Ewww, I'm not touching that!

If somebody offers me a can of drink and I notice the term “Diet” or “Sugar Free” on the label I politely decline. It usually means aspartame content, and that phenylalanine-rich crap takes much loved carbonated beverages and turns them into sickly, poisonous pastiches of what they once were. I’m looking at you, Doctor Pepper. New and Improved my arse. If a drink has some kind of sugar alternative going on, I know I’m not going to enjoy it.
Offer me the keys of a car, any car, and I’ll gladly jump in and take a drive. No matter what it tastes like. However, if that car has a plastic steering wheel I’ll probably spend the whole journey gurning and looking genuinely disgusted. I really am that weird.
You have to have standards. The steering wheel is the bit of car that you’re supposed to be touch-feely with 100% of the time. A helm station which isn’t tactile and rewarding to hold is a fundamental failure of the vehicle’s function as a whole. I require, at the very least, a leather rimmed steering wheel if I’m going to spend any time in a car.
What’s your weird minimum standard requirement?

OK, there are some non-leather steering wheels which are liveable; In the ’80s only the very top-end of the Ford line had a non petrochemical-derived rim, the best you could expect on an Escort or Sierra was soft-feel plastic, so you didn’t really have much choice in the matter. Go back a bit further and there were plenty of post-war British machines with Bakelite steering wheels, and obviously the feel of a genuine wood-rimmed Nardi is something to savour. But I find it disgraceful that a decent steering wheel should be seen as an upgrade item in this day and age.
I was pleased to find the SEAT Leon rental car I used last week (review coming soon, you lucky people) was fitted with a leather wheel, other wise my travel plans would have been cut short. I would have made it half way into my journey and then stopped and sobbed noisily at the side of the road, unable to cope with the sensory misery of a non hide-wrapped tiller. I would have ended up completing the journey by foot, like Michael Douglas in Falling Down, and would doubtless have ended up being shot by the police.
So that’s it, really. I accept that any steering wheel is a good thing to have, and me being willing to suffer for my art I will accept offers of drives in cars not benefiting from animal-hide accents on their major controls. But if a steering wheel feels bad in your hand it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the driving experience.
What trivial detail is your automotive deal-breaker?
(Image of a SEAT steering wheel, and then a Mercedes steering wheel, are copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2015)

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  1. Sjalabais Avatar

    I happen to have winter driving gloves…for my plastic steering wheel. A way out?

    1. crank_case Avatar

      No worse than my wifes “gearknob hat” because she doesn’t like touching the accords aluminium gear knob on cold mornings so throws a wooly hat over it.

  2. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

    Holy Crap!
    I was having this conversation with my wife last night that every auto maker needs to realize that the ONLY things drivers touch 100% of the time is the seat and the steering wheel and I am so annoyed at how cheap some feel.
    I rented a 2015 Hyundai Sonata (not intentionally, some how they are “full-size”) in Chicago last weekend. The positive of it, when the road was smooth it was quiet.
    After that it was a total fleet special. terrible seats, big chunky, but squishy rubber/plastic steering wheel.
    That was really the first time it dawned on me that the only cars I have ever owned with a plastic wheel were the ZX2 and 89 Sable (Ex-fleet car). Every other car i have owned had either leather or wood.
    My minimum requirement though is adequate side-mirrors. I hate the little tiny ones that clearly were more for look than function.

    1. P161911 Avatar

      I spent my early driving years driving a 1981 Buick Regal with two side mirrors the size of a woman’s compact and then a 1977 Corvette with a single driver’s side mirror that was about 3″x4″. So I’m not too picky on side mirrors.

      1. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

        When you have three car seats across the back row, you can never count on seeing out that window. Otherwise i probably wouldn’t have ever cared about mirrors.

      2. Drzhivago138 Avatar

        I’m in the exact opposite camp as you–given that most of my early years of driving were in a pickup truck with a bed full of crap or a medium-duty straight truck with a dump box, I always operate under the assumption that visibility to the rear will be nonexistent, and I go for the largest mirrors possible. Which also explains why the horrendous rear visibility on most modern vehicles doesn’t bother me.

        1. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

          Yep. I drove delivery trucks and rollbacks for 2 years. “Check your mirrors”

    2. salguod Avatar

      This. I rely on my mirrors heavily and having proper useful mirrors is important.
      Both of my daughters’ cars have frustrating side mirrors. The oldest’s Escort has absurdly tiny tear drop shaped things and the middle’s Protege has mirrors that don’t adjust out nearly far enough to eliminate the overlap with the windshield mirror.

  3. Prince Halibrand Avatar
    Prince Halibrand

    I spent a lot of money years ago on a wood-rimmed steering wheel for exactly the same reason. The only thing is I got one that with the rim attached by rivets. When your car has been sitting in the sun for a couple of hours, metal rivets are a really, really bad ide.

  4. Citric Avatar

    My current car is the first time I’ve ever had a leather wheel, and I’m actually not a fan. Seems to get dirtier faster than the plastic wheels I’m used to, doesn’t feel appreciably better, I could do without.
    My weird minimum is power windows. I know that the conventional wisdom is that the ol’ crank won’t break (though it will, I’ve definitely had to deal with broken crank windows before) but I had to spend a weekend in a rental Corolla with crank windows and it was at least in the top five most misery-inducing things about that car (the engine that sounded like a distressed cow was number one). Leaning over to crank the stupid thing just made me avoid any situations which would require actually rolling down the window. Gimme a little button that I can tap to make the window disappear, it’s just better.

    1. quattrovalvole Avatar

      Going 1 step further on this theme: I hate it when an automaker fits power windows without auto up & down.

    2. ptschett Avatar

      Also fun: when the leather cover wears out. My granddad’s ’90 F-150 had the leather wear out at the 12:30-2:00 part of the wheel by about 1999; it was obnoxious to drive for the rest of its days till it was parked “in the trees” in the mid-2000’s.

  5. Andrew Avatar

    I really like my Momo Monte Carlo, and I’m not sure how I’ll handle giving this thing up if/when I own a car with airbags. Having spent the money already, that is the only reason I can think of to settle for a lesser steering wheel.

  6. 7FIAT's Later Avatar
    7FIAT’s Later

    I don’t know if this is weird or not, but regardless of what it is made of, I like a clean steering wheel and take a anti-bacterial wipe to it and my gear shift knob at least every couple of weeks.

  7. nanoop Avatar

    Wipers that leave a big runny dumpling in the driver’s view. I’m on 26″/16″ currently, compared to 21″/18″ OEM.
    Pro-tipp: wiper blades may overlap when in park position, as the driver side is always faster.

    1. Cool_Cadillac_Cat Avatar

      I’m EXACTLY the same way.
      I put the longest possible blades on every vehicle.

    2. Sjalabais Avatar

      Back in the olden days I was offended that the upright and thus short rear window wiper on the Volvo 245 came marked with “Daewoo Matiz” when bought at the autoparts store…

    3. salguod Avatar

      I’ve owned my Mazda3 since new and the passenger wiper comes within an inch of the driver’s during operation. It’s close enough that for the first several months I fully expected them to touch and for one to fly off at speed.

  8. Vavon Avatar

    For me there are only two things which are important in a car…
    It must be FUN to drive and have a decent radio… I’m easy to please.

    1. roguetoaster Avatar

      Ideally, it should be so fun that you only need the radio for the commute or the awkward spousal silences!

      1. dead_elvis Avatar

        Just a few rules for passengers in my car – no smoking, no eating, no beverages other than water, and NO touching the radio; radio codicil – no singing along, unless I’m also doing so.
        I don’t have passengers often. (And I’m single, obv.)

  9. sunbeammadd Avatar

    I finally upgraded my steering wheel from Bakelite to leather last year. It does indeed make for a more pleasant driving experience. Although there’s something to be said for the elegance of the thin Bakelite rim.

  10. JayP Avatar

    Ford is strange with leather steering wheels. I’ve seen $50k Shelby Mustangs with plastic steering wheels but my base-base Ranger manual everything has a leather wheel.

    1. PotbellyJoe★★★★★ Avatar

      It more has to do with parts bin for Ford. Parts bin and upsells.

    2. neight428 Avatar

      They recently (in ’13 or ’14) decided that all Mustang GT’s would get a leather rim on the wheel. When searching about for my current car (’14 GT) I did not know this and thought that I would have to buy $3k worth of useless options to get something without the immediate tactile sensation of a lawn tractor. To my pleasant surprise I found a dealer that had three in stock with only the Sync system (Bluetooth phone pairing through the stereo is a fantastic idea) and a 3.73 gear and the tiller is wrapped in at least a reasonable facsimile of cow hide. The shifter knob is, however, made from plastic molds rejected by Mattel, that may need to go in favor of a plain white cue ball/Hurst style version.

      1. JayP Avatar

        My first mod on my ’05 GT was the Hurst kit. Looks bad ass. You can get Boss steering wheels for $200. I thought about it but I’d lose cruise control.

  11. neight428 Avatar

    Probably not trivial, but a low HP 4-cylinder mated to an automatic transmission feels like beige looks.

  12. CSM Avatar

    I am a guy who buys a car and tends to keep it long term. I dislike leather wrapped steering wheels because after about 7 or 8 years of use, they get worn. Leather requires careful cleaning…will get slightly sticky over time, attract grime, and generally look worn out. I prefer a well made plastic or foam wheel that can be cleaned with anything, scrubbed, and is resistant to UV degradation.

    1. dukeisduke Avatar

      After years of use the leather-wrapped wheel in my ’95 F-150 was smooth and shiny, and would leave black marks on my khakis if they happened to rub against the leather. The one in my ’13 Tacoma claims to be leather-wrapped, but I’m suspicious, since it has areas with two different textures.

  13. CSM Avatar

    Has anyone ever found a shop that can put new leather on a steering wheel that is worn out?

  14. Ed Kim Avatar
    Ed Kim

    Judge me all you like, but I have to have automatic climate control and heated seats.