When a car is focused purely on producing mind-bending lap-times around a race track the result can actually be something that is rather less engaging to drive than you might hope in everyday use. For example, the latest Porsche 911 GT3 is an engineering marvel. But while its super-trick, double-clutch gearbox may technically be at the pinnacle of modern shifting performance and ultimately be the fastest way to get yourself around the Nurburgring, a number of people who have driven it have suggested that it removes an important layer of connection between man and machine. Equally, the super-wide and sticky tyres might enable incredible cornering speeds, but they push the cars limits so far into the distance that the driver can end up feeling that they are simply along for the ride rather than an integral part of the driving experience.
Porsche have also introduced another car, the Cayman GT4, which, in numbers-terms is essentially a less extreme 911 GT3. Less power, less grip, less weight and a standard, manual gearbox. What’s interesting is that the motoring press are falling over themselves to praise this car and the general public seem to agree (they sold out almost instantly). In terms of outright performance there would appear to be no contest between the two German cars, but as an experience, particularly when driven on the road, the result seems to be far less clear-cut. There’s a compelling argument to say that the smaller, cheaper GT4 is actually the better drivers car.
This represents a more general trend as sports cars become ever more powerful, grippy and laden with technology. While quantitatively they may be more competent than ever, qualitatively they appear to be less fun to drive as driver-aids take on ever more responsibility and modern engineering removes a sense of engagement. This is a large part of the reason why cars like the humble Caterham and the Morgan three-wheeler (and even the cheapest hire car) continue to justify their existence as fantastic driving experiences, despite seemingly using relatively archaic technology.
Is something similar happening in the world of mountain bikes? Enduro and Downhill race bikes continue to get longer and slacker in pursuit of greater control at ever-higher speeds. Chain stay length is an interesting example where this affect can be seen. While some brands are going super-short to create more manoeuvrable bikes, others are extending them in search of greater stability and outright speed. While these latter bikes may be getting quicker between the tapes over a timed run, they may not be quite so much fun down your local woods where the real thrills come from playing with the limits of traction over challenging terrain.
Will we start to see bike manufacturers producing different variants of the same frame? Or will manufacturers start to produce completely separate model ranges based on these two separate aims - one focused on prioritising speed and the other on maximising fun?