The Washington Times - June 9, 2008, 06:35AM


Is this really necessary?



I’ve driven a number of cars equipped with so-called “automatic clutch manual transmissions,” in which the clutches are actuated by electronically controlled hydraulic devices - as opposed to the old fashioned foot pedal. Since the clutch is actuated by the car’s computers the “manual” shifting is controlled by steering wheel paddles or a shift lever, either of which simply supplies an electrical signal to the computer to move the gears up or down sequentially. In every case I’ve experienced a lengthy time period between the disengagement of one gear and reengagement of the other - two seconds in the worst and not much quicker in the best of them. As far as I’m concerned they take away the enjoyment of driving the car.


This type of transmission was popularized by Ferrari for use in racing, and in the hands of drivers like Michael Schumacher they work really well. Shifts can be made in as little as .15 seconds without the use of feet and shift levers, and that leaves the driver free to concentrate on getting around the track faster. Needless to say, Ferrari’s transmissions are highly developed and certainly as expensive as entire high-end cars, so you won’t find one in your VW, Mercedes-Benz or BMW very soon.


What you will find is what I call “Walter Mitty, Boy Racer” transmissions because that’s basically what they are. In their present form they aren’t particularly efficient, have no advantages I can think of and are really annoying to operate - the mechanical equivalent of Windows Vista. What they don’t do is allow you to drive the car from a stop to some desired speed with smoothness. Whether you take off slowly or stand on the throttle to get the maximum performance out of the car, the result is getting pressed against the seat followed by a second or two of “weightlessness” as the car stops accelerating and remains in limbo until the gear changes and the clutch reengages, followed by getting pressed in the seat again. This is supposed to be enjoyable?


Maybe, for a few people, but I suspect that it’s only enjoyable to those who really aren’t very good at shifting gears or like to hear the engine get blipped up in revs as they touch the downshift paddle. I can’t believe there are all that many mechanically challenged individuals who are willing to put up with the eccentricities of sequential manual gearboxes, though. Yeah, yeah, I know you can learn to anticipate the moment of shifting and let up on the gas and then press down again to better simulate a real gear change, but why should I do that? If I want to simulate a real gear change I’ll buy a car with a clutch pedal and shift lever!


A common argument I hear from enthusiasts is that the manufacturers have gone to these “high tech” transmissions because they are better able to handle the higher power outputs of today’s performance engines and conventional clutch/gearboxes. Oh, please! Clutches in World War II could handle 30-ton tanks, and today they can easily handle fully loaded 18-wheelers and 500 horsepower Vipers and Corvettes, so let’s just call that argument what it is: silly and baseless.


Whatever they might be called, sequential manual gearboxes are not technological breakthroughs - they are marketing breakthroughs. Normally I don’t begrudge manufacturers for pandering to buyers’ tastes and preferences, but when the alternative to the time-tested manual (clutch and gearshift) and today’s superb automatic transmissions is a needlessly complex, sloppy operating and certain-to-break electromechanical nightmare, they’ve gone too far.


Eventually, say the manufacturers, the bugs will be worked out of the production SMG transmissions, but as one of the characters says in Jurassic Park, “just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.