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How to Define Handling:
Two Contrasting Approaches

December 28, 2011 by Matt

Wheel Suspension Forces Loads Drawing Schematic Diagram

I know that more than anything else, Motor Trend‘s post is kind of an end-of-year throwaway stat compilation. And the editorial staff certainly has enough sense to grasp that qualifying a car’s handling is more than about just the raw numbers. Still, the contrast in criteria between MT‘s “10 Best Handling Cars of 2011” and Car and Driver‘s recent duo of “Best Handling Car in America for Less than $100K” and then “…Less than $40K” is instructive.

In generating their respective assessments, MT relied solely on raw skidpad and track numbers, while C&D, although they used track time as a “tool” in their comparo, treated the numbers as a smaller part of a bigger picture, with additional metrics like steering response, body control and chassis composure factored into their evaluation. In contrast to MT‘s quick-and-dirty establishment of a benchmark for internet racers to bicker over, C&D set themselves the more ambitious goal of trying to qualify the un-quantifiable, of trying to methodically communicate something that’s primarily sensed by the driver, and oftentimes can have far more of an impact on how a car handles than raw capability. Case in point: Anyone who’s ever attended a track day or HPDE will tell you stories of many cars that were slower on paper actually driven faster around the track than more high-caliber racers, simply because the slower cars were more communicative and benign in their subjective feedback to the driver.

The finishing positions of the Corvette Z06 in both the MT and C&D articles provide an extreme example of the exclusivity of objective and subjective handling. According to the numbers, the car is supremely capable, ranking first in MT‘s assessment, but in terms of driver feedback and response, it leaves a lot to be desired, and it comes in sixth out of seventh in the C&D article.

The takeaway from all this is something forum junkies and car buffs in general need to bear in mind when flaunting track times, 1/4 mile trap speeds and braking numbers in online discussions: Your automotive hero may be the performance be-all end-all under the right circumstances, but figures alone don’t seal the deal. No one can prove one car is better than another by simply matching up the data—it’s how a car feels, how it responds, if it makes you smile and feel confident behind the wheel whether it has 90 or 573 hp. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the ability of the car to connect with its driver that separates the truly great from the pretenders, and ensures those that excel in that capacity a loyal following.

Filed under: Media, Miscellaneous, News, Technical


  1. John D says:

    This kind of difference in approach is primarily why I subscribe to C&D over MT or other comparable auto mags. Anyone can take statistics and compare them against each other, but that really has nothing to do with how a car drives…or even, ultimately, how capable it is. Statistics can vary greatly depending on surface conditions, weather, climate, time of day, fuel and tires used, etc. Even matching up ‘stock’ numbers isn’t always accurate as one car may come with horrible all weather and undersized rubber while the other is equipped with an optimal combination of wheel diameter, cross section, and rubber compound. It is also not uncommon for the same magazine to test the exact same model outfitted with the exact same options and equipment and come up with a very different number. And when it comes to track driving, the car with the superior skidpad numbers, have higher hp, etc, may look superior on paper, but can very well be slower on the track because of a difference in power delivery or inferior behavior when approaching those statistically higher limits of grip, causing the average driver to hesitate and back off when approaching those limits.

    As difficult as it is to communicate or quantify the driver’s experience for different cars, I think C&D does a creditable job. Yes, they do tend to be biased and opinionated sometimes, but isn’t anyone who has a passion for driving? And it’s not as if they are just judging these cars on a whim as the amount of data they do collect is impressive (quantifying slip angles, steering accuracy and progressive response, etc). But as we’ve established, data alone does not tell the whole story and they are good about noting their perceived discrepancies between the numbers and the driving experience and, conversely, pointing out when the subjective experience matches up to the data collected.

    It is a fairly main stream publication, but I feel it keeps me up to date on the current automotive world while putting an emphasis on the performance oriented vehicles in which I am most interested. If I want statistics alone I could look them up anywhere on the internet and save my ~$15/yr. I subscribe to C&D because they are not afraid to give you both the data as well as their honest driver’s opinion.

    Now if you could just forward this to the C&D marketing dept, I will be happy to collect my referral fees. ;)

    • Matt says:

      Totally agree about C&D. I have a subscription as well, and like their balance of opinion, news and substantive reviews. The writing is a lot sharper than in the other two members of the “Big 3” as well (Road & Track and Motor Trend), which really appeals. As I stated in the article, there’s no way the editorial staff of any of the Big 3 really think a car’s essence can be arrived using numbers alone; it was just interesting to see MT toss out that little statistical hand grenade. :)

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