I’ve been a long-time fan of Thrustmaster products ever since I laid my hands on Bob Carter’s prototype HOTAS hardware back in the early 90’s when I was testing them for use in games like Red Baron and Aces of the Pacific. Since then, Thrustmaster has created everything from joysticks and steering wheels to virtual skateboards for use in Tony Hawk games, and while some products have obviously been more successful than others, there has always been a defining level of quality and durability you can expect from a Thrustmaster product.
I recent slipped on my leather racing gloves and wrapped my hands around the new Thrustmaster Ferrari Challenge Racing Wheel, their latest entry-level wheel priced at only $40. The wheel connects via USB so it is fully compatible with PC and PS3 (sorry Xbox owners), and comes with all the trimmings including two Ferrari-style paddle shifters, D-pad, 12 action buttons, and two progressive pedals for precision braking and acceleration, both mounted on a non-slip footrest. The only thing missing is some sort of curved lap attachment for couch gaming, which means you’ll need some sort of table to attach the wheel using the central clamping system.
Out of the box, the black and silver wheel with yellow Ferrari logo is as stylish as it is easy to setup. There is a nice resistance to the wheel that keeps it from spinning wildly and helps return it to its center position when released. And in case your chosen game doesn’t offer in-game options for calibration or sensitivity you can also adjust the sensitivity of the wheel at a hardware level using a combination of D-pad and paddle shifter inputs. As is typical with most wheel/pedal combos, the pedals connect via an RJ-45 cable. The pedal base is rather small but does a good job of digging into the carpet to prevent slippage during aggressive use. I’m not sure how they would work on a tile or hardwood floor. The springy pedals are only about an inch and a half apart, so for those who have not master the proper technique of one-foot driving, things might get cramped in the foot area.
I’ve acquired some fairly expensive racing wheels over the past several years as a reviewer, so I had to make some mental adjustments to my thinking as I temporarily replaced my Logitech Driving Force GT (four years old and still going strong) with Thrustmaster’s new wheel, keeping in mind this wheel is a fraction of the cost of my other wheels and being targeted to the more casual racing fan. There was definitely a bit of a learning (and calibration) curve as I loaded up Gran Turismo 5 and started doing some hot laps. The default (normal) sensitivity of the wheel was a bit too loose for my taste, especially on the tracks that required more precision turns, but once I toggled to the high sensitivity setting those issues were left behind in the proverbial dust. My only other minor complaint is a combination of my unnaturally wide feet and Thrustmasters’ compact pedal design, and even though I am a one-foot driver, I occasionally caught my foot sliding over and catching the brake pedal from time to time, but I was able to overcome this by merely driving in my socks.
The wheel hooks up just as easily to the PC, and there is a switch you’ll need to flip to put it in PC mode. The buttons can all be configured to serve any game-specific commands you wish, and it took me no time before I was screaming through the streets of NFS Most Wanted in some of the most powerful supercars available. Since this was more “arcade” in nature than GT5, there were new calibration and sensitivity issues to tweak, but it only took a few minutes before everything was all worked out.
While hardcore race fans will dismiss this wheel because of its low price, lack of feedback or rumble, and its smaller, more compact design, for those looking for an entry level wheel, and especially for those looking for a wheel for their younger children who will certainly appreciate the smaller design, the Thrustmaster Ferrari Challenge Wheel is a fantastic and affordable solution and a great alternative to racing with a gamepad. Its dual PC/PS3 compatibility just means you get more bang for your buck, making this a great holiday gift for that aspiring racecar driver in the family.