"Road hog!" I roared as a Porsche 911 cut me off in a short straightaway on the streets of Monte Carlo. I slammed the accelerator of my 944 and felt the steering wheel tremble from the extra power.
I never saw the fence till I smashed into it, when the wheel rocked me into the realization that I was in big trouble. Soon the rattling was replaced by an eerie stillness as I barrel-rolled through the air in my own version of the "Dukes of Hazzard."
Crashing to earth took the joy out of my racing day - the impact nearly jolted my hands off the wheel. But as always, the game reset itself and I was speeding like a demon down the streets of Monte Carlo again in no time.
Racing on the PC has never been better. Thanks to gaming engineers at Microsoft, Act Labs and Thrustmaster, steering columns with accelerators, brake pedals and even gearshifts have brought unprecedented realism to virtual Formula 1, NASCAR and touring car drivers.
PC steering wheels are attached to heavy consoles that clamp onto your computer's desktop. Most wheels come with buttons that can be programmed to blow the horn, simulate a turn signal or engage the emergency brake. Paddles behind the steering wheel can be used to shift up or down, but tend to be tough to maneuver while turning. Some wheels come with an additional gearshift lever. Pedals for the gas or brake are planted firmly into a base that sits under your desk and operate just like those in a car.
Connected to a computer's game port, serial port or Universal Serial Bus, the wheels and pedals tend to be easy to get up and running. And once you drive in a PC game with a 10-inch racing wheel, you'll swear off your joystick forever.
While some racing wheels can be had for $40 or less, these tend to be cheap plastic knockoffs of the better models that start at $60 or so.
I tested four of these top-drawer steering wheel and pedal assemblies to see which provided the most thrilling racing experience. (Yeah, it's a tough job, but somebody has to do it.) Two of the units had force feedback, which means the wheel and console shake, rattle and jolt the driver in response to speed, road conditions and crashes.
For test purposes we used Electronic Arts' superb "Need For Speed: Porsche Unleashed" simulation, which provides hours of fun with 80 models of Porsches on linear and circuit tracks. This $39.95 game is typical of many racing titles, which require a 200 MHz Pentium computer. My PC was powered by a 450 MHz Pentium II chip with 192 megabytes of RAM, an nVidia TNT II 32-megabyte graphics card, and a 10-gigabyte hard drive.
Use the Force
The best wheel in this bunch came from Act Labs. You know you're in for a sweet driving experience when you take the Force RS Racing System out of the box and see the synthetic leather on the steering wheel and heavy-duty accelerator and brake pedals that look as if they belong on an arcade game down at ESPN Zone.
While I never got the USB connection to work with this wheel, I had no problem hooking it to a serial port.
The force feedback in the RS system was so strong that my computer desk - including printer, scanner, USB hub and all - shook as the car waited at the starting line before the race. (You can adjust the force in some games.)
Driving on gravel road shoulders gave the wheel and console one heck of a rumble. And a crash at 60 mph felt different from bumping another car on a curve.
While our wheel arrived with an RS Shifter, the Porsche game didn't support it so we never got to test it.
The only downside to this wheel was the locking mechanism. Two cumbersome flywheels tighten the console to the desk. In moments of road rage, I could feel the back of the console lift a little.
At $140 for the wheel and pedals (an RS Shifter with eight gears runs an additional $60), the Force definitely gives you the best force feedback for the price.
Microsoft's $160 Sidewinder Force Feedback Wheel costs more than the Act Labs wheel, but it didn't perform as well. But describing Microsoft's efforts as an "also-ran" would be too harsh. Gates & Co. have still made this a better racing experience than any non-force feedback wheel.
A step up from its Precision Racing Wheel, the Force Feedback Wheel provides rubber grips to hang onto in those tight turns - a nice touch.
The wheel's locking mechanism looked neat as I adjusted a plastic screw and single, quick-release clamp to attach the unit to the desktop, but once it was mounted, I felt the assembly lift in similar fashion to the RS System wheel.
On the road, gravel along the shoulders made the wheel grumble a little bit, while a rollover in my Porsche 911 was appropriately jarring. But overall, Microsoft's wheel felt like the Force RS with some sort of dampening.
You can turn off the force feedback with a button in the center of the wheel, but driving became sloppy without the resistance.
The Force Feedback and Precision Racing wheels use the same pedals, which are far too light for vigorous racing. Both units slid along the floor as I pressed one pedal, then the other. Finally, I backed the pedal assembly against a heavy set of books to keep it from sliding around.
Thrustmaster is a longtime maker of top-notch joysticks, but its NASCAR Pro Digital Racing Wheel gave me the worst installation problems of this group. After a couple of hours of futzing around with the computer's USB connection, I called the company's tech support line, where a service rep put me back on track.
After that, the NASCAR Pro performed like a champ, thanks in part to a rubber grip that allowed me to hang on comfortably in tight turns.
At $70, the NASCAR Pro doesn't provide true force feedback, but the natural resistance built into the wheel will please drivers who don't want to spend the extra $60 for a fancier system. The wheel's accuracy made for crisp handling and quick response.
For desktop mounting, Thrustmaster relies on two arms with rubber stabilizers on gimbals. These are tightened to your desk with quick-release levers. Once I locked the NASCAR Pro down, it was so tight that I could have pulled the table across the room by grabbing the wheel and heaving.
While adequate for right-handed shifters, the stick on the Thrustmaster didn't give me much of a racing feeling.
Unlike the RS shifter, with eight gear positions, the NASCAR Pro has two positions - shift up and shift down. If you don't like the stick, you can use paddle shifters or set your game to automatic transmission.
At $80, Microsoft's Sidewinder Precision Racing Wheel beats the Thrustmaster in only one regard: installation. Its USB installation was as smooth as its big brother's, and I was racing minutes after I opened the box.
The wheel provided enough resistance to create some racing feel, but Thrustmaster's was steadier in the hand - and more stable.
Like the force-feedback Sidewinder, it uses paddle shifters to move the gears up and down. There are six programmable buttons, which I enjoyed because I like having my horn under my right thumb where I can get to it when any other driver is silly enough to get in my way.
The Precision Racing Wheel provides only hard plastic for your hands - no rubber - and uses the same locking mechanism as Microsoft's force feedback model.