It is a question so basic and relevant to those of us who like cars, I found the fact I had no idea of the answer entirely bewildering. It is simply this: how much faster is a really quick car from one place to the next than a really slow car? I didn’t have a clue.
Of course, a lot depends on those places. If they are the start and finish lines of a race track, the question becomes easy to answer. If they lie at either end of a motorway network, it becomes an irrelevance because, if speed limits are obeyed, then both arrive at the same time, and if they’re not, what results is not a test of one car against another but one driver’s nerve against his rival’s.
I did once race a supercar against a family hatch for this magazine, but it was to prove a subtly but significantly different point. Ten years ago, I drove a diesel-powered Ford Focus from Calais to Berlin against a Lamborghini Murciélago, my theory being that whatever time he gained from being able to do 200mph on the autobahn would be lost in having to stop for fuel more often. Rather satisfyingly, we arrived at Berlin’s Schönefeld airport side by side.
This is a 365bhp, rear-drive sports saloon with something to prove. Let’s see...
This time, I wanted a pure driving test, uncomplicated by extended periods on motorways or the need to stop and refuel. A pure point-to- point contest on some of Europe’s best roads, not to see whether a fast car was quicker than a slow one but by how much, and over a 190-mile cross-country route. So we decided to go from bridge to bridge in Wales, from the Severn Bridge in the far south-east of the country to the Menai Bridge in the north-west. The cars would leave at the same time, the difference in their arrival times providing the answer to our question.
Choosing the fast car was simplicity itself. On the cold and damp roads of varying widths on which we would be travelling, I truly believe the Porsche 911 Turbo S is the fastest car in the world. With 572bhp backed by an avalanche of torque combined with four-wheel drive and compact dimensions, it was the perfect weapon for the job.
The slow car was harder to select. It could have been a Dacia Sandero, Fiat Panda or similar but the one I kept coming back to was a Smart Fortwo. Maybe it was the knowledge that we already had the 911 and I subliminally wanted another car noted for its short wheelbase and rear-engine location, but I also liked the incongruity of the tiny city car bombing along trying to keep up with quickest mainstream version of the greatest sports car of all time. Smart was unable to provide a car with the base spec engine, but the automatic ‘Prime’ model that did turn up could still only muster 89bhp and a 0-62mph time of 11.3sec – certainly slow enough to make the point.
But a third component was needed too: a driver. I had already determined I would drive the Smart but who should I put behind the wheel of the Porsche? What was needed was someone who could really drive but who’d also understand what we were trying to achieve and how to play the game. In short, I needed Mauro. Most of you will have seen Mauro Calo dozens of times without realising it, as he spends most of his working life driving for telly programmes both currently and formerly populated by Clarkson, Hammond and May.
When he’s not doing that, he works as a stunt driver on enormous Hollywood productions like Mission: Impossible and driving for people like us. He also used to be the world’s drifting champion. So I was confident that, whatever the result, it wasn’t going to be compromised by an unwillingness on his part to get his foot down.
Now we had the game and its players, all that remained were the rules, of which there were just two. The first was obvious: both cars must follow exactly the same route and not stop. The second was that neither of us was going to flout speed limits, something entirely possible even in the Smart. Yes, this would favour the Smart, but the Porsche still held a crushing advantage: I knew from the off that every overtake I made would need to be executed one car at a time and with meticulous planning. In the Porsche, Mauro would be past almost the instant he pressed the pedal.
And so with a wave of his lens cleaning rag from photographer Luc Lacey, the contest began. The route was kept as simple as possible so as to minimise the chance of either of us going wrong. The only motorway was the first short stretch down the M48 and M4 to the base of the A449, which we’d take north to join the A40 west towards Abergavenny, whereafter we’d be on single-lane roads all the way to the northcoast. We followed the A40 past Crickhowell, then turning north up the A479 to Talgarth where we’d pick up the A470 and follow it all the way to Betws-y-Coed, save for a quick blast along the B4518 from Llanidloes north where it picks up the A470 again at Llanbrynmair.
In Betws, we’d turn left onto the A5 and head through Snowdonia to our destination. Would Mauro get there a minute or an hour before me? I had no clue, though the rate at which he came past and disappeared at the first available opportunity inclined me towards the latter.
I’m not going to dwell on Mauro’s journey in the Porsche, first because you can probably imagine how much fun he had punching his way past what little traffic there was, savouring all that power and torque and ability to use it, and second because just thinking about it makes me jealous. The Smart experience was rather different.
Naturally, the biggest trouble was overtaking. The odd dawdling car was fine so long as it was going very slowly but, if it was doing 50mph when you wanted to be doing 60mph, there was very little in reserve to help you past. Lorries were predictably problematic but the nightmare was the truck stuck behind a slow moving car. Unable to divert around the problem, I had no choice but to sit there, thinking of Mauro disappearing off into the sunset.
But there were other issues too: driving a 911 Turbo S can be like the parting of the Red Sea – everything in front of you just gets out of the way. And while the scarcity of dual carriageways meant the Porsche could not take much advantage of this, the Smart suffered from precisely the opposite effect: at least four times in those few hours other road users saw the Smart and leapt out in front of it, only then to hold it up. They see this tiny little thing beetling down the road and just presume it’s going to get in their way.
Actually, I was discovering precisely the reverse was true: the fact is that once it had acquired both some speed and some free air in which to run, the Smart was not only commendably rapid in give and take conditions, it was terrific fun too. I’m not sure why I was so surprised: if you were setting out to build a car for the pure pleasure of driving, you might well conclude, as did Dr Porsche all those years ago, that a light car of abbreviated wheelbase with both its engine and driven wheels at the back was the way to go. And so it proved.
The Smart was startlingly good in slow corners, diving into the apex, clinging on doggedly and then offering unlimited traction at the exit. The twin-clutch gearbox is still not perfect but now eminently bearable and the engine makes up in sheer enthusiasm much of what it lacks in outright grunt. In short, I started the journey hoping to be mildly amused by the Smart but prepared to be bored to death, but in the end I arrived in Anglesey thoroughly entertained.
And, far more to the point, just nine minutes after the 911. Mauro could hardly believe it and neither could I. “Mate, I promise you I was not hanging about,” he said somewhat redundantly, and nor was he, but the traffic had been a little lighter than expected and the Smart quicker from point to point largely because, while it took an age to accrue speed, once acquired it rarely had to slow down for anything other than traffic. The truth is its average speed on roads for which the 911 could have born was less than 2mph slower.
As for the 911, Mauro was in awe of it, and this is a man who’s driven all there is drive, usually at 45deg to the intended direction of travel. “For this,” he said referring to the journey, “it’s the best car in the world. Nothing would have been quicker today.” He then proceeded to extemporise further on the Turbo S’s grip, traction, the accuracy with which it could be driven and how by far the hardest thing he’d had to do all day was remain within the spirit of the law. “There were times I could have been doing 180mph,” he murmured. “At least...”
Apart from being a remarkably fun way to pass the time, this was an interesting result because it means that while you may well have a lot more fun, exist in a greater level of comfort and have more toys to play with in a six-figure supercar, unless you’re prepared to play fast and loose with your licence and liberty, you’re not going to get there a great deal sooner, even if you load the dice in your favour by basing your journey almost entirely on great driving roads. So next time you find yourself in an uncomfortable rush to get somewhere and driving faster than you want, just slow down and relax because ultimately it’s going to make little difference to your arrival time.
After a few beers and a decent night’s sleep, we spent much of the next day taking the photographs you see here. Normally we’d do these things en route, but of course the nature of the challenge precluded that possibility. And then it was time to go home. I saw the Fortwo sitting there looking ugly, cute and somehow smug all at the same time and thought of the fun we could have together on the journey south. “Mate, you’re going to like that,” I said, tossing the key to Mauro. Me?
I drove the 911 home. The Smart was good – unexpectedly so, to be honest – the Porsche not one whit better than I expected. Which is to say it was sublime.
How much quicker would the Porsche have been if...
We didn’t care about speed limits (which we do) Impossible to say for sure, but possibly up to an hour. Terrifying, huh?
The journey was from Land’s End to John O’Groats Presuming the same average speed differential, just over 40 minutes. There would be little or no advantage either way in the number of fuel stops, for while the 911 burns fuel at approximately twice the rate, so too is its fuel tank almost twice the size. It would, however, take a minute or two longer to fill.
We took the train An Anytime Single fare from Chepstow to Bangor costs £80.60 and the quickest route takes 4hr 44min with one change in Newport. The fuel cost in the Smart, taking an average price for a litre of unleaded petrol to be 123.3p, would be £26.44p. In the 911, the cost would be £51.72p.
Smart Fortwo 90hp Prime Auto vs Porsche 911 Turbo S