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Music, phone, tyre pressure, cruise – your car steering manages all these & turns the wheel too

Steering wheels have come a long way in the past couple of decades ever since steering-mounted controls became a thing in the late 1990s on top-end luxury cars.

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By some coincidence, I just happened to have both a Skoda Slavia and a Volkswagen Virtus parked near my house recently. You would have read a lot about these two cars and how they’re mechanically similar and even share most of their body panels, much like their SUV counterparts Skoda Kushaq and Volkswagen Taigun. In fact, other than some differences in the front and rear design, the cars are like identical twins but with different personalities. Frankly, they don’t even drive very differently.

And then you sit inside, and the similarities continue. Other than a change of colour, the digital instrument cluster is the same as is the entire infotainment system. I’m not criticising them — Skoda and Volkswagen are sister firms owned by the same global automotive behemoth whose success in India to date has been middling at best. They really want to make a splash with their new cars under their ‘India 2.0’ strategy, and, truth be told, they have. Picking between the Slavia and Virtus every day for the past week was a challenge, because they are both engaging cars to drive. Sure, the Slavia came with the 1.0 TSI manual and the Virtus with the 1.5 TSI automatic with the DSG gearbox. Both engine options are available on both cars, as are the ventilated seats and the wireless charging.

But it is only when you switch between the two that you see the single biggest difference between the two cars, in fact between Skoda and Volkswagen. It is in the part of the car that you ought to be holding throughout your time inside if you’re driving — the steering.

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Steerings over the years

The design philosophies of the steering wheels are fundamentally different not only because the Skoda has a two-spoke steering and the Volkswagen a three spoke, but the layout of the controls are different. The Skoda uses wheels to adjust the volume and go through the menu, whereas the Volkswagen is all about buttons. Both steering wheels are well designed but very different. Which one do I prefer? The Skoda is certainly better looking but the Volkswagen steering feels more intuitive and easier to use while driving.

This got me thinking about steering wheels and just how far they have come in the past couple of decades ever since steering-mounted controls became a thing in the late 1990s on top-end luxury cars. Steerings also come with airbags and are collapsible in case of an accident. And on many cars today, there’s the ability to adjust them not just for height but also for reach. A modern steering wheel is definitely not like the steering wheel your parents used, let alone your grandparents. I remember my nana’s old Mark 1 Hindustan Ambassador, with its red leather upholstery and the fact that the Amby, back then at least, had a metal ring around the centre of the wheel to operate the horn.

Then on the family Maruti van that we had between 1987 and 1995, it came with two buttons on its steering wheel, also a two-spoke, to operate the horn. Maruti steering design remained fairly similar for years, although the plastics used improved, because the first few Maruti 800s I drove had a similar layout. In fact, only when I started to drive my father’s Esteem and my mother’s Zen MPFi, the latter a car I truly miss to this day, did Maruti actually move the horn to the centre.

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More than just turn wheels

When I started doing this gig of evaluating cars in the early 2000s, steerings were fairly basic on cars like the first-generation Honda City, although airbags started to become a thing. So the centre of the steering became bigger, and on some cars like the Opel Astra back then, you got to sense how different cars could have very different steering ‘feel’ thanks to weight and feedback of the steering. And then I drove my first couple of uber-luxury vehicles, the E65 (fourth-generation) BMW 7-series and the W220 (fourth-generation) Mercedes-Benz S-Class. I will admit this today, almost 20 years later, I had no clue how to operate them. Because this was the first time I experienced steering where you could do so much more than just turn the wheels and operate the horn.

Take Mercedes-Benz, a year or so after I drove the S-Class which, like the S-Class of today, is science-fiction on wheels. I was fortunate enough to visit the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart. As far as automotive museums go, this is a must visit; after all, the company’s founders did pretty much invent the motorcar (the city also has the superb Porsche Museum). You take this massive escalator to the top-floor and see a replica of the first car that Karl Benz made, and you see the steering there, it is just a wooden wheel. As you go through the exhibits at this museum, you see that wooden steering remained the norm, pretty much until plastics were invented. Even then, they were all big, round steerings with a horn. The sports cars had slightly smaller wheels, but nothing compared to the tiny steering ‘wheels’ used by Formula 1 racers of today.

A few months ago, I drove the new Mercedes-Benz S-Class, all 2.5 crore of it. And honestly, you do not get steering, you get a computer interface. I can say that I am genuinely not a fan of Mercedes-Benz steering wheels. I love the car, but those steering wheels are way beyond the understanding of most people. Complicated does not even cover what they are. Coupled with the capacitive touch interface, I’m left wondering, ‘why aren’t there buttons’, but then again I can change the style of display on my instrument cluster and adjust my massage function as well as all the radar-assisted safety features. And then if you have driven a Ferrari or Lamborghini, you can adjust just how brutally the car takes a corner, straight from the steering wheel.

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Consider steerings before buying 

In two decades, I have come from seeing a steering wheel with buttons to operate the horn to steering wheels with touch controllers to adjust how far behind the car in front of mine I should stay. On the highway on some cars, not just the S-Class but even the Slavia and Virtus, if you know how to manipulate the steering controls for the ‘cruise’, you can drive the car with your thumbs for much of the way.

It just blows my mind about how much one can do from the steering wheel alone, even on a Maruti or Hyundai hatchback — adjust your music, make phone calls and increasingly more things as well. Do not get me wrong, I’m not complaining about the fact that steering wheels have become computers in themselves, a computer to control the supercomputer that many high-end cars have become today.

The entire idea is that you do not look down but keep your eyes on the road. Honestly, once you get an idea of where the buttons and dials on your steering are, you can do everything by just touch. For most people, my predicament of ‘changing’ a steering wheel every few days, or in the case of the Slavia and Virtus every few hours, will not happen.

I genuinely do not know if buyers consider steering wheel design and layout when choosing to buy a car, honestly they should. Because if you’re driving, you are holding it (at least you should) every single second of the drive. If I have to buy a car today, I would consider the layout of the steering wheel and its functionality just as much as I consider how complicated (or not) the user interface on the infotainment system is. It isn’t just about how fast a car can go, but how easy it is to live with. Ergo, in future reviews you will be reading a lot more about steerings.

@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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