Why do we wrestle with manual gearboxes? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself more often. Having recently sampled an unusually wide and varied number of cars, it’s the one activity that can make or break the overall experience.
What stands out the most is a recent drive across Australia. As you might imagine, the roughly 1,500 mile drive mostly consisted of a succession of long straights linking the occasional house, bar, farm or shop. Yet, the car at my disposal was fitted with a single speed transmission.
Okay, so it was a fancy hydrogen fuel cell car, but the fact remains you could stick it in Drive and just go without having to fuss about with a clutch pedal and an old fashioned gearlever. In short, it just worked.
By way of a contrast, get behind the wheel of an average family car and you’ll still have to do it yourself, so to speak. This is no different from what drivers from a century ago would have had to contend with. We’ve put a man on the moon but we have yet to ditch this throwback to the dawn of motoring.
What to do? As fuel economy and emissions issues continue to dominate, an increasing number of manufacturers are turning to automated gearboxes to help shave percentage points off the official performance figures.
Predictably big, expensive cars will always be first in the queue and the technology simply isn’t trickling down to more affordable models fast enough. Car makers will blame price for the problem – a £1,000 auto ‘box is hard to justify in a £10,000 car. However, we buyers like our creature comforts and will happily pay for toys. And it would appear that we are content to wrestle with the stick that sprouts from the floor, but will moan if a car’s audio system isn’t fully compatible with an iPod and requires a few more button prods to reach that expertly crafted playlist.
Don’t you think it would be better if you didn’t have to physically change gear at all? I know I’d be first in the queue. Granted, the auto-like DSG gearbox is becoming a more widespread now, yet it’s not a cheap option and so long as manufacturers insist on installing F1-style paddle shifters I’m going to use them – call it a macho thing.
The ‘direct shift gearbox’ is probably the closest we’ll get to an ideal solution for some time. By and large it’s a good one, and certainly a quantum leap over what’s been around for a century or more. Ignore the paddles and let the ‘box do its thing and the result is smooth progress. They can be wrong-footed occasionally, but if that’s the price to pay for ditching the clutch pedal it’s a reasonable one.
And talking of ditching things, I’d love to see car makers walk away from clunky manual transmissions altogether. If cost really is an issue, surely if you reduce the options available you can save money? Imagine a wide choice of super-frugal superminis boasting a slick, responsive DSG-style gearbox. Surely this has got to be a more use than a panoramic sunroof or million-watt audio unit.
By Iain Dooley