So, last Friday, the power steering pump in my NA Miata failed catostrophically, barfing its guts out all over my engine bay. This is the second time this has happened, but last time I had it replaced within a day. This time around, I had to wait a little longer.
My new power steering pump was delivered today. The thing is, after only a week of driving around without it, I’ve kinda fallen in love with manual steering. Again. Allow me to explain.
This isn’t the first time I’ve driven around with no hydraulic assist to supplement the muscles in my arms when steering a car. I used to own a car that wasn’t even offered with power steering, many moons ago. But I’d forgotten how that felt. It turns out, it feels pretty fantastic.
There’s just something satisfying about the higher effort required to steer a car manually, much in the same way that a manual gearbox is so rewarding (for those of us who prefer them, anyway). Forgive the ego here, but just knowing that most people wouldn’t put up with having to steer entirely on their own makes the car feel a little more special than it does normally.
It’s not even that it’s all that hard to steer. Even with my Momo Prototipo at parking lot speeds, it’s doable so long as you’re stronger than the average 6-year-old. Actually, it’s kinda surprising how not-difficult it is. Yes, the car is light, but I’ve also got big, fat, sticky Dunlop Star Specs on it. Still, it’s only slightly harder to steer than my Karmann Ghia was with its skinny tires and almost weightless front-end.
But beyond that, the steering feel is, well, I won’t say exponentially better, but it communicates in a way that power steering simply cannot. I can feel how much grip the front-end has at any given moment just by how much effort is required to turn the wheel, and feel how the amount of grip changes as the road surface does. You can feel when the tires are scrubbing, and reliably predict when the grip will weaken or strengthen. It’s like walking barefoot. You don’t get that with hydraulics (or electrics) providing most of the muscle for you.
As an added bonus, the engine seems really happy without the burden of having to spin the power steering pump, as well as the AC compressor that runs off the same belt. It’s smoother from idle to redline, has more usable power, and the sharper throttle response is addictive. I can pretty much get wheelspin at will just by dipping into the throttle any time the steering wheel isn’t pointed straight, even with my anemic, mostly stock, 186,000-mile 1.6L. Which I’ve been doing way more than I ought to.
That’s not to say there aren’t trade-offs, though. Yes, the car is surprisingly more communicative than it was before (I thought it was pretty damn good at that before, actually). But I still can’t steer it quite as quickly without the power assist, and that gives me pause on the really tight corners of the canyon roads I love so much. The Miata is generally benign when it oversteers, but the short wheelbase can sometimes make it tricky to recover if your responses aren’t spot-on. I find myself driving slower than I would before in the twisties because of that.
And since no man is an island (and this man likes to drink), I also must consider the possibility that someone else might need to drive my car in certain situations, and manual steering doesn’t make that any easier, or safer, for them.
But if I’m being honest, I have to say that the biggest reasons I’m replacing that power steering pump are time and money. You see, to really do manual steering right, I’d have to drop the steering rack out of my car, pull it apart, and remove the internal seals to get rid of every last bit of artificial resistance. Oh, sure, I could swap out for an OEM manual rack, but those have a slower steering ratio than my power rack (3.3 turns lock-to-lock, vs. 2.8). And either way, replacing or reinstalling an entire steering rack is just more work than I want to do. Replacing the PS pump is relatively cheap and easy in comparison.
So by this time next week, my car will be back to power-assisted steering. And in a way, I’ll be relieved. But in another way, I’ll be a little sad. I’m going to miss steering for myself.
Ordinarily I’d be super pissed that part of my car broke. But this time around, I’m actually glad it happened. I’m glad I got to experience my car this way. I may just put off installing that new pump for a little while.