- Comfortable Alcantara covering
- Three-system compatibility
- Huge tweakability
- BYO pedals and shifter
- Irritating fan noise
- Incredibly solid construction
- Hugely customizable
- Load cell on the brake pedal
- Takes some getting used to
It wasn't that long ago that we reviewed the company's 911 Turbo wheel, using the then recently released Forza 3 as an excuse. That wheel was covered in real leather and, while Alcantara is actually an artificial product made to look and feel like suede, it delivers a far preferable feel to raw hide. Paired with a set of similarly fuzzy driving gloves it offers incredible grip but, gloves off, the sensation is soft and comfortable, absorbing your palm sweat without complaint -- and if your palms aren't sweating you're driving too slow.
Getting the wheel out of the box and mounted somewhere is a bit of a process of cables and adapters and clamps, though the door is open for a variety of mounting possibilities. Removable but integrated clamps will hold this to your desk, though we found even when attached very securely the wheel would tilt ever so slightly toward you. It only happens if you grab the wheel and pull, and the clamps never actually failed on us, but it is a little disconcerting at first.
We didn't get that, but we were sent the $40 carbon fiber shift paddles, a replacement for the completely adequate metal ones that come with the wheel. The composite flappy paddles are a bit more exotic and, if you're getting the feeling that configuring this wheel could be a very expensive endeavor, you're right. Like buying a high-end German auto there's no shortage of accessories here, and you run the risk of driving the cost of this setup through the roof. The good news is you can just buy what you need and, when you finally get sponsored by a virtual race team, go crazy on accessories.
The wheel itself has a bevy of buttons on the front, four buttons on each stalk next to thumbs, another two on the bottom stalk situated beneath a four-way rocker, and of course the shift paddles on the back. It's the same basic layout as the Turbo S wheel but things feel a bit more solid here, more firm. A little higher-end. Up on top are a further two buttons used for tuning, which we'll get into in a moment. Sadly there's no center button under the horn, though you're always welcome to make your own honking noises.
Finally there's an Xbox 360 Guide button on the base, needed if you're going to be connecting this wirelessly to Microsoft's console. Kindly the company has added an integrated headphone jack, which means you won't have to keep a separate controller around if you want some voice chat in Forza. If you're connecting to the PS3 or PC you'll need to do it via wired USB, though there's an optional wireless connector that you can use -- once the company gets them back in stock. Oh, and the six-speed shifter we have mounted on some of the pictures? That's another $50 too, if you want it.
These pedals can connect directly to the wheel or go straight to the PC, so they're completely standalone. They've been available from the company for a few years now but we're just getting our first taste. Their open construction makes them hugely customizable, with tweakable and replaceable springs plus moveable faces and, well, just look at them. They have a very light feel that's unlike the budget foot fodder found in most wheels but a heavy construction that sees them staying in place.
The biggest difference here from standard pedals is the load cell on the brake. Load cells don't read position like a potentiometer used in the pedals of most gaming setups, instead reading pressure, meaning the brake here feels and acts more like the real thing. There's even a rumbling force-feedback effect to simulate the pulsation of ABS, but sadly few games support it directly.
Naturally a re-calibration was required for the game and, it must be said, for the driver. The wheel has a very different feel from the G27 we've been using of late, a bit more resistance and force feedback effect. Thankfully there is a suite of configurable parameters that can be changed on the wheel itself, things like total force feedback effect, the linearity of motion of the wheel, the number of degrees of rotation you'd like on offer (up to 900), and about a half-dozen other minutia.
Normally you'd tune these things within whatever game you're playing, but quite often games will be missing some tunable parameter that you crave. Gran Turismo 5, for example, doesn't offer nearly the suite of wheel customization options that one might like. Thankfully you can adjust the wheel itself and save those settings into one of five slots. Then, as you go from Forza 3 to GT5 to LFS you can quickly load up the proper configuration before you're out of the pits.
For iRacing we found ourselves adding a little bit of what the company calls "drift," which actually uses the force feedback motors to help you turn the wheel faster. At maximum this allows you to go from lock to lock ridiculously quickly (and imprecisely), but just a few points of drift helped to counter-act the game's programmed resistance and gave the feel of a very over-boosted power steering setup. Just perfect.
The pedals were even easier to get configured but just as hard to adjust to. The first couple-dozen laps saw brake points blown and sand traps dredged as years of potentiometer dependency was weaned away. But, eventually, braking feel returned and the beauty of a load cell-based system came through. The brake pedal here allows for very precise modulation, saving our bacon on multiple occasions when we were a little too brave in dive-bombing competitors.
Meanwhile the accelerator and clutch are improvements over standard pedals too, offering high-precision, contact-free potentiometers and by default offering very low resistance but good feel. That said, if you like a little more resistance that's easy to achieve. You just need to move a few bolts to add a little more tension, or additional springs can be purchased to boost things even further.
We tested the wheel and pedals with a number of games on a number of systems, tethering to the PS3 and the Xbox 360 without issue and being up and rolling within minutes. In GT5 the wheel doesn't offer a substantially different feel compared to the Logitech G27, but the ability to modify the wheel's configuration on the wheel itself made it much easier to live with. Meanwhile we still found the effects in Forza 3 to be a little underwhelming, but we can't blame the wheel for that, and it worked flawlessly in every other racer we threw at it.
However, we can't say it's a clearly better wheel than the G27 -- which notably doesn't work with the Xbox 360. The Alcantara feel, easy configurability, and powerful motors are definitely assets here, but Logitech's offering is quieter and has a more sturdy clamp if you're going for a non-permanent install. And, the G27 MSRP is $300, which includes an external six-speed shifter and pedals. Get an external shifter and Fanatec's cheapest set of pedals (which are not as good as the G27's set) and you're looking at about $350 here.
Of course, you might now be tempted by Fanatec's decidedly not cheap Clubsport pedals, which again will set you back $200. That's a lot of dough for three spring-loaded hunks of aluminum, but while we didn't find the wheel really making us much faster (though it did make us a better drifter), the pedals are a definite improvement. If you have the means, especially if you're a multi-platform racer, you should go for it -- or maybe wait for us to try out the $599 Thrustmaster T500RS.
Update: We got a note from Fanatec indicating that they've switched to a more quiet fan unit since producing the model that we received, which means any wheel purchased now should be quieter than the one we received. Also, we learned the company offers a Clubsport bundle with the 911 GT3 RS wheel (basically the same wheel as this with added orange paint and removed Xbox 360 compatibility) and the Clubsport pedals plus a shifter for $350, which is quite tantalizingly close to the Logitech G27's MSRP.