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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: August 31, 2012 @ 11:08 am

    Feature creepy

    Neil Briscoe

    Volkswagen has been titillating us with details of the upcoming seventh generation of Golf, which will be shown off to the public for the first time on the 4th of September. Longer, wider, more roomy and more sophisticated than before, VW claims that its new best-seller (and don’t forget, preceding Golfs have sold almost 30-million models since 1974) will also be 25% more economical (just as well given the forecourt price of petrol and diesel) and will be lighter. A frankly staggering amount lighter. In fact, the base 1.2 TSI petrol should weigh in at around 1,050kg, a car weight more commonly seen with a Fiesta badge attached. Or even a Lotus one.

    But in amongst all this laudable engineering work, I have a bit of a worry about the new Golf and it’s to do with the steering system. If you sit in to any current Golf and take it for a spin, you’re guiding it between the hedges with a relatively simple electric power assisted system. In a standard Golf, it feels light, but accurate and very direct and almost incredibly smooth and sophisticated. Like many electric power assist systems, it’s not possessed of sports-car-like reflexes or feel, but for a mainstream hatch, it’s just fine. Step into a GT, GTD or GTI and you basically get the same system, but tweaked for a bit more sportiness. Once again, it’s pretty close to ideal and part of what makes the Golf feel like such a premium driving experience.

    So what’s worrying me? Well, there is a long-recognised problem with long-gestating design programmes and that’s feature creep. It can best be described by the hypothetical design of an on-off switch. A switch for switching things on and off. As simple a device as can be imagined, and once designed, you would think it should be simplicity itself to get it into a box and onto shelves.

    Ah, but the marketing department would love it if the switch was red. And maybe lit up somehow. And senior management wants to make sure that the click sound that is makes is a more high quality click sound than anyone else’s. And engineering wants to include a dimmer switch and a pre-loading system that nudges the contacts closer together when it detects your finger is near the switch, to make the switching reaction .003secs faster. And then marketing gets on again and wonders if you could make the switch more like something Batman would use. Batman is very big right now.

    You get the idea. Something that starts out as simple becomes unrecognisably complicated once it has passed through a few more hands. And this is what is happening to the Golf right now. Bigger and more spacious but lighter and more economical are ideal engineering goals to aim for and even better to attain, so well done to Volkswagen on that score. But who exactly needs a Golf with an Overhead Parking System that uses micro-cameras to give a faked bird’s eye view of the car to help you park? Then there’s adaptive cruise control, lane assist, fatigue detection, traffic sign detection, automatic parking, automatic lighting and dipped beam. All functions that can just as capably and easily be done by someone’s hands, feet or eyes. Indeed, a competent, clued-in driver has no need of any of these.

    And then there’s the steering. The new Golf’s electric power steering system will come, optionally, with five setting that can be chosen by the driver. Eco, Sport, Normal, Individual and Comfort. Sweet Jesus, who in their right mind needs to choose between five steering settings? Who, for that matter, will be able to detect all but the most infinitesimal differences between any two of those settings? Who amongst us reckons that they would ever use anything other than Normal for 90% of the time and Eco when the fuel needle dips into the red? Any hands? Anyone? Bueller?

    Such systems do not have a happy back catalogue. Fiat’s ‘City’ system which makes the steering go all ultra-light for parking manoeuvres is pretty pointless when it’s already attached to steering that all but the most underfed can twirl with one hand. One finger even. Kia’s Cee’d and Hyundai’s i30 have a three-mode Sport, Normal and Comfort steering setup that just really makes you long for them to have spent that part of the development budget on one setting that feels any way nice or natural. Even the mighty BMW M5, with its three-position steering weights, feels no better to wrangle than a 520d and, actually, quite significantly worse than the old E60 version.

    The fact is that feature creep like this is the flipside to good engineering. Yes, it’s very clever that you can choose between what steering setting you want but is that actually a good or even necessary thing? F1 drivers constantly bang on about ‘setup’ and tweaking things the way they like them, but that is done by mechanics and engineers wielding spanners and corner weights, not by a computer setting. Offer Fernando Alonso a button on his wheel to choose between five different steering weights and he’ll simply pick the one that makes him go faster and ignore the other four. Offering choice for choice’s sake is not a good thing and just try ordering a simple black coffee any more and tell me I’m wrong. I can choose to buy the new series of Mrs. Brown’s Boys on DVD if I like but that then only really gives me the option of how hard I fling it out of a 20-storey window. Choice is not an automatic good.

    So please, VW; forget this electronic silliness. Bin four of those steering modes and just give us one that feels good, OK?

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