Game over for traditional gearboxes?

I’ve spent time with semi-auto boxes in the past, most frequently with the early BMW SMG system. In truth, whilst the early systems made you feel like a racing driver, they were pretty rubbish. The sensations you’d receive as sets of ratios grinded unenthusiastically in to each other before finally coming to some sort of truce and engaging a gear were not exactly pleasant. That’s assuming the gearbox had decided to even listen to your request to shift down a cog or two, and hadn’t decided to shift up a ratio instead. Just because it can. They were rough, unsophisticated and, quite often, unreliable.CHAL Banner

It was always such a shame, as I have always wanted to have a good semi-automatic gearbox. Like most enthusiasts, I like to stir the gear lever around myself, controlling exactly what the engine is doing. There are few sensations as enjoyable as slowing a car for a corner, dropping a couple of gears while blipping the throttle to balance the revs, and then pulling through the curve under maximum power. It’s all a little ‘Troy Queef’, I know, but that’s what switches petrolheads on.

That’s fine for some country blasts, but life gets in the way and a fully automatic gearbox is a wonderful invention in traffic or long motorway cruises. Even the lightest clutch pedal can build your left thigh muscles up to a point Arnold Schwarzenegger would be proud of it you’re in stop/start traffic for a few miles. Drive the M25 near Heathrow at 8:30 am and you’ll experience a better work out than you’ll get in any gym.

Automatic boxes used to be flawed in that they had few gear ratios (my first had just three, and even my Corvette has just four gears to choose from), while the time taken to change gear could often be measured using a calendar. Now though, things are so much better.

Five speed auto boxes started appearing, swiftly replaced by a six speed option. Lexus raised the bar by taking it to seven, but now the likes of Audi and BMW provide eight speed boxes that shift ratios in a split second.

Some time later this year, both Mercedes-Benz and Honda will take things almost too far and squeeze in one extra ratio. I might be wrong, but I thought a nine speed gearbox meant you were driving a truck, but ZF, the manufacturers of the gearbox, are adamant that nine is the perfect number.

That’s all very good, but it’s the recent switch to twin clutch systems that’s having the biggest effect. Suddenly there are automatic gearboxes available that allow slick and quick manual shifts. Is this the best of both worlds?

SEAT Ibiza 2013 InteriorMy first extended experience with a twin clutch system was in the rather humble confines of a 1.2 litre SEAT Ibiza. Cruising down the M3, it was like driving any other automatic car, but as soon as I turned on to some more interesting roads, the desire to test the gearbox became too strong and the red mist descended.

And even in this, the most humble of cars, the sensations were fantastic. Brake hard, flick the gear lever and then power, all without any discernible gap.

There’s no waiting, it just goes from one ratio to the next somewhere in the region of 10,000 times quicker than I could manage myself. It made progress so much swifter, and not because it left you with drive at all times. No, it was because it left me free to concentrate on the balance of the car, braking, turning in and so on. I was still in control of the gears, but the car took away the human factor in it all. No more missed gears, no more lifting the clutch just before you’ve engaged gear. It made driving more precise, more fluid, more fun.

It’s no coincidence that the next BMW M5 will come without a manual option. Neither will a growing number of AMG badged Mercedes’, while even the humble Renault Clio, in its full-on RenaultSport trim, will eschew the traditional gear stick.

Some say that the change will remove that involvement between the car and the driver, and there’s an element of truth in that. But the gears are still under your control, the right ratio for the right bend being just as important as before. Only this time you’ve got two hands on the wheel and torque being delivered without a break.

Being practical, the twin-clutch systems are also more economical, reducing both fuel use and emissions as the engine is kept either in drive or coasting at all times, never needing to burn fuel simply to remain switched on.

I’ve said before that, had the automatic gearbox been invented first, then we would never have seen the manual version fitted to our road cars.

Now I can see a time where the twin-clutch semi-automatic will banish both to the history books.

[button link=”” rel=”nofollow” color=”orange”]This article was first published at on 11 February 2013.[/button]

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Phil is a motoring writer for print and web, failed racing driver, car hoarder and banger rally competitor. Nominated for the Headline Auto Rising Star award and a MGMW member, Phil freelances for outlets as diverse as Diesel Car magazine, and Cambridge Magazine, amongst many others. He also maintains a fleet of unloved motors, but spends most of his time driving an old Corvette.