Opinion: Keep Your DSG. I’ll Take a Manual.

Today we’re introducing a new feature at MotoringFile. As a result of the many enthusiastic responses we received to our call for a full-time writer, we decided to add a few part-time contributor positions for people willing to help us expand our message (and hopefully reach new followers). Below is the first of what we hope will be many in a series of new opinion pieces, news and reviews. Our first example is brought to you by Paul Mindemann, a web company vice president, former auto magazine editor and self-proclaimed car nut out of Lancaster, PA.

The topic is DSG vs the manual transmission. For those who don’t know DSG is Volkswagen’s revolutionary dual clutch transmission that quickly become the gold standard in terms of transmissions for sporty cars ranging from the Golf GTI to the Bugatti Veryon to (within a couple of years) every Ferrari made. However it’s worth noting that most of the automotive world knows it as the DCT (dual clutch transmission). For further background check out wikipedia’s page on DSG (and BMW’s equivalent DCT)

A Case for the Manual Transmission: 
How living with a dual clutch transmission made me a manual transmission evangelist.

I’m a guy in my mid-30s. When I was in high-school, saying you drove a car with a manual transmission implied you had knowledge and skill that not everyone else had. It showed you had enough interest in driving to overcome fears of stalling at a stoplight, on an incline, and with traffic behind you just waiting to provide some aural motivation. After high-school, a manual-equipped hatchback then became my ticket to amateur racing thanks to local SCCA autocross events. But now, some years later, the very same car rags that formerly encouraged youthful exuberance by way of stick shift are telling me I need to get over it—that semi-automatic transmissions are the key to automotive nirvana. I’ve since discovered first hand why they’re wrong.

On paper, it all works. So-called semi-automatic transmissions (or clutch-less manuals) have been around since about 1912 when it was first experimented with in a Le Mans racer. By 1995, every Formula One car used some type of semi-automatic transmission. The reason for its use in racing is simple—electronics allow shifting that is both smoother and quicker than what is possible by humans. And in modern iterations, so-called “dual-clutch” versions literally use two clutches which enable the system to pre-select the next gear, further reducing shift time. In the case of the VW Group’s DSG version, that shift time is down to about 8 milliseconds. Also, since these are basically manual transmissions with the clutch removed, there’s no torque converter to sap power or fuel economy like a traditional automatic. So far, so perfect. Right?

Indeed, it all sounded so good that when VW was getting ready to bring their VR6-powered, DSG-equipped R32 back to the states in 2008, I signed-up for the very first shipment. I knew it would be a different experience than the classic, 5-speed Porsche I drove then, or from the dozen or so other manual-equipped cars I’d owned over the years. But in my mind, I knew it could shift faster than a Ferrari Enzo and that was enough. After all, this was the future.

But sometimes the future sucks. After less than a year of ownership, I sold the R32. Truth be told, it took far less time to realize clutch-less manuals have a long way to go before replacing a proper manual. Here are a few reasons why:

Driver involvement (or the lack thereof)

Quite simply, semi-automatic transmissions are less fun to drive than regular manual transmissions. Your left leg is basically dead weight, and your hands never need to leave the wheel. That pretty much means anyone can drive them. But is that good? Do we really want a society filled with drivers who are so bored they’re interested in doing anything but driving?

Your steering ratio is not the same as a race car’s

Rally drivers use semi-automatic transmissions because they always need their hands on the wheel. So what’s good for them must be good for the average driver, right? Not necessarily. Rally cars have different steering ratios, so fewer inputs result in larger motions. In a street car, you don’t want a twitchy, cell-phone-entranced driver making sudden course changes when they become distracted, so the ratios are different. That means that driving a road car with paddles on the steering wheel can often result in stalks that are in any position other than 10 and 2. And unless you have rubber-band arms, that means your hands are very often nowhere near the shift paddles.

It’s all about speed… or is it?

One huge supposed benefit is the shift speed of the dual-clutch variety of semi-automatic transmissions. But what they don’t tell you is that if you select a gear other than the one the system predicts—say, in an emergency avoidance maneuver—the delay goes from 8 milliseconds all the way up to 1,100 milliseconds. That’s a noticeable delay, and one you may not expect.

It’s not as efficient as you’d think

Let’s clear this up right away—dual clutch varieties of semi-automatic transmissions are way more efficient than regular automatics. But they’re actually heavier than comparable manuals (by about 65 lbs, depending on type), they have worse overall mechanical efficiency, and in many applications, do not exceed their manual transmission counterparts for mileage.

It’s not a seamless as you’d expect, either

This was perhaps my biggest single gripe with my DSG-equipped R32. It would simply not launch from a standstill without hesitation, regardless of drive mode. Many VW owners initially thought this must be a malfunction in the software or some other part, but it turned it was simply the way these systems work. Similarly, downshifts were not as fast as expected either.

For a little less than a year, I bought into what the car magazines had told me—literally. I told myself that these semi-automatics were the wave of the future, and that I just needed time to get used to it. In retrospect, I find myself wondering why I should have ever tried to get used to a system that had such noticeable jerkiness, perceptible lags in shift time, questionable weight and efficiency and a loss of engagement, involvement and interest.

While there are motorists of all types in the MINI ranks, it’s fair to say that those who own MINIs choose to be different, and choose to have fun with their choice of transportation. One can certainly have fun in a MINI without a manual transmission, but that extra bit of involvement brought by the third pedal and a stick on the floor should be cherished for the extra connection it creates. And for all the things it still does better than anything else.