Dyer Consequences: Commuter Whiz

In our automotive imaginations, we like to pretend that every road winds through a magical traffic-free California canyon where there’s no speed limit and the terms “understeer” and “oversteer” are actually relevant. We cherish high-rpm horsepower and disparage front-wheel drive. We exalt the Lotus Exige as a paragon of virtue and scorn the Toyota Avalon as an affront to all that is righteous. And in that imaginary land where we always drive for the fun of it, this attitude would make sense. But the reality is that we rack up most of our mileage out of necessity. In the real world, we spend a lot of time commuting.

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Commuting is to driving what a prison meal is to dinner at elBulli—there’s a big difference between doing something because you want to and doing it because you have no other choice. I don’t care how great your car is: when you’re stuck in traffic, wearing a rut between your house and your job, the finest Bentley is but a gilded cage.

Commuting changes your priorities. Consider this scenario: You’ve got a one-hour daily commute, each way. You average 20 mph. Traffic is terrible, as are the roads themselves. In this situation, would you rather have an automatic-transmission Ford Focus with satellite radio and Sync . . . or a stick-shift Porsche Boxster Spyder with no radio or air-conditioning? Be honest.

The correct answer, of course, is neither. If you commute an hour each way, you need to build a robot who sits at your desk and chats with coworkers while you log in from home and prove that your physical attendance only clutters the office refrigerator. But if you must commute, you should acknowledge your unpleasant reality and select your weapon accordingly.

The awful truth is that everything that makes a car great on a racetrack will make it horrible in the daily grind, and vice versa. If there were a magazine called Commuter Car, the cover lines would scream, “Soft seats—where to find them!” and “High-profile tires that are quiet and last a long time!” I was thinking that the Boxster Spyder might be the worst commuter car, until I remembered the Gumpert Apollo, with its sequential-manual racing transmission, all-or-nothing power delivery, and outward visibility of an old-time dive helmet. My apologies for the tired reference, but is it possible that Charlie Sheen was commuting to the set in a Gumpert Apollo? Because that would explain a lot about his state of mind.

As a writer, I have to be careful not to get obsessed over perceived shortcomings that are important on the track but irrelevant in the real-world, traffic-snarled life of a given car. For instance, after driving a BMW 550i on GingerMan Raceway’s road course, my notes were filled with scathing comments about its open rear differential. The 550i uses the brakes to approximate a limited-slip rear end, but when you deactivate the traction control system, you lose your virtual Posi. So when you’re exiting a fast third-gear corner, the inside rear tire gets murdered by 400 hp, creating the most impressive one-wheel burnout this side of a Top Fuel unicycle.

Why, I asked, would BMW put an open diff in a car with 450 lb-ft of torque? Are its engineers insane? Don’t they know that people will drive these things on . . . the . . . on the track? And it dawned on me that nobody is ever going to drive a BMW 550i on a track. The M5, maybe, and that’ll be built for the job. But forming an opinion of the 550i based on its third-gear corner exits is like deciding that you don’t like dogs because they can’t fly hang gliders. And the most common gripe about the new 5-series—that it’s too refined—becomes an asset in the context of commuting, where the majority of 5-series use will occur.

The 550i might be one of the finest daily drivers on the market right now. It’s got massive torque, so it never seems to be working hard. The turbos mute the V-8, which cuts down on your behind-the-wheel fatigue. The ride is cosseting but precise. And you can get all manner of electronic helpers to make your life easier. Don’t strain your neck looking down at the gauges when you’ve got a perfectly good head-up display floating across the windshield.

If there’s a drawback to the 5-series, it is its price. And I believe that one objective for a commuter car is to cost you as little as possible, because commuting is more about minimizing the pain—including the financial kind—than maximizing the fun. Which brings me to Saab. As someone who used to spend ninety minutes a day behind the wheel of a Saab, I can tell you that the car had certain talents that couldn’t be measured with a stopwatch.

For one thing, consider Saab seats. Have you ever heard the expression, “As comfy as a Swede riding shotgun”? No, you haven’t, because I just made it up. But it’s the truth, I tell you. If you’re uncomfortable in a Saab bucket, you have your knees on backward. Four-cylinder Saabs, by dint of their turbochargers, have plenty of low-end torque, yet they get decent fuel economy. And, despite their ambitious sticker prices, you can lease a Saab for roughly the cost of a daily ham sandwich. (I’m only half-joking there—Saab is offering a lease on the 9-3 that works out to about $13 per day.) Think about it like that and a 9-3 starts to make sense. Wow, I think I just justified Saab’s business plan for the past twenty years.

Driving a car at least an hour every day can either endear it to you or cause you to develop irreconcilable differences, usually over some strange quirk that you didn’t notice in the showroom. I know a fellow whose daily drive revealed that you can’t overlap brake and throttle inputs in a Volkswagen Phaeton—the computer just cuts power to the engine. He likes to use his left foot in traffic, and that detail ruined the car for him. I think the Jaguar XJ is generally stunning, but the optional heated windshield makes me crazy: once you notice the filaments in the glass, you can’t un-notice them. And I don’t think I’d buy a car that forces you to push an “on” button for cruise control every time you start a trip. These are the details that really decide the winners in Commuter Car’s vaunted “It’s Not The Worst Place To Spend A Couple Hours A Day” awards.

In general, the most gadget-laden cars tend to be the ones that are best at the commuter slog—Infiniti’s Distance Control Assist is the best thing since the radio preset. While a lot of people bemoan the growing automation of the car, I’m all for it: Give me that Google self-driving car sooner rather than later, please. Let the car do the commuting, and I’ll be happy to do the driving.

Illustration: Tim Marrs

reparacion centralita
Commuting, traffic... the big problems of Athens where i am from. Well if you hace one car and you live in a town like Athens that you have to drive from 1:30 to 2:30 everyday ti go to work, the most important is to be calm in your car and that your car spends the minumum of gasoline. So the best is something like a Prius or ... i do not know... maybe a Smart or something like that. Because there is also the BIG problem of parking.. Maybe you need 1:30 hour to go your work and then you have to search 30 - 60 minutes more to find a parking. So if you have a 550 BMW... and you are using it like a Ford Fusion.. For what?? Just to spend more money? I would really like to drive a BMW M5 at a racing but.. if you are a simple every guy normal guy and you have to pay all your taxes(...especially now in Greece..) then PRIUS for ever.. The solution is go and live at the country side near a race road(pista..) . Greetings Alex
Michael Weiser
Harvey, I appreciate your well thought out reply. It seems to me the first folks who would give the Tango a try would be bicycle and motorcycle riders - peoople who have hands on experience knowing the advantages of narrow vehicles. In the same way people with wide cars have to suffer the terrible consequence of traffic jams because they drive poorly designed standard width cars with empty passenger sides, the drivers of narrow cars will have to take the good of not having to sit in the traffic jams with the less desirable quality of uneven road conditions. Regarding taking turns, the Tango did very well in the Consumer Reports lane change challenge during the Automotive X Prize contest. Check out this link of the inventor of the Tango Rick Woodbury giving a talk at Google Headquarters. At 6:25 in the video you can see a Tango taking turns at an autocross concourse. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GINWQ0QakV0&feature=related Regarding safety, again - like bicycle and motorcycle riders, the drivers of Tangos will have to take the good with the bad. The good is that it may maneuver even better than a motorcycle or bike because counter leaning isn't necessary. On the other hand, there is a unique risk associated with driving it based on its particular size and shape. I hope you don't mind me saying that regardless of what car you drive or bike you ride, it is best not to drive into a wall at 70 mph. I agree that the Tango wouldn't have to lane split to avoid overheating, but the Tango's driver would certainly prefer to lane split to avoid sitting in traffic. It would probably be more safe and comfortable to ride an ultra-wide Hummer that would be twice as wide as a current standard width car, but no one would allow it to be driven during commuting because it would block possible passing lanes. Tragically, that is, of course, exactly what is happening right now with standard width cars because their current width blocks possible passing lanes for bicycles, motorcycles, and narrow cars like the Tango. Like any vehicle, narrow cars aren't perfect, but they easily beat the current standard width cars with their extremely wasteful empty seat carting blocking possible passing lanes.
Harvey
That sounds all well and good, but there are a couple things that would have me avoiding that Tango. First off, normal lanes have worn in grooves from the heavier traffic like semi's and even normal cars. Anyone who has ridden a motorcycle will know what I'm talking about. Even my Toyota Echo catches that groove and gets shifted in a way similar to crosswinds. It's not fun-- most the time. Skinny tires (and mine are still wider than stock, with upgraded shocks) and low weight are part of the reason. Second, it may have a low center of gravity, but it still has an extremely thin track. I like taking corners, and somehow the Tango doesn't seem like it would do it with the gusto I like. Sure, it's a commuter machine, not meant for carving a canyon (when they are open-- it does happen Ezra), but the urban canyon can be fun, too. Lots of 90 degree corners daring to be caught-- especially with such a thin vehicle, you have a hole lane to play apex with. Third, it may be built like a brick house, but that's not going to compensate well for a person. There is little in the way of actual absorption. Crumple zones are minimal, so most the impact will still be transferred to my much-appreciated organs. A shining example of this concept, I'm sure you've seen Fifth Gear run a smart fortwo into a concrete barrier at 70mph. The car held up pretty darn well. The occupants wouldn't. Fourth, the reason the motorcycles can go down the lanes is because they are air cooled (even liquid cooled have a hard time staying out of the over-heating realm at stand still) and need to move in order to survive-- consider them like most sharks. Technically the electric Tango wouldn't need this cooling (albeit batteries and motors also get hot). It's a technicality that would have to be fought.
Vincent Lebel-Bournival
Great article. If only half the population could understand what makes a Saab a Saab like you do, they sure would not have these difficulties. Not considering GM in the equation... You just explain why I ride one.
Skeptical
Agree w/Andre. Gas bill would be sky high. And in 5 years, after the warranty runs out, you get into the heavy hitter maintenance issues...timing belt and water pump at 60k miles. Or you can buy yet another 550i for another 50/60k to avoid having to fix the "old" one. No thanks. A perfect commuter might be comfy and easy to drive, but w/the 550i, you're paying a lot more for all that extra luxury and power, which would mostly go unused at 20 mph. That kind of horrid commute would be rocked by a Prius or any gas/elec hybrid. Elec operation at low speeds, start/stop operation, driving distance, battery warrantied for 10 years. Done.
Michael Weiser
Thanks for your honest assessment about commuting. During our drives to work, it's the unused passenger sides of cars that are killing us. Like the wide suitcase that George Clooney's character destroys in a scene in "Up in the Air", it's time for us to convert our commuter cars from wide (side by side seating) to narrow (tandem). Sadly, 90% of all car trips are driven by people driving alone and 99% of all commuters have only one or two people in their car. It’s pathetic – all of this expense so we can drive wide cars that literally impede progress. There are two ways to keep ultra-narrow cars upright - ballasted and tilting. The Tango www.commutercars.com uses its power source, the battery, from tipping over. The Lumeneo Smera, built in France, uses tilting technology. The key to get these types of cars on the roads is to encourage lane splitting like motorcycles - currently legal in California and most countries in Europe and Asia. With support from public service announcements, road enforcement entities could draw middle congestion passing lanes that overlap the middle lanes of highways. Then, when congestion hits, drivers would be aware that narrow cars and motorcycles would pass them in the middle. Seeing people pass in the middle of the road would sell the cars. Advertisers sell cars to commuters using imaginary value now. Ultra-narrow cars would add actual value added - getting to one's job twice as fast. See deletetheseats.org for more.
Andre
Commuting an hour or more in traffic every day in a 550i would have one horrible consequence: your gas bill would probably be as much as, if not more than, your car payment.

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