Objects of Desire October 2013

Fresh air obsession

By Emily Atkins

Next time you’re out on the road on a warm summer day, take a look at the cars around you. Do any have the windows down? In my unscientific survey, 90 percent of people drive with the windows up and climate control on, no matter what the weather.

I prefer to have the windows open. Fresh air, even what passes for ‘fresh’ in our congested metropolis, is better than recirculated car air.

There’s a reason why barreling down the highway with the top down or windows wide open is a summer ritual. It’s fun, it’s liberating and it feels just a little wild. Having some experience driving race cars that have no windows, I believe you get a greater sensation of speed when the air is buffeting through the vehicle. You are communing with the car and the elements at the same time; what better way to feel alive?

Although I would never buy one, I’ll drive a convertible with the top down when it’s cold out—there are pictures to prove it when I test-drove the Boxster this spring. Only the risk of sunstroke will make me put the roof up. Even then, the windows stay open. In our cruelly short summer season, it still seems a crime to waste any warm day locked inside an artificially cold environment.

So why do most of us drive sealed up in our steel and glass cages? People don’t dislike fresh air; I think it’s the automakers who are causing this behaviour through new car design.

The principles of aerodynamics dictate that closed windows provide better fuel economy than open windows. And most new cars are designed to maximize fuel economy, with the result that opening the windows disrupts the flow of air around the vehicle. The same is true of a convertible. It’s much more aerodynamic with the top, and windows, up.

When you do open the windows in many new cars the resulting buffeting and whoop-whoop vibration at speed threaten to blow out the eardrums of all aboard. Your immediate reaction will be to shut them tight and never open them again, except to get your drink at the drive-through.

There are other good reasons to encourage keeping the windows closed. It forces the driver’s and passengers’ arms inside. With side airbags that pop up out of the windowsills, an arm draped there can get broken if the bag deploys. (Not to mention that proper driving form requires two hands on the wheel.) Communications is another reason. It’s hard to be heard on a hands-free speakerphone with the windows down.

From where I sit, in the driver’s seat of my old 944T that has had the AC removed and a sunroof that doesn’t really work, driving with the windows down is not a choice, it’s a necessity. But it’s a necessity that works. There’s no excessive buffeting or vibration when my old car’s windows are open; I only see this phenomenon in new cars.

The quest for greater fuel efficiency may actually be making us use more fuel by running the AC in our vehicles all the time. I hope the manufacturers know what they are doing and have done the calculations. I’d hate to think we are stuck in our rolling refrigerators, using the air when we don’t have to, just for aerodynamics, not overall fuel savings.

So here’s my challenge to you: try driving your Porsche with the windows down. Soak up some heat, catch the breeze on your face, and if the car makes it uncomfortable for you, complain.

Badly designed windows should be the preserve of software makers. In a car, windows you can use at any speed should be part of the purchase price.

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