Tampering with Perfection

BMW's new steering system leaves us wanting less.

by Courtesy BMW

Courtesy BMW

Revolutionary technology may be endlessly fascinating, but often it's easier to take at a distance. Doubly so when it affects something central to the driving experience. Case in point, we were recently introduced to Active Front Steering on the new BMW 5 at its debut in Sardinia--a revolutionary (there's that word again) steer-by-wire system.

First, we should point out that in most respects, the new 5 is a worthy improvement on its legendary predecessor. It is fast, roomy, exciting to drive. That said, however, the best thing about its active steering is that it's optional.

Active steering electronically alters the ratio between steering-wheel rotation and turning angle depending on the speed of the vehicle. And it makes eminent sense: You get a fast ratio for those sharp turns you need when parallel parking, then once you get to highway speeds, the system dials down to a slower ratio for better control. A hard-left/hard-right slalom course revealed these virtues. The electronic system successfully eliminated the wild steering-wheel rotations needed with all-mechanical steering. However, the world is not a slalom course.

When we headed out on those tight, twisty Sardinian two-lanes, the ones God built just for driving hard in a BMW, active steering felt, well . . . odd. A BMW's signature virtue is its road feel--live, precise, razor-sharp--yet at speed on these sinuous roads (roughly 40 to 70 mph), the system was constantly modifying the steering ratio, essentially keeping us guessing as to how tight we'd be taking the next turn. With a constantly changing steering response, we felt disconnected from the pavement in a very un-BMW way. These days, microelectronics allow near-limitless innovation. The greater question then becomes: Is innovation always an improvement?