In the beginning..
I've always been a driving game nut and back in around 2011 when I discovered the maturity of driving wheels for Xbox 360 built my first rig.
Seemed like a good time to learn to weld, so I bought a cheap welder, some square tubing and went at it. A laptop cart from thrift store formed the core of the upright where the wheel mounted and I welded a frame around it. I scoured a local Pick-n-pull and found a leather seat in a Mitsubishi Eclipse in great shape. For tech, I bought the Fanatec CSR set because at the time that's about all you could buy that was decent quality, and had a clutch, and an inversion kit for the pedals so I could "hang" the clutch and brake for a more realistic feel. Back in the day I think the Fanatec stuff cost about $500, so this whole thing came together for about $650 total.
This was before e-brake / handbrakes were a thing in gaming, but by taking the wheel apart and soldering a connection to the back of the button that activated the handbrake it was possible. Here's a video of the setup back then.
I was happy with it, and spent MANY hours playing Forza Motorsport 4 and Horizon 1 and 2. Unfortunately, when Microsoft released the Xbox 1, they (in their wisdom) did not create backward compatibility for controllers leaving me stuck on Xbox 360.
When I lost my Golf GTi and decided to think out of the box about what to buy next, I jumped into my various Forza games to help make some decisions. Yes, you really can get a sense of how a car drives using this setup. How it handles in a corner, balance, speed, and general driveability. While many people in these games are there to drive exotics, I much prefer driving the stink out of normal cars where they handle well at the limits of their speed. With my older games, cars like the 350z / Infinity G35 Coupe, Audi TT, and older Golfs were right there ready for me to try.
I was able to quickly narrow down some criteria:
- I like light, nimble cars.
- 150hp / ton is pretty decent power.
- I like to rev the stink out of cars
- In great part because of my teenage years and my Minis ability to get me out of a corner no matter how I throw myself into it, front wheel drive and all wheel drive are a better match for me on the limit.
All this game playing got me hungry for more, and I made the mistake of looking at Xbox One, Forza Horizon 4 videos.
Xbox One Upgrade :: Part 1 (promise of a cheap solution)
Then I found it.. the promised solution to all my problems, a small device called a DriveHub that allows older peripherals connect to the Xbox One.
Some Facebook Marketplace searching, and a few hours later and I'd picked up a used Xbox One X (the good one) from a local pawn shop for $265 and was well on my way. Two days later, Forza Horizon 4 (Amazon Fulfilled Used).
The DriveHub turned up a few days later, and after fighting with it (a lot), I was connected. Kinda.
- My stick shift didn't work, although the paddle shifters on the wheel did
- The clutch pedal didn't work properly, in fact it was reversed. Push the clutch in to drive, let it out to change gear. NOT a habit I want to teach my left foot.
- The connection was all a bit janky and often required a big song and dance to reconnect if things went to sleep.
- There was no way to actually exit a game and get back to Xbox main!
The biggest issues here of course, the shifter and clutch. I'm honestly not sure if this was a compatibility issue, or an issue with my clutch. I took the pedal apart to test the pot, and the wiring just crumbled from the years of vibration and abuse. Fanatec really should have anchored the wiring to the housing, not relied on the strength of the solder job. I didn't even know which wires went where, so I took the accelerator pedal apart to see what order they were in, and that all crumbled too.
It's funny how you can migrate yourself to a place where you can justify spending money, by putting yourself in a situation where you have already spent money going down a certain path.
Part 2 :: Logitech, Thrustmaster, Fanatec or ? (Cheaper solution FAIL!)
It's at this point that I understood more why people use PCs for racing instead of game consoles. Much more flexibility in mixing and matching different ecosystems as they all just connect to the PC with USB. I'm stuck choosing an ecosystem.
Handbrake peripherals are now a thing which is good, because the hack I did before risked trashing the steering wheel, and now with removable wheels it's much more difficult.
Fanatec CSL Elite
Fanatec pricing has gone up, but so has their quality! The shifter looks sublime, and there is now an ANALOG handbrake option. It's much more of a modular system now (good, but confusing) and to get a wheel base, steering wheel, pedals (including clutch), shifter and e-brake comes out at about $1100. Ouch. That seems like a lot.
Well, only a contender for about a minute. Logitech use gears instead of belts which is what Noah used on his driving chair in the ark. No thanks, although the shifter looks pretty decent. Also, no ebrake option.
Lots of options in the TX range, which is their more premium ecosystem. So many I had to create a spreadsheet, but no matter how much I sliced it the Thrustmaster came in just as expensive as the Fanatec, and you won't find anyone anywhere saying it's as good. More why? If you save by buying a bundle of stuff you get the two pedal board, and have to buy the three pedal separately so you're not saving at all. The big issue through, their handbrake is a combo handbrake / sequential shifter and it's almost $300!
It's pretty obvious. It's either nothing, or the Fanatec. Justifying the spending with the somewhat flawed logic that I've already bought the games and Xbox One, I pulled the trigger.
Part 3 :: Driving Chair Rebuild
When I originally built the chair I owned a Porsche 911 so took measurements from that for component layout. The result has been endless hours of comfortable driving. Now everything in the new kit is bigger or just "different".
So, to do list:
- The steering wheel is 2.5" closer to me, there are no bolt holes for mounting, and the clamp is too deep. Build a new table top.
- The pedals don't invert. See if I can use the inversion kit from the old pedals to make it work.
- The pedals are wider and deeper and if I set them on the current foot plate they are too far away by about an inch. Sore back fast!
- The shifter is a beast and there's no way the current upright pole will hold it.. it wasn't actually all that great with the last shifter.
- Remove the old handbrake and mount the new one.
- Make it all pretty
I have to admit, I'm a better woodworker than I am metalworker, so decided to solve these problems with wood. The seat base was already wood, 1.5" solid pine and I had some more of it kicking around so decided to go that route. Easy to mount wood to other wood.
Bad. Fanatec gear (and support) fail
AGH. Four days into ownership and what appears to be a software glitch has trashed the Elite Steering wheel.
This is not good. I had been surprised at the viciousness at which this wheel did a self test / recenter after reconnecting to a suspended Xbox. Like take your hand off full speed left / right / center action on wake up, like the initial calibration when you switch on the device but FULL SPEED.
Then I tried to adjust configuration settings. After adjusting the DRIFT setting, the wheel started to do this non stop.. full speed, violent end to end turns with a bang at either extreme. After what felt like forever but may have been only 10 seconds, and 10 full cycles, I hit the power button to turn the thing off, but it was too late.
When switched back on the wheel failed to work, I removed it from the base and discovered the collar fractured and broken, pins bent, and one broken off. UGH. Not that I'm surprised after the violence of the death spiral it went into.
Now here's something about Fanatec I wish I'd known as part of my purchasing decision. Technical Support is in Germany, and only available by phone 2 hours / day at a time that is not friendly to the US market!! WHAT??
After a 24 wait I got a response that did not fill me with confidence. It contained things like:
- send it all back for testing
- if we find X then we'll have to charge you for shipping
- if we find Y then we'll have to charge you for repair
- the scenario you describe with the wheel turning is normal (which is bullshit)
My follow up email with a list of suggestions to resolve this quickly because of the 24 hour turn around in a conversation were all denied. The best that was offered was I could buy replacement parts, and return my wheel, and if they found it was something on their end they would refund me for the part. In their defense (kinda) this is all made more complicated because the rim mounting bolt was missing from my set, and I substituted it with a different (and in my opinion identical) bolt from an application perspective. While I am convinced the rim was mounted correctly and the root cause of this issue was the violence of the glitch that made the wheel cycle out of control, it gives the company an excuse to say it's my own fault.
As of now (about a week later) this is still not resolved.
- I still don't have the information I need to purchase the part
- I don't know where this part is coming from (Germany?)
- I don't know where I have to return my part (Germany?)
- I don't know how long parts orders take
In other words, Fanatec support is not good.. not compared to what US consumers have grown to expect anyway.
After the first two days of this saga, I gave up on any chance of a fast and satisfactory outcome and ordered another wheel.. full price. I'm grateful that the part that broke is the cheapest of all the components at $169, but very unhappy that for the cost of the two I've bought I could have had a better wheel.
In hindsight, I probably would have bought Thrustmaster. Bottom line, even if this had been 100% my fault, even if I'd contacted support happy to pay for a solution, the painful 24 turn around of answers, the lack of clarity in the responses, and lack of follow through to actually make the parts purchase available to me is not good enough.
Here is what happened when I switched on the wheel for the first time with the NEW steering wheel. The base retained the settings, so as soon as it connected to XBox it went into the same death spiral.
Clearly I'm now terrified about changing any settings. Maybe firmware update will fix this, but I consider this dangerous in its current state, and if this is a known issue fixed by firmware, I think it should be updated in the factory for the sake of public safety. Imagine a kids hand in this!
The new wheel also physically cracked, possibly because of what happened in this video. I did get feedback, which is definitely true, that plugging in the controller, pushing buttons etc. isn't really the way to do things, but that's besides the point.. it would have happened no matter what because of the S_2 settings in their current state no matter when connection happened.
As far as I can now gather, the issue happened because:
- there is (what Fanatec describe as) a bug in Forza Horizon 4 that sends an instruction to the wheel on game start or reconnect that is pretty vicious. This is true.. and even after latest Fanatec firmware is still there. It's a vicious spin to one end of the steering range.
- my S_2 drift and senstivity settings were counter acting that spin request, with a spin to opposite lock, and this was repeating, and would repeat forever until the wheel falls apart.. which it did.
As things stand right now based on this video and the support situation, some good news.
- Fanatec agreed to refund the first wheel
- Their initial suggestion on how to solve the first broken wheel problem was a part purchase. Turns out this option was sitting as an option in my Fanatec online account ready to purchase (no notification) so to move things forward ASAP on my own (because Fanatec don't move things forward quickly on their side) I ordered this part to fix the second wheel as it was very affordable.
- Unfortunately, while Fanatec covered shipping costs on this (good) they did not offer any shipping options so this added a 10 day delay and I still don't have the part.
Bottom line I just want to drive and I don't think Fanatec understand this of their customers.. that a priority when things go wrong is to get driving again ASAP no matter what it takes.