Back in 2008 CAR had the opportunity to put a Rolls-Royce Phantom through a full road test. This is not something that many motoring magazines ever get a chance to do, and it certainly rates as one of the most memorable drives of my life. The lasting memory is of being mesmerised by the car’s sumptuous ride. It was truly as good as I had built it up to be in my head – which is to say heavenly, as I could hear angels singing.
But then a colleague shattered my daydreaming by commenting that he thought the handling wasn’t sharp enough and the steering too vague while “pushing on” over a mountain pass. I was flabbergasted and, thinking about it again now, that statement actually merited the handing out of swift kick to bottom. It is the kind of irresponsible comment, after all, that could lead to a “driver’s” Phantom being introduced, sporting firmer suspension, low-profile tyres and recalibrated steering. Heaven forbid…
It would appear that a pre-requisite of any car’s pre-launch activities these days are a couple of suspension fine-tuning laps around the Nurburgring Nordschleife, hopefully to be recorded by some cameraman hiding in the bushes. Now, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate decent handling. I appreciate it especially on cars that are supposed to handle properly, such as Porsches and fast BMWs. But I simply don’t see the point of, for example, a next-generation Kia Picanto rushing around the Green Hell sporting what appears to be a bodyshell made entirely of black rubbish bin-liners. Actually, that’s not right. I do see the point. Motoring journalists will subliminally be influenced to think that the little Kia has track-inspired handling, and must therefore be fun to drive. This then filters through to the road test reports.
Outside of the sportscar/hot hatch segments, however, I rate ride quality as far more important than sharp handling, and it is in this regard that motor journalists’ obsession with sporty dynamics is actually contributing to making cars worse. Because the car companies are listening… Nurburgring-syndrome, is what I call it.
I recently spent some time in the new Audi A8. Sadly, I must report that on most surfaces it rides like it’s either got lead in its tyres or dampers made from emboya. Unsurprisingly you can find many photos of the current-generation A8 undergoing testing at the ‘Ring…
Why does this worry me so? Well, a recent ride in a forty-year old Citroën DS illustrated how much better luxury car ride quality could be if only Audi and co didn’t have to worry about the kind of dynamic ability that would only concern Jason Statham in Transporter – and motoring scribes.
The DS’s seats are as soft as your grandfather’s lazyboy. You sink into them. There’s no side bolstering and the only way to remain upright during fast cornering is by hanging onto the thin-rimmed steering wheel or – if you’re a passenger – by getting intimate with the person sitting next to you. But that’s sort of the point – it is French, after all. The DS wasn’t made to corner fast. It was made to cruise. And this it does better probably than any modern motorcar, including even the most comfortable of modern large grand saloons, the Mercedes S-Class, which I recently tested in S350 BlueTec guise.
The DS’s legendary hydro-pneumatic self-levelling suspension was designed to create the sensation of gliding. You have to experience it to believe just how comfortable and relaxing a ride in a DS is… What also helps, of course, is the fitment of high-profile tyres.
Few modern cars with air suspension ride properly and that’s at least partly due to ever growing wheel rim sizes, necessitating unyielding low-profile rubber. A few years ago a car designer told me that wheels will get bigger at least partly because motoring journalists always complain a) that a production car with small wheels looks stupid compared with the 20-inchers that were on the concept at the motor show, and b) motoring journalists’ obsession with handling, necessitating fatter, stiffer tyres…
By now you may think I’m terribly old-fashioned, a big bore, possibly somebody who drives whilst wearing a hat and, more importantly, that I’m slamming the S-Class. I’m not, at least on the last score… The S-Class is super, but I think there is room for improvement and feel the time is right to let Mercedes know, because it is already well-advanced with work on the next S-Class and, perhaps equally importantly, because you can now also buy the Porsche Panamera, a car that has really shaken up the grand saloon segment and handles so brilliantly that the rest can just as well give up trying on that front.
The Panamera’s introduction has theoretically made shopping in the grand saloon segment far simpler. If you want a large luxury car that can also deal with the Nurburgring on the way to the office, get the Porsche – if you can stomach the looks. But understand that it doesn’t ride quite like a large “grand” saloon should. If you want a car that can corner and cruise, get a 7 Series. If making an entrance is important, get the Jaguar XJ. If you’re not interested in driving at all, get a Lexus LS.
And Mercedes-Benz? Well, a big Benz, in my mind, should put the emphasis on supreme comfort – it should be a Rolls-Royce for the (wealthy) masses. During my recent test of the superb new S350 BlueTec I was mostly bowled over by the magnificent new engine, quality and overall comfort, but found a few worrying signs that Mercedes may have caught the Nurburgring-syndrome. There’s a Sport button on the facia for example, hidden up near the Comand screen where you would almost never look for it. Press this and the only difference I could make out was that the suspension became “wooden”. And, good grief, this diesel S-Class even has paddle shifters, too… Please Mercedes, leave this “sporty limo” nonsense for the other marques, or the AMGs.
That illuminating drive in the Citroën DS really makes me hope Mercedes will put the emphasis even more on comfort for the next model, currently under development for a 2013 launch. I’m happy to report that things look promising thus far. Google S-Class and Nurburgring and you’ll get nothing… For confirmation I asked our regular Nurburgring spy photographer a few photos of the next generation car snapped at the ‘Ring, and he simply said, “Ze S-Class never visits ze ‘Ring.”