Developing the “Perfect” Car, Part 1 | What is “Soul”?

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This is the start of a new short series on this writer’s view of how to make the best Sports/Saloon/City/Hot Hatch/Green/GT Car. They are recipes, open to personalisation to suit different tastes – but without these basic elements the end result will be like watery packet gravy, looking about right from a distance and utterly disappointing when you eat it!

In this first piece I’ll delve into what goes on behind the scenes at an automotive manufacturer in order to engineer any car, and more importantly to try to pin down the best mindset to develop something with “soul”.

First off, of course, what exactly is “soul”? Despite what many people may think, any car can have a little soul, and those with it will be far more than instruments of personal travel, getting people simply from A to B. If you think that alone is what a car is for, then I hope can open your mind up to a few other possibilities.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines soul as: Emotional or intellectual energy or intensity. I think that describes what you find in the best cars as well. It’s not generally something you can put your finger on, just a combination of factors that make driving it feel a little special, which turn driving into an enjoyable experience, or even a hobby.

For many years this feeling was built into cars via subjective development – all based on an engineer’s intuition and years of experience. Cars such as the Jaguar E-Type we taken on weekend jaunts to North Wales, and changes were made based on the driving experience. Once they were implemented, back out the car went – engineering sounds like it was much more fun back in the swinging 60s! After all, the soul of a “perfect” car is all about the human perception of all sorts of factors relating to the input of the random environment that is the natural world. It’s a logical way to do it, yet it is very labour, cost and time intensive for the modern Auto industry. Of course, this is possibly why so many 60s cars are considered to have soul – although I speculate that perhaps this is due to quirks and flaws which arguably are not equivalent to the concept of “soul” itself. After all, character endears you to something/someone; soul makes you fall in love.

In the 21st century, of course, we have these wonderful things called computers. Sadly many people, especially non-hands-on engineers, frequently believe computers are a replacement for the old and outdated, ways. Everything that goes on in a car can be explained by physics and thus can be replicated by maths, lots and lots of maths – exactly what computers are for. That’s the theory (and I agree that it’s a sound theory), however what seems to be generally forgotten by those developing a car in the virtual world, is that we cannot yet (and I seriously hope never will be able to) fully explain human perception and reaction to the result of these calculations. The key point is this – perfect, isn’t actually perfect. Perfect does exist, but it can’t be fully defined, and it cannot be calculated as there are more variables than terms in the equations. Perfect certainly isn’t found by having the highest set of spec numbers on a piece of paper – life is not Top Trumps.

Mini Cooper, a car with "Soul"

Imagination is the eye of the soul...

So how, in the modern world with its need to develop new cars as quickly and cheaply as possible, do you develop a car with soul? Well it’s not an easy one.

To get the soul wanted, you need a real vehicle to drive and assess, to make changes to and see if it feels better. But prototype cars cost money, a lot of money, and so the fewer you have, the more money you have as profit to make shareholders happy (yes I am cynical, it goes with being an engineer!). So you start with something you know, a current model that’s similar to your new one, a mule. You make changes to it, and make a lot of objective AND subjective measurements to start to understand how measured changes relate to feel – the holy grail is to find some measured quantity that changes proportionally to how the car feels. Once you’ve defined all these things, how they change and affect feel, you use the computer as a tool to combine all of these things together – this is CAE, Computer Aided Engineering – with Aided being the most important part. You make some changes in the CAE, and when you think you find something that gives a big change, one you’ll feel in the car, you replicate it on the mule. If it works, great, you have a correlated model that stands a chance of calculating what the car will do.

Fiat 500 Abarth A Car With Soul

Emotions are the colors of the soul...

Now with this model you try and virtually build a new car that has a lot of the stuff that made the mule car feel good, and as little of the bad stuff as possible. It is a compromise, as all engineering is. For example, stiffer suspension to improve dynamic response generally increases the amount of road energy getting into the body, thus making the car louder. It’s all about happy mediums, the balance of not having any one variable perfect, but just enough of them all in perfect harmony. Then, when your CAE model has given you the perfect car, you build it. Which is when lots of people like me start running around like headless chickens whinging about CAE because the car isn’t ever what you hoped it’d be! But you understand the trends from the mule testing and CAE, so you tweak this, and you tweak that, and at the end (if you get it right) you give it soul.

Now for a reality check. This is near impossible. We now understand pretty much everything a car does, how it reacts, how to make it safe/secure/reliable/economic – there are too many known variables and if you consider them all, you get watery packet gravy. So what you do is this: forget everything that gets in the way of soul. Sadly this means you’ll end up with a car that most people won’t want, it’ll use too much fuel etc. But they never think about the value of what can’t be easily measured – smiles per mile, how good driving it makes you feel. Put them in a car with soul, and they’ll get it instantly, and if they have any passion in them, they’ll rebalance the scales in favour of having a car that makes them feel good. Then you’ll sell them by the bucket load, even though they’re not the sensible choice. The new MINI, Fiat 500 (especially the Abarth) and Land Rover Evoque are perfect examples of this.

Driving a car that makes you smile is worth more than can be measured.

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Posted by admin   @   24 November 2011

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