Here’s why modern cars feel so lifeless to drive
Jonathan M. Gitlin
2022 01 12
In almost every regard, new cars are better than they’ve been at any time in their history. They’re safer than they used to be—though that is less true for women. Powertrains, particularly battery electric ones, are more powerful and more efficient, which helps to compensate for the extra weight of that added safety equipment. Vehicles are far more reliable, at least for their first 100,000 miles, and even cheap cars come with standard equipment that would seem like science fiction to drivers from just a few decades ago.
They ride better; they stop better—so everything’s great, right? The problem is that modern cars almost invariably feel a bit boring to drive. The issue is more acute the longer you’ve been driving, as you might expect, since the cause is technological progression—specifically, power steering.
What happened to steering feel?
For much of the car’s existence, steering was entirely unassisted. The driver turns the wheel connected to a steering column that, through links and pivots and usually a gear, turns the front wheels in either direction. That setup was marvelous for feedback, but it wasn’t great in terms of the effort required to turn the wheel, particularly at lower speeds.
Drivers of a certain age will tell you that unassisted steering is the purest way to drive—and therefore the best. I am sympathetic to this argument, up to a point.
Steering became more of an issue as cars got heavier and front tires got wider, so cars gained hydraulic power assisted steering to compensate. Hydraulic pistons reduce the effort required to steer the front wheels, and there’s not much inertia, but the steering system still communicated forces back from the front wheels and through the steering to the driver’s hands.
The problem is that running a hydraulic system requires enough power to be noticeable in fuel efficiency. These days, we have compact and powerful electric motors that can assist in turning the front wheels. There are fewer moving parts, there are no hydraulic lines or fluid to worry about, and the systems are getting cheaper. Being electrically controlled means you can even accommodate features like lane-keeping assistance or autosteering.
The downside is that the motors are also pretty good at filtering out road forces from traveling back up from the front wheels to the steering wheel.