That subject line probably sounds quite un-Australian. And certainly un-driver like, many of you might think.
Isn’t understeer the bane of fun driving – cruelling your progress as the nose of the car heads for the other side of the bitumen, and away from where you actually want to go?
Isn’t neutral handling the holy grail of handling, while oversteer is the ultimate test of mettle for anyone claiming to be highly skilled in the art of car control?
Well, yes and yes to the last two; I’m not arguing that. The first is important if you want to go from point to point as fast as possible, while balancing throttle and steering inputs as you pitch a car sideways through a bend is a riot let alone immensely satisfying.
Of course you can understeer in any car. But it’s a party-pooper in a rear-wheel-drive car – unless it’s off the perverse-fun nature if you’re trying to race a Smart ForTwo around a racetrack – and it’s only really satisfying (at least for me) in an all-wheel-drive car – where pushing wide is a common characteristic – when it’s capable of returning to a more neutral, or even oversteery, attitude by actually pressing harder on the throttle rather than lifting off it. Hello WRX, for example.
So understeer for me is predominantly endearing in front-wheel-drive cars, though the genuine entertainment that can be found in understeer is with the cars that still have a brilliant chassis offering throttle-off adjustability.
And I might as well use one of the most famous front-wheel-drive performance cars as an example – the Volkswagen Golf GTI.
It understeers more than the rival RenaultSport Megane, struggling to match the French hot-hatch’s remarkable front-end grip and corner speed, but it’s still tremendous fun to drive because you end up sliding the front wheels more through the corner. (And it was better to drive than the AWD Golf R until the latest version of the flagship VW hatch.)
Unlike the apex-extracting magic of the RS Megane’s mechanical slip-diff, if you’re looking for ultimate pace the GTI forces the driver to make a near-perfect judgement call on the amount of speed you can carry into a corner before balancing the tyre grip for the right about of sliding neutrality.
It’s also rewarding to use understeer as a means of scrubbing some speed on entry to corners – especially if you’re looking to enjoy the drive rather than record a personal best.
A certain Spaniard regarded by many as the greatest racing driver right now, of course, is renowned for using understeer to achieve his consistent speed. Fernando Alonso is frequently seen applying more steering lock into corners than most of his rivals, as he aims to induce some understeer that he then manages through corners via the throttle.
I’m certainly not suggesting I drive like Alonso; just that I have some affinity with understeer. No doubt it comes from my English roots, where my first driving experiences and cars were front-drivers – a Datsun Cherry Coupe and a couple of Ford Fiestas that handled handily for the time and were still fun despite the poxy amount of power, especially from the Fiesta 1.1-litre!
Today’s Fiesta is top of the pile when it comes to dynamic city cars – and the ST is truly sensational – though you can add the VW Polo, Renault Clio and Mazda 2 to the list of those regular ‘light’ hatches that are a hoot to drive even if it’s far from the most important thing they need to deliver to the average buyer.
But give me a hot-hatch that will also lift-off oversteer and you’re simply being spoilt.