Why the infamous cornering shot isn’t just pointless showing off
Will cut his teeth as a designer on Evo magazine, before slinging a U-ey and writing for them instead. So if it has four wheels and an engine then there's a chance he's drifted it in front of a camera, driven it incredibly hard and then written about it. When he's not writing he's can be found fettling his 1971 BMW 2002 and trying to stop Wagtails defecating on his old Range Rover.
I didn’t think the cornering shot – a staple of magazine road tests and features – needed defending. I mean, look at a good one, one where the car is lent over at the apex and just oversteering slightly, maybe there’s even a wheel in the air. Or perhaps the car’s on track and there’s smoke billowing from the rear tyres as the inside front wheel is riding the kerb.
They look incredible, far better than if all the tyres were fully in contact and gripping the tarmac, that's for sure.
But the poor old cornering shot is often derided at pointless showing off: a yob’s game and not representative of 'real world' driving. Well – and this might be because I do love a cornering shot and being able to make a car look exciting for photos has served me well over the years – I think there’s an argument for it being an important part of analysing a car. Maybe not a definitive element when deciding on a final verdict, but still a worthy addition to a test.
You see, what’s required from a car to procure those spectacular photos are the sort of attributes you would want when driving at any time, not just when showing off in front of a camera.
You need a car to be approachable and have the sort of forgiving handling traits that inspire the confidence to drive it beyond the tyres’ grip. You also need it to be controllable and accurate when it’s under that sort of duress so that you can keep it within the narrow space between the white line and the verge. Or, as best as you can.
So why bother with any other part of a road test if punting a car through a corner at the giddy limit tells you everything you need to know?
Well, it could be a case that a car has all those qualities, but perhaps doesn’t have the abundance of power or relaxed enough safety systems to allow for any juvenile hoonery. Take the Mk7 VW Golf GTI, a car that doesn’t like to oversteer and, unless there’s a perfectly placed bump in the road, can’t be persuaded to lift a rear wheel. Yet, not looking all that theatrical in photos doesn’t detract from it being a lovely, well-balanced, fast and enjoyable car.
There’s another test that the usual cornering shot procedure creates, and it’s one that’s very useful in assessing modern cars. The need to pass around the same corner a multitude of times so that the car is in the right position on the road, the photographer has found the best composition and the shot is sharp, on the face of it, seems a contrived and artificial test, but it’s actually quite illuminating.
Repeatedly driving around a corner, trying to achieve the same result might sound close to the definition of insanity, but it allows you to determine whether a car behaves consistently.
Does the ever-changing distribution of torque from electronic limited-slip differentials and ‘intelligent’ four-wheel drive systems make the car feel completely different from one attempt at a perfectly executed skid to the next? Does the traction and stability control (if it can't be fully turned off) interfere at different times?
Some cars change significantly, the electronics lock the car down and make your second attempt at a wild shot rather dull. Some are more sophisticated and introduce stricter limits more gradually, while others – my favourite – learn that you’ve got everything fully under control and the car doesn’t need to change its tact.
To ascertain just how a complicated modern car might behave, there is no better way of finding out than driving around the same corner over and over again. And if it’s going to look good, it’d be a shame for no one to document it with a camera.