Who says a wheel has to be round? On the Aston Martin DB11 steering wheel, square is the new round.
I use the description “square” loosely. It’s not a perfect square, but rather it tapers off in more pronounced angle in the tradition of the 820 horsepower Vulcan supercar and its smart steering wheel. Thick and sculptural, it was the first thing I noticed when I climbed into the cockpit to test drive this James Bond-inspired sports car. The shape of the DB11 wheel gives this $214,000 vehicle a sense of purpose.
The wheel is cast in an oblong shape, which means that you can also see more of the dashboard and the pedals peeking through. Its coated in hand-stitched, buttery caramel leather, which emphasizes the embossed wings of the Aston Martin logo. The effect is stunning and it’s almost as if the wheel is beckoning you to climb in and take it for a spin. And what this form adds to the interior is a powerful message to a driver in the age of smart-phone distraction: keep your hands at nine and three o’clock.
It’s not the first time Aston Martin has toyed with this squarish-round shape. It’s gleaned from the rare 2010 one-77 hyper car of which 77 examples were made, and is now standard on the DB11 flagship. Until now, this wheel shape has only been sold as a pricy option available on the Vanquish. On the DB11, this obtuse wheel is the first of its kind equipped with electric power-assisted steering. Memories of the not-so-amazing Ford steering wheel used on an early 2000s Vantage model over a decade ago are placed in the distant rear view mirror.
The lush shape also helps distract from the physical black controls placed on the side, which are the most the company has used in a production car, and include the thumb buttons that maneuver transmission modes, the home screen, telephone, volume knob, and are all part and parcel of the brand’s technical partnership with Daimler. The plasticky black paddle controls are tucked neatly behind the wheel, ensuring that your hands never stray far.
It’s easy to overlook details such as the shape of the wheel on a car that boasts a stunning exterior, designed by Marek Reichman and his team. In reality, car designers agonize over these complex and highly engineered bits for hours. The steering wheel engages multiple senses. Its tactile feel is the key connection between the driver and the road. In the case of a sports car like the DB11, it’s the connection between the joy of opening up the engine and laying down the throttle as you’re coming out of an apex of a turn into a straightway, or perhaps breezing by the water along the Amalfi coast, zipping from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 4 seconds flat.
The steering wheel has its own history independent of the automobile. Steering wheels were first widely used on 19th century ships. But the image of a captain navigating a wheel large in diameter to bring his ship to shore is far removed from the slick wheels we see in contemporary sports car. Steering in the first motor cars were controlled by levers, which gave way to wooden wheels. While Francis W Davis invented power steering in the 1920s, the feature didn’t become popular in cars until the 1950s, after hydraulics systems were popularized and Chrysler used it in the Imperial. But in recent years, Aston Martin, like many automakers, has switched to electric power assisted steering, which means that an electric motor controls the wheel. While the jury is still out on the responsiveness, these systems are only getting better and more accurate than the hydraulic counterparts.
But technical performance and function aside, the exterior shape of the wheel in this case is more referential. In recent times, the evolution of the wheel is closely tied to motorsports, and what gives the driver the ability to maneuver most efficiently in both Formula One and GT racing. Marshall Pruett reported for Road & Track, “In abstract terms, there are few components on a racing car that have changed more and become almost unrecognizable since the sport was in its infancy more than a decade ago.”
The steering wheel is one of many beautiful bits on the DB11, a car that has grace and visceral power, as well as other remarkable details such as full LED headlamps. In contemporary cars, the wheel is what guides the driving experience. Of course the concept of a steering wheel in passenger cars, may one day be one of pure nostalgia as we move into the age of autonomous driving. Many of the self-driving car prototypes are cars with no steering wheels at all.