I’ve watched the Eurofighter whipping through the air at countless air shows, with commentators explaining that its shape is intrinsically unstable. This makes it more manoeuvrable, but without the super-fast flight computers it would be impossible to fly.
I think that car companies could be thinking along similar lines. Electronics, specifically ESP systems, are now so advanced that cars (even humble ones) can be set up to be more agile, leaving stability systems to replace the safety margin previously engineered into the chassis.
Why? Because I've just been testing a new Golf at the MIRA test facility. On the dry circuit it proved impressively willing to change direction, with little understeer. No complaints there.
But on the wet circuit something rather odd happened. Brushing the brakes mid corner, or even backing off the throttle, and the Golf tightened its line quite sharply. Of course this isn’t a problem, because ESP is standard across the range, and is so quick-acting that it keeps the Golf on line.
Even if you hit the ‘ESP off’ button, the electronic safety net is still there, working away. You could drive the Golf like an utter incompetent and it would go exactly where you want, without any risk of facing the wrong direction.
But what would happen if the unlikely happened and ESP failed? I’m not going to tell you how, but in the name of science I disengaged it completely. The result? Several armfuls of corrective lock.
Now this could be down to tyres – from our 2007 tyre test, I know that Bridgestone’s Potenzas are not especially clever in wet conditions. Or has VW given the Golf more front-end bite, knowing that the electronics will sort out any rear-end slip? It certainly drives that way.