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Performance doesn’t matter anymore, it’s all about the feel

We’ve just had a week of supercars and high-end EVs revealed. Many of them boast outrageous performance specs. There were multiple vehicles with horsepower in the four-figure range, and not just sports cars, but SUVs with 0-60 mph times under 3.5 seconds. And it’s not just a rarified set of supercar builders, comparatively small tuners are also building this stuff. Going fast is easy nowadays and getting easier. So what will distinguish the greats from the wannabes? It’s all about how a car feels.

This may seem obvious. “Of course it matters that a car should have good steering feel and a playful chassis!” you say. “Why are you being paid for this stuff?” But a lot of automakers have missed the memo. This past week I spent some time in a BMW M4 Competition convertible, and it’s a perfect example of prioritizing performance over experience. It boggles my mind how a company can create such dead and disconnected steering; the weight never changes, there’s no feel whatsoever. The chassis is inflappable, but to a fault, because it doesn’t feel like anything you’re doing is difficult or exciting. The car is astoundingly fast and capable, but it feels less like driving a car and more like tapping in a heading on the Enterprise-D.

I also happened to drive something of comparable performance that was much more enjoyable: a Mercedes-AMG GT. It was a basic model with the Stealth Edition blackout package, and even though it had a twin-turbo V8 instead of a six-cylinder, it only made 20 more horsepower. The power wasn’t the big differentiator, it was (say it with me) the feel. While not the best example, the steering builds resistance as you dial in lock, giving you a better idea of what’s happening up front. Pulses and vibrations come back to you as you move over bumpy pavement in corners. The chassis isn’t quite as buttoned down, either, providing a little bit of body roll that tells you you’re pushing it. It’s also easier to feel when the car is wanting to understeer or oversteer, and how your throttle and steering inputs are affecting it. The whole thing is much more involving, exciting and fun.

That’s also to say nothing of the Merc’s sounds. That V8 is maybe not the best sounding engine, but its urgent churn through the opened-up exhaust gets your heart racing. It also seems like it’s vibrating the whole cabin, so you feel it as much as you hear it. Though the BMW’s six is also a special sounding unit, too with a melodious howl and a smattering of pops on shifts. So BMW isn’t a total lost cause.

But I digress. The point is, given two cars with similar performance, one is more entertaining. It’s the one car enthusiasts will want to come away with, and as an added benefit, a car with a fun feel is enjoyable even when it’s not being driven at full force. The Mercedes was more entertaining even on public roads when following traffic laws. Many of these new hypercars and electric cars are offering performance that can’t even be used most of the time. But if they’re not fun the whole time, what’s the point?

Thankfully, people in the industry are figuring this out. I spoke with Lamborghini Chief Technical Officer Rouven Mohr about the newly revealed Lamborghini Urus Performante. While the faster Urus seemed to be another vehicle that’s about the numbers, Mohr explained that wasn’t the goal. Many of the decisions about the SUV’s upgrades were to make it more fun and more like a sports car. The engineers went to steel springs instead of air for more response and linear, controllable reactions. The Rally drive mode isn’t so much for speed, but for tail-happy shenanigans on loose surfaces. He said a focus on feel and experience is what the company is working on, about making cars that have “good feedback and emotional involvement.” Mohr said a car like the Huracan STO is popular because it “makes you feel like a hero.” I think he nailed it.

Other reveals this past week show a renewed focus on involvement. The Dodge Charger Daytona EV is more than just another fast electric car concept. Attention was given to the experience, with a piped exhaust to make noise under acceleration. It even has a multi-speed transmission, not for efficiency or performance, but to deliver the feeling of gas-powered muscle cars that Challenger and Charger owners clearly love.

Speaking of transmissions, take a look at the Koenigsegg CC850. It turned its hyper-advanced nine-speed automatic transmission into a gated manual transmission — with a functioning clutch pedal. Partly it’s a tribute to the CC8S, but it’s also to provide extra engagement. Koenigsegg even fitted smaller turbos that produce less power to optimize manual driving feel. This is good to hear from a company that just launched yet another four-figure horsepower supercar.

So the future is actually looking fairly bright, with big names in the car industry recognizing that the quest for more raw performance is less important than the driving experience. This is just a request for other manufacturers to follow suit. Cars aren’t all about the numbers.

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