The goldilocks zone of driving a slow car fast

by Antony Ingram
7 June 2022 3 min read
The goldilocks zone of driving a slow car fast
Photo: Antony Ingram

It’s been a busy few months behind the wheel of your author’s Peugeot 106 Rallye. First was a nine-day trip to France, exercising an aversion to droning motorways and a predilection for the twistiest, most topography-hugging asphalt that southern France has to offer.

Then came the Hagerty Hillclimb; a thousand yards of engine-bursting incline with a couple of pucker-inducing turns thrown in for good measure, negotiated as quickly as a set of 175-section tyres and an eight-valve 1.6 will allow.

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Both environments were pudding proof that you absolutely do not need huge performance in order to enjoy spirited driving, and that in many cases huge performance is an active compromise.

The point was further driven home by m’American colleague Jason Cammisa on a recent episode of his Carmudgeon Show podcast, in which he profusely (and profanely) extolled the virtues of driving a slower car to its limits, but crucially, on roads which keep outright speed to a safe and manageable level.

It’s pure common sense, isn’t it? If you enjoy driving, and enjoy the feeling of pushing a car and exploring its cornering behaviour, better to choose both a car and a road that let you do that without reaching illegal, and potentially dangerous speeds.

1998 MGF 1.8 VVC driving
Photo: Jayson Fong

Cammisa sums it up by referencing an incident he had in his youth which, at 100mph, could have been life-changing. Yet on a recent rally with friends, he notes that he had the time of his life, and more than 600 miles of hard driving, without even touching the top of third gear.

Those roads in France, and indeed the hill at Shelsley Walsh, weren’t dissimilar to Cammisa’s hunting ground. I hit an indicated 70mph across the line at Shelsley and would be surprised if I was quicker than that on the run up to the S bend. The majority of the really noodly stuff in France was also a mix of second and third gear, which experience tells me is not much more than 70mph at the most.

It reminded me why I’ve never been overly keen on the UK’s best driving roads. Another colleague, Jethro Bovingdon, has said in the past he prefers UK roads to those overseas, for their challenging bumps and crests that help you figure out what a car’s capable of.

But I find them frustrating; corners in the UK are often too short, too blind and too bumpy – quick balance- and reaction-testing flicks rather than long, flowing, well-sighted turns – and the straights in between can be quite long. In anything remotely brisk (which is basically any modern performance car) it’s all too easy to find yourself comfortably into three figures, and frankly my interest in doing that on public roads is next to zero.

You might say “just slow down then”, and I do, but then leaving all that performance on the table feels frustrating. Better to have less of it and exploit more of it on roads that suit. But, contrary to some, I also don’t believe the answer is to have virtually no power at all, which is why the term “driving a slow car fast” can actually be a little misleading.

It does not immediately follow for instance that if my 106 Rallye is enjoyable because you can use a large proportion of its performance, then a basic 106 1.1 will be even more enjoyable.

Electrogenic Mini EV
Photo: Charlie Magee

It would still be fun, don’t get me wrong, but maximising a car’s potential is only part of the equation; I’d argue there needs to be some potential there to maximise. You need some of the qualities that make a car enjoyable to drive quickly in the first place: a basic level of balance, adequate grip, ideally some level of performance – enough for a small kick in the back out of corners at the very least – and brakes that won’t wilt at the first sign of a hairpin.

So, while they’re enjoyable for a great many reasons, I’d strongly suggest the average Festival of the Unexceptional contender is not necessarily the ideal example of the “slow car fast” mantra.

Rolling around on blancmange dampers, understeering through each corner on Teflon tyres and desperately extracting some kind of motion from a wheezing motor is no more enjoyable (arguably less so) than clock-watching your speedometer in a supercar as you rocket through corners at 20 per cent of what your machine will do.

Like so many things in life, there is a perfect balance to be found, both of roads and of vehicle. “Slow car fast” is snappy and 280-characters-on-Twitter-friendly, but maybe “driving a reasonably brisk car on a low- to medium-speed mountain road (and ideally not in the UK)” more accurately describes my perfect driving experience.

With a catchphrase like that, there’s probably a reason I never made a career in marketing…

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  • Clive says:

    I have exactly this on my mind currently. My E46 M3 is glorious wrung out, but speeds quickly get into the nimby worrying zone in the south of the UK. In the wilds of Scotland it would be less of a problem. It is a keeper though.

    My 106 GTi was pretty much perfect for enjoying all you could extract from it on all roads. As Evo magazine wrote, the harder you drive it, the better it gets. My Clio Trophy was cut from the same cloth but with a broader performance envelope, although it could feel unruly on bumpy B-roads in comparison to the 106.

    What I need right now is a small cheap roadster rather than a hot hatch to recreate those maximum attack drives. MR2? Smart Roadster?

    • James Mills says:

      Antony can take this one, but for what it’s worth, Clive, the third-gen MR2 can be a peach of a car.

    • Antony Ingram says:

      Think you’re on the right track Clive. Owned a couple of MX-5s, driven a couple of generations of MR2, and the Smart Roadster is perennially on my wishlist! Some might consider them slow, but they’ve all got enough performance to be entertaining, particularly where speed limits are a bit tighter. Sadly, both roadsters and more modest hot hatchbacks don’t seem to be on the agenda for many manufacturers any more. The current MX-5, and the Up GTI, Abarth 500 and Swift Sport are the only cars in either category that spring to mind.

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