Theme : Benchmarks – Introduction

Benchmarking – The Editor ask if it measures up?

FrankensteinBenchmarking has become a common practice in our world. Even estate agents ‘benchmark’ their performance but, of course, the original benchmarks were just what they suggested, marks on a bench for an artisan to use for fast measuring of standard lengths of material. As such, in an industry that has its basis in engineering, the term is used more reasonably in the automotive world than in politics or banking though, this month, we consider automotive Benchmarks in the broader, more modern sense.

In life we build on the achievements of others and, in time, others will build on our achievements. So it is in the motor industry. We might identify the first car to use a mass-produced four valve, four cylinder engine (the Triumph Dolomite Sprint) but it didn’t necessarily go on to set the standard for all subsequent such cars. In fact it is impossible to look at a single car and say that this is a template that all other cars should aspire to. Yet totems such as the VW Golf, BMW 3 Series and Mercedes S Class, all undeniably excellent in their own way, do become benchmarks against which other cars are judged and, invariably it seems, are seen to fall short. Is that healthy?

One problem is that the setting of such benchmarks is not scientific, it is not objective. A true benchmark only relies on a single criterium that is entirely unambiguous. This is not the case with cars. Too often we judge a car that appeals to our more juvenile instincts and not our more socially responsible ones. Or, despite the fact that the car is undoubtedly a disposable item with, probably, less of an anticipated lifetime than its equivalent of twenty years ago, design fetishists look for perfect shutlines and fine materials, as if they were judging an item of bespoke furniture that they assume will appear on Antiques Roadshow in 2270, rather than being scrap metal a decade later. Are these the benchmarks that the average car buyer really needs?

Other benchmarks are set by legislation and marketing, and they are not helpful either. The need to achieve competitive fuel consumption figures which are arrived at by putting a car through a rather artificial fixed cycle could be said to compromise its behaviour in the real world of everyday driving.

Another benchmark for certain vehicles is the Nurburgring lap time with, for today’s hypercars, the need to break 7 minutes becoming seen as an essential face saver.  This is surely a case where one highly skilled driver sets a figure so that somewhat less skilled owners can bask vicariously in its glow, even though they will never even attempt to match it themselves.

On one level it is healthy not to be insular, to see what others are doing and to judge yourself in relation to them. But it is unhealthy to pretend to be them. The problem is that too many manufacturers look to individual successes and try to mimic them on the most superficial level. Thus, Citroen references the MINI with its DS3 and, by any logical benchmarking process, comes up short. But this doesn’t worry Citroen, they still sell a lot of them. Thus, a benchmark becomes considered as something you should try to get reasonably close to, rather than something you should exceed. As is so often is the case, the motor industry sets its sights woefully low.

So, should we not be looking at those paragons in motoring – the ride of a Citroen DS, the smoothness of a BMW inline six, the build quality of a Golf – and say that these are the minimum that is acceptable and that, if a new product doesn’t set a new and better benchmark, then something is seriously wrong?

But, in the end, we at DTW are as pragmatic as anyone.  So this months Benchmarks may be highly personal or they may be totally focussed. Please proceed.

2 thoughts on “Theme : Benchmarks – Introduction”

  1. Thanks for that Simon. While a benchmark should be an absolute reference, they seem more often than not to be relative. In the car industry, the ideals change from decade to decade. It is possible for benchmarks to sink into irrelevance. Were it not the case I suppose we´d be driving cars more futuristic than a DS, as quiet as a Rolls Royce and as cheap as a Kia Picanto, all in one. What precisely is the relevance of the image? Is that all DTW had left in the archive?

  2. Yes, I hesitate to offer a conclusion before we have even begun, but I fear we are going to decide that true, rigorous benchmarking is very rare in the motor industry.

    As regards Richard’s comment about the header photograph, I apologise for the ambiguity of the image. I had considered a choice of my own personal automotive benchmarks – The Jowett Javelin, the Fairthorpe Electron, The DeLorean, but dismissed them. In my fuddled old mind it was an attempt at irony, which I assumed was popular with the younger generation. The reference was to what happens when, as in the case of Victor Frankenstein, benchmarking goes awry.

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