Friday, December 28, 2012

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

The following is a repost of an article originally published April 30th, 2012.  Holiday family obligations and a never-ending kitchen remodel have temporarily slowed the site to a crawl, but expect a steady stream of fresh new content coming in the first few days of 2013.


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.

3 comments:

  1. I don't understand Porsche's decision to go with EPAS at first blush. They make some of the biggest profits per unit in the industry. EPAS is a great way to cut costs and even though I don't like it, it makes sense in a small car. I don't buy the efficiency line, because its a marginal improvement, but cost is a clear motivator which nevertheless fails to explain Porsche's decision.

    Is it maybe because EPAS is much easier to link into stability control and self-parking? I think that's the answer, and not one that I like.

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    1. I've thought long and hard on it as well, Patrick, and I've come to the same conclusion. I think time will show the recently departed 997 to be the new 993 in terms of collectability.

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  2. Well, there are times that tradeoffs have to be made for the greater good. Still, there's nothing stopping a car enthusiast from grabbing a used car and driving it like hell just to get the old feeling of rough steering.

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