MF Vault: An Ode to the Automatic

This week from the MF Vault we’re re-visiting a couple of features we published last year giving opposing views on everyone’s favorite debate: auto vs manual. In part two of our manual vs automatic debate we’re writing about the unyielding march of technology and how that’s actually a good thing, even for manual drivers.

The manual is a dying breed. Why? Because of progress. While rowing the gears of a manual can be a great experience, it’s simply time to move on and start experiencing new technology and new kinds of involvement.

But first, let’s talk about how the auto liberated the sports car and made all cars less boring. 40 years ago a sports car or even a sporty car rarely had an auto available. That meant manual transmissions were exclusive to those who knew how to drive them or those who could stomach the left foot shuffle that US traffic made mandatory. But as car makers started realizing that the lowly automatic could indeed be sporty, they started dropping them into everything. While some bemoaned the loss of a few sacred cows, it started to break down walls for many of us. In effect, it democratized sports cars for the masses.

However, the torque converter-equipped automatic transmission (which of course is in the current MINI*) still draws the ire of even auto driving enthusiasts. Enter the automated clutch. The first was the single clutch system used in everything from Ferrari’s F1 transmission that debuted in the 355, to the SMG found in most M cars in the 2000s. What the SMG lacked in finesse it made up for in feedback and speed. For the first time ever there was something faster than the manual. Oh, and it revolutionized racing.

Now we have something even better: the automatic dual clutch transmission. Where the single clutch systems got two-thirds of it right, the dual clutch transmission (DCT) did it all. Incredibly fast gear changes, matching revs on downshifts and docile behavior in stop and go traffic. It was obvious immediately that the DCT truly was the best of all worlds.

Then ZF and BMW teamed up and did one better. The 8 speed 8HP automatic transmission. Found in all BMWs, the auto defies logic by being faster and more fuel efficient than any manual yet easier to live and cheaper than a DCT.

Both of these options also accomplished one other thing. They killed the manual transmission. But don’t weep for the feedback and character lost with the manual. It’s coming back. Go watch this video of Chris Harris from EVO on the Ferrari 458 and fast forward to the 1:47 mark. Then fast forward to the 3:00 mark. Try doing that in a manual. The feedback and aural pleasure the manual drivers love? It’s all there, just in different places within the experience.

Nuances in the paddle designs, aural feedback and even differences in paddle feel are the kind of things the automotive companies will figure out. McLaren’s pre-cong system that gives the driver the ability to pre-select the next gear? This kind of thinking will push the automated manual to become more interactive and even more enjoyable for the normal driver and the enthusiast.

For that we say “thank God.” Because if the manual is going to die, we still want to have fun.

*And what of the current MINI automatic? We’ve reviewed it many times and, while not the worst out there, it does have a tendency to be slow to react. But in short it’s not that bad. We just can’t wait for MINI to move to a 8 or 9 speed automatic option. Oh and fix that paddle design.

  • R.Burns

    A Ferrari or a McLaren automatic transmission in a Mini or even a BMW ? It is good to dream sometimes

  • VioletDC

    Love my 2006 MCSa and its paddles!

  • that.guy

    The new PDK rocks.

  • kb

    It would be nice if mini would acknowledge the fact that this transmission is plauged with valve body issues. I like it but its the only trans I have had a issue with.