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Friday Mailbag: Why is modern BMW steering so bad?

Hello and welcome to what will be a weekly staple on this publication: the Friday Mailbag. Each week, I shall select a question from someone, and attempt to answer it in my usual snarky yet satisfying tone. This week, we explore modern BMW steering feel (or lack thereof). If you’d like to participate, drop me a question at mike@machineswithsouls.com. And don’t worry, you’ll remain anonymous.

This week’s question

BMW did away with the hydraulic steering system some years back. With that, we lost a great deal of feedback from our ultimate drivers experience. The electronic steering lacks the road response and feel. Why did BMW move away from this system to go for the more numb response?

– Jerry, BMW owner since 2003

Answer

Jerry, the truth hurts, but it’s a simple one.

BMW doesn’t care about you. Or myself. Or likely anyone reading this right now. It has to do with what we’ll call the three Ms: money, marketing, mileage. We’ll start with the latter first.

Electronic steering increases efficiency.

If you have fond memories of BMWs from the 90s and 2000s, part of it may come from the way the steering wheel felt as it “pushed” back against your hands, and a lot of that has to do with the the hydraulic-assisted steering rack BMW used. Typically, the assist is heavier at parking lot speeds to help you turn what can be a very heavy car. The faster you go, the less assistance is needed.

As a generalization, the less power assistance you need, the more road feel comes through. True sports cars like the original Acura NSX (and even Alfa’s current 4C), don’t use any power steering assist at all, and they have amazing feel.

But the problem with these hydraulic racks is that they are a drag, man. They use a pump that’s driven off the engine, and that pump is always on, even when you’re driving in a straight line and need little assistance. This brings gas mileage down.

E46 M3
In the before times, BMW steering feel was one of the best parts of driving one.

They also require more maintenance. Pop the hood to check the color of your power steering fluid (aka brake fluid), and it’s probably a gross brown / black hue.

Electronic steering solves all of that, in theory. There’s still a solid metal steering shaft running from the steering wheel to the steering rack, but the similarity ends there. Instead, EPS uses an electric motor that draws energy from the vehicle’s electrical system to provide steering assistance. Less drag on the engine means better mileage. It also enables all the cool tricks modern BMWs have, like Lane Keep Assist, because it’s now just another integrated element with the car’s computer.

BMW X3M
I want to feel feelings from you.

Tuning to please, please.

EPS allows for one other big benefit, and that’s the ability to “tune” the steering feel.

Let’s say you’re driving down the road in your E36 M3, and the highway becomes grooved. You’re going to feel some tugs on the wheel as your M3 fights you to turn into the weeds. Sometimes amusing, sometimes terrifying. And the wider the tires, the worse this problem becomes.

But with EPS, BMW is able to filter out some of those bad sensations. The computer in a BMW equipped with EPS senses those tugs on the wheel and says “that’s stupid, we’re not going to do that”, and you don’t feel the urge to saw at the wheel.

That’s great, as long as the right kind of feedback is filtered out. It’s clear modern BMWs are lacking here. Like ships in the night, the right feel is out there, but you’ll never know what you missed.

Money without effort

Why would BMW do this? Surveys. Questioners. Satisfaction reports. All of which are filled out by your mom (Hi, mom!), Aunt Jean with the bad blonde highlights, or Steve the dentist.

No doubt they love their 528is and X3s, so when those surveys come in the mail and ask “What don’t you like”, Aunt Jean is quick to fill in that “It’s hard to park because the steering is so heavy.”

And that’s probably not what she even means, but it’s the best way she can explain it. If something tastes funny to you, but you’re not a chef, how do you explain what’s missing?

Last I checked, there are a lot more mainstream BMW drivers than enthusiastic ones like you or I. BMW wants their money, so their wish is granted, and the EPS is tuned to become lighter, with less feedback and effort.

An effort they are quick to put back in when you flip the switch to Sport or M Mode. But all that does is make the car harder to control at lower speeds, without any benefit at higher ones. Heft isn’t a substitute for feel.

The instructors at the Performance Center even leave all the M cars in comfort mode for steering on track. Says a lot.

BMW M2 CS
Perhaps the best steering on a modern BMW comes in the form of the F87 M2.

Ultimate marketing

The tagline of “The Ultimate Driving Machine” has paid off in spades. Almost like substituting “Xerox” for “making a copy” (too dated a reference?), it’s easy to associate sporty driving with a BMW.

But the world has changed, and it’s not the fault of EPS. Hop into a Porsche, even an electric one, and you’ll experience great steering feel. The Corvette and Blackwing both feature an EPS that filter out much less of the road imperfections than you might find in a BMW.

BMW has simply tuned their cars to appease the masses.

Sorry to say Jerry, but with the days of the internal combustion engine coming to an abrupt end, there won’t be any going back to the before times. My advice? Fill out those surveys you get in the mail about your BMW, and be honest (and articulate) about what you’d change. Otherwise, hold on to that early 2000s BMW.

– Mike

References here.

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