Here’s why modern cars feel so lifeless to drive

One person drives a Porsche Taycan on the right track
Enlarge / The Porsche Taycan is one of the few new cars to feature everything we might recognize as a steering feel. This was not always the case.

André Hedrick

In almost every way, the new cars are better than they have ever been in their history. They are safer than before, even though it is less true for women. Powertrains, especially battery-powered electric ones, are more powerful and efficient, which helps offset the added weight of that extra safety gear. Vehicles are much more reliable, at least for their first 100,000 miles, and even inexpensive cars come with standard equipment that would seem like science fiction to drivers of just a few decades ago.

They drive better; they stop better, so it’s okay, isn’t it? The problem is, modern cars are almost invariably boring to drive. The problem is all the more acute the longer you drive, as you would expect, as the cause is technological advancement, especially the power steering.

What happened to the sense of direction?

For much of the car’s existence, the steering was completely unassisted. The driver turns the steering wheel connected to a steering column which, through links and pivots and usually a gear, turns the front wheels in both directions. This setup was wonderful for the comeback, but it wasn’t great in terms of the effort required to turn the steering wheel, especially at low speeds.

Drivers of a certain age will tell you that driving without assistance is the purest way to drive, and therefore the best. I support this argument to a certain extent.

Steering became more of a problem as cars got heavier and front tires got wider, so cars got hydraulic power steering to compensate. The hydraulic pistons reduce the effort required to steer the front wheels and there is not much inertia, but the steering system still communicates the forces of the front wheels and steering to the operator’s hands.

The problem is that the operation of a hydraulic system requires enough power to be noticeable in terms of energy efficiency. Nowadays we have compact and powerful electric motors that can help turn the front wheels. There are fewer moving parts, there are no lines or hydraulic fluids to worry about and the systems are getting cheaper and cheaper. Being electrically controlled means you can even integrate features like lane keeping assist or autoguiding.

The downside is that the motors are also quite efficient at filtering the forces of the road going up from the front wheels to the steering wheel.

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