September 14th, 2010

Steering wheels: a car’s business card

A wise man once advised me that car tyres should never be scrimped on, because no matter how good any safety features or trick brakes may be, those four pieces of rubber are the only parts in contact with the blacktop. This is very true and has been proved many times over in real testing. Much like the two second rule, what better way is there to remember this than with a jingle? How about ‘you’ll never live long with a Linglong’?

The same principle is true of so much in life, both metaphorically and from a technical point of view. A mechanical component for example is only ever as strong as its weakest link, and no matter how well you train for a marathon, a mere 8mm heel blister can still make a man wince in pain.

Going back to the car though, there is another connection at the opposite end that is of monumental importance. Not so much for the safety or integrity of the vehicle, but for driver satisfaction. It is a design choice, and one where the variation between bad and good makes little monetary value to the bean-counters at the manufacturer.

To put it bluntly, there is absolutely no excuse for a bad steering wheel. It is the one main reign the driver has over his steed; it is the device through which a copious amount of road feedback is relayed and summarised (electric PAS excepted), and of course it is one of very few contact points whatsoever. Those first corners fluidly strung together are the car’s initial handshake with its driver, and no one likes a bad handshake, do they?

The steering wheel has the ability to transform the most generic shopping cart into a more amusing drive simply by becoming as small as is practical, with a firm but tactile-rich rim, and of a spoke design that appeals to ‘quarter to three’ sporting palms. If you don’t believe me, try fitting a 270mm go-kart steering wheel to a Perodua Nippa – you’ll have the time of your life, I guarantee it.

Extravagant materials are generally inconsequential, leather is merely a luxury, and anything will do within reason as long as it has the correct proportions.

Have a glance at a mid-spec E39 BMW 528i. This model was equipped with rack and pinion steering instead of the space-saving steering box of the more expensive 535i and 540i V8 models. If the M5 is ignored, the 528i was known to be the drivers’ pick of the whole range. Yet look at the standard-fit steering wheel – leather, but with a shape that felt like twisting a giant B&Q letterbox in its display stand. In stark contrast, look what Ford managed in its vastly cheaper Fiesta and Puma at the time; a small moulded plastic rim that was cheap (and felt it), yet chunky, 3-spoke and perfectly proportioned. If it wasn’t for fears of copyright infringement, I’d have penned a song about how good this wheel felt under my thumbs.

There are obvious exceptions to the rule, such as a raft of nineties cars when the airbag was new technology in its infancy. These rather pregnant looking beach-balls of excess were inevitably unavoidable as the technology took its foothold, but it seems that some manufacturers forgot to remedy the situation as time moved on.

Ever the instigators of unexplained styling flourishes, Citroen are pictured in the dictionary under the world ‘quirky’, and it is no different in the world of their steering addenda. Whether it is a classic and achingly cool one-spoke job, or a modern hatch where the centre stays still as the rim turns, nearly all bring satisfaction that characterises the fun, chic and slightly eccentric nature of the overall product.

I think my conclusion is that a steering wheel is effectively the car’s business card. It could impress aesthetically with a novel, impacting design like the wowing print of a graphic designer or personal stylist’s glamorous card. This would be ideal for a new model trying to make a pleasing impact without sporting pretensions.

Alternatively, it should appear and feel businesslike, fit for purpose, and able to convey the hard work and ability of the person(s) the ‘card’ is representing. In this case, it is the design engineers who honed the chassis setup, as otherwise much of their effort is wasted. You might as well fit some remoulds.

James Winstanley

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