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Lotus Elise. (Danielle Boudreau/The Globe and Mail)
Lotus Elise. (Danielle Boudreau/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

The theory of automotive relativity Add to ...

There was a time when I thought a 10-year old car was the height of luxury. But that was when I was driving a 20-year-old car.

Which brings us to the Theory of Automotive Relativity. I thought of it the other day when I took some friends for a ride in a Lotus Elise, a tiny English sports car that could be described as a medieval torture rack with headlights. The door slots are barely large enough to allow the passage of a human being, and the seat padding is what you’d get if you decided to laminate a thin layer of leather on top of two sheets of paper towel.

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“It’s not very comfortable,” one of my friends noted. Most people would agree.

But as far as I’m concerned, the Lotus is a sybaritic luxury barge, given that it has doors and a heating system. If my friends thought the Lotus was bare-bones, they should try an Ariel Atom, a car so stripped that you need to wear a helmet. (And bring a racing suit, too – there’s no windshield.)

Comfort is relative. And so is life itself: Your job may be tough, but compared to an oarsman on a Roman slave ship, you’ve got it easy.

You may have a ratty car, but someone else has one that makes yours look good (like me). By the same token, every car on the road is a decadent, overweight sled compared to a motorcycle, the most elemental powered vehicle ever built.

Since I started out on motorcycles, they serve as my baseline when it comes to assessing comfort and performance. Comfort isn’t their strong suit – riding a sport bike is like being crucified. But their performance is otherworldly – after a Suzuki GSXR 1000, a Porsche Turbo seems a little slow.

Here we see the Theory of Automotive Relativity in its starkest terms. My first motorized vehicle was a 50-cc Honda with lowered handlebars, a ripped seat and a motor that looked like it had been transplanted from a model airplane. The Honda could barely break the speed limit, but after my childhood bicycles, it felt like a rocket.

Then my brother lent me his 350 Yamaha, which made the Honda feel like it was standing still. Then I graduated to a 750-cc race bike that could do close to 300 km/h, and my personal time and space continuum was altered yet again.

I could see that speed was relative. But there was more to it than that. The 750 provided me with some of the best experiences of my life, and also some of the very worst – like a high-speed racetrack crash that left me with a contusion that extended all the way from my skull to my right ankle. (After that, the steel box of a car suddenly looked good again.)

Even so, that race bike was probably the purest machine I ever encountered – I rode in a hurricane of speed blast and engine heat, with nothing in front of me but the racetrack’s blurred grey stripe. My only protection was a fibreglass helmet and a leather suit (which, as I learned, didn’t help much when worst came to worst).

Back to the Lotus, and to the concept of relative comfort. Given my background, any vehicle with cup holders and a sound system is going to come off as a silk-lined emperor’s carriage. But not everyone has the same background. Which explains why manufacturers produce cars like the Infiniti QX56 SUV.

When I road tested one a while back, I was amazed at how much the Infiniti engineers had done to accommodate comfort-seeking human beings: the driver’s seat alone was equipped with 18 electric motors, controlled through a set of buttons that would do justice to an Apollo space capsule. The seat could be raised, lowered, tilted, shifted, heated, cooled, or commanded to give me a back massage, as if it had been colonized by a team of miniaturized geisha girls.

I know a lot of people who would like this. But I wasn’t so sure. To me, there was a direct and unfortunate connection between the QX 56’s spectacular comforts and its prodigious fuel consumption – the QX 56 weighed almost 6,000 pounds (nearly three times as much as the Lotus.) It was a beautifully engineered and manufactured vehicle, but its sheer mass meant that a lot of fuel would be needed to push it down the road.

I’ve always been fascinated with the trade-offs that are at the heart of vehicle design. If humans didn’t expect creature comforts, world demand for oil would probably fall by at least 50 per cent – stripped of padding, air conditioning, heating, stereo and roll-up windows, a car becomes an amazingly efficient machine that can be powered by a tiny engine.

But Automotive Relativity has pushed car design toward the QX56 end of the scale. As a species, we are increasingly addicted to comfort, and for most drivers, the vehicular baseline is not a motorcycle, but a mid-sized sedan or larger. (When I owned a Honda Odyssey van, I was amazed at how many people described it as “small” – to me it was huge.)

Back in the 1800s, stagecoaches had seats that were nothing more than bare wooden boards. Henry Ford’s Model T added padding. And today, the rolling Barcalounger is a fact of life. I do enjoy a comfy seat now and then myself. But then I get in a Lotus, go down a twisting road, and remember what it’s like to drive a truly spectacular machine that’s had every excess ounce pared away. Or has it?

The Lotus has windshield wipers. And even an air conditioner. I can live with that. When it comes to Automotive Relativity, we all find our place on the scale.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

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