Give Me Back Control of My Traction

Autumn 2010 recently did a complete one-eighty on us. What started out as a very pleasant extension of summer for October and most of November quickly turned into an early winter once Thanksgiving arrived. In the past month we’ve had a full helping of arctic cold and a few significant snowfalls as well. All of that means one thing for drivers – traction control is doing overtime to keep the rubber from slipping.

It’s been more than a decade since I first got a taste of traction control and its more advanced cousin, dynamic stability control. All said, these two technologies have made the roads a safer place to travel when conditions are bad, and even when they’re not so bad. They’ve taken away the need for most human reaction times, not to mention the need to react correctly in most severe situations. Simply nail the brake pedal and do your best to steer the car out of harms’s way, and the network of sensors and computers and actuators will at least prevent you from spinning yourself into a spiral of death.

Of course, some of us still like to flirt with disaster to some degree and find these systems to be over-reaching, robbing us not only of cheap thrills, but also of vital practice sessions that keep our superior driving skills sharply honed. Many drivers like myself are familiar with the process of instantly deactivating the stability control system at startup, especially if the vehicle/route/conditions scenario is ideal for exploring the limits of grip.

But the upcoming mandate that all vehicles come standard with stability control means that nervous corporate legal teams have been dumbing down the system for lowest-common-demoninator drivers, make it virtually, if not entirely, impossible to override the feature and drive the car in its natural state. Case in point: the 2010 Volkswagen GTI that is currently at our office.

The GTI has long been a popular choice among serious drivers on a budget. I’ve personally had several early GTIs, which I valued for their lively engines and chassis paired to practical bodywork and interiors. I also got started in motorsport with a GTI (well, a GTI-spec Golf five-door anyway), flogging it at numerous track days, driving schools and Solo I events for several seasons and eventually taking it to an SCCA Solo II regional championship in 1998. In that car I learned countless advanced driving skills that I’ve carried with me for years, not the least of which is the ability to handle an “off” with grace. And I did all of it without stability control, traction control or even anti-lock brakes.

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I’m not alone, either. Visit any local autocross or weekend track event, and you’ll no doubt see a field of GTIs of nearly every vintage, bearing temporary numbers on their doors and dabs of shoe polish on their sidewalls, their aspiring drivers ready to tackle the course that awaits them.

That’s why I pity the poor drivers of the 2010-and-later GTIs, whose hopes for fast lap times have been stolen from them by a traction control system that only partially deactivates, no matter how long they push the defeat switch. At the point in the turn when they no doubt least expect it, the system will clip the throttle and pilfer valuable momentum from their attack, all because it thinks it knows better than the driver.

Nothing brings this issue to the forefront like winter driving, as I was recently reminded. I learned to drive in the snow by judicious use of the handbrake, carefully setting up my entry and then countersteering my way through turns with throttle applied to make fast, sure progress when conditions were at their worst. I’m good at it too, thanks to twenty-plus years of practice. So image my surprise when I yanked the GTI’s lever on a recent snow-packed drive and discovered that I wasn’t allowed to gas my way through the turn. Instead, I had to wait while the throttle shut down and the front wheels regained traction before I could resume forward motion once again, although not in the same trajectory as originally intended.

I realize I’m in the minority here, but I still enjoy driving my cars, and I occasionally want to be able to push them to do things the legal wonks might not agree with. That should be my decision, and mine alone. I have no problem with the carmakers covering their asses, but at least offer me the option of total systemic defeat, especially if you’re going to sell me a so-called performance car. Hey, I’ll even subject myself to a complex multi-step ordeal just to access the privilege. Just please give me the cheat codes to your electronic treasure chest so I can drive my car.

I’ve long since hung up my GTI keys, having taken the next logical step up the skill ladder with rear-drive BMWs. And so far that company knows that its Ultimate Driving Machine status relies on loosening the reins a bit. That’s why next time the snow falls, I’ll be at the wheel of a 535i, with the DSC defeated and the tail trying to jump ahead of the nose.

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