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Vehicle Dynamics 101:
The basic theories of vehicle dynamics (handling) are often a mystery due to the complex scientific principles involved. In this article and the one which follows I will try to explain these principals in plain language.
We begin by clarifying the point which sets the Fiero apart from other American production cars, it is a mid engined car. Mid engine designs put the engine within the wheelbase, usually behind the driver (some front engine cars can qualify, such as the Panoz Lemans racer). This is the preferred layout of racing cars since it results in a low polar moment of inertia, let me explain:
If you have ever watched a figure skater in a spin you may notice that as he pulls his arms in towards his body he spins faster, arms out, he slows down. What the skater is doing is changing his polar moment of inertia, lowering it as he brings his arms in and raising it as he pushes them back out. Concentrating the mass at the centre allows for faster rotation, thus a quicker reacting car.
The Fiero has a slightly rearward weight balance and a low polar moment of inertia, these factors make it a responsive car but also a less stable car. Chevrolet in the C5 Corvette placed the engine at one end and the transmission at the other to get a 50-50 weight distribution and a high polar moment, although this makes the car slightly less responsive it makes it more stable at high speeds. Ferrari has gone the same route with the 550. POLAR MOMENT OF INERTIA DOES NOT DEAL DIRECTLY WITH UNDERSTEER OR OVERSTEER, it effects the transition time or response, the C5 Corvette and Ferrari 550 are extremely capable cars which have quick responses because of careful attention to detail in suspension and very large tires, the high polar moment makes them inherently stable in a straight line. A Ferrari 355, which has a low polar moment due to the mid engine, has "quicker reflexes" but this also translates into a trickier "sneeze factor" (you sneeze, where do you end up?). Many modern mid engine cars have much longer wheelbases than in the past (note the Ferrari 360), although packaging mechanicals and people is a big factor here, the longer wheelbase adds a degree of stability without numbing the reflexes of these machines. To summarize, a low polar moment adds quick responses but an increased tendency to spin, a high polar moment slows responses but adds stability (reduces the tendency to spin).
Understeer, oversteer, neutral, these terms are used to describe the cornering behaviour of an automobile. You may have noted all of the references to how strongly the stock Fiero understeers. These terms refer to slip angles.
"What are slip angles?" is usually the first question to come up. This is the angle between the tire tread centreline and the actual direction the tire is travelling. This tire slip is what causes a moving car to change direction.
NOTE: Motorcycles corner due to an effect called precession caused by extreme camber angles when a bike is leaned into a turn, the same reason why a rolling coin will travel in circles as it tips over. This makes motorcycle handling and motorcycle tire technology a very different study from the automobile.
If the slip angles of the front and rear tires are equal we call the result neutral steer, the car goes around a circle with no change in steering input.
If the slip angle is greater for the front tires we get understeer, more steering input is required to stay on a circle. We say the car pushes or plows, which aptly describes the stock Fiero. Most FWD sedans behave this way because of their very high forward weight bias and the fact that the front wheels are called upon to steer and motivate the car. This is a very "safe" cornering attitude since a spin is not likely.
If the rear slip angle is greater we have oversteer, steering input must be reduced to stay on the circle. Steady state oversteer makes a car difficult to drive since it is always on the verge of a spin, a very unforgiving setup.
PLEASE NOTE: These descriptions are of steady state cornering, any change in speed during a corner will upset this balance and result in what can be called induced effects. For example, the Fiero will tend to oversteer if the speed is suddenly reduced in a corner (such as releasing the throttle or using the brakes). Since this is throttle or brake induced oversteer it is a different issue from the items above and is more related to driving style, weight transfer and suspension design than it is to slip angles. Driver inputs can completely change any car's behaviour and therefore has little to do with our topic.
Neutral to slight understeer is the preferred all around setup since it is forgiving but fast and controllable. This balance is effected by weight distribution, spring rates, anti-roll bars and tire sizes.
To be Continued (next page)........