“It’s better to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow,” they always say. As long as I’ve been into cars, which is, oh, 35 years now, I’ve heard that statement. For the record I also agree with it.
But why? Because the fun of driving isn’t found as much in going fast as it is revving out an engine over and over while you row through the gears. When you’re revving, you always get the sensation of speed. It’s a win-win.
Revving is the key. Internal combustion engines, which mankind was fortunate to have developed before more pedestrian forms of propulsion, have the charming properties of making more noise and more power as they rev, or increase revolutions. Nowadays revving is commonplace, but if you consider automotive history without it, for example if we had perfected batteries first, cars would still have been be a wonder, but perhaps less of an emotional one. You see, an internal combustion engine has sound. The sound of a revving gasoline engine is an angry wail or roar that screams its pleasure until it threatens to tear itself apart, that’s when we shift and begin it over again, all while increasing vehicle speed, and giving us a sense of ever-increasing thrill.
The magic isn’t in the overall acceleration, because while it can be very thrilling by itself, the fun’s spoiled by speed limits that become a big party pooper. On a freeway acceleration ramp, where a car might increase its speed from a mere crawl to a decent clip, say 70 MPH, a slow car may need to shift two, three, or more times, and each time revving to redline, to quickly reach such a speed. Yet a fast car, with more power and higher gearing, might only require one shift to reach speed, a process which is over sooner and abruptly ruined by speed limits. You get to hear and feel that powerful engine scream its way to redline once. That’s it. In fact, it might never happen again during the entire drive. And if you do channel the id of the slower car and rev out the powerful engine through several gears, you might find yourself headed to jail rather than to traffic school.
There are exceptions of course, and we should discuss them. The biggest one involves racetracks, where the rule goes straight out the window. On a racetrack there are no speed limits and therefore both slow and fast cars, as far as revving is concerned, are equal in that measure; you can gleefully accelerate as you wish. But the fast car also offers greater g-forces than the slow car — the sensation of speed you get when flying forward at an increasing rate and you’re pushed back into your seat — and therefore can be even more fun.
Another exception is aggressive cornering or carving. So far we’ve only examined straight line acceleration, and unless you live on the plains or in mountain valleys, corners do happen. Cornering is mostly about personal taste as far as fun goes. Some like to take corners very fast but with solid grip, while others like to have a little less grip and slip around somewhat, all of which involves variables of speed and adhesion that can be infinitely adjusted. Both fast and slow cars can therefore be equally fun in corners and so, on a curvy road, fast cars really can be of equal fun. Of course, all this breaks down if a fast car has such high levels of grip that it becomes boring to drive anywhere near the speed limit, or if a slow car is too slow to reach enjoyable speeds in the corners regardless of speed limit. Again, these involve variables which can be infinitely adjusted.
The last exception deals with electrification. It’s likely that all the cars we drive will be electrified and the internal combustion engine will be dead. This will make the planet less susceptible to global warming (if you believe such things) and the air less smoggy (which everyone believes), both of which are good things. Our energy will also be cheaper because we’ll be using it more efficiently, which also is good. Good, good, good. Yet the thrill of revving will be lost and when the internal combustion engine dies and I will mourn it.
The fun won’t die completely, of course. Most of our cars in America are already automatically shifted, so the change to single gear cars won’t be so different, and it probably will be better. Electric cars now accelerate quite quickly, although they can’t repeat the acceleration trick more than a few times or you might not get home after wowing your friends. But batteries will get better and electric motors will too, and one day the mind blowing electric acceleration will be all-day repeatable.
There’s also airplanes to look to. Airliner jet engines, while fuel driven, spool up and hold redline during takeoff and the plane accelerates like it’s being pulled forward at the end of a great silver cable, all without shifting gears. I’ve said all my life, even after countless flights, that takeoff never ceases to thrill me. Airliner acceleration isn’t unlike electric acceleration in a car, when you think about it. Constant (not increasing) acceleration, no gear shifting, and a powerful force pushing you back into the seat all combine to create fun, just not the sort you get with an internal combustion car.
All things considered, when looking to the future, will driving a slow electric car be more fun than driving a fast electric car? I would say no. The rule applies only to internal combustion cars that rev through gears. Without gearing it’s not more fun to go slow because in electric cars g-forces generate all the fun, not sound or revs or the sensations they generate. With electric cars, being fast is the only fun.
All of this may soon become moot because autonomous cars will complete the automotive march to full appliancehood. Yet I’ll be soaking up the fun offered by my underpowered internal combustion cars until the very last possible day.