The Fanatec CSL Elite is a high-priced racing wheel by most people’s standards, and yet it is the entry-level model in the Fanatec line-up. You'd be hard pressed to see why, however, considering that it's absolutely the best racing wheel you can get for $600.
Wheel: CSL Elite P1
Base: CSL Elite Base 1.1
Pedals: CSL Elite Pedal LC
Wheel diameter: 30cm
Motor: Single drive force feedback
Movement: 1080-degree adjustable
Feedback rate: 1000Hz
Accessories: table clamp
The Fanatec CSL Elite starts out at $570, but as a highly modular system you could spend plenty more on the steering wheel itself, upgraded pedals, or a separate gearbox and handbrake. As such, the cost can easily spiral above $1,000 before you even make the jump to the higher-end Clubsport wheel base.
I've kept things sensible for this review. We’re primarily looking at the standard Fanatec CSL Elite wheel and base, although I've swapped out the standard $100 CSL Elite pedals for the highly recommended load cell brake pedals at $230.
The Fanatec CSL Elite is the best racing wheel available at its price, particularly for PC players. It beats the Thrustmaster T-GT in several core respects and is a clear upgrade over lower-cost alternatives such as the Logitech G29 and Thrustmaster T300 RS GT. Logitech has just announced the new Trueforce Racing Wheel, so we'll have to get that in to see how it shapes up in comparison.
All of this won’t mean a great deal if the Fanatec CSL Elite will be your very first racing wheel, however, so let's cover the basics. A force feedback racing wheel uses motors to emulate the forces you’d experience in a real car. The wheel struggles against your turns on a corner, and you’ll feel it go slack as you lose traction on the tarmac.
At its maximum force feedback strength the Fanatec CSL Elite provides a solid workout for your arms and shoulders, particularly if your usual upper body workout routine doesn’t go beyond lifting a fork from a bowl of noodles. It makes actual racing sims, such as Dirt Rally 2.0, Project Cars 2, and Assetto Corsa, much more involving, although is wasted on arcade-style racers where less effort is put into the minutiae of a car’s physics.
Smoothness is the most obvious upgrade with the CSL Elite over a cheaper racing wheel. For example, you can feel the helical gearing system of the Logitech G29 with every turn, almost like the click of a rotary watch bezel.
The Fanatec and Thrustmaster systems, however, use belt-driven motors, which takes away much of this “notchy” feel. The CSL Elite is significantly smoother than any Thrustmaster wheel, including the top-end TS models. I've tried them side-by-side, and the difference is clear and immediate. A smoother turn leads to cleaner-feeling force feedback. All the jolts and bumps felt are programmed by the developer, free from the tactile feedback bed of a notched wheel action.
The pedals are another highlight. Fanatec’s pedal board has an all-metal inner construction, solid resistance, and there’s the option of a load cell brake. This can take up to 90kg of force to depress, a world away from an entry-level pedal set that is usually just a bit stiffer than the accelerator and clutch.
The bad news: you’re not going to appreciate the hardcore brake hardware if you use a simple wheel stand. You’ll need a proper frame that secures the Fanatec CSL Elite to even be able to apply anything like that sort of pressure without the pedal board gradually, or rapidly, retreating from your feet.
The good news: just about every other parameter under the sun can be customised. That includes pedal sensitivity if you find the default to be a little over- or under-baked.
This is a wheel for enthusiasts, which becomes clearer when you dig a little deeper and realise the pedal board actually lets you move, and even switch around, each individual pedal. Though that highlights one of the potentially off-putting parts of the Fanatec CSL Elite, for some buyers at least. It’s less “plug and play” than a Thrustmaster T-GT or lower-end wheel, and you will likely need the PDF manual.
There’s an entire menu system within the wheel, displayed through a chunky LED at the top. This lets you control 11 stats that alter how the wheel behaves. You can program-in multiple presets, one for each racing game perhaps, and flick between them right on the wheel.
You don’t need to fiddle with all, or any, but I regularly tweak the brake sensitivity (the arm workout alone is enough), occasionally the force feedback strength and the Force Effect Intensity (FEI). This is a curious one. FEI doesn’t change the strength of the wheel’s pull, rather how aggressive the feedback effect is. Higher settings make it more ferocious, a faster attack, and some games work maxed-out better than others.
Playing with the force feedback and FEI also showed me one way the step-up Fanatec Clubsport 2.5 wheelbase improves upon the CSL Elite. It seems to handle severe stabs of force feedback and very fast changes better. This is no surprise. The Clubsport 2.5 has a completely difference force feedback system that uses two “ribbed” belts rather than the Elite’s single non-ribbed one. Fanatec says it gets you closer to the feel of a direct drive wheel, although thanks to the smooth turn of the CSL Elite I didn’t find it quite as big an upgrade as moving from a Logitech G29 wheel to the Elite.
The Clubsport 2.5 also offer much greater torque, with eight newton meters to the CSL Elite’s six. It can struggle against you even harder, but I find the CSL Elite punishing enough when maxed-out.
Back when the CSL Elite first launched in 2017 the actual steering wheel would have been another negative to note. The first iteration of the standard Fanatec P1 wheel had a rubber grip. It was larger, less toy-like than the Thrustmaster T-GT’s, but felt and looked a little cheap for a wheel of its grade.
Fanatec has fixed this by replacing some of the rubber with Alcantara, a synthetic suede also used in the wheels of some real-life sports cars. This feels much better.
Its ClubSport Steering Wheel BMW GT2 steering wheel is better still; heavier and fancier-looking. I tried this rim with the Clubsport 2.5 wheel base for comparison. But while I might have recommended this upgrade in 2017, it’s just not that necessary for most now the baseline P1 design is so much nicer.
These are the best racing wheels in 2020—perfect for any circuit.
What else is there to consider? The Fanatec CSL Elite does emit some noticeable fan noise after a few minutes use, particularly if you use a high force feedback setting. Fanatec switched to a dual fan system in the ClubSport 2.5 to try to remedy this. It’s louder than the Thrustmaster T-GT, but this does not come closer to outweighing the benefits of a larger wheel and smoother ride.
The CSL Elite wheel base also has a plastic case, one that looks less suave than the Thrustmaster T-GT’s and feels cheaper than the metal of the ClubSport 2.5. But, when you really get down to it, does a bit of prosaic plastic really matter here? This case also has rev counter LEDs, which I find adds a nice extra layer of immersion.
Those who play in batcave-like rooms may not love the glare, however, and the CSL Elite setup app doesn’t let you switch them off.
And if you own a console, be careful of the wheelbase you buy, as there’s a specific version for PS4. It’s slightly more expensive, but Fanatec’s PS4 bundle wipes away the extra cost anyway.
The Fanatec CSL Elite is the sweet spot racing wheel for many sim enthusiasts. It’s nowhere near as expensive as a direct drive setup but does offer unmistakable benefits over the obvious Logitech and Thrustmaster alternatives. It offers a smooth action, the pedals are great, and a relatively wide diameter wheel that makes it feel less like a toy.
The Fanatec CSL Elite isn't quite as easy to use than the Thrustmaster T-GT, and is a little noisier too. Both are great, but the Elite pips it with cleaner-feeling force feedback. I recommend the upgrade to the load cell brake for serious setups, and if buying second hand try to avoid the first-gen rubbery P1 steering wheel. The more recent Alcantara revision is a worthy update.