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Steering's taken a wrong turn | Axon's Automotive Anorak

23rd September 2021
Gary Axon

Rather than squander my hard-earned pocket money on Beano comics as a car-crazy kid, I spent the few pennies available to me as a spotty youth on motoring magazines instead, graduating from Motor magazine each week onto the monthly CAR as a more discerning teenager. 

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CAR consistently attracted the finest crop of motoring journalists at the time, with the most pithy new car reviews, unpredictable features, thoughtful photography and graphics, plus entertaining monthly columnists such a George Bishop and the legendary LJK Setright. With a dictionary readily to hand to attempt to decipher some of Setright’s more cryptic prose, I would delight in discovering a wealth of car knowledge and motoring history that had previously eluded me, LJK seemingly having an appreciation of the sort of cars I admired (Citroëns, Panhards, Tatras, Saabs, and so on). His huge enthusiasm for Bristol cars in particular proved to be highly influential and contagious (it’s partly thanks to his keen appreciation of the marque and its exceptional cars that I subsequently became a Bristol owner).

Much of the praise Setright aimed in Bristol’s direction was the poise and superior dynamic qualities of the marque’s superbly engineered separate chassis that it employed for more than 60 years. It was helped by its exceptionally direct and precise steering, the traditional thin-rimmed wheel giving just the right amount of feel and feedback. I remember LJK frequently extolling the virtues of a Bristol’s steering, using this as his benchmark for all other, usually more modern, cars, with very few, if any, achieving the high standards of feel and feedback the exclusive Filton-built models.

The Citroën CX, original Volkswagen Scirocco and second-generation Honda Prelude (with four-wheel-steering) came as close to Bristol-like perfection in Setright’s view, though none of these outstanding cars ever quite matched or bettered a Bristol.

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I was reminded of this very recently when I drove a brand-new Vauxhall Mokka e. This all-electric cross-over impressed me overall with its quality and intelligent packaging (though the lack of engine note amplified the car’s wind noise, which seemed a little excessive, but was probably no worse than a noisier conventional ICE-powered vehicle). The Mokka’s electronic-assisted steering feel was far too light, vague and uncommunicative. This might have been out of necessity, given the e model’s excessive weight, this trait increasingly being the curse of far too many modern cars. 

One serious aspect of the Vauxhall’s steering that came as an unwelcome surprise was the occasional sharp grab of the steering wheel, as if the car was trying to over-correct the driver’s wheel inputs and seize control. At first this unexpected occurrence took me unawares, resulting in my over-compensating at the wheel with a degree of opposite lock to correct the steering input. While trying to detect if the Mokka had an unseen electronic lane departure devise engaged (another unwelcome curse of modern cars), the car did it again, with this unprovoked action becoming a frequent, annoying and at times, alarming, quirk of the Vauxhall.

The contrast to the pure, delicate and delightful steering feel of my old 1951 Bristol 401 could not be more pronounced. Having spent years reading and digesting Setright’s praise of a Bristol’s steering, it wasn’t until I bought my first example many years ago that it all clicked into place. I could suddenly fully understand and appreciate just why he had dolled out such rare enthusiasm for this aspect of the car’s many qualities. 

Within hours of buying the Bristol, I packed some friends into the 401 and drove it to Paris for a classic car event at the historic banked Monthléry circuit. The trip was a hoot, with the car’s handling and dynamic behaviour a genuine revelation for such an old machine. The steering was sublime, although somewhat improved by the later switch over to the crossply tyres that the 401 was originally engineered to ride on.

Although yet to be bettered in any of the considerable number of cars I have driven over the years, the Bristol’s purely mechanical steering is run a very close second by the revolutionary power steering system found in the Citroën SM and CX.

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Called DIRAVI by Citroën (an acronym for ‘Direction à rappel asservi,’ loosely translating as ‘steering with controlled return’) this pioneering variable assist system was an elaborate form of power steering with power assisted return. This meant that the steering wheel would always self-centre as soon as you took your hands off the wheel, so the car could never be left with the front wheels pointing inwards to the kerb on a hill as they would always self-centre. Here in the UK, this system was marketed as VariPower, with it known as SpeedFeel in the USA.

The world’s first commercially available variable assisted power steering system, Citroën’s clever hydraulic arrangement provided power assistance when parking and at low speed, but recognised that less steering assistance was required at high speeds. 

When I first drove a Citroën SM with this DIRAVI system, it was a revelation. The steering took a while to get used to as only minor steering inputs were needed to change direction (the steering being as direct as a go-kart with less than one turn required from lock-to-lock), but once I’d got used to it, everything else felt archaic by comparison, even current cars. Thee feel and accuracy of the SM’s steering was so exact and effortless. Citroën watered down its innovative DIRAVI assistance for the later CX as it was considered too extreme for some motorists, but the prestige saloon still enjoyed sublime steering that has been bettered by few cars subsequently, if any.

Given that Vauxhall-Opel is now part of the same family as Citroën under the Stellantis banner, one might hope that the latter’s advanced power steering technology from 50 years ago could now have found its way into the Mokka and other Stellantis models. 

Sadly though, the opposite is true. The DIRAVI last appeared on the Citroën XM around 30 years ago, and with most current Citroën models under the large Stellantis umbrella now sharing the same over-assisted lifeless electronic power steering as the majority of other modern cars. So much for progress, hey? Perhaps today’s automotive chassis engineers should invest in a Bristol and Citroën SM to appreciate what ‘proper’ steering with feedback, precision and pleasure can feel like.

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