Welcome [or unwelcome] the daily chore of sawing and steadying that steering wheel. Specially during this wet season, we are extra vigilant at what we can 'feel' through the steering wheel. But what is actually steering feel? Well, its about handling.
Hands on, handling
You read it all over; motoring journalists mouth it like techno jargon, like generally accepted accounting principles. This thing called handling, where one of the tests is the motoring journalist's favorite party trick, the slalom.
What they actually mean by handling is how the car sticks to the road and how quickly it follows the direction where you point it as you turn the steering wheel. Handling is graded on the car's immediacy of response to driver's inputs to the steering wheel.
Lock to lock
Since cars nowadays have power steering as standard, manufacturers fit steering gear ratios that are "quicker" which requires less turns from lock to lock i.e. maximum steering wheel angle to the left and to the right.
Sensors and locus
Handling is affected by a variety of factors beside the steering ratio. These are 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 or rear or all wheel] and many more. All these are sensors and paths of contact that channel how the car is coping with the road. These messages are fed to the hands on the steering wheel and the seat of the pants as the locus of balance.
Steering for parking
It used to be simple; if your car is a sports car, expect quicker steering at the expense of requiring more effort to park. 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 the steering feel accordingly like in most cars made in the Fatherland.
Watch where you're going
Despite the hydraulic damping designed into steering racks or boxes to minimize transmitting road shock, almost all car engineers try to mimic the push back and feedback one feels when steering; this the back to or return to the center or straight ahead tendency of all cars. Another extreme were 60s American car steering that was so light and devoid of any road feel that you didn't rely or care to rely on seat-of-pants feel like changes in car body lean, shifting of weight, the pull of centrifugal and centripetal forces. After all what mattered to driving in stateside road conditions is where the front of the car was pointing to. Wind in too much speed in a corner? A kick of the loud pedal and that V8 torque will get you out of trouble. Thats why even with soft boulevard cruiser suspension, American cars never found the need to compensate for sloshing body lean by installing seat side bolsters. Corners were to be slowed into and the bench seat was more than adequate.
Return to center
Return to center wasn't always like so. Early McPherson strut applications in early Ford Escorts and Holden's Torana prevented any return to center and was most disconcerting. Citroen's daring Maserati engined SM 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 Kia and Hyundai models 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.
It's all in the seat
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. Thats why the correct driving seat is mission critical. It is most important to keep yourself or your derriere to be precise, to be the immovable and unshifting center of the universe.
The Fast and the Furious driving position A
Move the cushion too far and your feet will struggle to reach the pedals, changing your center of gravity by displacing your butt in the process. Recline that seat too far back and you will have to stretch forward to reach the steering wheel. This is why many drivers can't seem to break the habit of grabbing the steering wheel underhand, because they sit too far which necessarily shifts their weight and throws off their balance drastically. Like riding a bicycle, they are actually hanging on to the steering wheel to keep their balance. As steering columns became adjustable for rake and reach, many drivers mistakenly pull it down to lowest rake. This causes the driver to put his weight on the wheel and again balance on the steering wheel and worse, conduct steering by pulling up on the steering rim.
What should be a simple technique of getting the right seat is invariably overlooked, smothered by years of habitually getting used to a less than ideal and outright perilous driving position.
As a rule, as Roadwise's motorsport driving trainer and rally champion Vip Isada never fails to remind, one should push the steering wheel and not pull. The effort to push comes from the shoulder and not by unconsciously shifting the weight of the body or the seat of the pants. While one uses one's weight to balance on a 2 wheeler bicycle or motorcycle, there is no benefit in doing so in a 4 wheeled car. Note also, that our sense of balance is not only dictated by what we see around us but by the inner ear.
To lean or not to lean
To reduce all of this to simple terms, most car fans and hacks have a simple rule: if the car leans too much at speed turning into a corner, making one lose his seat balance and consequently, his confidence, and even intended direction, then the car handles poorly. Usually, this is the trade off with soft suspensions in family cars that prioritize a cushy ride. Stiff suspensions like those of sports cars have little body lean on turn in through a corner, hence driver confidence and balance is hardly perturbed. Ride comfort is not the priority in this case.
Bouncy on the straight and narrow
Another aspect of handling is driving at high speed in a straight line. Suspensions that have poor pitch and roll control amplify small bumps taken at high speed resulting into instability with reduced resistance to crosswinds. This can sometimes feel life threatening and forces the driver to slow down.
Bounce in the rear, bounce in the seat
Many popular Asian cars are guilty of this. Having home grown speed regulated expressways and almost perfect pavement, engineers have overlooked the generally bumpier roads that we and other less advanced economies have. The cost cutters also have a role: short springs with minimal coil count, short dampers with minimal rebound control that result in frequent bottoming are installed because they are cheap. Asian car makers who are guilty of this, happen to also fit hard all foam seats which amplifies the discomfort of ride.
Why fit such stiff springs? The usual manufacturer excuse is that it is a precaution from overloading. This is a poor excuse because it results in a stiff and bouncy tail ride in the rear, making the car unstable at high speeds.
Long wheel travel
The proper thing to do is to lengthen the wheel travel, spring height with more coils and longer damper tubes. Raising the ground clearance is not the same. If overloading is a genuine concern, then options to fit variable hydraulic ride height and level pumps and controls should be offered.
Good seat, fair handling rating
Getting your seat right is important as you are the point of reference of everything that goes on around you. With the right seat, one can now assess the kind of steering feel one is experiencing which will help one translate if the car is a good handler or not.
Not all is in our hands
How badly the other guy drives, or how incompetently the government deals with Public Works is out of our hands. The public and the state may wrangle with commuting fiascos, crumbling infrastructure, gale force crosswinds and whatever else but like our immediate destiny [or destination] where we steer and how we feel is all in our hands.