By on September 9, 2015

 

(photo courtesy: superstreetonline.com)

San writes:

I have been interested in the Mazda MX-5 for a while now. I had a few questions based upon my interest in the 2016 MX-5.

Mazda has also decided to switch from hydraulic steering to electric steering in the MX-5. In a niche enthusiast vehicle, is there any reason that this is happening? All I read about are enthusiast reviews about how numb electric steering is in cars, and Mazda makes this change in the face of all the criticism. Is it just CAFE laws? Or is there another reason that escapes me?

People also on occasion opt for a roll-bar for the MX-5 in the rare case of a rollover. Some folks on the internet have claimed that a roll-bar may make safety worse for some MX-5s depending on the model. What the heck are they talking about? Isn’t a roll-bar always better than none?

Answer my questions, or else! Or else I’ll go back to lurking. (No, this was great! – SM) 

Sajeev answers:

Son, that new Miata looks to be the business. In fact, I predict every auto journo that gets one for a week, delivered to their home for free, with a full tank of gas, will blow their load over it. Of course they’ll never mention the 100 percent valid need for LSX-FTW like I would…but I digress…

Concern #1: On paper, there are many fantastic reasons to ditch hydraulics for electric power steering. It’s less complicated (no hoses, hydraulic valves and fluid, etc.), takes strain off the engine (no power steering pump), so there’s more power, less weight, and less things to break after 5+ years of use. I doubt CAFE had anything to do with it — that’s a side benefit — and it’s all in the name of technology and progress. Think of all the self parking and self driving potential!

Would I worry about the lack of steering feel that’s so prominent in electric power steering? Not really, because everyone needs a new vehicle at some point. Wishing for the good ‘ole days of hydraulic steering will be like an old codger longing for carburetors, crank windows, 15-inch wheels or Panther Love chrome bumpers. The new Miata uses dual pinion steering, a setup we’ve experienced in the Mazda RX-8. Honestly, the RX-8 had decent steering feedback.

Concern #2: Quality aftermarket roll bars on droptops are a very good thing. If you’re tall, make sure your head won’t smack it in any situation, although the seat should protect you in cases of neck snapping whiplash. The NC Miata had a modest roll bar, legal enough for what could happen on the street — provided you wear your seat belt! It’s not adequate for the life-altering realities of accidents on a race track.

I am sure the ND aftermarket will make a better bar which you should consider for rollover protection on the street or the track, provided your head is adequately protected (by the seat back) from it. If you are a real racer, a full cage and a racing helmet is mandatory.

If you never push this car to its limit, the stock stuff will be fine.

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

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56 Comments on “Piston Slap: ND Verdict on Electric Power Steering?...”


  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Electric power steering can be implemented well, if the manufacturer cares enough to do so. For the Miata, I would expect Mazda to take the time to do it right. It will never be the same as a good manual rack, but those are going to the same place as choke cables and window cranks.

    Aftermarket rollbars are intended for track days, and should *always* be paired with a helmet and a properly-fitted racing harness.

  • avatar
    kkop

    If Mazda was really serious about making the MX-5 the best small sportscar, they would remove power steering altogether. A light sports car shouldn’t need any.

    • 0 avatar
      319583076

      Except they’ve likely got the market research that says people won’t buy cars without power steering. Besides, the MX-5 is sold as three cars:

      Sport – cheapest Miata for use as a toy or a modification platform
      Club – performance trim, 6MT, LSD, upgraded wheels and suspension
      GT – “luxury” trim for people who want the experience sans the rough edges

      Depending on procurement and assembly processes, it’s likely more economical to install the same steering assembly on all three trims, thus no unpowered option. However, guys have been removing hydraulic power steering on Miatas for decades although I’m not sure you could do this with the EPS.

      Also, I agree with bumpy ii, personally I wouldn’t ride in a car with a true rollbar installed without a helmet. Unless you’re going to track this car, I wouldn’t bother.

    • 0 avatar
      WhiskeyRiver

      Cars without power steering have historically had larger steering wheels to make steering easier.

    • 0 avatar
      Demetri

      They looked into it but ultimately decided the steering effort was still too high at low speeds for the non-enthusiast customers. They’re going to sell a lot of these with automatics to people who just want it for the styling and convertible top, and it has to easy for them to steer.

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      As long as you pair it with fairly narrow tires that don’t offer a lot of grip everything is golden as most of the buyers for the Miata just want a nice little sports car that is going to be easy to maneuver at low speeds.

      Really what Mazda needs to do is offer multiple settings with their EPAS if they don’t already. Ford does this with the Mustang (although I think even in sports mode the steering is too light).

  • avatar
    zerofoo

    Way back in 2008 my GTI had electric power steering and that was one of the best steering setups I’ve driven in a long time.

    There is nothing wrong with EPS technology. The manufacturer simply needs to do the engineering to make it feel right.

    • 0 avatar
      Kosher Polack

      Same here, my 2008 Civic has EPS and I’ve always thought it’s the best part of the car (it makes up for the totally unsatisfying throttle). Is it as good as the Civics and Golfs of yore? Well maybe not, but a lot of those didn’t have power steering in the first place.

      • 0 avatar
        krayzie

        The GTI eletric power steering is miles better than the one in a 2008 Civic. The modern Civic’s steering rack just responds too slow. I’ve also driven a 2009 Lexus IS250 and that steering rack is also terrible. Honda got their steering so right with their old hydraulic racks it’s such a shame they cannot replicate that now with electric.

        I now daily drive a BRZ and the electric power steering is just as good as the modern Golf GTI. To be honest nothing beats the feel of hydraulic or no power steering but they are getting close with the sports cars.

        • 0 avatar

          The electric power steering may be my least favorite part of my girlfriends new GTI. It may be good compared to other electric systems, but it is severely lacking compared to the steering in my hard driven 2003 Protege. It does feel more sporting than the hydraulic rack in my 1990 Topaz, however.

          • 0 avatar
            dolorean

            I had EPS in my 2008 Saturn Astra XR and it was perfect for the car. However, I will concede that it had 132 HP and much more than that and I would want larger wider tires to help with the added torque steer and with it, hydraulic power steering.

      • 0 avatar
        sportyaccordy

        +1, my 2010 Civic’s steering is also excellent and I grew up on DWB Hondas. Doesn’t have that “feel every tarmac ripple” feel but it’s quick, accurate and loads really nicely.

        • 0 avatar
          bludragon

          I have a 2008 civic si, and a 2010 RX-8. The Si is good now that I have a feel for it (took me bit to get used to). The RX-8 is in a league above. I would hope the ND is there too. Part of this is the steering itself and part of it is due to being rwd. As a comparison, I also used to own a 2007 BMW 335i (hydraulic). That was also very good, but not at the level of the RX-8. It actually had less feel than the civic at lower steering loads, but would come more alive at higher steering loads.

  • avatar
    lastwgn

    As Sajeev noted the RX-8 does indeed have electric power steering. No problems at all with feedback, and the lack of the extra hoses, pump, fluid reservoir, etc., is a huge benefit if work needs to be done on the car.

    • 0 avatar
      TMA1

      In 2008 or so, one of the print mags had a “best handling car” competition. The RX-8 came in 2nd or 3rd out of about 10 cars. I believe the Porsche Cayman came in #1. That’s some pretty good company. So at least Mazda knows how to do the system right.

  • avatar
    TrailerTrash

    my only suggestion is to drive the new miata. regardless of the past, testing it out and seeing how it feels to you is the only thing that counts.

    on a side note…not knowing the tech way the electric works, how safe is it? can the electric fail? maybe there is less chance of failure than with the old system…just do not know the workings of an electric steering system.

    as another side note…i have been helping my lttle sister pick out a car for her kids (bastards)…and she/they drove off in a pretty silver mazda3 I touring last night fully loaded for 19,600…

    while at the store she took a photo of herself sitting in the latest miata. i demanded she get out of my car!

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      If power steering fails, either hydraulic or electric, you still have manual steering with way more steering effort. Also, if your engine doesn’t want to start on a car with electric power steering, you will still have power steering, which is nice if you have to push the car.

  • avatar
    ajla

    Personally, I’ve never had an issue with the performance of electric steering setups.

    Electric throttles, on the other hand, seem to still universally suck.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Fully agree on the steering; partially agree on the throttle thing – I’ve had some good and some so bad they were dangerous.

    • 0 avatar

      Drive by wire is totally awesome once an aftermarket tune from a competent tuner is loaded to the ECM. Torque management is the problem, not drive-by-wire.

      • 0 avatar
        ajla

        So to make my gas pedal work I have to spend about $500 and reflash anytime I want warranty work?

        • 0 avatar

          Hey, I didn’t say it was a perfect plan…just that every tuned DBW setup I’ve experienced is total bliss!

        • 0 avatar
          sportyaccordy

          Depends on the car you have. And even with a tune your throttle might still suck (i.e. it’s not the throttle’s fault)

          I’ve driven a lot of electronic throttle cars…. not bad at all in my experience.

          • 0 avatar
            ajla

            I have a ’14 Charger R/T. Owner forums report a tune does help responsiveness, it’s just a hassle that I have to go that route. Especially because the quality on the car blows so I likely won’t keep it longer than 36 months anyway.

            FWIW, the vehicles I cross-shopped (Impala, Genesis, 300 V6, Cadenza, Taurus) weren’t any better than the Dodge. Are there any full size cars under $50K with decent responsiveness from the factory?

    • 0 avatar
      raph

      Its all in the tuning – one trick Ford uses in the new Mustang with the premium car at least is a “Sports+” and “Track” setting and in both cases the throttle is remapped for more aggressive action. Conversely they also have a wet/snow setting and throttle application is sluggish at best (really reminds me of Mercedes and their throttle mapping which seems to have been based on liquid nitrogen cooled molasses – well at least your average Mercedes, the performance models I hope don’t share such lethargic throttle action).

      Although I admit a buddy of mine has a Terminator Cobra with its throttle cable and it just seems more responsive overall compared to both my GT and my Shelby.

      I attribute this mainly to the preponderance of high horsepower engines these days both as a form of torque management and driver aid.

  • avatar
    Hamilton Guy

    Regarding the writers question about roll bars. I have a 2001 Miata and had Hard dog hoops installed. What I discovered was these hoops were not sufficient to pass inspection for track days as it was considered possible that in a rollover the hoop would dig in to soft earth. This may be the safety hazard being referred to.

  • avatar
    Matt Foley

    Hard Dog and Boss Frog both make excellent HPDE-approved roll bars for Miatas. Most track day organizers won’t let a Miata on track without one, and you don’t want to be upside down in a Miata without a good roll bar.

    BUT, if you have an unpadded bar in your daily driver and are rear-ended by another vehicle, your unhelmeted skull may be fractured by the bar. All you can do is to pad the bar and hope the drivers behind you are watching the road and not their phones.

    If you want to have some troll-type fun, register at Miata.net and ask innocently, “Should I get a roll bar for my street Miata?” Then watch the fur fly. ISIS and the Mossad get along better than the pro-bar and anti-bar camps at Miata.net.

    • 0 avatar
      JuniperBug

      Exactly this.

      An aftermarket roll bar in a track Miata is an extremely good idea, and often a track requirement (although in my neck of the woods, for the lapping I do, it isn’t).

      For a street driven car, you have to ask yourself which scares you more: smacking your unhelmeted head into a solid steel tube that the engineers didn’t foresee being there when they designed the seats, belts, and A-pillars to meet safety requirements, or getting crushed in a rollover in a car with an extremely low centre of gravity and a reasonably strong windshield header.

      For me personally, I feel like the factory level of rollover protection is adequate for street driving, and the danger of getting knocked by the bar in the far more likely event of getting rear-ended or hit from the side outweighs the safety gained during a highly unlikely rollover. You’re free to come to your own conclusions.

      • 0 avatar
        grasscutter

        I wanted to chime in here. We had a 1999 NB for about 7 years. During that time I bought and installed a Hard Dog roll bar to help with my perceived insecurity about the Miata’s safety on the road, (drive down an Interstate Highway with the top down and you will notice that you can probably easily fit under a Tractor Trailer). Never had an accident thank God but I will say the the roll bar took the rattle out of that car. No cowl shake at all. I do not have the driving skill to notice any improved chassis response but less rattle and shake was a nice benefit. Never drove it on a track BTW.

    • 0 avatar
      InterstateNomad

      Thanks for these replies from everyone. It is very helpful for someone like me who is looking at installing the bar or not. I may end up installing the bar with padding anyways, because I’m going to at least autocross the car (but not likely track it). The helmet issue is a big concern, and yes, I’d probably be more likely rear ended than anything else.

  • avatar
    ScarecrowRepair

    Got a semi-ignorant question. I just bought a Mazda 3 with the electric steering, coming off 29 years with a first gen MR2 which had no power steering. The steering does feel numb in comparison, but still better than my pickup.

    Is it possible to remove the power steering altogether, or disable it? Pull a fuse, disconnect wires, etc? I have thought of finding an empty parking lot some night and seeing how well it steers with the engine off, but I don’t know if that would be a useful comparison.

    • 0 avatar
      MBella

      Yeah it is possible. It will disable your traction and stability control, and you will get some warning messages in the cluster.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Depends on the setup. Many EPS systems basically amount to a small motor on the steering shaft. Disabling or unplugging that will give you manual steering, which may be pleasant or horrible in that car. Some systems are built into the rack, and it’s not really practical to disable those.

    • 0 avatar
      18726543

      In 2009 (I think it was) when the Corolla went to electric power steering, I read a lot of accounts stating that the on-center feel of the steering wheel at highway speeds was incredibly numb, to the point where the car would wander requiring constant correction. Owners complained to their dealerships, but the dealers said that’s just how the steering system was designed.

      I found at least one account of people looking into the design of the system, and realizing that since the steering input was resistance based, they could wire resistors into their loom to change the result of their steering input. If you’re into tinkering with electronics and would enjoy a challenge, you might be able to find information about this being done to the Mazda3 also.

  • avatar
    carlisimo

    Dave Coleman (formerly at Sport Compact Car, now at Mazda) appears in a few YouTube videos talking about this. He points out that electrically-assisted steering can save .5-1mpg over hydraulic assist, so forget about using the latter.

    He makes it sound like the biggest problem with EPS is that the system is large enough that in a FWD car, the only place it fits is high up on the steering column. When it twists the column, the torsional deformation in the shaft (since they aren’t perfectly rigid) numbs a lot of feel coming from the steering rack. In the RX-8 and Miata they had room to mount the motor on the rack itself. It pulls on the rack, so the net torque (after the assist) on the bottom of the shaft is lower, which means there’s less deformation and less damping of everything you feel.

    The other thing is that they’re tuning it to feel like manual steering without all the effort. We’re used to hydraulic assist, but they’re anything but linear. They start out strong and artificially produce what feels like high on-center resistance. We’re used to it, but it’s an artifact of the way hydraulic assist acts. The assist dies out at higher cornering forces – it’s a shallow line, i.e. not much increase in steering effort between 0.5 and 1.0 g. The ND’s electrical assist is tuned so that 0.5g feels very different from 1.0g. In order to avoid very high efforts at 1.0g, that meant the assist had to be pretty low at 0.1g. That’s why the reviews say there’s little on-center feel. Manual steering doesn’t have as much on-center feel as hydraulic, either.

    • 0 avatar
      bludragon

      I own an RX-8, drive it daily and on track regularly, and have no concerns over the use of electric steering in the ND.

      My own experience is that the problem is as much in the users brain rather than the steering system. I needed to learn to interpret the feel through electric rather than hydraulic steering, but once I had, I actually feel like I get more information through electric and not less.

      If you are used to driving hydraulic and jump into an electric system, it will feel different, unfamiliar, and therefore your brain will not do as well to understand the feedback until you get used to it.

      I think this is in part what has led to all the negative reviews, since a short test drive, or even a week is not really long enough to re-develop a feel which has been learnt over years of driving.

      There is of course the possibility of implementing an electric power assist with zero feedback, but the same possibility exists for hydraulic.

      Now that I am used to it, I actually think electric can feel closer to having no power steering. It is less “raw”, but the feel is similar, while with hydraulic, the weight feels more artificial at times.

      As for DBW, as commented above, with a tune these can be fantastic. Without a tune, the RX-8 is still fantastic in terms of lag, but is non-linear. The linearity can be fixed with a tune, but actually most tuners don’t touch it, or might even make it less linear (so it feels faster).

      Hondas (e.g. 2006-2011 Civic SI) tend to suffer from lift off lag (aka rev-hang), but this can be fixed with a tune via flashpro and once done results in sharp as a razor throttle response.

      2007 BMW 335i has very slight throttle on lag, but no noticeable lift off lag. It also has turbo lag, but I am considering that separately to throttle lag.

      • 0 avatar
        WheelMcCoy

        “My own experience is that the problem is as much in the users brain rather than the steering system. ”

        I was thinking this as well. When I was young and graduating from a kid bicycle to a real 12-speed touring bicycle, the steering difference was an eye-opener. Steering on the touring bike felt “slippery” and fast, and I had to relearn a bit. Now I can ride with no hands!

        Moving from older cars with hydraulic assist to my current 2010 Mazda3, which has electro-hydraulic power assist, was a similar revelation. At first, it felt numb at parking lot speeds and somewhat vague at higher speeds to my inexperienced senses. But I realized it was communicating and I just didn’t know how to listen. Now I can drive with no hands! (Kidding about that, but I have a lot of confidence in the steering now.)

        Granted, there are vehicles that are truly insulating and boat-like. I haven’t driven the new Miata (yet), but I’m sure that’s not the case.

  • avatar
    duffman13

    3 of the best non-miata handling/steering cars in the past decade have had EPS – the S2000, the RX-8, and the FR-S twins. Properly implemented, it doesn’t really cause an issue. Being that Mazda already figured out how to implement it well with the RX-8, I don’t think it should be an issue on the ND Miata.

    As for roll bars, they can pose a hazard on the street due to the potential for impact with your non-helmeted skull in a normal rear-ending/whiplash scenario. However, most of them sit far enough back that this is not really an issue, though it does raise your chance of critical injury slightly. I run a rollbar in my s2000 though, so you can tell how I feel about them.

  • avatar
    Chan

    It seems like EPS is another case of people remembering the past too fondly. Rose-coloured glasses, etc.

    When Ferrari introduced power steering on the F355, people said it lacked feel compared to the 348.

    The Alfa 4C has unassisted steering, and there are a few journalists who complained about the feel.

    Similarly with the new MX-5, there are a few guys who miss the hydraulic feel.

    Some of the best modern sports cars have EPS. Honda S2000, Mazda RX-8, Toyota/Subaru 86…

  • avatar
    sofast1

    “Wishing for the good ‘ole days of hydraulic steering will be like an old codger longing for carburetors, crank windows, 15-inch wheels or Panther Love chrome bumpers. ”

    Congrats! You managed to insult every classic car enthusiast (young and old) with just one sentence!

    • 0 avatar
      jsj123

      He is just talking about my Falcon from last week.

      Nothing like a steering wheel designed for manual steering cars combined with Sixties overboosted power steering and the whine from the Ford power steering pump. Bet you guys can’t steer with one finger :-)

      Mine does not mark its spot either, though with 9 fluid connections I am always tightening something.

      Bet my 65 amp alternator could not support electric power steering.

      –Stephen

    • 0 avatar

      “Congrats! You managed to insult every classic car enthusiast (young and old) with just one sentence!”

      Every? Disagree. I know classic car nuts with several old cars that rightfully acknowledge their place in modern society…as they drive their new Teslas, Ford trucks and Audis with electric steering. And they quite love the dichotomy, I can’t imagine them being insulted…but I will ask!

  • avatar
    ktm

    Honestly, there is no reason for this car to have any form of assisted steering. I have 1972 240Z with an ls1, and I am running 16×8 wheels with 245 200 treadwear tires.

    The only time steering is a little difficult is when the car is barely moving.

  • avatar
    wmba

    Well at least the MX-5 has a vestigial roll bar. The new Mustang convertible has nothing at all, nor does the Corvette.

    All the Euro cars have them, mostly pop-ups. Apparently even a vestige of protection when not strictly legally required is beyond Ford and GM commitment’s to their customers, although, miracle of miracles the new Buick Cascada does have them – but then it’s German really.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    I think the last car offered with manual steering standard was the Chevrolet Aveo in the mid-00’s.

  • avatar
    VolandoBajo

    An in-law tried to get us to buy a used Aveo that one of the four more or less grown children from their blended family abhorred, as an alternative to my keeping a newly acquired Panther (97 Grand Marquis).

    Anyone who has the least claim to membership in the B&B will instantly know what my choice was.

    Where was Ralph Nader when he was needed. Aveo…please!


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