The Thinker's Garage Pondering Automotive History, Design and Culture

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Fast & Frugal – the synergies between performance and efficiency

There seem to be a large number of ‘car enthusiasts’ who rubbish the idea of embracing clean technology and improving the efficiency of cars. From drivers who lament the rise and rise of hybrids and forced induction to motorsport fans who bemoan the quietness of some modern racing cars, it seems to be an oft held belief that ‘green’ credibility and driving credibility are mutually exclusive. On the surface, this is understandable, after all what could going fast and saving fuel have in common? Given further thought however, some synergies between the two pursuits become obvious.

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Quiet, fast, efficient: Audi R10 TDI

The first place where we can observe this relationship is in powertrain technology. At the cutting edge, attaining high levels of power and economy both relate directly to the efficiency of the power source. Spectators at the Le Mans 24 Hour were disappointed at the relative quietness of Audi’s R10 diesel prototypes when they debuted in 2006 but the car was dominant. As Audi Sport engine guru Dr. Ulrich Baretzky said in the film Truth in 24, ‘noise is a form of energy. It means that the less you hear, the more you use in propulsion’. Indeed, efficient engine technology is as beneficial when chasing power output as reducing fuel consumption, and by improving the specific output of a motor, benefit can be attained in both these areas. It is also nothing new – from electronic fuel injection to energy recovery systems, improving engine efficiency has always been a relevant pursuit. It’s just that today we know more about it than ever.

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Carbon Tub, Mid-mounted engine, Rear-wheel-drive, 0.9L/100km: The Volkswagen XL-1

Similarities  in construction techniques and body design can also be found between sports cars and cars designed around the pursuit of fuel efficiency. Firstly it is well understood that an excellent way to improve a car’s performance and handling is to reduce its weight. This improves its power to weight ratio, and reduces stress on its drivetrain, brakes and suspension, as well as increasing tyre life. It means less power is needed for the same outcome, and this is necessary too with vehicles designed with fuel efficiency in mind. Cars such as the BMW i3 and Volkswagen XL1 both make use of layouts and materials that bear more than a passing similarity to many performance and race cars. Their low drag shape is also very relevant to motorsport, where reducing drag can improve acceleration, top speed and high speed stability.

Finally, there are parallels to be drawn with driving techniques. As much as being smooth is the best way to be fast, it’s also the best way to be efficient. By looking ahead and making smooth inputs to accelerating, braking and steering, you can easily become a smoother, faster and more efficient driver.

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Smoothness: The key to driving both quickly and efficiency

So next time you come across the suggestion that ‘green’ cars can’t be fun or lament that the quieter exhaust sounds of modern turbocharged engines aren’t as sexy, just remember that your next performance car could be characterised by technology that doesn’t just cut fuel consumption, but also improves the vehicle’s competency as a performance car.

by Andrew Marshall

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