The changing face of fast cars

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The country town of Bathurst can take some credit for the love affair Australians have with fast cars.

Since the early days of the Bathurst 500 and, later, the Bathurst 1000 there has been an infatuation with owning the cars that won the Great Race.

Whether it's diminutive Minis punching above their weight or locally-made V8s lapping the challenging Mount Panorama track at 300km/h, we've long been drawn to cars that can do plenty more than simply transport you to your destination.

In response, manufacturers stepped up their efforts to create faster, meaner muscle cars, creating a homegrown fleet of heroes that still attract attention today.

While Australians grew up on a diet of locally-made performance machines, our changing tastes mean we have embraced the growing number of imported options.

Of course, the modern racers have almost nothing to do with the cars gracing showrooms.

But the connection is still there – in soul, at least.

Vast distances in Australia have also helped cement our love of big-engined cars. After all, there's something addictive about covering vast kilometres safe in the knowledge you have ample grunt under your right foot.

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Huffing and puffing

Speak to lovers of old school performance cars and they'll tell you "there's no replacement for displacement". In other words, the bigger the better in the engine department.

Engines had been growing for decades, but more recently we've seen forced induction – turbochargers and superchargers – employed to boost outputs, in some cases reducing the capacity.

Shoving more air in also delivers big gains across the rev range, in turn improving driveability, for a broader spread of performance.

It also helps cars meet increasingly stricter emissions regulations by burning cleaner and leaner.

That translates to cars that are faster and more driveable – all while being gentler on the environment.

Automatic thinking

There was a time when it was a pre-requisite for a performance machine to have a manual gearbox.

But the traditional DIY transmission has succumbed to the march of technology, to the point where self-shifters now dominate the performance scene.

Modern automatics typically have between six and 10 ratios, comfortably outgunning the old school thinking.

Computers mean they can shift faster than anything a human could get close to, while delivering lower fuel use.

And advanced twin-clutch units – effectively manual gearboxes with two computer-controlled clutches – allow for blistering launch control take-offs.

Besides, if Formula 1 is happy to drop the clutch pedal, it must be OK.

Soak it up

Performance cars are compromised to make them fun and fast.

In the past that's been particularly noticeable in the way they tackle bumps, the stiff suspension designed to improve athleticism and handling but doing nothing for those with back problems.

In modern performance cars, suspension systems are more advanced, often utilising adjustable dampers, which can be stiffened or softened instantly.

Add things such as active stabiliser bars and active engine mounts and it further pushes the boundaries, making the drive soothing when you want and sharper when it's time to ramp things up.

Modern electric steering systems (replacing hydraulic systems) can also be tailored to driver preferences, with additional weight abled to be dialled up for a purer experience.

Listen up

Fast cars are not just about pace.

They're about X-factor and the driver experience; how they make you feel, something the exhaust system plays a key role in.

Regulations can make those old school exhaust systems that could wake neighbours three blocks away impossible to reproduce.

It can be difficult to faithfully replicate between the layers of technology making things safer/smarter/more efficient.

These days, what you think you're hearing from the exhaust may well be from the sound system. Synthesised sound is increasingly common, to the point where it can be difficult to pick from the real stuff.

Even if all the sound you're hearing is a result of the explosions from the engine, the exhaust itself has been carefully tuned to make all the right sounds.

Exhaust flaps can take a car from mild to wild.

Sometimes engineers even run piping into the cabin to emphasise certain frequencies – all in the name of a more engaging experience.

Get out and play

Top speeds in excess of 300km/h and the ability to touch 100km/h in a handful of seconds is not conducive to roads that are more heavily policed than ever.

In the past owners would find a deserted back street or unleash in traffic.

Nowadays there are safer options.

Rally events such as Targa Tasmania often allow everyday cars to follow the racing fleet while the roads are still closed to the public.

Or there are skid pans where sliding and sideways action is encouraged.

Tracks such as Sydney Motorsport Park or Sandown Raceway hold regular drive days whereby owners of fast cars can push them to the limit.

Or you can join the courses offered by manufacturers, which sometimes allow a high-speed thrash around some special places, including Bathurst's Mount Panorama or Phillip Island.

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