Motoring: When they grow up, so will their cars

Compare a saloon car with the nimbleness of a computer game car; it's like comparing a 747 to a fly
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Indy Lifestyle Online
AS A generation of children is brought up on computer games demanding split-second reflexes from super-sharp controls, will tomorrow's cars finally offer steering (and other controls) that serve up precision rather than the sloppiness of a wooden spoon in a bowl of porridge?

My eight-year old son, for instance, is expert at coolly guiding "virtual reality" racing cars around circuits, avoiding crash barriers, trees, earth banks and buildings. On the other hand I, a veteran of 24 years' driving, seem incapable of negotiating a single lap without spinning, crashing, rolling or being rebuked for going the wrong way.

I am something of a Luddite, I admit. Just as relevant is my continuing inability to master computer games. I was also brought up on - and continue to drive - cars with about as much steering sensitivity as an ocean-going freighter. Huge inputs go into car steering wheels - arms swaying, wrists flicking, shoulders heaving - all to make small changes to the direction of the car's front wheels. The move towards power steering has removed the ultimate heft, but it's done little for steering precision and feedback.

We put up with it only because most of us know no better. All modern saloon cars have appallingly sloppy steering. Drive a Lotus Elise - which does without power assistance, a huge wheel, and the hopelessly multi- twirl steering with which 99 per cent of all cars are encumbered - and you'll experience road feel you've never felt before. Helicopters, which I have experienced a couple of times, are much more sensitive again, partly because they use joysticks. (Mercedes has suggested that, long term, joysticks linked to "drive-by-wire" aeroplane-like controls may be a better solution, on cars, than conventional steering wheels.) Computer game cars, of course, are also precise. Compare the nimbleness of a normal saloon car with that of a computer game car, and it's like comparing a 747 to a fly. It must be one reason why nimble-minded kids invariably beat their dads in racing games.

The new Sony Playstation game, Gran Turismo, gave me more hope. I'd been hopelessly and regularly thrashed by eight-year old Henry on his Sega Rally, once the video game benchmark, but Gran Turismo looked better suited to us real drivers. After all, Sony claims the cars handle like real cars - there are even key differences from model to model, just as in real racing.

Maybe, but Henry still thrashes me as comprehensively as he does on Sega Rally. Yet that doesn't reduce the enjoyment (somehow being beaten by your son is not quite so bad as being beaten by other people). I am now a computer game junkie, practising my tail slides, opposite lock corrections and racing lines, all in the discomfort of my own box bedroom. Besides, if you're not happy with your car on Gran Turismo, you can swap it for one of 130 other models.

The cars handle and sound differently, from model to model. You can even tune them to give them different handling, better brakes and so on, specifying from a huge menu of spares. Just as impressive are the graphics. The cars are all in 3D with totally convincing paintwork. At the end of each race, you get the full action replay, but from the spectator's angle rather than from the driver's. So you can see just how hopeless you are. All that's missing, in the action replays, is Murray Walker's babble.

As must be palpably clear by now, I am no computer game expert, but Henry says the Gran Turismo is much better than Sega Rally and cousin Owen (who's 15 and a computer guru) rates it above the Top Gear Rally game on his new Nintendo 64. "The cars feel so realistic," trumpet Henry and Owen in unison, never mind that neither can drive. In short, if you're unable to take part in real-life motor racing, Sony's Gran Turismo game is as close as you're likely to get.

Besides, as well as educating our kids in driving techniques, it may also educate the car makers in serving up better cars.

n Sony Gran Turismo costs pounds 44.99.