What makes a proper performance car?
One of the key elements to the driving experience is a car’s transmission. The 3-pedal manual allows the driver full control of how the vehicle puts the motor’s power down to the ground. It also allows the driver to smoothly operate the car in and out of turns, by matching engine and wheel speeds.
For those people who do not want to emulate a professional racer, the manual transmission is simply more fun. Having a performance car with an automatic transmission is like going on a date with a supermodel and ending the night with a handshake…it is decent, but not nearly as awesome as it could be. There is no better satisfaction than taking a turn with your feet dancing on the pedals, and shifting into the next gear without so much as a hesitation from the car
Automatics are nicknamed “autotragic” for many reasons. Automatic transmissions may claim to shift faster than a manual, but the shift itself is not always ideal. Sometimes the transmission does not recognize which gear the car should be in for maximum performance, or even gas mileage. For example, if the driver wants to pass slower traffic on a freeway and feels the car needs to drop two gears for maximum torque, the car may only shift down one gear and thus slow acceleration, making a pass more difficult. Also, the car will often change gears when the driver does not need or want it to. Finally, often times the gear shift on automatics is downright jerky.
Short of the old Mercedes Benz 190E 2.3 16V, one could primarily only get a C230 (now 300) or SLK230 on 3 pedal manual. Even then, the number of models produced with a manual transmission is slim-to-none. All other vehicles in the M-B lineup, including the performance cars of Benz’s AMG division, remain automatic. The cars have enormous motors with stratospheric power numbers, yet they are all hindered by the automatic transmission because the car and transmission have a mind of their own, not allowing the driver to do what he or she pleases.
Lexus’ performance IS series vehicles, short of the weakest IS250, come only with a fully automated transmission. The IS-F, a 416 horsepower beast that is intended to compete with BMW, Audi, and Mercedes Benz, comes with an 8-speed automatic transmission.
Some may argue that a properly tuned fully automatic system is more consistent (on the drag strip), or even faster than a stickshift vehicle, and they would not be wrong. Many tests have proven that a stickshift car’s speed is primarily determined by the driver’s skill, while on an automatic all one needs to do is mash the gas pedal to the floor and go. However, a proper performance car is not just about raw numbers. Rather, a performance car must have a proper combination of road feel, driver control, AND numbers.
For those who prefer the convenience of not having to use their left foot but still want the control warranted by a manual transmission, the semi(or automated-clutch) manual transmission is an excellent choice. Purists argue that without 3 pedals, a gear lever in between the front seats, the ability to heel-toe downshift and rev match, a car is not a manual.
The idea of control of a traditional manual and producing maximum performance, by the elimination of the human element, is the premise of many new transmissions offered like those in the Nissan GT-R, the Audi lineup (with the DSG hydraulic dual-clutch system), the Porsche lineup (with the PDK transmission), and the SMG present in numerous BMWs. But the byproduct purists do not like, of not having a third pedal, is that you get the comfort of driving an automatic transmission . However, the truth of the matter is that the semi-manual transmission was created for pure performance, as it can shift faster than any human.
Having driven a number of vehicles equipped with automated-clutch manuals, they behave like the standard transmission. They roll backwards on inclines like a traditional manual, and for the most part hold a gear until asked to change by the driver. If one leaves the car in one gear too long, it will not change by itself and the driver will be left with suffering the repercussions of the gas cutoff at the rev-limiter. While it is not necessary in all variants, for maximum performance a driver must generally let off the gas pedal momentarily to shift a gear, like one would on a stickshift. They even come with a gear lever in case one gets tired of the paddles on either side of the steering wheel. Once more, leaving a semi-manual equipped car in fully automated mode makes for a slow, unbalanced, and unpleasant ride. Essentially, while it can be driven like an automatic, the auto-clutch manual transmission was created to be driven like a 3-pedal manual.
The auto-clutch manual transmission is as close as one will get to the raw feel of a 3-pedal manual, without the discomfort of using the left foot to shift. Since its original inception in the early 90s with production vehicles such as the Vector M12, the semi-manual has progressed to the point of performing faster than the traditional transmission. As traditional manuals continue to wane, the semi-manual will continue to thrive and give driving enthusiasts the experience they expect, with or without the ability to compose audible motor symphonies with both feet.
The automatic transmission, then, is an absolute destroyer of driving feel and car control, key aspects of the driving experience. The manual transmission gives the driver the ability to do what he or she wishes with the motor, something one must have in order to understand the full potential of a vehicle. While it is a shame that people are moving away from 3 pedals, the phenomenon is inevitable and the semi-manual transmission is a worthy successor, and will only continue to improve. The choice between the full comfort of an automatic with muffled driver feeling, purist stickshift, and progressive yet raw performance of the semi-manual lies solely in the individual. While there will always be a small group of purist traditional manual enthusiasts, they are a dying breed as manufacturers now search to produce cars with compromise and volume-sales in mind.