It’s true that automatic gearboxes have technical advantages over manuals. Increases in efficiency and performance are now de rigueur for the technology. The one thing they lack is physical driver engagement – an argument we don’t need to recount, but we do perhaps need to add something about gears themselves.
Where an engine is as overwhelming as a Lamborghini V12, for example, flappy paddles are a good thing. You want both hands on the wheel unless you fancy a visit to the hospital. In ordinary cars, or grand tourers like Lewis Kingston’s automatic Supra, we simply appreciate the speed of shifts, the ease of use and the relaxation that any given modern automatic offers.
If you had to choose either automatic or manual gearboxes for the rest of your life, you’d almost certainly have to choose auto because it’s more convenient, more effective more of the time and it could help keep you behind the wheel longer in old age. Choosing manual when you have kids, and all you ever do is sit in traffic taking them to football practice after commuting home in the same jam, is a choice we can relate to… but it’s still bloody-minded.
As such we can love the smoothness and crispness of a good auto. Sit back and everyday traffic becomes much less of a bother. Admittedly the modern era of dual-clutch automatic transmissions still presents problems with clutch wear – they’re effectively cleverly automated manuals, after all – but damn, they’re good at their jobs.
They make a car feel relaxed, easy-going and tractable. They make it feel fast, even eager in some cars. They can be frustrating, too, especially when they’re tuned to shift up at the first point physically possible and you end up doing 1200rpm in sixth at 38mph, thus forcing two or three down-shifts when you try to accelerate at all, but overall we can see why people – us included – like and choose them.
So why, then, when smoothness and simplicity are key reasons why we engage with automatics, do we hate single-speed transmissions? They’re even smoother, even simpler, even less fuss and have way less to go wrong, so these are surely the golden geese of gearboxes. But no: they’re horrible things, as cold and scientific as a test tube and as likeable as a mouthful of live ants.
Found on electric cars, they’re fundamentally boring. It’s a problem only partially remedied by the high torque outputs EVs can muster. Forcing the electric motor to spin faster than it’s fully comfortable with creates a high-pitched and often deeply annoying whine. A higher gear would drop that down to a more sensible pitch.
A single gear also reminds you of the limitations of the car you’re driving. By the time you’re up to 60mph most EVs feel and sound like they’re stretched. They don’t fill you with that sense that there’s much more excitement to come. The thing is, a single-speed transmission robs a car of the phases of speed and dynamic behaviour that a manual or geared automatic offers. Gearing itself constitutes a large part of a car’s character for good or ill.
You must have read criticism of the old Porsche Cayman’s weirdly tall second gear, or the first turbo-era Renault Clio 200’s gaping chasm between a short, diesel-esque second cog and a comparatively tall third. On the other hand the ND Mazda MX-5’s ratios are perfect for making it feel light, nimble and quick enough.
Raw acceleration can only entertain for so long. That addictive and instant hit of torque from electric motors only goes so far towards making you like a car, and the missing ingredient is the humble multi-speed transmission. Efficiency and simplicity be damned: if manufacturers want us to desire their electric cars, a proper gearbox would pay dividends.