As an avid petrolhead I am constantly being berated for my love of automatic cars. So I have been asked to put down in words why I shouldn’t be shunned by the rest of you.
Ever since buying my first car, an automatic Nissan Micra K10, I’ve been hooked. I didn’t go out of my way to get an automatic, it just happened by accident. It was fantastic, all 59 horsepower of it channelled through a ‘traditional’ three-speed auto-box. The lack of ratios and the light weight made it feel like a go-cart!
In the UK and Europe manual gearboxes, stick shift, have been the go-to transmission of choice for vehicle manufacturers as they have been the cheapest, most economical and least complicated method of changing gears. No one is able to change as smoothly and as quickly as they think they can every time they change gear and so there have been various ways of automating parts of the process from fluid flywheel Daimlers through centrifugal clutched Citroen 2cv’s and DAF Constantly Variable Transmissions all the way up to the latest generation of automated manual dual-clutch gearboxes.
Relying on the left foot of the driver to be quick at changing gears, as well smooth and efficient while having to maintain sufficient pressure on the clutch has long been a headache of automotive engineers. During my time as a chauffeur, I would always prefer to drive the fluid flywheel Daimer V4 1/2 than the Rolls Royce Phantom because you could change gear without fear of wiping out another thousand pound clutch trying to get smooth gear changes (there is a technique to it if anyone is interested). Eventually Rolls Royce came around to the idea of removing the driver from the equation and they haven’t looked back.
Smoothness isn’t the only reason to ditch the driver. As anyone who has tried to drive a powerful manual sports car will tell you, the discomfort that comes from spending any time behind the wheel makes you wish you were back pottering along in family hatchback. The first time I tried to depress the clutch on a Lamborghini Countach, part of a museum collection I must add, I thought there was something hideously wrong with either me or the car. The pressure needed to hold the friction plate to the clutch made it almost impossible to move the clutch pedal.
As fuel prices have gone up, the efficiency of cars has become almost as important as their power output. Traditional automatic boxes are generally pretty poor when it comes to economy as the fluid filled torque converter wastes some of the power of the engine. Various attempts have been made at improving the situation such as overdrives and ‘lock-ups’ in higher gears but ‘slush boxes’ have not matched the economy of the manual gearbox quite yet.
Automated manuals gearboxes provide a compromise. Let a computer control the clutch and the gearchange but this time without the inevitable slippage of a fluid filled torque converter. Single-clutch set-ups like the Volkswagen Shiftmatic did the job but took a while to get used to and were not suited to making good progress.
A development of this principle was to split the gearbox in two and use two automated clutches, one for each half of the gearbox. This can be seen in systems such as Volkswagens DSG (Direkt-Schalt-Getriebe) which are reportedly capable of changing gear in 8 milliseconds and be more economic than their manual counterparts.
The one argument I do hear quite a lot against is that it takes some of the soul and some of the control away from the driver. Obviously this is hard to counter with stats and figures but I’m sure if I stuck you behind the wheel of a DSG equipped car with ‘flappy paddles’ you would soon lose realise how quickly you forget about manually swapping the cogs as you flick it down another ratio with a twitch of your finger.
I will concede that there is a drawback, a very big drawback actually. Automatic gearboxes with their added complexity add cost to the price of a vehicle and their relative unpopularity means that even used examples command a higher price.
Cost aside, there is a way of a car being smoother, being more economical and be able to handle more engine power yet still involving you in the process, allowing you to feel at one with the car and without causing you knee problems when you are sat in yet another UK traffic jam, remind me again why I’m defending my love of automatic cars?