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Semi-Automatic Transmissions - Over There

The Gearbox Rebellion

Kevin Hackett
Aug 1, 2009
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Three years ago I spent a couple of weeks working in and around New York, shooting modified cars for specialist magazines in Europe. Talking with a few of the young owners, we got on the subject of transmissions and a couple of the guys posed the same question: "Dude, can you drive stick?"

For a second I thought this was some sort of sexual reference, but it soon became obvious what was being asked of me and I was able to confirm that not only could I, but that my wife could too. This was met with an audible gasp and I was left confused, not knowing what the big deal was.

Apparently, driving a car with a manual gearbox is the preserve of men only in certain parts of America, but ask a European woman if she drives an automatic and you're likely to be met with a derisory sneer. Over here we're taught how to drive stick from the word go and it's part of the thrill, the sheer fun of driving. But cars with three pedals are slowly being edged out the door and for a while we enthusiasts were seriously worried.

I've always been able to see the benefits of a good old-fashioned slushbox. Some cars are just suited to it and I've owned a few myself: a couple of Series III Jaguar XJ6s, a Porsche 928 S2, and two Range Rovers were all autos, and having driven the manual variants I never missed changing gear in them. Without question, big, torquey six-, eight- and twelve-cylinder engines can be perfectly mated to an automatic transmission. It's a case of horses for courses.

Even new, high performance and resolutely macho cars can suit being an auto. Having spent significant time driving the Aston Martin DBS, I was dismayed when the company announced it was going to supply this hairy-chested brute with a self-shifter. I mean, the DBS is pretty hardcore for an Aston and surely needs a manual 'box. Actually, it doesn't.

I'd expected Aston to perhaps fit its automated manual Sportshift transmission to the DBS but it ended up being a full auto, only with paddles behind the steering wheel. And you know what? I didn't miss the clutch pedal or the daft-shaped gear stick for a split second. What I thought would be a complete disaster ended up with me thinking every DBS should be an automatic. Put your foot flat on the accelerator and the car screams like a banshee, launching itself toward whatever horizon it's pointed at with a supernatural shove. Only now you can keep both hands on the wheel at all times, reducing the likelihood of ending up in the nearest hedgerow.

Europe's prestige car manufacturers are making a big deal of their non-manual models. Sequential, semi-automatic cum manuals have come a long way since the lovely but seriously flawed Aston Martin Vanquish. Nowadays they're reliable, easy to use and ultimately as involving as a true manual. A couple of days with Lamborghini's new Gallardo recently proved how brilliant its E Gear 'box of tricks really is. The nasty, rough and clunky example I tried a couple of years ago has transformed into a thoroughly usable piece of kit. I miss the legendary open gate that no Italian supercar would previously have been seen dead without, but I don't miss the interaction of using my left foot to facilitate a cog swap.

For a long time we Europeans resisted the change. We missed the overtly macho feeling of being in full control of what a car was doing. If we wanted to choose an inappropriate ratio then bloody hell we'd do it without a computer dictating proceedings. We wanted to use an actual hand to select a gear, guiding the shifter into its slot. It was an almost erotic experience at times and we wanted it left alone.

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But when I say "we," what I mean is "we journalists." It was the motoring press (particularly in the U.K.) that persistently dissed anything other than a proper manual gearbox. And the voices of dissent are starting to go quiet as manufacturers continue to refine their hardware. The fact that practically every competition car out there only has two pedals hasn't harmed the cause of the sequential, semi-auto transmission, of course. But it's really the application of the technology that's changing deep seated prejudices.

If you're fortunate enough to experience a current Jaguar XFR or XKR then you won't ever miss using your left foot. Use your right one to squeeze the throttle and unleash hell, then hang on for dear life. You can even select the exit ratio well in advance of that looming hairpin and the car will simply knock itself down through each gear when it's safe to do so. All the while, once again, both hands get to do that all-important steery thing. It's quite liberating and not the least bit emasculating.

Yet the one company that got it wrong is the one that really has no excuse: Porsche. Its PDK dual-clutch tranny is in so many ways race-bred perfection, yet the way you're forced to change gears is all wrong. I've driven new 911s, Caymans and Boxsters fitted with this thing, covering a couple thousand miles, and I STILL can't get my head around it because of the infuriating wheel-mounted rocker switches. If, after all this time, I still end up selecting the wrong ratio by accident, it shows a serious flaw in its design. So instead of feeling involved, the driver feels alienated by a company with monumental ego problems.

The slow death of the traditional manual gearbox is nothing short of a stealthy revolution. Led by Europe, the world will eventually forget they ever existed and even motoring journalists will revel in this intuitive, safe and involving way of driving an automatic. Unless it's in a Porsche, where you'll still be wishing you could "drive stick."

By Kevin Hackett
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