I’m not sure which one is worse: the hyper-insane cult of the Nürburgring lap time, or the backlash against it. While it’s only healthy to be skeptical of every self-announced manufacturer ‘ring time, I’m all for track testing cars that aren’t meant to go on track if we’re serious about this “fun to drive” thing.
I blame James May for inciting this latest round of people automatically questioning why automakers flog cars above and beyond their expected use. One of his most memorable rants from his final years on Top Gear was questioning why no one builds a comfortable car anymore, and blaming the need for every manufacturer to test on the Nürburgring for all the performance-spec rock-hard suspensions on the market.
The lack of primarily comfort-oriented luxury cars is a valid rant, however, blaming it on track testing feels like May’s trying too hard to find a scapegoat.
We’ve also constantly arguing for run-of-the-mill transportation to suck less to drive. Automotive journalists are particularly notorious about this, having written off the entire midsize and crossover segments for years as being numb, marshmallowy and bland.
Automakers are finally fixing that, such that the last crossover I tested left me wondering if they had a Nürburgring time for it. While I know I’m feeding the equally egregious Cult of ‘Ring Time Fanboiz, there’s a practical reason as to why they’d take a big behemoth like an Acura MDX Sport Hybrid or the new Audi Q8 there. A track is where you can drive more aggressively and push the limits of a car without getting arrested or putting the general public in danger.
It’s these limits of performance we complain about the most, particularly with handling. [See note below.] The same reason the Chevrolet Corvair and older Porsche 911s became infamous—a tendency to lose control of the rear end at that limit—is the same type of handling surprise most automakers want to avoid on the off-chance that you have to whip Grandma’s Camry to the hospital.
As someone who used to be terrified by my family’s floppy, top-heavy old Ford Explorer, I’m glad to see big kid-haulers and trucks cornering aggressively on test tracks. The less of a rollover risk these are, the safer we’ll all be.
Feedback through the car’s steering and pedals is something you rely on a lot more when you’re trying to drive a big house of a car at speed, too. We’re finally getting more feedback tuned into electric steering systems after bemoaning the numbness of new cars for years. Don’t mess that up by saying comfort-oriented cars shouldn’t be on the ‘ring!
There’s also a strange part of me that loves seeing cars do what they’re not supposed to do. Things like sedans tackling off-road trails, autocrossing land yachts, and tow vehicles going out for a few laps on track are the kinds of hilarious spectacles we applaud when regular people do them.
Taking an SUV on the Nürburgring—even in test camo, like the Jaguar E-Pace above—tickles that mildly transgressive need to see cars getting used outside of their intended purpose. Routine track time then becomes a more difficult, less advised task with the so-called “wrong” car. I applaud it. Do this more often, and release the lap videos for my own personal amusement.
The problem isn’t using the Nürburgring to test—the problem may instead be the overemphasis of it, and the performance chops people associate with testing there. May is right about one thing: the big, comfy couch car like the Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight my family had when I was a kid isn’t as common of a thing anymore, and not everyone wants or needs a performance car. Maybe that’s the next big under-served market, but even those need to be whipped around at their limit somewhere to make sure they’re still good to drive. I think I know a place.
Update: According to our resident Nürburgring resident Robb Holland, manufacturers don’t actually tune handling based on the Nürburgring—it’s for driveline testing instead.
Contrary to May’s Top Gear rant (which I mistakenly assumed had researched a bit more thoroughly beforehand in writing this rant), if they set up handling based on the ‘ring, Robb says that it would be too soft and understeery for most real-world applications. It’s not exactly a smooth track.
Still, it’s reassuring to me to see big cars run around there at speed and (usually) not roll off into the trees. And lest we forget, the ability of a car to get out of its own way is also ultra-important in confirming that it doesn’t suck to drive.