It has to be said, 2016 has been a pretty good year so far. I’ve got to experience some of my all-time motoring heroes and a whole host of new cars with enough litres, cylinders and turbochargers to power a small town. But one of my most memorable drives came back in the spring in my wife’s OAP-spec Toyota Corolla.
I’m not about to claim that the 1.6-litre Corolla automatic is an undiscovered gem – although its dynamic talents are undoubtedly wasted on the majority of owners, quietly dribbling into their soup in Eastbourne. On British roads it has one major advantage, though; compliance.
Across the stunning but bumpy roads that skirt the southern tip of the Yorkshire Moors, it ebbed and flowed with the contours. We made progress quite unbecoming of a Toyota Corolla and it never felt anything less than serene. Like all cars that inspire confidence it means you end up driving more enthusiastically than you would in something hard and spiky.
In case anyone thinks I’ve taken leave of my senses, let’s switch to the Lotus Exige Cup. This is actually a distant relative of the Corolla, through its Toyota engine (tenuous, admittedly) and I would say it’s the best handling road car I’ve ever driven. Here again, though, there has been a concerted effort to provide a degree of compliance.
I’m not sure what voodoo Lotus employs to combine ride comfort and body control, but company founder Colin Chapman famously advocated the use of soft springs with firm dampers. Doubtlessly there’s rather more to it than that, but he was clearly onto something. Even cars that do incur substantial amounts of roll are often better for it in the real world, where you rarely have the chance to exploit the instant weight transfer that pays dividends on a track.
The same could be said of tyres. These are a much underestimated factor in the car’s overall compliance and tuning their stiffness is every bit as crucial as that of the suspension. What’s more, steering feel – any that actually survives being transmitted back through a modern electrically-assisted rack – is heavily influence by the way the tyre deforms during cornering. Without a certain element of twist in the carcass the car wouldn’t turn, and certainly wouldn’t provide any feedback. Again, though, the quest for more incisive response is leading to stiffer and stiffer constructions.
As if to underline this, I recently drove two of the best hot hatches of recent times, the Honda Civic Type R and the Ford Focus RS. Both are relatively mainstream road cars – driver-focused, yes, but still proper four seaters with room for the family and a week’s shopping. And yet both have the option of activating a stiffer mode for the suspension that we’re advised is too firm for some race tracks. I repeat: race tracks, not the roads that these cars are designed to spend the majority of their time on.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s something intrinsically appealing about a car that feelings like it’s escaped from parc ferme. I do like the theatre of jostling ride and whining differentials, but it’s a bit over the top most of the time. My recommendation to the ride and handling engineers? Take a drive in a 2003 Toyota Corolla. It might surprise you.