Reviewed: October 9, 2000
Type: Steering Wheel and Pedals
What's in the box
Back in 1990 while I was working at Sierra Online I received this really cool joystick to test with some of the Dynamix flight simulators (Red Baron and the Aces Over Europe/Pacific series) that were in development. The joystick came from a new company called ThrustMaster and each one was hand-built by the owner of the company in his garage, and when you called to ask questions you actually got to talk to him. Thus began my ten-year history with ThrustMaster that has grown from an assembly line inside a garage to a worldwide leader in game controllers.
Many companies have tried to duplicate the efforts of ThrustMaster and while many have succeeded, many have also failed. One thing that TM has always had going for it is its unparallel technical support. On more than one occasion I have broken my controller (even out of warranty) and have returned it for repair only to have a brand new (or possibly rebuilt) one sent back to me. Needless to say I have owned virtually every controller that TM has built over the past ten years. I even have those crazy pinball flipper buttons. So when I was offered the chance to do the review for their latest steering wheel, the NASCAR Pro Digital 2, I jumped at the chance.
I've owned every TM wheel ever made including the T1, T2, NASCAR Pro, Sprint, and all the others. These wheels were some of the best ever made until the competition starting picking up. Then I started selling off these wheels to get wheels from Logitech, Madcatz, and Microsoft. These new wheels offered features that ThrustMaster seemed unable or unwilling to incorporate into their design. So now almost six years after my first ThrustMaster wheel purchase I get their latest offering only to find not much has changed. Apparently the old saying is true; "You can't teach an old dog new tricks".
What's Good About the Wheel?
The NASCAR Pro Digital 2 uses springs rather than those bungee cords from the first few models of the NASCAR wheel series. This gives the wheel a very nice feel, although I wouldn't go as far as saying it "recreates the variable resistance tire feel" that they hype on the box. There is a new IC chipset that allows for 10-bit turning resolution (1024 increments), which does make this wheel one of the most accurate wheels I have ever used, but only a few games require such precision.
The pedals are excellent quality and offer great resistance. Unfortunately the base is extremely light and will slide all over the floor while using the pedals. Rubber feet are provided that you can stick on the bottom of the pedal base, but they do little to keep it from sliding on carpet. Gluing a tack-strip to the back of the base would be more effective.
Installation is a snap. The wheel plugs in using a USB connector so it can be hot-swapped with any other USB component and auto-detected in seconds. You can use the standard Windows drivers or install the ThrustMapper 3 Software that comes with your wheel. This software allow you to configure and program the buttons on the wheel as well as choose between split or combined axis for the pedals. You can also create profiles for specific games or choose from a list of pre-configured profiles provided on the installation CD.
While it has nothing to do with performance or usability, the wheel "looks" cool. The top of the main wheel component is a royal blue and the wheel hub has a simulated aluminum finish. There is a nice no-slip cushy grip area where you are most likely to be gripping the wheel. Butterfly shifters and a stick are provided so you can choose your preferred method of shifting. The butterfly paddles are large and easily accessible with a full range of motion that ends when they touch the back of the wheel. There is no chance that these will ever break off. The four buttons on the wheel are easily accessible and just as easily programmed. It's a nice change from having to hunt for those little red buttons on the base. The pedals each have a unique shape and are painted in simulated aluminum. The entire wheel/pedal combo is a very attractive piece of equipment.
What's Wrong With the Wheel?
Most of my complaints with the NASCAR Pro Digital 2 stem from design flaws that have been present for years. Let's begin with the dual-clamp design that previous and current ThrustMaster owners will know all too well. The clamps are perfectly spaced so they hit your knees. The right clamp is still positioned in that impossible location behind the stick shifter so you cannot easily spin the lever to tighten down the right clamp. The arched clamps requires a desk thickness of more than an inch so in my situation with a glass-top desk I have to stick an old VHS tape under each clamp to provide the necessary thickness to clamp down. This has been a major complaint of mine (and many others) for several years now. Almost everyone else is using a central clamping system that clamps down to quarter-inch thickness. I don't know why ThrustMaster can't join the club.
The stick shift on this model is very sloppy. When I first took the wheel out of the box I though they had incorporated a new H-shifter into the wheel as the stick moves sideways, up and down, and at all angles almost like a joystick. Previous shifters on TM wheels have always been very firm and only moved up or down with a nice defined click.
As stated previously, the pedals slide all over the floor. This is almost a given with any brand of wheel/pedals you purchase, so I can't count off too much for this, but it does bug me that TM has chosen to make their brake pedal resistance extra-stiff greatly magnifying the problem. I would gladly trade lesser-resistant pedals for not having to constantly rearrange the pedal base with my toes during a race. Additionally, the pedals plug into the wheel component through a Y-junction on the USB cable. For some reason they made this junction about one inch from the wheel rather than from the USB plug, meaning you get to string two cables up to your desk rather than one. Why can't companies realize that cables go under the desk - not on it.
How Does it Work?
The NASCAR Pro Digital 2 doesn't ship with any games, so I tested it on a few of the games I had currently installed on my system. First off was Need for Speed: Porsche Unlimited. Up until now I had been using my Microsoft Sidewinder Precision Racing Wheel with this game and to tell you the truth, I didn't notice any difference in control or handling with this new wheel. The only thing I did notice was the pedals slid around more and my knees kept bumping the clamps. My Microsoft wheel also has six buttons on the wheel whereas the TM wheel only has four, so I had to sacrifice a couple of commands that I had gotten used to.
Grand Prix Legends, perhaps the benchmark program of any true racing fanatic was next. The sloppy feel of the stick shift had me shifting at improper times, so I was forced to use the paddles to accurately shift. The extra precision of the 10-bit wheel was actually noticeable on this title and greatly improved my control over these cars.
Finally I loaded up Midtown Madness 2 which is a pure arcade racer. This game is not very demanding on any wheel you may use and could probably just as easily be played with a game pad. The NASCAR Pro Digital 2 worked flawlessly with this title and the convenient four buttons on the wheel hub made accessing my special commands simple, but no more than the Microsoft wheel, which offers two additional buttons on the hub.
You can find the ThrustMaster NASCAR Pro Digital 2 for anywhere from $50-70 in stores or on the Internet this November, but I would have a hard time recommending this wheel to anyone. There are just so many better wheels with better designs out there for the same money or less. ThrustMaster hasn't really given you anything new here. They've given their old hardware a facelift and while it looks nice there just isn't anything here worth buying. Sure the 10-bit steering is nice, but hardly noticable on anything other than the most demanding racing titles. Even on wheels where this one comes close to competing, the awkward clamping system, sloppy shifter, and stiff brake pedal are reason enough to steer clear of this controller.