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Gearboxes: Manual vs. Automatic

The rapid development and improvement in automatic gearboxes means that they are fast becoming a favourite for all drivers.

True petrol heads have always enjoyed driving manual cars, they give a heightened feeling of being in control of the vehicle and allow the driver to always ensure that the car is at the right place in the rev range, be it to overtake or pull out of a corner.

But for regular motorists who must suffer through the daily grind that is rush hour, automatic gearboxes are becoming more and more attractive.

motus.cars, supported by Motus Nissan (previously Imperial Select), explains the differences between automatic and manual gearboxes:

Automatic gearboxes

Historically automatic gearboxes were not very efficient, the sapped engines of power and their inefficiency led to them being heavier on fuel compared to similar cars fitted with manual gearboxes.

Fortunately, the last 15 years have seen massive developments with regards to the technology and design of automatic gearboxes, to the point that they are now the better option.

Volkswagen Golf GTI

The Volkswagen Golf GTI is a case in point, since VW introduced the DSG gearbox to the 5th generation of this hot hatch the DSG model has outsold the manual derivative substantially.

It does help that this dual-clutch gearbox is one of the best automatic gearboxes available on the market today.

This dual clutch gearbox technology gives the driver the comfort of an auto but the exact same performance as that of a manual gearbox in terms of acceleration.

The DSG gearbox offers lightning-fast gear changes both when upshifting and downshifting.

For example, when accelerating in third gear, fourth has already been pre-selected. The only difference is that while third gear’s clutch is closed, fourth’s is open.

The advantage, of course, is that when the time arrives to upshift, it’s a simple matter of disengaging one clutch and engaging the other, no physical gear movement needs to be made.

It’s this elimination of the gear selection process that makes it so rapid.

Clutch actuation is a relatively simple and quick process compared with moving gears around.

This clever design is the main reason why these double-clutch transmissions are so much speedier than either manual gearboxes or the single-clutch automated versions such as BMW’s SMG or a traditional torque convertor automatic.

Acceleration is quicker because there’s less of a pause between gears, and the entire process adds more control since gear selection is so precise.

This gearbox, like many of the new automatic gearboxes also offers an element of driver involvement as gears can be changed by means of pushing or pulling on the gear lever or using the F1 style steering wheel paddles.

BMW M3

The M-DCT gearbox first fitted to the sporty BMW M3 and now available in other BMW models too, is lightning fast in the way it changes gears even allows the driver to tailor how quickly they want the car to change gears thanks to some very clever electronics.

The bonus with gearboxes like this is they often come with a launch control function too.

Even in racing applications the manual gearbox is dying out, any proper rally car uses a sequential gearbox, while Formula One has used the paddle shift steering wheel system coupled to an automatic gearbox for many years now.

Yes, there is still that school of thought that believes a human will always be able to do things better than a computer, but these days that is only true for a tiny percent of the driving population that have lightning-fast reactions and permanently wear their racing overalls and helmets.

Manual gearboxes

Cars equipped with manual gearboxes can return a marginally better fuel consumption figures as the driver can purposely keep engine speed low, but the difference these days is so small that it is really not worth the effort.

While there is extensive research and development going into the development of automatic style gearboxes, the development of manual gearboxes is mostly stagnant.

Therefore, I believe that in the not-too-distant future even die-hard driving fans will opt for an auto.

Every year less and less manual cars are available, and they are only found in cars at the more affordable end of the market these days.

But soon the economies of scale will make automatic gearboxes cheaper, and automakers will most certainly start fitting them exclusively.

Visit motus.cars for more info, or join the conversation on Facebook, YouTube and  Twitter.

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By Reuben Van Niekerk

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Gearboxes: Manual vs. Automatic