Monday, April 30, 2012

R.I.P. Steering Feel, 1900 - 2012

The road tests have been completed, their findings compiled, edited and published.  We've all read the articles - the good news is that Porsche still makes the best sports cars in the world.  The bad news is that steering feel is dead.

The new 981 Boxster and 991 911 remain among the purest and most all-around brilliant driver's cars built today, much as was expected.  They are both lighter, stiffer, faster, more efficient, offer improved braking performance, cornering speeds and have higher levels of refinement and standard equipment.  In all quantifiable areas, the new Boxster and 911 are better cars than their predecessors.  In one less easily gaugeable yet critical way, though, they are worse - they both suffer from lifeless, numb steering. 

What is steering feel?  What it isn't is accuracy, linearity of response, good turn-in or weighting - these are each essential ingredients to a decent steering rack, and all things that Porsche's new EPAS systems are both quite good at.  What steering feel is, is that added tactile delight - granular, effervescent and ethereal.  Gentle tugs, oscillating vibrations, shifting weight and resistance, a steady stream of palpable, physical feedback communicating levels of grip, surface condition and texture.  It's frequently what separates a great car from a merely good one, what makes the machine feel like a living, breathing, organic thing - what blurs the line between car and driver, where the magic lies.

For a while now, we've all been aware of the steadily encroaching numbness of modern cars, the lessened role of the driver.  A complex mix of increased consumer demand for power and convenience combined with stricter government controls on safety, efficiency and pollution have led manufacturers to pursue ever-more complex electronic systems - systems that enhance outright performance at the expense of feel, at the expense of fun.  Driving is an analog experience, digitizing it removes a lot of color and warmth from the equation - much like how a piece of music in MP3 format sounds less real, less vibrant and life-like than the same recording played back on vinyl through quality components. 

But I am no Luddite, in fact my belief in science is as close as I get to religion - my faith in progressive thought and action's ability to alleviate all conflict and struggle on Earth is total and unwavering.  At the same time, however, I believe we should take care to ensure that new technologies do not over-sanitize our world - I realize I'm only talking about steering feel here, but it's a slippery slope, and who wants to eat soy bacon anyway? 

What it comes down to is this - if Subaru is able to engineer a modicum of feel and liveliness into the BRZ/FT 86's similarly electrically-assisted rack, why can't Porsche do so on a car that costs 300% (to start!) more?

Porsche are arguably the last bastion of driving purity, the keepers of the feedback flame - when they throw in the towel on equipping their most iconic sports cars with a feelsome, communicative helm, the party's well and truly over.  At least they saw fit to develop a manually-shifted version of their seven speed PDK dual-clutch box - surely at no small expense, a consolation prize to be very grateful for.  The writing's on the wall though, and soon the third pedal and floppy gearshift joystick will also be relegated to history.  This is the golden age - savor it.

10 comments:

  1. Excellent essay. I have theorized for a long time that human beings are evolving technology which surrounds us, beyond any of our inherent needs. One sees this in all areas: why are product innovations and improvements constantly offered when we did not request it, or needed it. It is as if technological advancements are made to satisfy our intellectual curiosity and the idea of progress in the hope that we will develop a need for it later. I have been very unhappy with the never-ending loading of more and more electronic gadgets into cars which takes away the purity of driving and simply adds to the price and weight. And nobody asked for it.

    All the best, and excellent blog btw.
    Etienne

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    1. Certainly a lot of human ingenuity could be used more constructively.

      Thank you, Etienne.

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  2. absolutely beautiful and true.
    some companies, like Mazda, and some individual cars, like the Mitsu. Lancer Evo still have the magic, but they seem to me little guttering flames in the darkness.

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  3. Hey Alan, great article and thanks for delineating steering feel and separating it from steering weight and linearity.

    Maybe the 997's will hold value better against the 991's due to the difference in the steering feel or maybe 90% of Porsche buyers will never notice the difference anyway!

    I have a Mazda 3 and surprisingly for a $25k car, the steering fizzes with tugs, pulls and vibrations directly in relation to the road surface. It doesn't have much weight but oh boy, can the wheel talk!

    I drove an R8 (V8), SLS AMG, 997 911 Turbo on the track and currently own a BRZ.

    The R8 and SLS were numb and non-granular and surprise surprise, the 911 wheel bubbled with feel and granularity and I swear the Mazda 3 with the electrohydraulic setup comes atleast 70-80% close to what the 911 achieves with its hydraulic rack.

    The BRZ is not as numb as the R8 and SLS but not as granular as the Mazda 3. It has excellent weight and linearity and loading and if you push hard, you can get some tugs and pulls from the wheel.Now, I am trying to find an on/off switch for the BRZ so that I can turn off the electric motor when I am driving fast.

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    1. Hi Anon.,

      Thanks for reading.

      I've driven a few Mazda3's and they're remarkably good little cars. If I were in the market for a mid-size hatch they'd be at the top of my list. I hope Mazda's sporting ethos survives!

      MB's notorious for numb steering, but I'm surprised at your assessment of the R8, as previously I've heard it's the only Audi with a decent rack - perhaps compared to their other cars it's feelsome, which of course is pretty faint praise.

      A power assistance on/off switch would be super-cool, good luck with that and please keep me posted.

      Alan

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    2. Thanks Alan.

      Yeah, both my girlfriend and I drove the R8 with anger on the track and came back unimpressed with the steering. But the 997 wheel bucks and tugs with understeer if you enter a corner too fast or pulls with oversteer with too much mid-corner throttle. Excellent steering setup.

      By the way, I just wanted to let you know I found this blog post while Googling "how to improve steering feel like Porsche"! I will keep you updated on the BRZ.

      I am curious if you have driven Lotus's (or Lotii). They are the other manufacturer at the pinnacle of steering feel and I haven't driven any, so, I am curious what you think.

      Regards,
      S

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    3. Hey S.,

      I've never driven a Lotus, but have lots of experience with MK1 AW11 MR2's, which depending on who you believe may or may not have been at least partially based on an abandoned Lotus project, but did undoubtedly benefit from Lotus final chassis tuning.

      They have nice, accurate, manual racks that aren't geared too fast and which are quite light above parking speeds, but really burst with life and feel. AW11's are the cars that made me a steering connoisseur..

      I'd love to own a nice used MK2 Elise someday, but not sure I'd take it over a BRZ for similar money.

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    4. Alan,

      I have always wanted to drive a Lotus. Now, I will keep an eye out for the AW11's too.

      Thanks.

      S

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    5. S,

      Please keep me updated.

      Cheers,

      Alan

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