The best car I have ever owned was a 2003 BMW 325ci, and driving modern cars has made me miss it even more. One of the most unfortunate and glaring differences I notice is the frustrating thickness of modern steering wheels.
I am fully aware that the 325ci I miss so dearly is not exactly an Earth-shattering enthusiast’s car, but it was sporty enough. It had an incredible engine note, the perfect amount of power for a teenager, an engaging five-speed manual and a tight, leather-wrapped steering wheel that was more satisfying than any thick padded steering input device I’ve dealt with recently.
My sentimentality for my old car’s petite steering wheel came to me over this past weekend, when I was out enjoying the new Aston Martin DB11 that Jalopnik’s Kristen Lee will be writing about soon, which has a massive, wedgy and subtly annoying thickness in comparison.
It’s not just the Aston Martin. The Jaguar I-Pace I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, the Audi S3, as well as most of the current crop of crossovers—seemingly every modern luxury or sports car comes with one of these hefty, chunky and soft flat-bottomed abominations.
I like the wheel on an older BMW so much because its sure of itself. It is, maybe, an inch in diameter and perfectly rounded, with genuine stitching on the underside that satisfyingly rests against your fingertips at full-grip. And there’s no padding. It’s not soft. It’s a solid tool, which I used to happily direct the car I was more than excited to own.
It wasn’t overly aggressive to the point of discomfort, but it wasn’t padded and soft, and misguidedly overly-comforting. The hardness made me feel confident, and there was nothing in the way to distract from the rest of the experience. There was a level of utilitarianism that I find missing in modern cars.
The 325ci was nice because it felt like a machine designed to be worked by me, which was translated in everything including the simplicity and straightforward nature of the steering wheel. It was not a machine trying to mute the experience, soften its touch and constantly trying to maximize comfort over everything.
Where with modern wheels like what you’d find in a DB11, or a modern BMW or almost any car on sale today, the steering wheel is seemingly approached separate from the mechanical experience of the car. Why does my steering wheel need to be soft? Why is its circumference flattened out into more of a wedgy blade?
I’m sure some sort of comfort science would tell you the softness and thickness helps relax the driver. It provides more surface area. The thickness allows fitment of a wheel-heating system. It scales better with the general largeness of the rest of the interior design’s features. It’s consistent with the other elements of the passenger experience.
But driving a car, especially something sporty, I don’t want a passenger’s experience. I don’t want to be cradled. I want a driving experience. My hands didn’t sweat so much when the wheel was smaller and not padded. I’m convinced a thinner wheel makes the cabin feel less crowded. It felt strong. It echoed the weight of the non-electronic steering. I felt connected.
Give me my hard, tightly wrapped and skinny wheel back, and stop pandering to me with your squishy soft furnishings. Let me enjoy the use of my hands to control before it gets taken away.