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Understeer and oversteer explained

2018-02-22 06:00

If you’re a driving enthusiast, you would have likely heard about oversteer and understeer. If you’re just a casual driver, the term is probably considered irrelevant. Understanding it though could simply improve your driving.

If your car enters a corner too fast and loses control before skidding off the road, which would you prefer – hitting that tree up ahead with the front bumper or rear bumper?

That’s the most elementary description of understeer and oversteer: either the nose lets go first, or the tail breaks away and starts chasing the nose. For obvious reasons, neither is fun, and can be avoided.

But why is the car sliding in the first place? Both understeer and oversteer are the consequences of a lack of adhesion from either the front or rear tyres. All other things being equal, the loss of control in a car during the cornering sequence can be attributed to passive factors such as the vehicle’s weight distribution, chassis configuration and tyres, while active factors include the application of throttle, braking, steering, speed and weight transfer.

As a general rule of thumb, front-wheel drive cars (usually passenger cars) tend to understeer while rear-wheel drive cars (high-performance cars) will oversteer. And unlike in rear-driven cars, in a front-wheel drive car apart from transferring power, the front tyres are burdened with the additional responsibility of having to steer, which makes them extra susceptible to understeer.

So, let’s say you feel like unleashing your inner Lewis Hamilton while approaching your favourite corner in your Polo Vivo. Mid-corner you decide to mash the throttle, but guess what? Instead of rocketing towards the horizon in the straight line you hoped for, you’re now ploughing nose-first towards the opposite pavement (not to mention into the oncoming lane) on the outside of the corner as if the steering wheel has been temporarily disconnected. Why? Because you’ve asked too much of the front tyres and something had to give – literally.

Counter-intuitively, the remedy is to do less: either gradually ease off the throttle, or slightly reduce the steering angle, provided there is (safe) space for running wider than you would have liked to. Easy, as long as you remember not to panic. And breathe.

Catching oversteer is trickier. This occurs in a powerful rear-wheel drive car when the boot-lid is trying to overtake the bonnet as the rear tyres are spinning while the fronts are still dutifully gripping as the car starts to rotate on its own vertical axis.

At this point it is imperative to keep the car balanced by resisting the urge to stomp on the brake pedal while keeping the front wheels pointing in the direction of intended travel, because the outside rear of the car is dead-set on swopping ends with the inside front and needs no further assistance. This is where counter-steering comes in – temporarily turning into the slide, or away from the corner to tame the sliding rear – then once the lateral force has been neutralised, straightening the steering in the direction of the road again.

Sounds tricky? You bet, but extremely unlikely to happen to you unless you provoked your rear-driven muscle car by hoofing it after disabling both the stability and the traction control.

Much like other adversities in life, there’s solace in knowing you won’t find the trouble of oversteer or understeer unless you went out looking for it in the first place.  

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