What does Buying a Good Car Sound Like?
I am sitting on the couch and watching a rerun of Top Gear.
Jeremy Clarkson is trying to drive a Mercedes AMG from England to Oslo faster than his colleagues can get there by ferry and bus. I have seen this episode before, but an episode of Top Gear is always enjoyable no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
Jeremy is driving through the Øresund tunnel when he suddenly winds down the window, puts the pedal to the metal and laughs like a 5 year old bully who has stolen candy from a baby.
“Listen to that noise!” he yells, as if proclaiming it from the rooftops, while a chorus of chattering teeth comes booming from the TV.
The subwoofer is jumping like crazy in the corner of the room and sure enough, it sounds absolutely wonderful. At just that moment it feels like I should spend the rest of my life in the tunnel, sitting in a car with the music up loud and the windows down. Seconds later Jeremy drives out onto the Øresund Bridge. The BBC has spared no expense: A helicopter pans the bridge as the AMG glides across, the sun is shining, the water glistens and suddenly I’m not sure if I’m watching Top Gear or a “Visit Sweden” commercial. Either way, it is breathtakingly beautiful.
The motor can’t be heard anymore, but thinking back to the noise in the tunnel I realize that manufacturers must put a lot of time and effort into how cars sound – and by that I don’t only mean the engine. All of the sounds a car makes are important. How the car sounds when the door is closed, when the ignition is switched on, the tick of the turn signal and, in some countries in Southern Europe, even the horn.
I realize that I appreciate the reassuring, muffled clunk when the door shuts on my Audi. I especially appreciate that it is quiet in the passenger compartment but that they still managed to make sure that the engine sound from the V6 is clearly heard when shifting down and pressing on the gas. I have noticed on several occasions that it sounds cooler in the passenger compartment than outside the car and realize that it is probably exactly what Audi’s engineers had planned it.
Jeremy has driven quite a way up the west coast of Sweden and is now approaching the Norwegian border, a road I have traveled many times. A Cheshire Cat grin spreads across my face when I realize that he will soon reach the Mecca of safety cameras, where it doesn’t matter how fast your car is – in Norway you drive slowly. Period.
My mind wanders on and I realize that for all the time car manufacturers spend on the sound their cars make, they spend no time on the noises and the way it sounds in the showrooms that will attract prospective buyers to spend more money than they had ever dreamed of spending on something as trivial as a car.
I know this because I had the privilege of observing how a far-sighted contractor saved BMW’s skin when a showroom was opening on the most exclusive street in Brussels.
The design was planned down to every last detail. Nothing had been left to chance – except the sound environment. Though the sirens of Greek mythology had long ago learned the seductive power of sound, it appears they had neglected to brief BMW’s marketing department about the effect of sound on potential customers.
But suddenly, like a super hero from the 50ties, a brave Belgian entrepreneur strode in, and as if out of nowhere, the day was saved.
Because when you’re trying to decide if you should get 21″ alloy wheels, you really don’t want to hear an old lady babbling on trying to persuade her husband that they should buy a condo instead. You couldn’t care less what flavor of ice cream some little girl has decided to proclaim she deserves while you’re trying to enjoy the beautiful lines of the BMW 6 Series. And you don’t want to hear an espresso machine whirring away while you’re taking in that unique new car smell, because smell is every bit as important as sight and sound. But that is another story for another time.
The bald guy