Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Compromised Position

I took SS3.5 to see the F1 cars testing at Silverstone last month.

I'd arranged a '24hr' test drive for the day; a Carrera C4S Cabriolet.

My first drive-down-the-road impressions were of the obvious weight of the thing felt through the controls and the bump crushing ride, but 30seconds of electric roof lowering later and we were cruising north towards the M40 in the sunshine, while SS3.5 fiddled with the SatNav and stereo controls. I’m not sure what Porsche’s ergonomics experts think, but being 10 years old clearly helps with the more complex system interfaces.

‘Our’ car had a delete badge option, and it took me a while to be convinced the full 350bhp were present and correct. I guess that’s the effect of 1600kgs on 3.8 of Stuttgart’s finest litres. But what it lacked in grunt it made up for in noise - the baritone howl from the engine at 7000rpm was glorious and the lack of a soundproofed metal roof meant you really were in the front row of the auditorium. However it only took the first bit of good old English tarmac to reveal that chopping the roof off had noticeably reduced the strength of the body shell - the tremors could be easily felt through the wheel as well as the seat.

At least on the motorway the site of a fast moving Carrera in rear view mirrors was persuasive, so we made good progress up the M40 and along the dual carriageway A43 towards Silverstone, enjoying the acoustics of a quick 3rd gear blast after each roundabout. A further compromise became quickly apparent on the motorway; the (very effective) wind blocker sits immediately behind the front seats but makes the rears unusable. So that’s 2 seats only then (much like a Boxster…)...

We could hear the sound of screaming race engines long before parking up, and headed towards the nearest section of track from the parking area. It was the turn in point for Bridge corner and the first cars past were Hamilton, then Raikkonen, flying through the right hander without a lift, the aero grip available manifest even to a casual trackside spectator. In fact its now a flat corner in any old F1 car (at least in the dry) as the preceding high speed Abbey curve I remember from old is now a slow fiddly chicane called Farm.

The next 4 hours we spent walking around the section of circuit open to us from Club to Luffield, watching the different lines the drivers used. Apart from Bridge and the fast section on the far side of the circuit, the corners are mostly slow, so dragster-like acceleration out of one is followed by the staccato rip of downchanges, then a slow apex before dragging off to the next. It can’t be a great drive in a F1 car; it wasn’t that brilliant on my old 968CS either.

The Ferraris and McLarens were visually faster that the others but we also saw Williams, Force India, Red Bull, BMW and Torro Rosso - pretty much the whole field then!

It’s clearly an opportunity to see the F1 heroes without the expense and hassle of the GP so was a real family affair. SS3.5 and I weren’t the only father and son combo bunking off a day’s work/school, but unlike some I’d draw the line at bringing the wife and baby.

The noise of the current cars is like a physical force, that threatens long-term damage to tender ears – and leaves old ones temporarily ringing. But it is curiously non-mechanical, somewhere between the shriek of an electric motor and the scream of a fast jet’s engine. SS3.5 reported the ear 'fenders I’d got for him (pukka Peltor, Screwfix:£9.95) worked well, while I relied on some old ear plugs left over from my biking days. He also spent some time behind the view finder of his video camera at each viewing spot so we have a recording of the day for posterity.

And the pride of old age was upheld when I whupped the over-confident youngster on the giant slot car circuit, setting FTD in the process!

We left at around 4 in the afternoon. At first it was roof up for the dualed trunk-road sections, revealing another downside of the soft top; wind and road noise at speed is considerably increased even at sensible UK motorway speeds. Then it was roof back down for the last section, heading home across the south downs in the late afternoon mid-summer sun, a stretch and which included a section of one the last great driving roads in the South. And there our fat, flexible friend really did its thang, blasting past slower traffic in third with a switch of throttle and a blare of exhaust.

We did nip out with SS2.0 in the back when we got home; he fitted in the rear seat behind SS3.5 without problems; and would probably do so for another 2 or 3 years. In fact SS2.0 thought it was "awesome", but he's 4.....

Next day it rained. The run up the A3 back to Guildford was uneventful, a shiney, tightening, on-slip showed the car would understeer before the ASC gathered it all up again.

So, very nice, but just not my bag I’m afraid. As a sports-coupe, the Cab’s compromises, weight, noise and lack of strength, move it too far from Porsche’s sweet spot and squarely into the Mercedes’ SL’s. And it was really difficult to see any value over a £40k Boxster 'S'.

Talking of price; I asked the list price of ‘our’ C4S cabriolet. The answer? Eighty four big ones; or 2x Boxster S's or 1x GT3. At that price it made no sense at all; maybe a £25k 996 cab for weekend cruising would find a place in the SS7 garage but not as a Daily Driver; its a Porsche for Californians.

But a quick look around the showroom and read of the launch material of the '09 cars, and it seems a white 997/2 coupe, with the ‘little’ 325bhp 3.6l engine, small wheels and PASM/S_C would be interesting; and my salesman friend’s going to call me when he gets one in….


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