The dichotomy between the amazingly low cost of very sophisticated auto racing sims and the relatively exorbitant cost of a quality force feedback steering wheel never ceases to amaze me, but even so I was somewhat taken aback by the sticker price on Thrustmaster’s new top-shelf offering, the T500RS. With a street price of over $550, a prospective buyer can be forgiven for a raised eyebrow or two. It doesn’t take a great deal of research into the build quality of the unit to understand the elements that contribute to such a lofty price, though. In fact, simply hefting the package that it comes in and feeling the weight of the wheel/pedals set will offer an obvious clue as to the high quality materials that go into the construction of the top-of-the-line model.
While crafted to offer the most realistic racing experience possible for the PlayStation’s Gran Turismo 5, the T500RS will also work quite well when attached to a PC. In fact, that is how this reviewer put it through its paces. Note that it is not completely a plug-and-play operation, though - the required drivers must be retrieved from Thrustmaster’s support web site
which, in my experience, required a little bit of searching. That comes later; the first step is to unpack everything from the robust box and fitted Styrofoam that protects the goods during shipping. As can be seen in the accompanying photos, the physical size of the thing is somewhat larger than my favorite unit of measure for size, a fifth of single single malt scotch, and nearly as heavy as my least favorite measure of weight, a tub of clumping cat litter.
It takes awhile to remove all of the plastic bagging material, but it’s worth the wait as anticipation builds before you can get your first unobstructed view of the wheel and pedals; your first intuition that this was going to be a veritable work of art is proven correct the moment you get a good look at the metal accelerator, brake, and clutch pedals. The soft, comfortable wrapper on the full-size 12” steering wheel and the solid click of the base-mounted paddle shifters also offer up the unmistakable emanation of solid and careful craftsmanship.
A quick tour of the steering unit will show the obvious focus on the PlayStation as the primary purpose for the T500RS as all of the buttons normally expected to be found on a PlayStation controller will be readily apparent, but it is the pedals that will most likely draw your attention with their intricate detail. The pedal faces have nine countersunk screw holes and are held onto the control arms with two hex head screws each. As we will see later, the extra holes provide a degree of adjustability for the position of the pedals. The control arms appear to be cast aluminum, although their lattice structure gives the visual impression of having been milled from billet which gives them a high-end machined look.
You won’t be able to look too long before the silent siren beckoning of “drive with me” has you racing to get the steering wheel mounted, the pedals positioned, and the USB and power cords plugged into appropriate receptacles. As noted before, if you are going to be using this rig on a PC, you have a little more work to do with gathering the drivers from the support section of Thrustmaster’s website. This operation is, in theory, quite simple, but for reasons involving a fat, lazy cat that likes to lounge around the PC’s warm exhaust fan and the cord of the USB hub having been knocked partially out of the socket, it was a frustrating, infuriating, and curse word-driven twenty minutes in my case. On the PS3 side, as long as GT5 is the game of choice, it should be a completely painless operation.
It is important to note that the motive force behind the force feedback in this wheel is a hefty 65 watt, 3000 rpm industrial motor. In other words, this unit must be securely mounted to a substantial supporting surface. The included mount is hefty and certainly up to the task, but it is incumbent upon the user to ensure that the mounting surface is also sturdy enough to support the relatively massive torque of this thing. I mounted it to an old 50’s era metal desk that was clearly designed back in the Cold War days of duck & cover (primary purpose: office work, secondary purpose: bomb shelter) and was still surprised when the entire 200+ pound desk would shake during my not uncommon forays across rough ground while racing.
The pedal unit is heavy and one would think that there would be no tendency for it to slide on the floor, but as is desirable and appropriate, there is quite a bit of back force on the brake pedal. This could potentially cause the entire unit to slide under heavy (read: panic) braking, but that was not a problem in my case because the tall vertical back of the pedal unit pressed conveniently against the back of the foot well area of my desk.
The driving qualities of the T500RS are just as superb as one would expect, although there were a couple of irritations encountered. Before getting to those, however, there are some very positive aspects to be mentioned. First, this wheel has a full 1,080 degrees of motion. While I can’t personally think of any single auto racing genre where you want the steering throw of a Mack truck, it’s nice to know that it’s there if you need it. If you don’t, which is probably the 99.999% case, it is a simple matter to adjust it in the controller properties. This is just one area in which the massive torque of the motor is beneficial; it is an electrical stop that limits the rotation of the wheel and while you can over power the stops if you really want no, it won’t be so easy to do so that the stops are ineffective.
Also of note is the incredible sensitivity of the wheel. At least with regards to the PC, you can safely configure all steering dead zones in the game’s settings to zero degrees. This is at least partially due to the Hall Effect sensors that Thrustmasters uses in their high-end controllers, along with the 16-bit resolution. The strong motor provides enough centering force to keep you from over controlling down long straights. Also, the twin belt-drive force feedback doesn’t have the notchy feeling one gets with a gear-driven system. The two most salient keywords for driving with this wheel are “smooth” and “powerful.” The pedals too have a smooth, precise feel to them, and provide sufficient resistance to allow for the exacting control required for high-fidelity racing sims.
The setup, while having been designed to be marketed specifically for GT5, allows for a solid amount of adjustment, at least when it comes to the pedals. The most striking feature is the ability to shift from having the pedals pivot at the base (F1-style) to having them pivot from above (GT-style). It’s not a simple matter to make the change as it involves removing and replacing a quartet of small nuts and bolts (a hex head tool is provided, but you’ll need your own tool to hold the tiny little nuts) so you might find it burdensome if you want to be able to change back and forth often, but for occasional reconfigurations it’s not too bad. A hex head tool is also provided for removing the screws that hold the pedal faces onto the upright control arms. This allows for the repositioning of each pedal up, down, left, right, and tilt. This is no small thing for racers that want to get the brake and accelerator pedals positioned for realistic heel/toe braking. Working in the other direction, this adjustability allows left-foot brakers to get sufficient space between the same two pedals. The resistance of the brake pedal can also be adjusted either by adjusting its throw, or by adding an additional mod assembly that not only shortens the throw by about half but also adds an additional spring.
The wheel unit as it comes out of the box does not allow for any customization, but the wheel itself is detachable. This allows the standard 12” wheel to be replaced with an alternative Formula 1 style wheel
, also available from Thrustmaster. This is a good thing for open-wheel racers because the 12” wheel is far too large for that type of racing. There are two rather unfortunate side effects of this flexibility, though. The first is the cost of the F1 wheel which is priced at $200. The second is worse because you pay for it even if you don’t opt for an alternative wheel: a design decision that arose from making the wheel removable is that the paddle shifters are not attached to the wheel; rather, they are affixed to the wheel base. This means that they don’t turn with the wheel, which can be irritating for racers that have been using something like a Logitech G25 or G27. In the brief time that I used the T500RS, I never got used to not being able to grab a gear at the apex of a turn without having to fish around for a paddle. Of course, I never really got used to the 12” wheel, either, although I suspect both would have become natural with time. The discomfort of the paddle shifter could have been alleviated if, as with the Logitech units, a separate gated shifter had been included, but alas, that too is an additional purchase. At around $150, this is no small omission.
Stepping back and taking a marketing view of all this, it would appear that Thrustmasters has ceded the middle ground to the Logitech wheels. I would have to say that this is a sensible decision given the G27’s existing and potentially insurmountable lead in this segment. The T500RS and its ancillary accouterments are designed, constructed, and (unfortunately for most of us), priced to provide a step up from the middle-tier products. While they perform the same functions as their lower-cost brethren, they do those things better and will be able to do them longer. The Hall Effect sensors will not wear out in the way that mechanical contacts will, the belt-drive system is smoother and more reliable than plastic gears, and the adjustability of the rig will support multiple racing genres. For those with the need and/or the means, the T500RS and its optional accessories should provide years of excellent performance.