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My 2010 Volkswagen GTI had been admirable and excellent throughout my three years with it. It’s a car with nearly zero flaws when it's used for what it was intended to do, and it maintains an excellent standing in my heart. One thing did bug me though, and inconsistently too: Its electronic power steering.
Volkswagen introduced its EPAS system with the 2006 Golf in the United States, already fitted with the more reliable generation two steering rack. It’s a simple system with CAN bus communication to the rest of the car and the assist motor mounted on the rack itself. My car has the direct descendent of that rack, the generation three, with a few differences: it deleted the saddle-style bushing for a direct solid mount, and it’s no longer configurable in terms of assist weight.
That’s not talking about the actual steering of my GTI. It was genuinely hit or miss, depending on the road, the day, the temperature, how the tires are doing, and whether or not the GTI felt like it. There were days when the steering was nice and natural and actually had some degree of feel, and some days the steering would be artificially light and non-communicative. It's odd and annoying, but I made some progress rectifying it.
At first, I attacked this with typical suspension modifications. I tried the Whiteline Anti-Lift kit which added some caster and slightly changed the geometry of the front suspension. That had a positive effect in adding some heft to the steering and more of a “carving” feeling to it, though it still left much to be desired in terms of weight and effort buildup.
I tried two different brands of coilovers, Bilstein and KW Variant 2s. I didn’t do the coilovers explicitly in the name of steering, but I did hope there would be some side effects from the stiffer dampers. It didn’t do very much and actually made the GTI generally worse to drive and dynamically awkward. Before I gave up on the coilovers entirely, I got front and rear Whiteline 24mm sway bars which made a huge difference to the dynamics of the car once I learned some weirdness about the rear suspension. This platform demands that the rear suspension is slightly higher relative to the front for proper roll geometry (that’s a pro tip for Mk5 and Mk6 owners out there).
I swapped back to stock dampers with the big sway bars and the car became a lot closer to perfect. It lift-off oversteered, had nearly psychotic turn-in, and generally did what I asked of it. Great, right? Alas, the steering still disappointed. Though I started recognizing a slight pattern.
You see, the GTI put down a lot of torque on its APR Stage 1+ software and the Fluidampr crank pulley I love so much. It absolutely destroys front tires with that torque, and because I lived somewhere where I could take canyons to commute, I was running through pairs of front tires frequently. From the start, I was experimenting with many different makes, models, and sized of tires and came to a startling revelation when I got Michelin Pilot Super Sports on the front of my GTI — I finally had the feel I was chasing.
Let’s recap the tires I had up to that point: my first set were some no-name generics I got with the car, replaced with Firestone Indy 500s, then two pairs of Michelin Pilot Sport 4Ss, then Falken RT660 200 treadwear stickies, Michelin Pilot Sport A/S 4s, then the Pilot Supers.
The Michelin PSSs brought the steering to life. In fact, it felt like they actually reduced the ratio of the steering. My inputs were reduced by at least 25 percent compared to every other tire, and especially against the lazy A/S 4 tires. The car turned itself in with a suggestion from my hands and gently glided through the corners, giving me the response and “carving” feel I was chasing. For EPAS, it felt amazing. It didn’t have the granularity of hydraulic steering but it was plenty satisfying, compared to the mushy mess of the stock steering.
All of that from just tires.
We hear a lot about tires being a good first mod for any car, and that is absolutely true. And everybody talks about how important tires are to grip. What I don’t hear a lot about is how tires are the biggest influence on feel and response too. For every different tire I had on the GTI, the character of the machine changed completely. Some tires made the car steady and progressive, others slow and dull, some numb but quick, and the Super Sports did the trick I wanted to.
Most people can’t or don’t have to run through a lot of tires during the course of their car’s life, but I loved this dumb car enough to keep feeding it tires. Through that, I had one of the biggest revelations of my time owning cars. Grip isn’t the most important thing to me, you can buy a tire that will deliver ridiculous lap times but feels like nothing. I’d rather have a tire that’s slower but feels better to drive on every time.
Sure, the newer PS4S is something like two-tenths quicker around a track, but the older PSS feels alive and responsive and is much more fun than the newer tire. If that’s a flaw, I’ll take it with pride. This experimentation will be important for modern EPAS cars with lackluster feel, but I’m curious to compare tires on a car with great steering. Will the effect be greater? Will all tires feel good and I won’t even care? I’d love to find out someday.
Don't be afraid to keep experimenting with tires if you find yourself looking for more feeling from your car. They all feel different and all influence the entire attitude of any vehicle. While I felt like I made a lot of progress with my GTI and found some tires I do like, I still experimented until the day I sold it.