Shades of 2016
Seeking the year's most illuminating automotive moment
2016 has definitely had wheels on. I've driven no end of interesting cars all over the world, ridden motorcycles, dabbled further in electric motoring, built a bicycle from bits, and bought a lawn-mower (the roller of which counts). I even won a wheelbarrow in a summer fete raffle. It's the only prize I've ever won, but at least it, too, has a wheel on it.
It's that cheesy time when we look back on the highlights, and there are many. The Honda NSX definitely gave me the biggest fizz; a lovely thing in its own right, and one of the most deeply relevant supercars in years. I also wrestled manfully with the controls of a Ferrari P3/4 and a Ford GT40, in abject terror, to be honest, but largely because of the value of the things. The Ferrari TheFerrari was obviously magical, and I loved the detached serenity of the Rolls-Royce Dawn, which even Richard Hammond in his Christmas Cracker novelty Dodge Hellcat couldn't completely ruin.
But one of the most memorable drives of 2016 came right at the start of the year; memorable because it revealed a shortcoming in me. And I'm afraid it was in a 1.0-litre Suzuki Celerio. My 140-character Twitter road test of the time said 'Surprisingly thrashable with amusing engine and low costs, let down by dreary interior door panels'. I was right. The interior door panels on the Celerio are really low rent. But let's look into this a bit further.
If this were a baby, the midwife would slap its face.
Now I don't want to revisit that tiresome old chestnut about how small and underpowered cars are more fun more of the time, simply because you have to work them harder and understand their limits more completely than you do those of an excessively endowed road rocket. There, I've just done it. So let's move on.
The route was one I take regularly. Just under 100 miles, and a mixture of town, motorway, sweeping A-road and, at the end, 12 miles of winding country lanes two peasants wide, with bends badly engineered in the middle ages, blind crests, stray dinosaurs, all that sort of stuff. It's a great test route for any car, but it's that last bit that is perhaps most revealing. This is where my 458 is slow, and a car like the Celerio sets records. Of the Celerio, What Car magazine says 'The performance is better suited to town driving'. Bollocks it is.
In fact, the Celerio made an interesting comparison with the May household's general-purpose biffabout, a Fiat Panda Pop. It was all about engines. Japan gives us a 1.0-litre three-pot, Italy a 1.2-litre four. Peak power, I happened to know, was about the same for both, and neck-snapping at that. A tad under 70bhp.
The country horse, better to look at than to drive. Celerio is quite the opposite.
But torque delivery was the real issue, as it generally is. Logic says that, other things being equal, the three-cylinder would produce a bit more a bit lower down, whereas the four would be more willing to rev. And so it seemed. At certain well-worn parts of my test route - for example, a bit where you round a tight, off-camber right hander and are then confronted with a steep climb - the Suzuki seemed to ace it, ever so slightly. We're talking about marginal differences here, but real connectivity in a car is about the resolution of the dynamic information being downloaded to your sensory receptors. Small, simple cars are very well connected. I could feel the difference. The Japanese motor would hunker down like a weightlifter at the absolute limit of his lifting power, and throb a bit.
No need to look up the figures for this stuff. Everything you need to know is in your bones. I often think I can sense this stuff in my kneecaps, for some reason. The Fiat could be wrung out a bit more and seemed to enjoy it, but the Suzook had a smidge more grunt in its bowels. It would all be to do with stroke length, crank angles, and other stuff inherent in the two engines' basic configuration; three pots versus four pots. Again, there's no need to get bogged down in it. Your very viscera knows it, instinctively.
Well. It just goes to show, once again, that driving, like music, is a performative experience. It's about sensations and perception, not absolutes. Out of interest, I looked up the official figures, and they are thus: Suzuki, 66lb ft at 3500rpm; Fiat, 75lb ft at 3000rpm. I know the Panda is a heavier car, and that has a huge bearing on all this, but I was still convinced of the Suzuki's superior low-range torque.
So there you go. Lesson learned. My butt-cheek dynamometer is rubbish.