back! Quarter mile in 11.7 seconds!

See, this is the problem: We have stats to measure just about every parameter of a vehicle's performance, yet one of the elements most crucial to your enjoyment of a car is absent from the test numbers. How do you quantify the achievement when a car delivers both electric handling and a ride that spackles the bumps with marshmallow fluff? We need a number for this, a value that can take its place next to zero-to-sixty times and lateral acceleration in the pantheon of holy performance stats. (I'm not an engineer, but if any engineers out there would like to devise such a metric, I ask only that you name the unit the "Ezra." A shrewdly calibrated suspension is kinetic poetry, so it only makes sense that the measurement derive its name from poet Ezra Pound.)

Consider the Audi S4. On paper, it looks like my ideal car: dapper styling, V-8 power, available manual tranny, all-wheel drive. But I can't get past its ride. To invoke a Seinfeld reference, the S4 is my Man Hands, and its ride quality is the big, hairy paw that poisons my perception of an otherwise beautiful package. The S4's springs are soft and its dampers are stiff, which means that the car soaks up bumps with gentle compliance, but there are instances when the firm dampers feel harsh and unforgiving. On any kind of bumpy road, you feel like you're driving a pogo stick. I asked a Lamborghini test driver about this, because, believe it or not, the Gallardo rides better than the S4. Trying to be diplomatic toward the mothership, he said, "Audi's philosophy is soft springs and stiff dampers."

On the flip side of the coin, there are cars that control their wheels like Tiger Woods controls chip shots and nonetheless occupy an obscure corner of the enthusiast's mind. The poster child on that front is the Subaru Legacy Spec B, the only current car I can think of that bases its performance flagship on a beautifully crafted suspension instead of a hopped-up engine. The Spec B gets inverted Bilstein dampers up front and an infusion of aluminum components to reduce unsprung weight. I recently took a Spec B to a secluded airfield and hit 90 mph before I ran out of runway. That wouldn't be impressive but for the fact that it was a grass runway. Hammering across a lumpy field at 90 mph, the Spec B was not only comfortable, it was composed.

On pavement, it's even better. Our All-Stars test route includes a straightaway with a set of high-speed rolling whoops that test the weight of one's lead foot. Last fall, I drove it at 130 mph in the Spec B and blurted out something like, "Yaaaaay! Again!" Yet the Spec B only has 243 hp, so we--and I implicate myself here, too--tend to ignore it while celebrating more powerful, less graceful alternatives.

Audi

So here are a few shout-outs to cars that manage to carve a corner while cosseting: The Chevy Corvette is unexpectedly supple for something with that much performance. Most BMWs are stellar, except for the original X3, which was stiffer than a Long Island iced tea cut with Everclear. The Mercedes-Benz C-class has a silken, almost pneumatic quality to its ride, which is interesting, since it doesn't have air suspension. And if I had to live with one car based on the suspension alone, that car would be the normally aspirated, 300-hp Jaguar XK coupe.

Of course, the wild card in this discussion is the Bose electromagnetic active suspension system. A few years ago, I attended the press introduction for the system, and Dr. Amar Bose summarized his goal by drawing a line on a chalkboard. One end of the line represented the extreme sports car side of suspension tuning--ultimate control. The other end represented ultimate comfort. He then drew an arc connecting both sides of the spectrum, explaining that the Bose system's powerful active struts allow a vehicle to simultaneously provide better body control than any current sports car while providing a cushier ride than any luxury car--no compromise.

Thus, if it ever reaches production, a Bose-equipped car would score a perfect 100 on the Ezra scale, rendering the whole notion of a ride/ handling compromise obsolete. I mean, a perfect 100! You've got to admit, that's a pretty impressive number.

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