The Theatre of Driving… and why it’s so important
When cars have become so competent in the mechanics of driving, you need a little bit of theatre to make it all exciting.
BACK WHEN DESIGNING and manufacturing cars was pretty rough and ready, you had good cars, bad cars and bordering on dangerous cars. A luxury car could be plush and comfortable inside, look impressive outside (preferably very large) but pay scant regard to vehicle dynamics and safety. Building a sports car? Put together a lively engine, good power-to-weight ratio and depending on the origin either pretty wieldy in the bends or aggressively fast in a straight line. For safe cars, well there was Volvo and Saab. A luxury car left you relaxed and a sporting car left you excited (or scared, which is a similar thing), a Volvo or Saab left you standing alone at the party.
Manufacturers rarely build bad cars anymore, most are basically good, they dynamically drive well, don’t wreck your back after 2 hours in the seat and do a pretty good job of protecting occupants when crashed. How they perform tends to be in incremental degrees of difference rather than large steps (within the same class/sector/price range).
So how to get a feel of greater comfort, satisfaction or excitement into the driving experience (even in a traffic jam)?
You introduce Theatre: [mass noun] A play or other activity or presentation considered in terms of its dramatic quality:
‘this is intense, moving, and inspiring theatre’
‘The enthusiasts’ tactics include presenting science as theatre, magic tricks and fantasy.’
Source: Oxford Dictionary
Theatre in the look, feel, response and sound of the car, not so much as a result of functional performance, but designed and engineered to lead you to a perception of something better than may actually be delivered.
Examples include non-linear throttle response, dual mode exhausts, buttons to select many modes, gizmo type displays and complex controls with electric everything.
Like old cars, manufacturers achieve differing levels of success and relevance with automotive theatre. A couple of my favourites are the engine noise ported into the 86/BRZ cabin and the Mercedes A45 AMG exhaust madness. More cringeworthy are G Meters, engine sounds played through the speakers (flat plane V8 in a 4 pot commuter anyone?), Start buttons that still require a key to be inserted, Jaguar’s ‘pop up’ electronic shift lever and the Lexus RC F (this article isn’t long enough to list the individual theatre failures of that car).
Possibly the high point in total vehicle theatre is the Fiat 500, a car that combines modern construction with immersive retro style and the magical ability to transform a bad day at the office into a smiling face by the time you get home. In the Fiat lays the lesson of being relevant and meeting customer expectations, the target market is looking for fun, economy and convenience, Fiat delivered an automotive experience that manages to include retro ‘cute’, personalisation and driver intimacy in a way few others have managed successfully.
If your car isn’t a Fiat 500 and/or is a bit dull due to being an Audi, the aftermarket or a bit of DYI tweaking might turn your frown upside down. Remapped ECUs, boost control and drive by wire throttles offer a way to accentuate characteristics like torque delivery and the ability to spit flames for no practical purpose. From plush seat covers and a dash full of gauges, to solenoid controlled flaps in the exhaust, more theatre is just a credit card away.
Companies like Alfa Romeo have always understood the role of theatre as part of the driving experience, some like Audi generally don’t get it or can’t find the sweet spot. To be fair to the manufacturers, vehicle theatre is no different to more conventional theatre; they can’t get it right for everyone. Just because you like Keating the Musical doesn’t mean you will enjoy Carmen.
You can’t always enjoy an inherently great drive due to the road, weather or traffic conditions outside of your control, but when your car provides a relevant level of theatre it can still be entertaining.