Reinventing the wheel

Today a good friend got me thinking about an often overlooked aspect of car ownership – the steering wheel. Irregardless of whichever car we drive the steering wheel is the part which we, as drivers, interact with most bar none. Alot of buyers (me included) put a high priority on the exterior looks of a car, whilst some argue that the car’s interior is more important seeing as though it is where we spend most time, but even then not many people focus on the steering wheel itself. As cars have grown more complicated and added more technology, the steering wheel has become a focal point for a lot of development away from the actual business of steering, and more a gateway to controlling these functions.

My own car actually has steering wheel mounted audio controls and they are a feature I would not be without, but nowadays its pretty normal for drivers to dictate cruise control, navigation, phone and vehicle settings without moving their hands off the wheel. Now I could launch into a whole in depth analysis of these types of controls, the technology associate with them, the shape/design and indeed how steering feedback is communicated to the driver, but as it’s my own blog I am going to do what I want 🙂 Seeing as though my mind has gone back to being all over the place in terms of car purchase, it seems fit that I use this opportunity to recap some of the vehicles I am looking at and have a look at what I might be holding in my hands.

Audi Q7:

In what is a recurring theme here, the Q7 offers 2 different steering wheel designs based on trim level. S Line models get the sporty 3 spoke version shown here, whereas the SE make do with a similar 4 spoke one – both have the Audi logo surrounded by a trapezoid mirror of the car’s grille. One of the Q7’s ace cards is it’s lovely in-dial screen, and that can be totally controlled using the wheel controls, and although I am not overly keen on the scroll-type buttons used to navigate menus I am sure I’d get used to them. S Line Q7’s also come with paddle shifters which a good point in it’s favour.

BMW X5:

The original X5 also came with a 2 pronged approach to steering wheels; SE models got a horrific 4 spoke design that looked like it was from the 1990’s but Sport models got a much more attractive one. The above image is from the facelifted car and seems pretty much perfect to me – chunky with finger grips, it controls both audio and cruise control and although rare some examples are heated. However it is covered in a soft touch plastic, and many cars have this scuffed off of the wheel to reveal the plastic underneath; this is a definite no in my books and would be enough for me to rule out a car I was interested in.

BMW X5:

I guess BMW got some great feedback on their previous car’s ‘Sport’ wheel, because it’s successor had pretty much the same wheel bar a few changes. Ubiquitous phone controls now have a home and there is a splash of chrome on SE versions of the car; M Sport models actually had a very similar wheel with a slightly thicker rim, larger finger grips and less chrome. These look slightly nicer (and later cars came with paddle shifts too), but seeing as though only SE cars are in budget the above pic is the one I would end up with.

Jeep Grand Cherokee:

Unfortunately this generation of Grand Cherokee was launched in Chrysler’s period of abysmal interiors, something carried through to the steering wheel in terms of cheapness and bland design. The Jeep has briefly reignited my interest thanks to great low prices and powerful engine, but looking at the wheel (which only features cruise buttons not audio) makes me think I was right to discount it.

Land Rover Discovery/Range Rover Sport:

Seeing as though the Discovery and Range Rover Sport are siblings it should come as no surprise that they share the same steering wheel. Pre facelift versions came with this rather rugged one – asymmetrical as with the design of the cars and featuring a pretty standard array of buttons. The chrome accents are actually the horn buttons which I think looks cool but it has been commented they aren’t well signposted.

Land Rover Range Rover:

The big Rangie has a steering wheel which combines a lot of the design features of it’s Land Rover siblings, but with buttons similar to the original BMW X5, a car it shares a good deal with under the skin. I am a fan of the utilitarian design but maybe prefer the straight edged design of the Disco/Sport and the sportiness of the X5’s to this hybrid. It is often heated though!

Lexus RX400h:

The RX has quite a dull wheel, which sort of reflects the car itself  guess. Buttons on the wheel itself control the useful menu (to see hybrid activity) and audio, whilst cruise is relegated to a small stalk underneath the wheel…not a problem for me as I don’t use it much, but could be annoying for those who like it easy to access. Otherwise the design is quite bland and minimal, but whilst I hate the wood inserts they are thankfully rare on the hybrid, which tends to have an alloy effect dash and no wood to speak of.

Mercedes ML:

The ML’s wheel can sometimes have wood accents too, but thankfully again this is a rare option. What can change though is the actual colour of the wheel, as cars with cream leather also have cream steering wheels…make mine black though please! The ML has a good array of buttons but I am not overly keen on the dimple/pimple design of these pre facelift cars –  I am not sure they would be easy to press! On the back there are buttons for gear changes, which is handy but I would prefer proper paddles me thinks. Facelifted cars remedy these 2 faults but also have a bit of a ‘gurning’ design, with an odd shaped centre and metal accents. Either way though the ML is unique in it’s stalk layout, which is of reasonable concern at least to start with; the indicators, cruise and wipers are on the left hand side, whilst the right is reserved for the gear changer.

Volkswagen Touareg:

For reasons unknown to anyone outsides VW head office, the Touareg is saddled with this odd 4 spoke design regardless of whether the car is angled at being sporty or not. Apart from it’s ugliness it is pretty functional but it actually makes me feel a little ill to look at it!

Volvo XC90:

Volvo has taken a similar pathway to Audi in it’s design of steering wheels (or perhaps that should be the other way round) in that it’s SE and Sport models share a very similar design, only distinguished by whether the car has 4 or 3 spokes respectively. However the Swede lacks any of the clever bits of the Q7 and offers simply audio and cruise controls; the in dial display is controlled by a stalk and there are also no paddles…not that you’d be racing in an XC90!

If anything writing this has confused me a little, and I have a headache so allow me to sign off now without critiquing too much 🙂

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