DCT Won't Kill Manuals, But Will Trump the Sequential

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Driving purists fear that dual-clutch transmissions will spell the end of the manual gearbox. But it's really the sequential transmission that should be watching its back.

You can't stem the tide of progress. Henry Ford and Gottlieb Daimler would hardly recognize what their inventions have become, so far has the automobile progressed. It sure would be interesting to talk to them about transmissions, though. For decades the transmission existed in manual form. That term, of course, is only relative to other forms of shifting. GM pioneered the automatic transmission in the 1930s, but what was once a simple choice has since grown into a staggering array of shifting options.

Cars today are equipped with manuals, automatics, automated manuals, manually-controlled automatics, continuously variable transmissions (used mostly on hybrids) and of course, the latest trend in gearshift technologies, the dual-clutch transmission. Pioneered by Volkswagen, the DCT employs two clutches: one is engaged while the other pre-loads the next gear to deliver smoother shifts. Although the resulting gearbox is heavier, it benefits both performance and fuel consumption to encompass the best of both worlds. Despite the performance edge, however, some driving purists protest the growing popularity of the DCT.

Their concern is that it will replace the three-pedal manual, something that purists still embrace for the direct connection it provides between driver and machine. Like any other business, however, the automotive industry is driven by demand. As long as there are enough buyers still asking for manuals, automakers will continue to provide them. Case in point Porsche. After introducing its PDK dual-clutch gearbox, rumor had it that Porsche would cease offering manual transmissions altogether. But in the end, enough drivers voiced their preference for stick-shifts that Porsche pioneered an all-new seven-speed manual to replace its older six-speed.

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Meanwhile companies like Ferrari and Lamborghini report that so few of its customers have been specifying manual transmissions that both are discontinuing their production entirely. Just the same, this editor wouldn't count the manual gearbox down for the count just yet, even if the technology is inferior. What the DCT may very well spell the end of, however, is the sequential transmission. These hydraulic single-clutch gearboxes automate only the actuation of the clutch. Gears are still selected manually through paddles behind the steering wheel, but the engaging and disengaging of the clutch is handled automatically.

It's the technology used in Formula One, although if regulations didn't prohibit it, the DCT would likely have taken its place, just as sequentials had replaced manuals. The trouble with sequential transmissions is that they're jerky, burn through clutches and generally don't work as well as the newer DCTs (though they are lighter). That weight concern is what kept Jaguar from using a DCT on its upcoming C-X75 supercar, but nearly all of its rivals are switching to two clutches. Ferrari has embraced DCTs (despite earlier reservations). Arch-rival McLaren went even further with its pre-cog system. Bugatti uses a DCT, and now Audi has put a DCT in its R8 supercar.

While Lamborghini's new ISR gearbox is different, it's closer to a DCT than it is to a manual or its existing E-Gear sequential. Pagani and Aston Martin stand as notable exceptions. Pagani cited weight as the reason it went with a sequential for the Huayra, while Aston Martin put a sequential transmission in its million-dollar One-77 principally because it didn't have access to a DCT, costly as they are to develop. Aston didn't let journalists drive the One-77, but when Top Gear magazine managed to sample a privately-owned example, it found the transmission woefully inadequate and opined that this could have been the reason for the press blackout, fearing negative reviews.

In the end, Aston Martin - like most other automakers - may be forced to find the cash to develop its own DCT or else find a partner company to supply them. Because as it stands, sequential gearboxes are quickly being consigned to the dustbin of history. The manual transmission, (quite literally) on the other hand, will soldier on as long as drivers continue to demand it. (Look for a new editorial piece from CarBuzz Editor-in-Chief Noah Joseph on the first Wednesday of every month.)

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