The general concepts of “understeer” and “oversteer” are somewhat self-explanatory if you take a second to think about them. But these terms get thrown around a lot in car reviews and shows, so let’s get into their actual definitions and how understanding both can make you a better driver.
What is Understeer?
Understeer is essentially when the steering wheel is turned at any degree, and the car doesn’t turn in congruence to the steering wheel. The car doesn’t follow along in the front wheels’ path. Also known as push, or plow, the car won’t turn with the wheel, but rather plow forward. The cause can be quite a few things, but most commonly it’s caused by the front tires being overloaded. For instance, in a front-wheel drive car they have to both propel and turn the car. Once they become overwhelmed, the car just plows instead of turns.
It’s a common trait of front-wheel drive cars, but really any drivetrain-type can experience it. Even high-end McLarens can experience it if not driven correctly; depending on the corner, they often require trail-braking to turn efficiently through it. Understeer is actually often engineered into cars, too; if the tires become overloaded, it’s considered safer to lose traction when you can see where the car is going. Which is a great segue into…
What is Oversteer?
Like I said, the car doesn’t turn in congruence to the steering wheel, but with oversteer, it turns (or, rotates) more than the steering wheel. This is a common trait of rear-wheel drive cars, because when their rear tires are under-loaded enough, they break traction and alter the direction of the car. Or maybe they aren’t under-loaded; they might have enough torque to just spin. Another potential scenario, is the tires are asked to grip at too much of a steering angle, which I suppose also counts as under-loaded. This is less-safe, as not all drivers are prepared and able to correct this. Though, if one is prepared and able to, it’s friggin’ fun.
Front-, rear-, and all-wheel drive cars can experience oversteer, it all comes down to where the weight is transferred under acceleration, braking, and turning. Oversteering in a front-wheel drive car can be good and bad; it helps rotate a chassis that might not otherwise rotate as well, and can be corrected by simply “powering out of it” or, stepping on the gas to shift the weight back onto the rear tires.
One term that permeates through conversations about oversteer is “opposite lock.” This means having to counter-steer to correct oversteer, or, a skid. It seems especially common in auto enthusiast content from across the pond in the UK; “a dab of oppo” isn’t the same as what the youths in America call dabs these days.
Wait, Understeer Can Be Good?
Pretty much all enthusiasts are avowed haters of understeer. It’s truly anti-fun. Though, in my opinion it can be entertaining and mildly-useful at times. If you find yourself behind the wheel of a FWD car that’s turbocharged and torquey, like a Hyundai Veloster N, it can be fun to light up the front wheels while turning, as long as it doesn’t lead to plowing into a curb.
A dab of understeer on track can be useful, too, but only in very rare scenarios. Coming through a long sweeper, progressively adding throttle to the point of the car understeering just a touch at exit, is better than losing the rear-end at corner exit. The slight understeer will kill less time than the rear-end coming out, and once the front tires are straightened-out, the revs will be a bit higher into the powerband, more ready to continue on down the track.
Why Enthusiasts Love Oversteer, and How to Become Acquainted
Jeremy Clarkson explained it best in this episode of Top Gear behind the wheel of a Toyobaru. It’s a really fun time kicking the rear-end out, catching it, and either powering out or holding the car in a drift. It’s a very It’s especially fun if you ever have the opportunity to play on a polished cement skidpad. We’re not going to necessarily promote or discourage it on the public road… but I will say that practice in a controlled environment makes perfect.
I definitely recommend becoming familiar with how oversteer feels and how to correct it in a controlled environment. Driving schools, one-day high-performance driving instruction days (well, also a school, but shorter), autocross, track days, drift days; all can be quite useful, especially if you’ve got an instructor to help with some guidance. Though beware, most tracks will black flag you, or, tell you to cut it out and get off track, if they see you intentionally sliding a car around.
If your car ownership history has been mostly comprised of FWD cars, oversteer is an especially-tantalizing thing. The rear wheels spin up and push the car out into a skid, which can then be hung out -it looks and feels really badass! A multi-multi-million dollar professional motorsport is entirely conceived around it!
If you’re looking at your first RWD car to one day get a firm grasp of controlling oversteer, start with small power. Go with an inexpensive Miata, Toyobaru, old BMW, stuff like that. Like I’ve stated in other blogs, start small, get the basics down, and then gradually move up.