A damn good thrashing

A damn good thrashing

IF YOU’VE ever driven a rental vehicle you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say the temptation to absolutely and mercilessly drive the door handles off a car is directly inversely proportional to your ownership interest in it. 

I think that’s why you often see rental cars in some really odd and out-of-the-way places – places that people would not take their own cars in a pink fit – and doing some really strange things, often at high speed.

You might also know what I’m talking about when I say the harder you drive a car, the more starkly exposed can be the shortcomings in your diving ability.

These were some of the thoughts that crowded in during a recent “owner’s experience” day put on by a leading manufacturer, as I shot over the top of the hill at Sydney Motorsport Park (Eastern Creek, to those of us who remember), and barrelled towards the entry point of the upcoming corner.

“It’s not yours, Jemima,” I thought to myself – oddly in the second person – “so keep your foot in.”

Which is what I did, and as I hit the brakes the car bucked and squirmed and complained and shrieked, then straightened up as its bi-turbo V6 launched us away from (near enough to) the apex of the turn, towards (more or less) the entry point of the next one.

‘It’s been known for the manufacturer to get an order that matches one of the cars at a drive day, and to pull it from the pit lane immediately to put it through its usual pre-delivery checks.'

It was only three laps, and not even the full-length circuit, but it was a total blast and judging by the smell of really hot mechanicals back in pit lane, it had been quite a workout for the car, too. Nevertheless, it sat there, engine idling, apparently unperturbed and gently cooling down before the next driver climbed aboard.

The experience stood in contrast to that of a few weeks earlier, when I took my own car to another track. The tendency to drive within oneself is understandable when anything that goes wrong is going to directly hit your own bank balance. As it was, all went well and I still managed to go through $1200 worth of tyres.

On the manufacturer’s drive day, however, as long as we left the electronic stability control (ESC) switched on, we’d be “sweet”, the lead instructor said. Switch it off, though (and believe me, I’ll know, he said) and you’re on your own. Uninsured. And the value of the cars sitting in pit lane was a shade under $5 million.

The day left me in two minds. Well, there were a bunch of thoughts milling around, including the relief of realising that based on the day’s activities I have made a smart selection from this manufacturer’s model line-up. 

But on the one hand we now enjoy cars loaded up to the door sills with technology and driver assistance; while on the other hand the pure driving experience can be dulled somewhat by exactly the same assistance. If you know at the back of your mind that if you get things horribly wrong the car’s systems are going to step in to save you from the worst, then part of the experience, some of the edge, is lost.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, by the way. I think on balance I’d rather have a little bit of help than leave a smear of bright red paint down a concrete barrier. And to be completely honest, it’s good for those of us a little less physically capable than others to keep up and enjoy the experience rather than being too exhausted to walk or talk afterwards.

So, thrash around Eastern Creek we did and, amazingly, the cars we drove will later be sold to customers. In fact, it’s been known for the manufacturer to get an order that matches one of the cars at a drive day, and to pull it from the pit lane immediately to put it through its usual pre-delivery checks. The car’s history is fully disclosed, and long-term tracking of mechanical issues and warranty claims has shown there is statistically no difference between these driver-experience cars and those sold straight off the showroom floor.

They build ’em tough, which is good news for people who own them later on. And it’s good news for those of us who occasionally like to leave our own cars at home.