I took my Espace to the skid-pan ....

22 sep 2004.

In september 2004, I was invited to a full-day skid-pan training course. Unfortunately my Murena is currently off the road with "heart trouble", awaiting a transplant or major surgery, - so my only choice was to take the Espace (J63 1994 turbodiesel). Not that it's a bad choice, but as it is my wifes's daily transport, I had to make special arrangements (flowers? :-) ). The venue for this driving school is a small, local skidpan and small track. It is only about a mile long, but sports a number of challenging constructions, such as skidpan in both straight and bends, an even a skidpan-bend on a steep hill:

The tyres on my Espace are the same terribly worn ones I bought the car with, - new ones are in the pipeline, but could not be fitted in time for this event. However, even with these lousy tyres the car did so well I just had to write this article :-)

I also bought the car with faulty tracking, which means that both front tyres had been worn to slicks on the outer 1.5 inch of the tread. I obviously had the tracking fixed but even if tyre-wear went back to normal, the tyres were still badly damaged. Of course I should have replaced them straight away, I know, I know - but consider for a moment that I live in a country where car-taxes mean that I paid the same for my 10 year old, 180,000km Espace J63, as a new one cost in the UK (!).

I therefore have postponed the purchase of those alloys and tyres, because in a months time, the car will be back onto the almost new winter tyres again, giving me 6 months to get the summer-wheels sorted. :-)

My only option was to switch front/rear tyres around, putting the less worn "Roadhog Supreme" in front, and the totally worn out "Hankook thingies" on the rear. Consequently I was fully expecting to be the "track clown", you know the one, always ending up going backwards or sideways through the corners, or spinning off the skidpan as soon as I touched the brakes. With no ABS I was certain that this would happen anyway. So I presented all this misery (rubbish tyres, no-ABS etc) to the instructor, and asked him to be gentle with me :-)

He agreed that the tyres certainly didn't look too good, and instructed me to keep the brake pedal fully down, if (when!) I started to spin, so he could get a better idea of roughly where I was off to. The problem is that the track runs 2 or 3 classes at the same time, and we were going to do the straight skidpan maneuvers side by side with the truck drivers who were doing their braking and "avoid maneuvers" just next to us on the 60ft wide track :-)

The other cars were all modern models,- 2 Mondeos, a Seat Toledo a Zafira and a brand new VW Golf. All of course fitted with ABS and fairly new rubber. All of them had MUCH MUCH better looking rubber than my car

We then took to the track, starting off in the skidpan-curve, where we should see how fast we could go, while still being able to steer through the curve. The first car was the Golf, which did reasonably well - 40km/h and only a slightly loose backend. Next was the Toledo with about the same result (except she was only doing 35km/h). Then the Mondeos, where one under-steered badly and the other almost fell off the track (!). His tyres were Goodyear NCT5, which are widely described as "long-life tyres, with great dry-performance, but sub-optimal wet performance". BOY, was that sub-optimal!
The Zafira also came close to running off the track, so I was prepared for the worst, and went into the curve at 40.0 km/h ...

... and just drove through it !

Several attempts later, I was cruising through the bend at 50km/h with full control - only slight understeer, but I could still easily keep the car on the right line by gently catching whatever traction I could find. The NCT-Mondeo never made it above 35km/h

I was astonished, and so was the instructor. It turned out that I was - by far - the fastest in that bend. None of the modern cars could match that old J63 on its hopeless tyres. ! Well, it was obvious that these 4-5 year old (Swedish) "Roadhog Supreme" tyres were not so bad after all. Despite their age and wear.

Then we did "brake & avoid" tests on dry road, including slalom before the braking zone, and here I could actually brake just as well as the ABS cars. I ended up doing slalom at 70km/h and then into the brake & avoid zone, nicely avoiding the cones, and then stopping before the next set of cones.

I made an attempt at just over 80 km/h where I finally found the limit, - and couldn't get the car stopped in time. I think it was partly caused by me putting "panic-pressure" on the brake-pedal. Those cones were coming very rapidly towards me, and it felt so wrong not to touch the brakes until I crossed that line. But at 80 km/h I was actually doing this maneuver faster than any of the others, so it was nothing to be ashamed of. At most other (lower) speeds, I could still stop my beloved Espace just as quickly as they we able to, - ABS or not.

The Zafira (driving just in front of me) was terribly unstable in the slalom - with *huge* body-roll, - it never came to rest before the braking, so he had to simply avoid first, and then brake later. This was quite characteristic for the car (possibly also the driver). It looked quite scary, unpleasant and dangerous.

The instructor commented that he had never seen any MPV - or any standard car for that matter, with such a great brake-balance as on my Espace. It was obvious to him that it could use all 4 wheels for braking, and was therefore very effective. The moderate body-roll probably was a major reason for the excellent stability, and good performance in the slalom. "What a wonderful car!" he exclaimed.

I could only agree.

Braking on the skidpan was the only test where I obviously could have done better with ABS. It is so difficult to feel if the wheels are rotating or not. The slicks-like tyres obviously plays a big role for this problem. I found, however, that tiny steering input could give me a little feedback, so I could lift off the brakes slightly and get the wheels rolling again - not that you should press any further than when you hear the click of the micro-switch that operates the brake-light though :-)

But even if I this way had a little feel of the wheels, I was obviously no match for the computerized ABS systems, and had to use far longer braking area on the skid-pan.

However avoiding things on the skidpan was easy, provided I used very gentle steering-input, retaining the grip - which actually was quite easy to feel, even through the power-steering. (again, those tyres must be credited for delivering the needed grip)

I learned the lesson that if I run into a bad situation on slippery road, it would be far easier and safer to steer around it, rather than attempting to brake; this also applies to the ABS cars. The ABS doesn't cancel the laws of physics, - so if you start using the available grip to turn, then there is no braking effect anyway. It was quite apparent that steering while braking on (very) slippery ground was simply NOT possible - even with ABS. You end up with locked wheels, and since there is not enough traction to make them start rolling again, its just not the way to go.

Then we lined up for the last test of the day - the one I had feared the most: the braking with the left wheels on the skidpan, and the right ones on the tarmac, so there is a huge difference in traction between left and right, so I fully expected to go for a spin.

But I didn't.

I started braking, and of course the car weared to the right, but I was surprised by how easy it was to keep the car in a straight line nevertheless. A little steering input, and moderate pressure on the brakes.

I stopped as quickly as the others (actually better than some), - both I and the instructor were completely gobsmacked, - we had fully expected something wild and spectacular. I could only shake my head in disbelief. This is an incredible car.

Is there anything special in the braking system on the J63 that could explain this ?? I surely must have blocked my left wheels, as I was braking much quicker than with all 4 wheels on ther skidpan, - but with locked left wheels, I would have expected much more violent behaviour, which should not just be correctable by a little steering input?. Either that, or something in the braking system transfered the force to the wheels with good traction ?

Deeply impressed I went home, wondering what lies behind this cars excellent behaviour. I have no doubt that low centre of gravity plays an important part as does the Panhard-(rear)axle, plus the firm anti-roll bars.

There is an interesting article about the Panhard axle here: http://www.rpmnet.com/techart/panhard.shtml which shows a number of ways you can tune such a system, and my conclusion is that Matra achieved that "spot on" !

When we had all finished having a go at one of the tests, we then had to make it all the way around the track (only 1 mile) - and I (obviously) grabbed the opportunity to be a little "enthusiastic". "Racing" in a 2.1 turbo-diesel is a sort of an oxymoron, but I did go almost as quickly through the first two corners as I have previously done in the Murena, which is quite impressive.

Above 60km/h the front understeered slightly, this could be compensated by throttle input using the excellent torque of that turbo-diesel ... foot down, and the front came back into line. Great feeling!

However, going a little over 65km/h through the middle of that corner-complex had the back stepping out, this simply helped getting the car to point the right way, effectively putting the car into an easily controlled 4-wheel drift. However the gravel did rapidly come closer, so I preferred keeping it below 65. I'm not sure the 4-wheel drifting was quicker overall anyway.

The weird thing was that I could keep the same speeds in that corner at the end of the day, even when it had started raining (?!), - the only difference being that the tyres didn't squeal. :-)   That is, by the way my only complaint about those Roadhog tyres, - they squeal even when you turn rather slowly on dry tarmac, which is almost embarassing (you scare the old ladies). Also road-noise while driving is louder than average, - but with that wet performance, I'm willing to live with it :-)

I cannot understand why nobody apparently race MPV's - There are special race-series for almost anything else. I mean, in UK you have lawnmower races !! - then why not MPV's ?

The Espace would be very hard to beat. (In fact, BBC's TopGear did this once, with the Espace as #1 and #2, but as far as I know, it was only a one-off race). I enjoyed myself tremendously that day, and I'm looking forward to whenever I can get to go there again, - in any car for that matter.

Of course, some of this was up to my "enthusiast knowledge" of driving, but I'm no genius either. The Espace is just *such* a great car, I'm so happy to own one, and want another - or two.

Lennart Sorth, Sep. 2004