Saturday, January 18, 2020

Engine Sound and Cars for Enthusiasts

We all have different needs and opinions about many things in life.  Even among car enthusiasts we have many different things we like about them.  If you narrow down the car enthusiasts to a specific brand and type of car, you still have significant diversity in what people want from the car.  Owners of the same car model still have this diversity.  Some enjoy detailing their car and showing it.  Some like a fall drive down a twisty road.  Some like driving full out on the track.  Even within one of those more narrow groups we still have many differing opinions about priorities.

One thing that can come from the Porsche 718 Boxster/Cayman flat 4 engine experiment is Porsche found out what a priority engine characteristics are over performance.  This also happened with the PDK only GT3 years ago.  While in both cases Porsche made a car that outperformed it's predecessor, many fans were unhappy.  If you just look at the performance numbers, the cars were better so what was missing?  The term "experience" may get overused these days but that is what this comes down to.  Even for the track crowd (which I am part of) the cars soul really matters.  While lap time is the measure of driving skill there is much more you get from track time that making the quickest laps.  It is the experience from the drivers seat.  The driver and car become one.  If you have never driven full-out on a road course it is hard to understand.  When you are there though, it is the very definition of living.  Your heart rate goes to an aerobic pace.  The adrenaline kicks in.  The feel and response of all the drivers inputs to and feedback from the car are critical to this experience.  The feel of the g-force as you and the car accelerate, brake, and corner give the driver the information needed to make time critical decisions that optimize lap time.  When you get it right it is very rewarding.  You may not think the engine sound should be very important to this experience but it actually is.

Take a listen to the GT3 RS in this video (starting just after the 4 minute mark).  Also notice the comments of the driver and instructor.

Porsche now makes electric cars.  By the way, I am a fan of electric cars.  I love the direct response to throttle command.  I love the fact there is no shifting interrupting the power delivery.  It is by far the best way to make a commuter car.  I would like to have one for my daily commuting.  No more gas stations, oil changes, spark plugs, filters, belts, etc.  Far less, almost no maintenance really.  One pedal driving significantly reduces most brake wear. No cold engine operation.  It can warm up or cool off the interior while its sitting in the garage.  More luggage space.  However, when it comes to a track car I don't want all-electric.  The Porsche 718 is supposed to get an all-electric version in the future.  I may actually want one as a commuter car but it will stay home when I go to the track.  I want the flat 6 engine for that.  The electric 718 would probably put down quicker lap times, but still I want the flat 6.  It may seem odd for a logical engineer such as myself to say these things but even us logical engineers have things we are passionate about that defy pure logic.

Daniel Pink wrote a book called Drive that gives insight into human behavior.
This starts to explain some of this behavior of why we do some irrational things.  He describes three key elements of human satisfaction: purpose; autonomy; and mastery.  This passion that drives High Performance Drivers Education (HPDE or track day) participants is here in these elements.  I think the strongest correlation is with the mastery element.  Mastery is the desire to be good at something.  This is "practice makes perfect" that we have all heard.  It's our desire to achieve perfect and the thrill that comes with it.  So, what does engine sound have to do with this?  That sound, and the non-linear, high RPM power-band of a high performance naturally aspirated engine, give an extra element of feedback and challenge to achieving mastery.  Even more, the same is true for the PDK versus manual with a clutch pedal.  Mastering these extra challenges are part of achieving greater mastery.  If it was easy, the challenge would be gone and mastering it would mean nothing.  I actually like the PDK but I certainly understand those who prefer a clutch pedal.

There is something more to the sound of a great engine though.  It is certainly a much wider crowd than just track people who love the sound of a great engine.  To a real enthusiast it is better than music, or maybe a form of music.  The sound of a great engine is very hard to replicate with audio equipment since you feel it as much as you hear it.  Also, from the drivers perspective it is synchronized with acceleration which is a big part of this experience.  Even the experience between driver and passenger in the same car at the same time is quite different because of this.  I actually was not a huge fan of the sound of a Porsche flat 6 until I drove one.  From inside the car it is quite different.  Driving it is even better.  If you never had that experience, the flat 4 718 would be great.  But those of us that have experienced a Porsche flat 6 at full throttle redline know what I am taking about and that is missing in the flat 4.  I actually love the combination of induction and exhaust sound.  In fact, full throttle induction sound is even sweeter than exhaust sound in my opinion.  Put them together and it is blissful. 

Other manufacturers are understanding the importance of engine sound.  One great example is the Aston Martin Valkyrie.  Check it out on the dyno.

They could have easily turbocharged a V8 to get this performance but instead they went a much harder route of building a naturally aspirated V12 with a very high redline.  Obviously this car is not just about quick lap times but rather driver engagement.  Another is the Shelby GT350 with the Ford Voodoo engine.  The list is starting to grow.

I think the future of performance drivers cars will be more hybrids.  Porsche made the 918, Ferrari made the LaFerrari, and McLaren made the P1 years ago showcasing what street performance hybrids can do.  The Valkyrie is also hybrid, as are many other performance cars.  Now Vonnen has made a hybrid conversion for many Porsche models.  These are very different hybrids than the economy focused ones.  These use hybrid drive that is focused on performance.  The batteries are small so as not to increase the weight.  Just enough battery to add the extra power when you need it, and where you need it.  The hybrid drive augments a high-revving often naturally aspirated performance engine very nicely filling in power down low where these engines lack it.  Yet you still get all the sound and engine characteristics you like, just with more power.  Formula 1 went hybrid (KERS) back in 2009.  Most of the top Le Mans race cars have also been hybrid, such as the Porsche 919.

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