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Opinion 12

Automatics: how many pedals?

I grew up in a household where adding the prefix ‘Persil’ was the only way to turn ‘automatic’ into a less than dirty word. We didn’t simply not care for two pedal cars, we raged against them when, of course, we weren’t laughing at the people who drove them.

I can remember quite clearly thinking the world would never be quite the same when Ferrari fitted a three speed GM automatic gearbox to the 400, which tells you all you need to know about the state of my sad, obsessive 10 year old mind at the time.

opinions  Automatics: how many pedals?

Image courtesy of Darz Mol

But even when I started writing for car magazines I still loathed these wretched devices. To be fair they were passable in cars so laden with torque their paucity of gears mattered little and even I could see why Jaguar soon dropped the manual XJS and how a Bentley Turbo R with a clutch pedal would have been an absurdity. But if you showed me a smaller, more nimble car to which an automatic had been fitted, I’d show you a car spoiled to the point of ruination. I still don’t understand why Porsche got so much credit for its apparently revolutionary ‘tiptronic’ gearbox introduced into the 964 series of 911s at the start of the 1990s. It was better than a conventional automatic, but that was like saying a poke in the eye was better than a kick in the privates. And then there was the Honda NSX. I cannot think of another car more comprehensively undone by a single tick in an options box than this. The gearbox was ghastly and, just in case that didn’t spoil things enough, the car came with a detuned engine and a reduced redline because the auto wasn’t strong enough to handle the power of the real thing. One of the finest supercars ever made was reduced to a slow, stumbling, emasculated mess.

But now I’m not so sure. I can remember driving Ferrari’s first paddle shift car (an F355) and being far less offended by it than I’d expected. More interestingly the first car to be given a double clutch gearbox was the original Audi TT 3.2, which had hitherto done such a poor impression of a sports car its clearly revolutionary new transmission actually gave me something nice to say about it.

Even so, it’s only been in the last year or so that I’ve even allowed myself to consider the question: could two pedals actually be better than three? Ferrari and McLaren – perhaps the two most blue-blooded supercar constructors of all – clearly think they are, for neither will sell you a car that will work your left foot. Even Porsche’s next 911 GT3 will break with 14 years of tradition and give customers the opportunity to trade a pedal for some paddles.

opinions  Automatics: how many pedals?

You might say it’s horses for courses and that certain cars are much better suited to automatic gears and I’d not disagree: the Audi in which I ply the M4 has eight of them and I’d not have it any other way. But I still haven’t driven a purebred sports car with paddles and thought it would have been less fun with a manual gearbox. There remains so much to enjoy in the feel of each shift, each correctly blipped downchange and every upshift executed without the knowledge of your passenger.

I spent this afternoon flinging an Ariel Atom 3.5 around the West Country for an article to be published in the next issue of Motor Sport. It would have been even quicker, smoother and possibly safer with paddles because I could have kept both hands on the wheel of what turned out to be an extremely lively car driven on cold, damp roads. But more fun? That would not have been possible.

I no longer hate automatic transmissions for few components have advanced further over the last 40 years. But will I ever prefer even the best to a conventional three pedal layout in a sporting car? If that was going to happen, it would have done by now. How about you?

opinions  Automatics: how many pedals?

Add your comments

12 comments on Automatics: how many pedals?

  1. Michael Kavanagh, 5 February 2013 18:57

    What on earth is an ‘automatic’?

  2. Ray T, 5 February 2013 19:06

    The trend by supercar makers to impose automatic transmissions has to do with demand. The emerging markets are Asia and the Middle East, and not a single customer will order a manual car with a clutch pedal. So, the whole world gets Ferraris with automatic transmissions.
    Power steering, power brakes, power windows, power seats, power doors, TC, ABS, ESC…it’s all dumbed down to easy and boring. One step way from riding a bus.
    I was impressed with my new car’s DCT and bought it..but God, how I miss the clutch and control and the lack of boredom. It’s yet another driving skill put to the side, which has negatively impacted racing (remember dropping gears?).
    I think more manual transmission cars are safer for one reason: they force more attention on the car and the road. No one will accidentally drive a manual car through a shop front by hitting the wrong pedal.

  3. Steve W, 5 February 2013 22:29

    I have to wait 60 days to get my lowly 2013 Honda Civic LX because I want the 5-speed manual transmission. Never had any use for automatics because I think it makes me a lazy driver, even if it does make it easier to eat a Burger King Triple-Whopper with cheese while on the road. Not interested in paddle shifters either because I never drive with my hands at 3 and 9 on the steering wheel all the time. Give me a stick-shift car with all the pedals every time. So there.

  4. John Read, 6 February 2013 00:11

    I live in Sydney. The traffic is horrendous. Sadly that means a dual-clutch or auto box, or my left leg will fall off. One day I will have a second car with a manual box for early morning Sunday drives and track days. All donations gratefully accepted.

  5. Lee Williams, 6 February 2013 01:10

    UK road system so pricey, shoddy and slow I have been ground down into thinking driving a misery in auto or manual. Probably go auto for convenience – finding they especially suit large diesels. Recently owned a 500C, and now drive a nice z3 at weekends – both manuals, and for that rare perfect twisting road in the sun, a manual suits very well! Paddles? Gizmos, surely? – I’d either go full auto or manual.

  6. John, 6 February 2013 06:30

    This is a slightly different angle on the same topic, but I drive a lorry for a living. More and more tractor units these days are fitted with auto ‘boxes and they’re sooooo dull to drive. I preferred the days when we had 12 pre-selector gears and double declutching and all the rest of it: the driver was so much more involved then and had to think much further ahead. Nowadays even driving a lorry is like driving a dodgem car.

  7. Rich Ambroson, 6 February 2013 06:33

    I’d love to have a properly set up car with an automatic transmission for my daily driver.

    For sporting blasts, I still enjoy blipping the throttle to match revs on the downshifts in my Mazda MX-5 (with some customizations including a lightened flywheel that makes those blips all the sweeter…)

    Daily driver? A modern Audi with the auto please. Fantasy sporting car? Something with a manual transmission, hopefully a Colombo 3.0 liter in front of it…

  8. Gordon Ramsay, 6 February 2013 08:42

    To hear people say that paddle shift cars are disengaged and take away from the purity of driving either, have never tried it or they can’t adapt they’re driving style to suit. I’d say there is pros and cons to each but in the last year of driving my Focus ST, I’ve longed to get my M3 SMG back out the garage and now I have, I don’t ever want to imagine I’ll go back to 3 peddles and I’m as pure a driver now as I ever was.

  9. Russell B., 6 February 2013 12:07

    I drove an E92 M3 with DCT at Brands Hatch last weekend and came away impressed by how easy it was to drive fast, but certainly felt less rewarded by the simplified gear shifts.
    There’s satisfaction to be had from something that is a challenge to master, but performance is much easier to sell…

  10. Andy Burrows, 6 February 2013 18:20

    Andrew, as I’m sure you know the manual vs autobox debate has been raging on the pistonheads forum for a while. I must say that the latest generations of auto have changed my mind. The XF 8-speed one is a particular standout for me. I use left-foot braking on my road cars and even with auto-stop-start as an additional feature (about which i was very suspicious) I have to say that I couldn’t fault it for “normal” road work and some occasional faster road work. My only caveat is that I think they are quite installation-dependant and if the engineers have not done the requisite development to thoroughly match engine power curves and box shift points. Maybe for track work the manual is still better, but I suspect that gap is narrowing too.

  11. Luke Crowley, 6 February 2013 18:55

    I agree that manuals are better for sports cars, but for everything else, they’re utterly pointless in my opinion. Family saloons, MPVs, SUVs and everything in between should only come with automatics in this day and age. Can anyone give me a good reason to have a manual Vauxhall Meriva?

  12. Chuck, 7 February 2013 01:19

    After 40 years of enjoying mastering the skills of manuals, including Porsche’s outstanding recent 6 speeds, I purchased a 991 S with PDK. I now know from experience (rather than opinion and theory), that traditional manual transmissions cannot come close for performance. Worse, on the track, they are nothing less than an intrusion into the involvement, fun and skill of driving fast. PDK allows far more focus on proper braking, turn in and car placement in general. No boredom at the levels of performance experienced. On the street, pure pleasure in traffic, and all the manual control one wants when acceleration/deceleration games are played.

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