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When researching or reading a review of a car, you’re often confronted with a lot of terms and jargon. While most journalists do a great job of avoiding phrases that might require a dictionary to decipher, there will always be some terms that require a bit of explanation. 

At some point, you will likely have run across the word ‘handling.’ You will probably have also heard ‘handles well,’ or ‘great handling.’ But what does that actually mean, and why is it important? Let’s define handling, explain what it really is and why it is important in a car.

What is handling?

A image of two Porsche GT3R racecars leading a Lexus RC racecar through a corner at the 24 Hours of Daytona race.
The #79 WeatherTech Racing Porsche 911 GT3R leads the #9 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3R during the Rolex 24 at Daytona on January 29, 2022 | David Rosenblum via Getty Images

Handling is a term that can be a bit tricky to pin down. Traditionally, handling refers to the effort and sensations a driver feels when operating a vehicle. It is also a description of the way a car responds and reacts to the driver’s inputs. This can sometimes be subjective, as it can be challenging to quantify sensations and feelings. 

For those that enjoy driving, this is an essential characteristic of the car. A vehicle with good handling might be described as ‘fun to drive.’ That refers to the interaction between the driver and the vehicle. When a driver turns the steering wheel, the car reacts in a precise and predictable way and translates that action back to the driver in the form of feeling through the steering wheel. This tells the driver a lot about what is going on between the car’s tires and the road. A vehicle that feels vague means that a driver cannot accurately feel what is happening.

Different drivers will want different sensations from their cars. And this is where the term handling can get a bit muddy. The general definition is that handling is the way a vehicle responds to the controls (steering, throttle, and brake).

What contributes to good or bad handling?

There are a lot of factors that, when combined, give a vehicle a specific handling characteristic. Most of it starts at the design level. Factors like the center of gravity, the center of mass, and the moment of inertia are set when the car is designed. These are primarily influenced by the vehicle’s weight, the height from the ground, and where the mass is distributed within the vehicle. Don’t worry; you don’t need a Ph.D. in automotive engineering to understand all of this. There is a simpler way to understand handling.

When considering a vehicle’s handling, we are really talking about just a few things. The first is steering. Steering combines the weight or effort needed to turn the wheel, its responsiveness, how quickly the car reacts to changes in the steering wheel direction, and finally feel, or what information from the road is transmitted back to the driver. 

The second component of handling is the braking feel. This is how aggressively the brakes react to you stepping on the pedal and how the car slows down in relation to the amount of force on the brake pedal.

The final component of handling is the car’s suspension. This is how stiff or soft the car feels over bumps, how resistant it is to body roll, and how much overall grip it has through a turn. If the car is too stiff, it may feel bumpy and harsh. If the car is too soft, it may feel vague, like it’s floating, and lean too much in the corners. A good handling car will strike a balance between stiff and soft.

Why is good handling important?

A blue BMW M4 Competition powersliding through a corner of a race track with smoke coming from the rear wheels.
2022 BMW M4 Competition | BMW

Ultimately, everything a car does happens because of the inputs from the driver. The better those controls feel, and the more precise the vehicle’s reactions, the better a driver will be able to control it. 

Cars with poor handling often feel vague and don’t respond readily to driver inputs. That can lead to mistakes by the driver and issues like understeer and oversteer. A car with poor handling can be challenging to drive, especially in wet or snowy conditions. . 

A car with good handling will provide drivers with all the necessary information to operate the vehicle correctly. The more you can feel through the car’s controls, the better. 

The bottom line is that handling refers to the sensations of operating a car’s controls and the reactions a vehicle has to those driver inputs. It can be difficult to describe when discussing a specific vehicle, but the better the handling, the better you will be able to control the car. Hopefully, the next time you see the term handling, you’ll be able to understand what it means and how it affects the experience of driving the car.


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