By on June 14, 2012

Chris Harris may have been wrong about Miatas, but his review of the Audi RS4, where he describes the various configurable driveline settings as “adjustment theatre”, brilliantly describes the overly-complex systems that are cropping up in today’s performance cars as they attempt to appeal to not just the lead-footed, but the well-heeled.

The RS4, as Harris notes, is supposed to be the sports car for everyone, able to carry dogs, people and cargo while offering unbeatable performance in every situation. It would be easy to dismiss the whole package as a hopeless compromise, and tell everyone to go buy a Caterham and a base A4 wagon, but luckily, Harris has the empathy to see past that fallacious, nonsensical line of thinking.

Adjustment theater isn’t just defined to the OEMs. Think of the adjustable shocks that offer different “clicks” that presumably adjust how soft or stiff they are. But what about pre-loading, or rebound damping or any of the other parameters that really matter. Turning a knob from “1” to “10” doesn’t tell you much, but it sure does sound cool when bragging to friends or forum users.

Adjustment theater isn’t just the domain of the RS4. The E60 M5 was famous for having all kinds of different modes (including a “Power” button), the Nissan GTR is like Gran Turismo come to life and even the Hyundai Elantra GT, which we’ll be driving next week, has different power steering modes.

Harris notes that one of the great things about the previous RS4 was that it “…just worked out of the box”. Today’s breed of performance car seems to be able to do that – as long as you know the right cheat codes.

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46 Comments on “Have We Reached “Peak Adjustment” For Performance Cars?...”

  • avatar

    You can buy 4 ways adjustable shocks with high/low speed rebound/compression. The issue is for most people they have no clue what it means. And even if you do you have no ways to properly tune and quantify changes. And you don’t “tune” your car for the different roads to drive on. A 1-10 click system works well enough to just trade off harshness to response….

    I think the new M5 still has a bunch of adjustment, I think C&D noted there are 81 possible mode the car can be in. They actually contrasted to the S6 which has a lot less..

    • 0 avatar

      Someone who can afford to spend $10k plus on a 4-way race suspension while having no clue how to use it does not get my sympathy.

      While I’m here, lets say you buy a new porshe 911 turbo or whatever and don’t know how to activate the overboost function. That means you’re stuck with a measly 480hp and a lousy 3.5s 0-60 time. Cry me a river.

      The real issue isn’t that there are new gadgets on sports cars that most people don’t know how to use, its that most people have NEVER been able to get the most out of thier cars. I’d wager a spec miata driver could smoke 9/10 corvette owners around a road course. I’m sure that was true before fuel injection as well.

      So what if 95% of people don’t use all the gadgets/adjustments in their car. As a tinkerer, I am glad they are there (even if whatever I do seems to make it worse).

  • avatar

    Best Performance computer for the mainstream is the SRT Performance system in the 2012 300cSRT8 and Charger SRT8.

    0-60, 60-0, g-force and 1/4 mile times should be a standard in “performance cars”.

    The Nissan GTR’s I’ve used is similar to above, but, not nearly as elegant.

    I keep a Predator tuning computer available for my car. One of the Ford Capri racers I’m building has a similar computer as this.

    As far as I’m concerned, these things are just eye candy, but, they can come in handy if you really know what you’re doing.

  • avatar

    the r35, the new GT500, 997 turbos are into the 10s for 1/4s

    will we see them in the 9s?

  • avatar

    My brother used to have a race car – an old 97 WRX wich was converted to track use. It worked great and at most races he finished in the top 5 usually among GT3 and Turbo Porsches. They were close on the track but when it came to driving home the Porsche owners could cruise home in comfort while the highly modified Subie was loud, hard, noisy and had brakes that only really worked on the track. And that difference explains the difference in price between an old racing Subie and a GT3. Sports car makers are very aware of that and, while they need to produce impressive ‘ring numbers to please the buff mags and internet chat forums, they also need to be usable on a daily basis and thus you see the craze for adjustments. It seems to be a logical conclusion to the twin pressures of better track times and day to day usability.

    Is it a good trend? Probably not. It makes sports cars overly complex and not necessarily any more fun to drive. For me, sports cars should focus more on driving pleasure in everyday conditions and less on race track bragging rights.

    • 0 avatar

      Carguy says: For me, sports cars should focus more on driving pleasure in everyday conditions and less on race track bragging rights.


    • 0 avatar

      I think there is something cool in a purpose built thing that is brilliant at what it needs to do and uncompromising elsewhere. Which is why something like the GT3 RS is great. IT’S loud, harsh, uncompromising, but that is part of what makes it special, and that much more brilliant on the road- as well as infinitely more desirable than a Porsche Turbo.

      I think a part of the problem is the detachment of blistering performance from compromise. What fun is going from 0-60 in under 4 seconds when you can’t even hear the engine? What good is gripping over 1.0g when the steering feel + feedback is tuned to be palpable by an atrophied grandmother? I hate to buy into the cliche of “no pain no gain”, but sometimes a heavier gear change or high effort steering or a slightly rougher ride is an engaging part of the performance car experience. And it seems like manufacturers are fighting to distill those things out. I don’t get it.

      • 0 avatar

        @sportyaccordy: The GT3 is a Lexus compared to a purpose built race car but I would agree that a great many cars will go very fast without much in the way of emotional involvement for the driver: Set the computer to launch, depress accelerator and release break, go to 60 quickly – where is the fun in that?

  • avatar

    Even the base Mustangs come with different steering “modes.” There’s “Sport”, which makes the lock to lock longer. Then there’s “comfort”, which makes the steering very twitchy. Then normal. They do feel dramatically different. I don’t know if I really care that much. If they asked me if I wanted steering “modes” or a bowl of pho and a porter, I’d go with that.

  • avatar

    Are performance cars with great “ring” times purchased by people who never track their cars any less ridiculous than SUVs that are never taken off road??? Aren’t the multitude of performance settings just there to allow for the fantasy while not inconveniencing the driver while going down public roads?

    • 0 avatar
      Mark MacInnis

      …Like having 518 channels and not actually watching more than a few.

      …Like buying a HUGE house that you don’t actually live in.

      …Like owning a massive sound system you never crank beyond “2”.

      …Like having a complete MAC Tools box in your garage, but still paying someone to change your oil.

      …Like fathering children, but divorcing your wife so some other man can raise them.

      …Like having a great team working for you, but taking all the credit.

      …Like buying the “I’m Rich!” app for your I-Phone.

      …Like buying the 42′ cabin cruiser and leaving it docked all summer long.

      These are things poseurs do. Real men buy the lesser car with a manual transmission and the smaller engine and invest the time to learn how to maximize the joy by driving it well. And thus, enjoy the journey more.

      Poseurs “buy” the most capable car, then drive it poorly while bragging insufferably about what it can do. Well, it might, mate….in the hands of someone who knows what he’s about.

      I can prepare a a gourmet dinner with a few basic, quality utensils and pans, and a stove with 4 good gas burners and a reliable oven. I don’t need all the gadgets from Williams Sonoma or the latest diamond-coated pans.

      Genuine men know it’s about the man himself, not the tools, toys or hardware he convinces himself he needs…

  • avatar

    This is a complex issue.

    I think manufacturers are answering questions either nobody asks, or that aren’t important. They seem to have fallen to the command of internet auto execs and magazine headlines.

    The real questions they should be asking when they make their cars (which I think Subayota did with the BR-6S) are: is the car fundamentally good, or hiding behind “modes” as a crutch (as was the case with the RS5)? Is the car engaging? Is the car enjoyable to drive in every mode?

    A biggie is, is the car honest in its intentions? What good is a “Dynamic” suspension mode that is too stiff for the road in a car that most likely will never see the track? And for the privileged few who see the track, does Dynamic mode work?

    I admit, I am a weirdo when it comes to my praise of old Accords, but my first build was simultaneously thrilling, comfortable, practical and thorougly engaging. Yes it had adjustable dampers, but they were Koni Yellows, which I set once and never touched again. In other words, it only had one mode- but it was a mode that I thoroughly enjoyed from 0/10 to 11/10. I think manufacturers need to get back to the basics. And I think people need to buy cars based on honest appraisals of their own driving ability + needs.

    I mean you look at the new M5, which just got slammed by C&D… it has a ton of modes, but no mode will allow you to actually hear its engine work. No mode in the E60 would make the SMG box bearable on the street. No mode in the RS5 would make it “work”. So what’s the point of “modes” when none of them are any good, or address the fundamental problems of a car?

    • 0 avatar

      I agree with everything you say except for “this is a complex issue”. It’s a simple issue, and you’ve nailed it. Well done.

      • 0 avatar

        It is a simple issue: Cars are being spec’d (and styled) by the marketing departments — which apparently are run by internet fanbois just out of advertising school.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s much cheaper to develop electric “stuff” and “settings” on an existing car, rather than redesigning one. We have people that buy new iPhones when the one they currently have has 90% of the functionality of the newest one.

    • 0 avatar

      Cars have finally reached the point that sportbikes aspired to a decade or so ago – every manufacturer adds something more than the normal owner will never use. Just because the squids demand it. And the abject failure of this year’s sportbike crop? The bike that does the Streets of Willow or Laguna Seca .2 seconds slower than the fastest bike in the test.

      And after buying said bike, the average squid will spend hundreds on aftermarket for small increases in performance . . . . and refuse to spend the money on a weekend rider’s school that’ll actually get a real performance increase out of the rider/bike combination.

  • avatar

    I think settings need to be taken with a grain of salt.

    I put aftermarket adjustable suspension on my last car for autocross. It had 15 clicks per corner of rebound adjustability. I messed with it for a weekend, and then it was set. It reacted and felt the way I wanted it to.

    But I agree with others that some things are best left untouched. The Average Joe has no knowledge base to properly mess with bound/rebound, steering ratio, or throttle response. I can get behind a suspension with pre-set comfort/sport/race modes, or throttle/transmission settings for Eco or Towing aside from “Normal” though.

  • avatar

    A decade ago, a GE appliance repairman told me that all the lights and bells and whistles on dishwashers and fridges were there to excite people enough so they’d buy. Personally, I find all the adjusters tedious, and spent my money at a driving school. The performance envelope of decent cars today is enormous if you have a bit of skill. And yes, that’s me squeeling around the on ramp.

  • avatar

    I don’t get all this pooh-poohing. I think it’s absolutely wonderful that we have all this control over every aspect of driving. People who don’t like to tinker can just leave it on the default settings. What’s the problem?

    It’s just like SLR cameras. There is an ‘auto’ setting for people who don’t care to mess around settings, and every manner of manual settings, for people who know what they are doing and are aiming for a specific effect.

    • 0 avatar

      Here’s the problem. LEt’s continue on the SLR analogy, as Nikon has turned the dial to 11 w/their latest releases.

      Imagine if the D800 were as it is… 36MP, all the latest bells and whistles… but it was difficult to use, or took crappy pictures, or didn’t expand on the good user experiences/features that people bought its predecessors for. Would all the advances and new features really matter?

      Manufacturers are answering questions nobody asked and fixing things that weren’t broken as they are operating under the auspice that their customers won’t buy the next ///Mx if it doesn’t chop another second off the 0-60 time or crank out another 100 HP. Meanwhile, cars like the E39 M5 and E46 M3 remain the benchmarks of ///Mism, partially because of their performance, but mainly because of their constant engagement + feedback + perfection in all aspects of operation.

  • avatar

    I need better driving techniques, not vehicles ,imo. Working on it.

  • avatar

    Not yet.

    I want to be able to adjust camber, toe, and caster for all four wheels so I can make whatever tires I buy work well and compensate for car-to-car variations and frame fatigue.

    I want to be able to adjust the spring rate in ride and in roll so I can get the cornering balance I want for what I’m doing. More push for fast freeway work, a little looser for backroads and tracks, a lot looser for autocross. Nice and soft for a smooth track, firmer for bumpy backroads, train springs for really rough roads.

    It would be nice if the ABS computer adapted to the traction conditions and set the brake bias based on the tires’ loading and traction conditions.

    If the engine’s responsively mapped and the gearing’s short, it might not be bad to have a highway “econo” button that leans the mixture out at the cost of throttle response.

  • avatar

    I worry about the costs down the road when complex systems break. I have a family member who has a Cadillac with an elaborate suspension (among other gimmicks), and that car is a rolling repair bill waiting to happen.

    • 0 avatar

      I get where you’re coming from.

      I mean, somebody will have these out of warranty, someday, but most of the guys I see driving these… I think they’ll never care, ’cause they’ll never have them outside of a lease arrangement.

      Maybe I’m wrong. I’d sort of like to be. I find the romance of the guy/gal that owns that RS4 (or what-have-you) into an old age that keeps coming back to it over and over to be so very appealing. But I can’t imagine these cars with 100kmi on them looking for a rebuild, and think part of that comes from all the random stuff on them like g-meters and magnetic shocks and all kinds of other crap, that even the people “in the know” aren’t sure about whether or not they need ’em.

  • avatar

    It’s engineers run amok. I would know, I am one.

    Because we sit around internally and play with all of these settings in development, trying to find the right balance between options…someone eventually just suggests “hey, let’s make it user-adjustable!”.

    Touch decisions are avoided, but then the customers end up with a ridiculous total array of options.

    The thing is, it’s good to have adjustability, as it allows us cars that come absolutely uncorked at peak times, but deliver comfort and economy under normal use.

    Depending on the car, you really only need 1 dial with 3 settings: econ–normal–sport

    • 0 avatar

      It’s marketing making the engineers run amok. Decades ago, I worked for R&D at Fisher Scientific. I still have memories, er, nightmares of what happened after marketing decided that the laboratory oven line had to have a top-of-the-line model that talked . . . . . . .

  • avatar

    Another reason to keep my 1965 Lotus Elan, it’s not easy to adjust, but at least I know how to do it.

  • avatar

    Thanks to Derek and the commentators who have highlighted this issue.
    Auto critic Dan Neil – who gets flak on these boards on occasion – discussed this phenomenon at length in his review of the 2001 M3:
    “… The previous M3 was widely and loudly proclaimed the best-handling car in the world. What made it so was not so much a matter of suspension geometry, caster angles, steering rates or lateral grip, though the car was magnificently engineered. The old car had a subtle, soulful feel, a kind of telepathic bond that told you exactly what each wheel was doing all the time. All the feedback from the wheels became compressed into a finely tuned data stream thrumming through the steering wheel. It seemed that the car’s center of gravity — in the classic physics sense, not the Pentagon-briefing cliché — was in the driver’s right hip pocket. It was kismet.
    “Alas, there is no Kismet button on designers’ keyboards. While this is a faster, harder cornering, more luxurious and exponentially more complicated M3, it is not as satisfying to drive. I read the engineering overkill as evidence of trying too hard. …
    “… As for handling, BMW chose to focus on absolute values rather than the more nuanced qualities of feel. …
    “…the new M3 — which is also 300 pounds heavier than the old car — feels less integrated and less of a piece, as one system works to contain the excesses of another. And if in every measurable category — braking, accelerating, cornering — the new M3 outperforms the old one, it only goes to show that performance cars are more than the sum of their performance.”

  • avatar
    George B

    I can see some value in making several things adjustable as a way to get around CAFE regulations. The stock throttle response, shift points, etc. could be optimized for maximum fuel economy for the EPA test. Adjustable settings could then provide a way for the owner of the car to make the car more drivable on street after the manufacturer has finished cheating on the test.

  • avatar

    I remember C/D critiquing the complexity e60 M5 and e63/e64 and comparing it with the relative simplicity of the manettino on the Ferrari 458 Italia. Most of the settings are pre selected, you just keep turning the dial till you too scared to go any further.

    Also reminds me of Top Gear’s comparison between the e63 M6, the 911, and the AM Vantage. Hammond talks about how the M6 is the quickest to 60, and Clarkson has him try to prove that, but of course, is delayed by all the menus and setting he has to go through before actually launching the car.

  • avatar

    I can’t believe the reactions on here. Road conditions differ. Driving on track is completely different than driving to the grocery or in the snow. Different tracks are different. Different trips in the car have different missions.

    A car like the RS4 is designed to accommodate a huge variety of conditions and styles. As an owner, I might want it to feel like a Lexus driving out to dinner, then tighten up into an agile track-rat on Sunday. Driver adjustability means more than “Street, Sport, and Race”. Different drivers might like heavier steering or lighter damping. Different roads may favor different settings.

    Your closet likely contains hundreds, if not thousands, of combinations of things to wear. That doesn’t mean it’s complicated to figure out what to put on in the morning. Why does everyone like things that are Apple styled, with one button?

    Adjustability is good. Driving is varied. I just wish someone could come up with a way to change the tires on the fly…

  • avatar

    Funny, I think folks said the same about the E92 vs E46. More weight, more performance, less thrills + feel

  • avatar

    Umm…I’m not sure I understand your preamble – Chris Harris was quite right about Miatas, and so is his take on adjustment theatre….

  • avatar

    I am obsessed with steering. I’m always tweaking the alignment, playing with tire pressure, and on one car I figured out how to disable the power steering. My preference is for a car that’s tuned at the factory for firm, responsive steering instead of fingertip parallel parking, but second choice would be the ability to dial in my own settings.

  • avatar

    Coming from the world of cameras…. adjustability is probably a bad thing. Even among the very proficient (amateurs anyway), many tend to get it wrong… or at least sub optimally. The best in photography don’t adjust a million variables, they tend to constrain the adjustments to only a few that matter most, and let the computer handle the rest. And that’s at the enthusiast end of the spectrum. Many amateurs are decent at what they do, but the vast majority of them either use it on auto or semi-auto mode.

    Do you want an Android car or do you want an Apple car? The Android car has many things adjustable, but no manual telling you what works best for which situation. The Apple car works great but is fairly much defined as how the manufacturer wants it.

    Unless you are competing on a track, my view is that it is ‘adjustment theater’, because the myriad of changes that can occur, the two that matter the most in race setup… spring rates and gear ratios… can’t be changed with a flick of a switch. So it’s ‘pretend speed’… not that it’s a bad thing… sports cars are for recreation, after all.

    However, aren’t the most memorable cars “Apple” cars… cars whose character is defined by the manufacturer? I think in that sense, the original NSX is the ultimate ‘Apple’ car… who is going to argue with the fact that the setup was developed with Aryton Senna? I can only hope that somebody in Honda has the inspired notion to dust off the notes on Senna’s feedback and to incorporate them into the next gen NSX… hybrid or not.


  • avatar

    OK, so if you don’t want to tinker buy a Corolla.

  • avatar

    The fundamental problem is that there is a disconnect, particularly in performance cars, between how the cars are marketed and how they are actually used. Performance cars are marketed based on “ring” times, 0-60 times, hp, etc. Performance cars are mostly used on the street where the cars have gotten so fast that these performance measures are largely meaningless on public roads. Auto journalists, I suspect, like these measures because it gives the illusion of objectivity to their reviews. All of this tends to hide what makes a performance car enjoyable on public roads. Adjustability is a way for car makers to continue to market cars the way they always have while still producing a car suited for public roads. More than anything else, we need a new model for marketing perfomance cars primarily designed for the street.

  • avatar

    Unless if I’m racing I don’t really care for adjusting anything on my car. I adjust my habits more than my steering feel.

  • avatar


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