Logitech G27 racing wheel impressions

There's nothing like the smell of race gas and burnt rubber on a fine summer's morning, unique charms of the motorsports world that many long to be a part of. Sadly, few have the skills, funds, and luck to make the cut, so thank goodness for racing games. Motorsports-themed games continue to get more realistic and immersive every year, good enough even to entice even those with the requisite professional attachments to hone their skills in a safe (and cheap) environment before hitting the track. As the games get better the hardware that supports them must as well, with steering wheels being the most tangible addition. Logitech's latest is the $299 G27, a 900-degree, force-feedback wheel that is, at first pass, barely distinguishable from the G25 that precedes it. There are differences, but sadly few are entirely for the better.

Logitech's G27 on the right, next to the older G25.

Familiar beginnings

It takes a few moments to spot the changes made in the years between the new G27 and the older G25 -- the same metal and leather look; the shame brushed shifter paddles; the same diminutive golf ball shifter; the same faux-drilled pedals; the same compatibility (Windows PCs and PlayStation consoles only). Look closer, though, and the tweaks start to appear. Where before the wheel sported only a pair of red buttons, two sets of three have appeared, and on top of the hub now sits a row of tiny LEDs. Those paddles on the back, which previously had flimsy internal switches, now activate slightly more meaty external ones, the shifter lacks its trick mode dial, and the heavy pedals are now adjustable, with the brake and clutch slightly elevated.

The biggest change is that new shifter, and it is a definite step backward. On the G25 a dial could be turned to toggle between sequential shifting (moving up or down from gear to gear) to H-pattern (like most road cars, where you select exactly which gear you want). When in the latter mode the shifter had a particularly flimsy feel, but it was a huge improvement over your average wheel of the day. The G27 ditches the mode selector knob and along with it goes that sequential shifter mode, gone in exchange for slightly improved shifter feel. Many -- perhaps most -- won't miss this omission, as most just use the paddles on the back, but for serious sim racers this is an unfortunate move.

The other differences, they required some hands-on time to explore.

Going for a test drive

To see what the G27 is worth we kicked the tires and lit the fires on our favorite race simulation of the moment, iRacing, loaded up the Spec Racer Ford (perfect thanks to its non-sequential transmission), and headed out onto Laguna Seca to tackle the corkscrew.

Pulling out of the pits the array of lights lit up in sequence and then started blinking when the Racer's poor 1.9 liter four-banger reached its limiter. This is a feature that not all games support yet, so we were glad to see it worked here and surprised that, despite their size, those lights were easy to spot even in a well-lit room. Sadly that didn't stop them from being all but useless for this particular car, which runs out of steam long before it runs into the rev limiter. Shifts must be made lower in the RPM range, before the lights even clicked on, meaning this is just a pretty light show until you can specify at what revs the disco act begins.

Heading into the Andretti Hairpin we managed to accidentally stomp on the brake and clutch at the same time, as out of the box the G27 has those two separated by barely an inch. That can now be changed, and after a little work with a hex key we had the clutch moved about 1cm to the left and the brake 1cm to the right. That's as far as they'll go; not perfect, but a definite improvement.

Back on the track we were hitting the right pedals, getting into the groove, and watching lap times creep down to where they should -- and then it all went wrong. The rear started to come around in the run through Rainey Curve and, during a quick stab of opposite-lock, our mitts managed to accidentally brush the top-two face buttons, which we'd assigned to the "look left" and "look right" commands. This sent the in-game perspective swinging about wildly, the car looping into the gravel trap, and us feeling more than a little queasy.

These buttons are very close to the edge of the wheel and are raised, so it's all too easy to accidentally tap one (or three) when catching a drift. Even when calmly shuffle-steering around a tight turn they can get in the way, yet paradoxically they're also hard to find when you need them thanks to their identical shape, with no ridges or bumps to differentiate one from the other. The G25 was widely criticized for having only two on-wheel buttons, but sadly those two are better than these six.

There's another change, though, which we didn't realize until leafing through the wheel's press materials: a switch to helical gears. What you think of as a typical gear, with slab-like teeth, is straight-cut: strong, but loud and far from smooth, as the big, flat teeth slap against each other. A helical cut gear has teeth cut at an angle, like a screw, so the engagement from one tooth to another is more progressive, more smooth, and more quiet. Sure enough we tried the two wheels back-to-back, and there is an improvement. It's a slight one, though, and one that we honestly wouldn't have noticed otherwise.

Cables ahoy

Logitech made some big changes to address some of the G25's more glaring gameplay-related issues, but sadly ignored one of the more annoying usability-related aspects: cable overload. The wheel sports external boxes for the pedals, the shifter, and the AC adapter, each having a cord that runs up to the wheel, which in turn sprouts a further USB cable. The result is a slew of lines strung from all corners back to the wheel, and then another one back down to the desktop. However you try to arrange it you get a mess. We'd have far preferred if each component had its own USB connector, which, in combination with a cheap USB hub, would have allowed far more flexible cable management. It also would have allowed sim purists to run the old G25 sequential shifter if they like -- sadly it's is incompatible with the G27 wheel, despite using the same connector.

The G27 in the front, flanked by a Driving Force GT, Driving Force Pro, and G25.

Goes up to 27, but is it two louder?

Logitech's G27 is not two steps forward and one step back; it's more like a stumble in each direction, leaving it standing more or less where it started. It's a wheel that is improved, but for each tasty upgrade comes a painful omission, downgrade, or flaw. For serious virtual racers it's all a little tragic; the company was obviously listening and addressed many G25 owners' concerns, but in the process inspired plenty of new complaints. At the end it's hard to recommend the G27 over the G25, especially for anyone thinking of moving from one to the other. If you must have the latest and flashiest, the G27 with its blinkenlights is your wheel.

For everyone else, the slightly adjustable pedals and the smoother internals are the only solid advancements here, and with the G25 now available at most places for under $200, a full $100 cheaper than the new one, there's no question of which to buy -- at least until supplies run out. Take that cash saved and put it toward plywood and 2 x 4's to build yourself a race simulation cockpit of epic proportions. Or you could just invest it; by the time Gran Turismo 5 finally ships you'll probably have made enough interest to buy a PS3 Slim to play it on.