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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: June 1, 2012 @ 2:07 pm

    The power of corruption

    Neil Briscoe

    Richard Nixon. J. Edgar Hoover. Charles Haughey. Don’t try to tell me that power doesn’t corrupt. And what goes for the human soul so often also goes for the mechanical devices it desires.

    BMW has just launched a new M5 model with 550bhp. The equivalent of 550 horses, all pulling at once. This in a large, comfy, family-friendly saloon car that more normally comes with a (hardly sluggardly) 188bhp 2.0 diesel. Impressive and exhilarating the M5 most certainly is. Relevant? Hardly. Necessary? Not really.

    Ferrari is currently working on a successor to the legendary Enzo supercar. The new machine, of which just a handful will be built, will have an all-carbon-fibre chassis, an athletic kerbweight and power. Lots of power. Its V12 engine will use a Formula-One-style hybrid KERS setup that will deliver somewhere between 800 and 900bhp. Just for reference, the old Enzo had 650bbhp. And weighed more. For further reference, the snake-hipped old nineties McLaren F1 road car, which could see the sunny side of 380kmh don’t forget, had 620bhp.

    Now, I could complain about the environmental impact of such cars but I won’t. The fact is that even such broad-based production models as the M5 are built in such tiny numbers, relative to normal cars, that their Co2 emissions barely register, in global terms. For cars like Ferrari’s new monster, not only will its production barely break the three figure mark, most will probably never, or only rarely be driven. A space in some faceless collector’s garage, languishing under a dust sheet, will be the common fate.

    And the primary reason why is just where the hell are you going to drive something like that anyway? It’s a common question I am asked when discussing high performance road cars. Where in Ireland would you use something like that? Well, nowhere really is the answer. The country’s one and only Bugatti Veyron barely gets an outing, and as far as million dollar hypercars go, thats a relatively practical one, what with its four wheel drive and Volkswagen-backed warranty. The combination of crowded roads, suspect surfaces and trigger happy speed traps means that even those of us who own sensible family cars will rarely if ever see the outer edges of their performance envelopes.

    In previous years, I have answered the inevitable question of “what’s the point in have a car that exceeds the legal speed limit?” with the following: Imagine its a dark, wet night. You’re on your way home, rounding a long, sweeping bend at an entirely legal 100kmh when something, just in the corner of your vision, something without lights or reflective markings, suddenly moves out from the verge and into your path. When that happens, what car do you want to be in? A basic small car, operating at perhaps 80% of its capabilities? Or, for instance, a Porsche 911, with a chassis designed to cope with much higher speeds, with the reactions of a mongoose and brakes, tyres and steering systems to match.

    But now, you don’t need the 911. I’ve always reckoned that driving a sporting car with more than 200bhp was just a waste of horsepower. Perhaps it’s because of the era I grew up in. When I were a lad, the ultimate wheels around were the Ford Escort Cosworth and Lancia Delta Integrale, both with around 220bhp. Those are still today fast, capable cars. Even a standard 911 of the time had ’just’ 272bhbp. Now, a 911 Carrera S has 400bhp and is closer to guided missile than car.

    There is hope, though. Cars like the Toyota GT86, the updated Porsche Boxster, the evergreen Lotus Elise and even the humble Fiat 500 prove that you don’t need big power outputs and 20″ wheels to have fun. In fact, it’s easier without, you’ll stay longer on the right side of the law and your pocket will feel less scorched.

    More than a decade ago, at the Birmingham Motor Show, I saw the first Ariel Atom, the mobile pile of scaffolding that bridged the gap between fast bikes and sports cars. Steve Sutcliffe, then road test editor of Autocar, pointed at it and said, succinctly, “that’s the future.” Light, efficient, focused on fun, not brake horsepower. It may be taking a long time for that particular penny to drop with the major car makers, but I don’t reckon that sentiment is any more wrong today.

    M5. Ferrari. 911. Don’t tell me power doesn’t corrupt.

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