In our hands (1)

Not So Fast
Tito F. Hermoso

Posted on November 27, 2013

WELCOME (OR NOT) the daily chore of sawing and steadying that steering wheel. Especially during the wet season, when we are extra vigilant at what we can “feel”. But what actually is steering feel? And this thing that motoring journalists call handling?

What they actually mean by handling is how the car sticks to the road and how quickly it follows the direction you point it at as you turn the steering wheel. Handling is graded on the car’s immediacy of response to the driver’s steering wheel inputs.

Since cars nowadays have power steering as standard, manufacturers fit steering gear ratios that are “quicker”, which require less turns from lock to lock -- i.e. maximum steering wheel angle to the left and to the right.

Handling is affected by a variety of factors beside the steering ratio.

There is shock absorber tuning, spring stiffness, suspension travel, weight distribution, axle unsprung weight, width of track, profile of rubber tire, compound of tire tread, aerodynamic aids, traction end (front wheel drive, rear or all-wheel) and many more.

All these are paths of contact that channel how the car copes with the road. These sensory messages are fed to the hands on the steering wheel and the seat of the pants as the locus of balance.

It used to be simple: if your vehicle was a sports car, quicker steering at the expense of more effort to park was to be expected. Family cars had lighter steering to ease parking but with a little less response sensitivity through winding roads.

Nowadays you can dial in your choice of power assistance, like city, highway and sport mode on Volvo’s latest V40. Or Kia’s Flexsteer with sport, normal and comfort, which in layman’s terms is quite light, light and very light. Or the all-seeing and all-conquering computer can sense the kind of driving you prefer and adjust steering feel accordingly, like in most cars made in the Fatherland.

Despite the hydraulic damping designed into steering racks or boxes to minimize transmission of road shock, almost all car engineers try to mimic the push back and feedback one feels when steering; this the return to the center or straight ahead tendency of all steering. Another extreme was ’60s American car steering that was so light and devoid of any road feel that you didn’t rely or cared to rely on seat-of-pants feel like changes in body lean, shifting of weight, the pull of centrifugal and centripetal forces.

What mattered to driving in stateside road conditions was where the front of the car was pointing to. Wound up with too much speed in a corner? A kick of the loud pedal and that V8 torque would get you out of trouble. That’s why even with soft boulevard cruiser suspension, American car designers never found the need to compensate for sloshing body lean by installing seat side bolsters. Corners were to be slowed into and the bench seats were more than adequate.

Return to center wasn’t always like so. Early McPherson strut applications in early ’70s Ford Escorts and Holden Toranas prevented any return to center and was most disconcerting. Citroen’s daring Maserati-engined SM of the ’70s had hydraulic steering that returned to center even when stationary or parked.

Nowadays, with the advent of electric power assistance, many motoring journalists are put off by the artificial feeling of some Kias and Hyundais that dial in some resistance or fight back when steering tightens in an increasing radius corner, common to mountain passes in Switzerland and the EU.

Whatever kind of steering feel the car maker dials in, it doesn’t change the fact that all is relative to how and where the driver sits. That’s why the correct driving seat is mission critical. It is most important to keep your derriere, to be precise, to be the immovable and unshifting center of the universe.

Continued next week