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24 August 2011

Slip Angle | When Automatic Isn’t

Words by Andre Palma
My first encounter with an automatic gearbox was back in college. Somehow, as the proctoring professor arrived at the examination room, I found myself separated from my exam permit during finals week. With my usual dumb luck, the said permit was a kilometer away and it was raining. A set of keys was tossed in my direction and off I went, down four flights of stairs with my academic life hanging in the balance. A sense of hope filled me. I could still make finals.
After fiddling with a Solex lock for what seemed to be an eternity, I jumped into the driver’s seat of the Ford Laser hatch, and in a single motion, kicked the clutch and tried to fumble the gear stick into neutral. To my horror, there wasn’t a clutch pedal in the car. Add to that the fact that the usual H-pattern gear change was missing as well. In its place were the mocking letters P, R, N, and D

It was then when I panicked.
I ran back to the exam room and straight to the owner of the car who was, at that moment, already deep into the exam. The block mate gave me an annoyed look, explained how to get the car moving, and motioned to the incoming exam proctor that has already set an intercept course and was closing for the easy kill. In one of many fight or flight decisions that day, my survival instincts prevailed and I fled.
To make a long, painfully pathetic story short, I got the damned exam permit and was allowed to take the test. Not that I passed, or that the Laser survived the 2-kilometer round trip unscathed either. I left it in drive as I exited the car with the engine still running. It drove itself into a parking bollard, which happened to be - of all places - the faculty only section of the school’s main driveway. 
Now it is easier to understand my early personal aversion with automatic transmissions. This is the kind of trauma that goes beyond stitches and plaster. If anyone needs a subject with non-combat post-traumatic stress disorder involving tests and driving cars without a clutch, give me a ring.
To this day, the automatic transmission and I still have issues. Honestly, there hasn’t been a single slush box out in the market that has impressed. Make them feel and work like manual transmissions and they don’t last. Build them as bulletproof as you can, and watch torque and acceleration suffer. With experiences like that, the bottom line is simple to get to:  nothing beats a third pedal and six forward gears. Well, nothing with a torque converter does, at least.
Doing the Dual Clutch Dance
Enter the dual clutch transmission, a technology shrouded in so much illusion and mystique that it deserves its own episode on the X-Files, complete with the skeptical Scully debating with Mulder whether such a thing truly even exists. Trying to understand the how’s and why’s of the dual clutch transmission is easier a task than performing a well timed, double clutch throttle blip from third into second just before a tight right at the end of a short straight. Really.
Only a single theory need be in mind when trying to figure out the practical sorcery of dual clutch transmissions. Please pay heed to this advice, as this is something that I’ve learned after having fiddled with twin clutches from Audi, BMW, Ford, Maserati, Mitsubishi, and Porsche. 
Do not try to understand it.
The moment you get that in your head and start to drive the dual clutch like it should (i.e. like a manual sans the pedal on the left), the easier it is to accept it as a fact of life. Learn how to use it, as it is here to stay and it's a game changing technology to boot.
Admittedly, 90% of dual clutch cars will be driven with the gear stuck in D. It's just easier that way, instead of trying to master something unfamiliar. It is but human to want to stick to your comfort zone. Some manufacturers aren’t blameless as well. Cars like the new Ford Fiesta, the obvious dual clutch volume leader, don’t give its drivers any choice in the matter. There is no way for you to select gears on the twin clutch Fiesta. You got it right; they spent absurd amounts of money to put a dual clutch in this tiny car, only to make it drive like a bland auto box. What is the effing point of the Fiesta and cars with dual clutches that will be driven like automatics anyway?
That can only be answered when you get to drive a dual clutch. Learn it and find the sweet spots on the gears. Yes, much like learning the yesteryear technology of the conventional manual transmission, knowing the right time when to change gears is essential to making the dual clutch work. And when it does work, it is something truly transformational.  
One need not go far from the annoying Fiesta to find a dual clutch that does as advertised. The current Turbo Diesel Focus has the same transmission technology, but it allows the driver to downshift and upshift practically at will. This adds a keen sheen to this outwardly dull car. 
So go out there. Drive those dual clutch cars. Don’t think too much. Just drive. Learn it. Drive more. At the end of that exercise, you may come to the same conclusion as me: The dual clutch transmission is not just a more expensive and more complicated automatic transmission for the elite. It is manual for the masses.