For Mazda, the steering wheel connects enthusiast drivers with the soul of the car
The very first automobiles used levers and a tiller to operate and maneuver, but it wasn’t long before the humble steering wheel found its way as standard fare. But in more than 120 years of motoring, the basic premise of the steering wheel hasn’t changed much, especially when compared to how much the car has evolved. Along with the seat and pedals, the steering wheel is really the driver’s only physical connection to the car, so we talked with Mazda Director of Automotive Design, Ken Saward, to learn about how Mazda considers the steering wheel as part of its philosophy of “human-centricity-focused design”
“The first step in designing a steering wheel for a Mazda doesn’t focus on the steering wheel itself, but rather on the driver’s position in the car in relation to the steering wheel,” explains Saward. “If we don’t get that right, then the Jinba Ittai feeling (driver and car are one) that we strive for won’t transpire.
“As far as the steering wheel itself, how it feels in your hands, the shape and the thickness all play a big role in how a driver will feel connected with the car,” he continues. “It’s what contributes to the feeling of control.”
There’s no doubt that those factors matter, but they are subjective. So how does Saward’s team reach a final steering wheel design that will drive a variety of people to the same conclusion?
“We spend a lot of time on that, and there are a variety of areas that contribute to the final design,” says Saward. “Some are subjective, and part of that is benchmarking a lot of cars from other companies to try to discern the common attributes that make a steering wheel feel right. And then there are objective factors, like the ergonomic measurements of the driver’s position relative to the wheel. For example, how high the legs are in relation to the steering wheel could have an influence on the wheel diameter. And last, there are engineering attributes that come into play, like turning radius. It’s all put into an ‘equation’ to come up with the optimum solution.”