TWO DAYS AGO, I was at the Auto Club Speedway of California, a two-mile oval about 80km east of Los Angeles where they hold NASCAR events. Back in 2000, Gil de Ferran lapped his Penske Racing CART machine there at a mind-boggling average speed of 241.428mph (388.54km/h). My MotorTrend buddies were using the ACS drag strip to test American products: a 485kW Camaro ZL1, a 527kW Hellcat Widebody and the new 563kW Corvette ZR1.
The ’Vette did the 0-60mph (97km/h) in 3.0 seconds flat, the 0-100mph (160km/h) in 6.3 and the all-important quarter mile in 10.8 at 214.2km/h. And guess what? We were disappointed, because it didn’t match the latest Porsche 911 GT2 RS.
Of course, the fastest cars sailed past the optimum ‘useable’ performance threshold a long, long time ago, but just lately it’s become completely mad. You’ve got super sedans with 450kW, ‘baby’ supercars with more than 520kW, and even at the saner end of the spectrum there are hot hatches with 300kW capable of sub-four to 100km/h.
Most of these have grip and braking to match the stonk, but exploiting their potential on the road is impossible, illegal, and – for some people – even slightly immoral.
So, what is the optimum power-to-weight ratio for a road-going performance car? An early MX-5 had 85kW and weighed 950kg, giving it a power to weight of 89kW per tonne. A Mark V Golf GTI had 110kW per tonne, an E46 M3 163kW per tonne and a Ferrari 458 Speciale 319kW per tonne. Straight away I’m going to say that the MX-5 is too slow. Sure, 89kW might be enough to provide some fun on a frozen lake or an empty roundabout with crossplies in torrential rain, but for a modernish car with good suspension, brakes and tyres, it’s just underwhelming.
At the Golf GTI level, things get more interesting. Acceleration becomes exciting, and circa 147kW and 1300kg is a pretty good realworld combination. It’ll easily hit double the national speed limit and dip below seven seconds to 100km/h. Of course, there are so many more factors to consider, and the Mark V nails most of them. But does anyone need to go much quicker than this?
‘Need’ and ‘want’ are two very different things. At this level, a bit of extra power adds to the sense of occasion and shouldn’t put the performance out of reach on anything but a racetrack. The E46 really finds the sweet spot. It feels properly fast, sharp and angry, and every time you crack the throttle you know you’re in something special. Wind it out fully and you’re covering ground pretty damn fast, but it doesn’t feel like prison-grade progress. Unlike the Ferrari.
To think you can enjoy it at anything like 100 per cent on the road is pure fantasy. In reality, over 300kW per tonne leaves a lot of untapped potential in a car. Its successor, the 488 Pista, has just put the 458 Speciale well and truly in the shade, and the 458 was already all but pointless on the public highway. You can bet that the Pista’s replacement will be faster still. Technically, it’s progress, however, enjoyment on the road will just be harder to achieve.
All of this is comforting to fans of slightly older cars. This magazine can, at times, deal with cars from an era before the latest and maddest excesses. Your favourite is probably still in that power-to-weight sweet zone. Just don’t try anything faster. It ruins you.
The Speciale is firmly in my ‘best two or three’ list, alongside machines with more than 300kW per tonne. Hypocritical? Maybe. Illogical, pointless, frustrating? Probably. Life-affirming? Nearly always.