In the winter months, if you live anywhere that has to deal with snow and ice on a regular basis, you’ve no doubt discussed oversteering vs. understeering, or experienced one of these conditions while driving — and if you’ve ever been on a race track, then the same is probably true.
Here’s a look at oversteering vs. understeering and the causes of each.
In layman’s terms, oversteering is when you lose control of your car and slide into the ditch “butt first.” A more technical description is that the rear of your vehicle slides out of line, either ending up with you moving sideways or, in some cases, leading to a complete spin.
How does this happen? There are two common paths to oversteering. The first is applying too much power in a rear-wheel-drive car, which can break the rear wheels free and start the sliding process — especially when the vehicle in question is moving through a corner or is on a low-traction surface like snow. The second is when you steer too rapidly while traveling at a high speed. The front wheels turn, but the momentum of the car is too great for the rear wheels to maintain their grip on the road, causing them to slide out from underneath you.
Understeering is the exact opposite of oversteering in the sense that you slide into the ditch face-first. Understeering occurs when the vehicle you are driving simply doesn’t respond to your steering commands and continues moving forward in a straight line, despite the wheels having been turned to one side or the other.
Similar to oversteering, understeering has to do with grip and momentum. When you go around a corner too quickly, your front tires don’t always have enough grip to steer, making the vehicle “plow” forward off the road — or the track. Understeering can also happen if you stand on the gas pedal with the wheel cranked to the side in a front-wheel-drive vehicle, as there’s simply not enough traction available to both turn and accelerate the car at once.
When examining oversteering vs. understeering, you’ll quickly discover that the former is much more common with modern vehicles. This is because it’s considered a safer, more controlled way to deal with a lack-of-traction situation on the road. As a result, most factory wheel alignments are set up to favor oversteering. On a race car or performance car, where more neutral handling is preferable, this safety margin is dialed back, allowing for the driver to balance on the edge of oversteering through a corner.
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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Having been bitten by the car bug at a young age, I spent my formative years surrounded by Studebakers at car shows across Quebec and the northeastern United States. Over ten years of racing, restoring, and obsessing over automobiles lead me to balance science writing and automotive journalism full time. I currently contribute as an editor to several online and print automotive publications, and I also write and consult for the pharmaceutical and medical device industry.