Jekyll and Slide
I used to loathe and despise stability control. Call it ESP, DSC, VSA, or any other acronym; I considered it to be a blight on the dynamic prowess of the vehicle and a hindrance to the development of real driving skills. From the moment I stepped from my non-ABS, non-traction controlled, two-pedals-and-an-emergency-brake 1996 Saturn into an electronically-governed-everything 2003 330i, I’ve been on a personal crusade to switch off every driving aid, in every car, whenever I can.
This has led to a few close shaves; most notably the sunny June day when I almost introduced someone else’s Sky Turbo to a wooden state park guardrail. It’s shockingly spiky, with lift-throttle oversteer even an S2000 owner would marvel at; proof that if Saturn couldn’t put you to sleep with their products, they’d settle for killing you instead.
That knuckle-whitening incident, however, was not what sold me on stability control. Nor was it the hydroplaning death of my first S2000, or the multiple times I’ve sat helpless in the passenger seat as a friend’s rally car pirouetted into a ditch.
What convinced me stability control was a good idea was a drive in the new Z4 3.5is M Sport. This is the ultimate Jekyll-and-Hyde car, happy to cruise or flatten you into your seat, coupe or convertible at the press of a button, automatic or fully manual transmission. Most importantly, holding the ESP button for five seconds transforms it from a resolutely understeering boulevardier into an agile, happy-to-rotate devourer of cloverleaf ramps and autocross courses.
This gave me pause for thought. The greatest obstacle to tail-happy handling in modern cars is the looming threat of impending litigiousness when someone lacking the appropriate skill set stuffs their new convertible into something unyielding. Hence the Z4’s schizoid handling; that little button is the safety on a 3200lb gun.
The simple truth is that the majority of consumers have no desire to improve their driving skills. Some welcome the advent of Google’s self-driving Prii, and a few consider anyone with a desire to learn performance driving techniques to be a lunatic and a menace. Thanks to these market pressures and to an ever-increasing volume of legislation, safety and convenience have become the topmost priorities of the automotive industry. We should embrace the incorporation of stability control as giving us a means to opt out of safety-oriented handling. This way, those of us who demand a vehicle well suited to competitive driving can enjoy our car’s wild side, without inexperienced drivers endangering themselves.
This principle is equally applicable to front-wheel-drive cars. Although I have a similar distaste for wrong-wheel-drive, they can be made to handle correctly. The first-generation Golf, DC4 Integra Type-R, and original Civic Si all responded positively to trailbraking. Unfortunately, braking and steering simultaneously has become the first (and usually only) avoidance maneuver in most drivers’ repertoire thanks to the advent of ABS. If this resulted in multiple vehicular revolutions, customers would be displeased. Fortunately, stability control is the answer—oversteer for the enthusiasts, miraculous avoidance of disaster for everyone else.
A final caveat: stability control must be fully switchable for this line of reasoning to be valid. Mercedes has perfected the art of deeply frustrating ESP. In “Off” mode you get the beginnings of a promising rotation, immediately followed by total shutdown, running wide, flattened cones, and the occasional explosive deployment of the rollover bars as the ECU panics. This is less than ideal, and often leads to much pulling of fuses. The VSA standard on later S2000s is incorporated correctly; one press of a button, and it disappears until you press the button again, or cycle the vehicle power.
Love stability control? Hate it? Don’t understand why an orange triangle appears when all you want is to defrost your rear window? Let us know in the comments.
Photos courtesy of world.honda.com and Aaron Gold