Video-Gaming around the New York Auto Show
By Ian Grasso
Unfortunately, you can’t drive the cars presented at the New York Auto Show around the cavernous Jacob Javits Convention Center. The hall is definitely big enough, but it is filled to the brim with manufacturers peddling their newest wares— leaving no room for an intrepid auto reporter to try a 0-60 run or a turn on the skidpad.
A few automakers have compensated for this sad situation by offering simulators to demonstrate their products. At this show Subaru, Lexus, and Volvo provide attendees a chance to test their skills through some very involved video games.
Subaru offers full motion simulations of its STI rally car on a dirt track and its more staid Legacy sedan on an easy road course. The video game used was Gran Turismo Prologue, which will be released for the Sony Playstation 3 April 17th, with a Logitech racing wheel and pedals providing the input. As I drove the STI race car around the track, the pod-like simulator shook and tilted and the wheel provided adequate and somewhat realistic force feedback as I power-slid through the turns on the dirt track.
The Subaru reps were not impressed with my performance, and laughed as I almost fell out of the simulator trying to get my long legs around the wheel. I suppose I have no future as a rally racer – not only because I have no skill, but because I am 6’ 6” and they obviously don’t build their cars for people of that extreme altitude.
I was much more proficient driving the Legacy around the simple road course, but left the simulator thinking that I would never use Subaru’s sedan for that purpose. The Legacy in the video game seemed slower than the car in real life, especially as it lolled around the tight bends of the track. I actually got out of the sim thinking less favorably of the Legacy than I had before, which is probably not the result Subaru intended. They would probably blame this lack of performance on Polyphony Digital, the maker of Gran Turismo, but offered no comment when I inquired.
Lexus also tried its hand at presenting a vehicle in virtual form, also using Gran Turismo Prolouge as the platform for its monster IS-F sports sedan. The IS-F is quite the performer, but on the virtual track I found it a bit unmanageable – more due to deficiencies in my driving ability than any real fault in the simulated car.
While Lexus uses the same software as Subaru, it chose much superior hardware. The IS-F simulator featured a real racing wheel with mounted shifters and a break pedal that allowed for left-foot breaking. Also, the seats were from a real IS-F, so they could be adjusted for comfort around my long legs. While the simulator didn’t roll and pivot like Subaru’s, the vibration and force feedback of the wheel was incredible, and the stereo sound system faithfully recreated the roar of the Lexus V-8. The coolest part of the simulator was the picture perfect digital re-creation of the IS-F cockpit – a feature that will be included in the commercial release of Gran Turismo.
I spent more of my simulated time in the IS-F in the grass than on the pavement, as I could not seem to keep from spinning out in every single corner. Trying to exit the grass in 1st gear led to more donuts, but once back on the track (and in a straight line) the blistering acceleration of the virtual IS-F was enthralling. Using the wheel mounted shifters further enforced my stone-age devotion to the stick shift; I hate the lack of feedback from paddles and like the lack of a clutch even more. However, the IS-F simulator proved to be the best of the bunch.
As I later wandered around, I was surprised to find a simulator at the Volvo booth. Volvo is not well known for there performance (with the exception of the soon to be retired S60 R) so I was intrigued by the prospect of bending a big Swedish wagon around some chicanes. Unfortunately, the Volvo game turned out to be more of a PowerPoint presentation with a steering wheel, as it takes the player through the various safety features of the new XC60 SUV.
In true Volvo fashion, you must first buckle your seat belt before starting the simulator. That seatbelt is important, as it is only interactive feature of the Volvo video game, tightening to a death grip if you need to slam on your brakes. After buckling up and adjusting the (very comfortable) Volvo seat, you can test the Lane Departure Warning, Driver Alert Assist, Autobrake, and City Safety features of the car.
Volvo has clearly bought into the idea that sometimes computers are just better drivers than humans. While the Departure Warning and Driver Alert Assist features are more “convenience” features than true safety systems – Autobrake and City Safety take partial or full control of the break system to either minimize or stop you from causing damage to the car. The simulator proved these systems extremely effective at stopping me from rear ending other vehicles at high speeds, but frankly, the game was boring and the seat belt was on a mission to collapse my lungs.
My experience gaming about the Auto Show brought me to a few conclusions. First, I am going to be purchasing Gran Turismo Prologue as soon as it comes out on April 17th. Second, if I ever save enough change in my piggy bank to buy an IS-F or a Subaru rally car, I will never take it to the track. And finally, Volvo is good at making airbags and seatbelts – but should stay away from programming games.
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