Gaming steering wheels fall into two camps: hardcore, pricey kits aimed at simulator enthusiasts, and affordable models with basic steering functionality. What most models share is the need to clamp onto a table or desk. Granted, there are solutions that let you balance the wheel across your lap or, more awkwardly, grip an apparatus by clamping your knees together, but neither is a competent replacement for the traditional table-clamp design.
Recognizing the need for an alternative to the norm, Thrustmaster is back with its next "cockpit," the Ferrari Vibration GT Cockpit 458 Italia Edition for the Xbox 360. It's a follow-up to the Ferrari Wireless GT Cockpit 430 Scuderia Edition for the PlayStation 3. This time, Thrustmaster opted for a wired design, likely due to Microsoft's pricey licensing fees for wireless peripherals. The added power coming through the USB cable provides enough juice to enable vibration this time around. Sadly, there is no force feedback on the new cockpit, a feature that is usually reserved for high-end wheels. Of course, because it's priced at $300, you might assume the 458 Italia Cockpit is a high-end accessory, but it's most certainly geared toward the casual racing fan, trading performance for ease of use.
The core feature of Thrustmaster's cockpits is their unibody design. The obvious advantage is the ability to use your wheel and pedals wherever you wish, negating the need for a clamp. The wheel attaches to a telescoping column that's built into the base. The angle and length of the column are secured by tightening screws with plastic knobs. Unfortunately, even with the screws at their tightest, the column tends to exhibit a small yet noticeable amount of wiggle. While it's not faulty per se, it's an unfortunate detail that could have been avoided.
When redesigning the cockpit for the Xbox 360 model, Thrustmaster changed the way the wheel connects to the column. In the old model, an external cable connects the wheel to the wheel base, which itself is attached to the column. In the Xbox 360 version, the cable resides within the column rather than outside of it. The 458 Italia Cockpit's wheel rotates only about 270 degrees, so there was never a risk of the cable becoming entangled to begin with, however, the overall presentation is sleeker as a result of this change.
One thing that hasn't changed is the battery compartment, which remains a part of the new 458 Italia Cockpit for absolutely no reason. In the past, it was used to house the four AA batteries that powered the Scuderia cockpit, but in the wired Italia model, it's useless. Open the compartment, and you'll see four AA battery slots without metal contacts. Its presence was obviously a cost-cutting move, negating the need to alter manufacturing procedures. The thing is, moves like this make the manufacturer look lazy and, in turn, unnecessarily damage the product's image. It makes you wonder, if they overlook details as obvious as this, what else has fallen victim to their thriftiness?
Functionally, for reasons already mentioned, the Ferrari 458 Italia Cockpit works well as a peripheral for casual racing fans, but should be avoided by racing enthusiasts. Without high-end features like force feedback and a larger rotational threshold, it will never appeal to the hardcore, regardless of its unique form factor.
For the right customer, however, the clampless design is reason enough to warrant a purchase. It's compact, unique, and adequately functional as far as racing wheels go. The handle and foldable design make it easy to carry and store. Plus, the unibody design prevents pedals from sliding across the floor during use, a typical issue with traditional units. If you need a solution to the common clamp requirement, and can accept a bit of thriftiness on Thrustmaster's part, the Ferrari Vibration GT Cockpit 458 Italia Edition might be the perfect fit. Just be aware that all that convenience comes at a cost.