Jim Holder’s recent blog outlining Jaguar’s switch to electrically assisted power steering for next year’s F-type will inspire among keen drivers the same fears they felt when Porsche went down the same route.
It’s thought that an electrically assisted system can’t offer the same level of steering feel as one with hydraulic assistance, as it smothers those important frequencies and sensations that are communicated from the tyres to the palms of the driver’s hands. A good system should allow us to sense what our tyres are up to on the road surface.
By coincidence, I’ve been driving a Jaguar F-type and a Porsche Cayman. Now, the F-type has pretty good steering. To me, the rest of the car might be a little dubious, but you can’t deny the response and accuracy of the Jag’s meaty hydraulic set-up.
However, the Cayman’s (admittedly a GTS, but let’s not quibble) is better, despite its electric assistance, being more responsive and more accurate. It also requires less effort, thanks to its intelligent weighting and clever damping.
Purists will argue, though, that the Porsche lacks the level of feedback of earlier hydraulic Porsches, and that what you feel is artificially dialled in. That may be so, but is not the feedback to the driver through an hydraulically assisted rack corrupted too? How many meshing teeth and rubber joints and turns do the tyres’ messages have to go through, and how diluted are they by friction and damping before they reach the driver?
So if it’s a criticism made of electrically assisted units that there’s very little communication, does it actually matter? On most roads, in most cars and in most circumstances, probably not; after all, you rely on all sorts of senses when driving a car. And when every effort in a modern car is made to isolate the cabin from the road, why would you want the steering to have the kickback of a vintage racer?
Keen drivers like a bit of weight, though, presuming it to be sporty. Matched with a fire-breathing sports car, fast and low and heavy in its controls, I can see some of it might be desirable. What is really wanted is what we call well weighted steering, which is another vague term, but seeks to identify a level of weight that is neither too much nor too little, and a consistent amount of it.
This weight can be and already is quite easily tuned in to an electric power-assisted steering system, and to many potential degrees, so keen drivers needn’t worry. They could perhaps concentrate instead on the other, more tangible qualities that make for good steering, such as the alacrity of its responses, maybe, or its precision.
Or they could save up their angst for the inevitable takeover of drive-by-wire systems, which, once perfected, should rid us of all that ancient mechanical steering apparatus anyway.