Maybe you thought it was all about your driving ability. But think again.
From selecting the right rubber to understanding the telemetry data, there are many subtleties you need to master.
Great tires are the first influence on a car's performance. Whether you drive on smooth asphalt in Beverly Hills or rocky trails outside Malibu, there's a right choice to be made when selecting tires. And this applies in each season as well. Summer tires are grippy but don't like rain or snow. All-season tires are the typical compromise, but winter tires have more bite. Racing slicks are for track day. It could lead to a full rack of tires in the garage—the sign of a canny car enthusiast.
Bucket seats, an innovative feature more than 50 years ago, signifiws the personalization of mass-market cars. The front bench was on its way out. But for high-performance driving, the bucket seat needed some refinement: additional bolstering, wider lateral supports, better-integrated harnesses and head restraint. The best seats today have all of the above. Additionally, suede inserts will hold you in place during hard cornering. And internal heating and ventilation ensure your comfort, which is essential in long-distance and high-performance driving.
Large-diameter, wood-rimmed steering wheels used to be de rigueur in sports cars, but factors such as crash standards and quicker steering ratios have dictated today's smaller, thicker wheels. These are carefully sculpted, with notches for your thumbs and well-integrated secondary controls. Often, the wheel isn't entirely round: a flat-bottom indicates performance intent. Leather or Alcantara wrapping adds both functionality and a premium aspect. The stitching needs to be just right, though. And try to avoid heat-absorbing, metallic trim strips over the circumference.
Once upon a time, the driver was attached to the car's powertrain and chassis by three pedals, a steering wheel, and a gear lever. Today, electronic control units do lots of mediation. That "mode" button on the dashboard lets you change powertrain and chassis characteristics. And it's instantaneous. Climbing in elevation can bring you into snowy conditions, so choosing the winter mode ensures just the right torque output and traction sensitivity. At the other end of the spectrum is track mode for taut, eager responses. Don't hesitate to push that button!
Fingertip control—we seek it in the kitchen and the workplace. Paddle shifters bring fingertip control into the car. Sporty models, along with an increasing number of mainstream ones, give you manual control of the transmission with these blades that are half-hidden behind the steering wheel. Pull the one on the right, and you upshift. Downshifting is controlled with the left one. It's a great feature, letting you enjoy maximum driving performance, not to mention staying more involved.
In aviation, they speak of all-glass cockpits, meaning electronic displays have replaced mechanical instrumentation. In cars, a thin-film-transistor (TFT) instrument display is a wondrous thing that augments, or entirely dispenses with, old-style gauges. And the beauty of it is, the display changes with your choice of driving mode. There's even the opportunity of customizing your display with the preferred choice of map, road data, vehicle status, and more. Originally a high-end exclusive, TFT screens are now moving to mid-market vehicles. And old-fashioned instruments are moving to collector's cases.
As all-wheel drive systems are increasingly flexible and efficient, their popularity increases. Shifting the powertrain's torque flow from wheel to wheel has advantages on low-friction surfaces, for sure, but it's true even when taking corners on dry pavement. But without adding the complexity and cost of AWD, some cars have torque vectoring systems, software that reads throttle input and steering angle, then may reduce torque as a way of ensuring good traction. Bad conditions make vectoring pay off big, no matter your driving ability.
Is a fox standing in the road just beyond that next corner? The age-old inclination to see where you're turning has led to many newfangled devices, but until recently they haven't been widely adopted. Advances in sensor technology have allowed the use of directional headlamps. Sensing the vehicle's turn, they pivot and throw their light around the corner. Another approach is the integration of an extra light source, most likely a compact LED element, within each front lighting cluster. This beam, which aims away at an angle, lights up as the wheels turn. Foxes can breathe easier.
How is your track session going? Are you learning the course and clocking faster laps? Increasingly popular as offerings from performance-car manufacturers, smartphone apps report the details. A special control unit on the car acquires and shares the data. The most sophisticated app gives a live display of lap times, combines with GPS coordinates to visualize the driving line, and overwhelms you with statistics, from weather data to steering angle. And yes, of course there's video as well.
The question was always, "How fast did you go?" The answer was often, "I don't know—I couldn't look down." A head-up display addresses that shortcoming, projecting pertinent data two meters ahead in a height-adjustable "eyebox." And HUDs are good for more than road speed information. Full color numerals and symbols relate speed limit, navigation symbols, driver-assistance information, and infotainment lists. Even traffic signs appear. Checking the HUD takes about half the time as compared to looking at the instrument panel, and it's engaging in a whole different way.