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When a Manual Becomes Automatic

I learned how to drive with a manual transmission. My instructor, a former racing driver turned attorney, explained how important it was to have control over the gears and to not assume anything – or to leave chance to an automatic transmission. I loved shifting when I started driving, and yes, it did make me feel as if I had more control over the vehicle. Once, during a rainstorm, my “total control” did put me (aged 16) and my BMW 1602 askew in somebody’s front yard. With that exception, I have always enjoyed driving a car with a manual transmission. I must be lucky, as my wife feels the same way.

A Typical 6-Speed Stick

Yet, manual transmission cars have been on the decline for many years, notably here in America. Drivers here seem to prefer the lack of exercise required when sitting on the highway or freeway with 200,000 of your closest neighbors sharing the same lane and destination. And recently, when searching for a new car, I’ve come across more and more situations where a manual transmission just wasn’t available.

So, what happens when someone who likes to shift, can’t? Porsche and several other manufacturers created automatic transmissions that “permitted” shifting on the fly via a nudge of the gear selector or even a paddle on the steering wheel. Still, these transmissions all have torque converters – designed to manage the shifting process. The results always made me feel like I was “asking” for a gear selection, rather than making one. Sluggish shifts, auto shifts when I didn’t want one, and so on made “tiptronic” less than desirable, at least for me. I even tried it in the hot Audi S4 and went away disappointed.

The Audi Tiptronic Transmission

In 2002, when it came time for me to “trade” my 1998 BMW M3 6-speed for a new model (E46), I decided to try something new and exciting: A Sequential Manual Gearbox. In German, it is called Sequentiellen M Getriebe, but it translates in English to Sequential Manual Gearbox. The SMG unit from BMW sounded very exciting – “…shift the way a Formula One or LeMans driver does! Let a computer do the shifting, but rest assured, it will happen faster than Ralf Schumacher could do it in his Williams/BMW F1.” So, I ordered such a car.

The SMG Gearbox from BMW

The first thing I noticed was the degree of “control” and the number of options available. I could select from five basic settings – and if I knew what I was doing, could initiate a sixth, super-performance setting. Euro cars have 11 settings. BMW calls this Drivelogic. The more performance, the faster the shift, all the way down to 80- milliseconds. It was odd not having a clutch to depress and release, but the idea of using paddles made me think of being on a track again.

My wife and our E46 M3 BMW

As I drove around my neighborhood, scaring the bunnies and people walking their dogs, I felt the smile widen on my face with each new selection. And, when I “clicked” down from fourth to second gear and the transmission computer “blipped” the throttle for me, I broke out in an audible giggle. How cool was that? A perfect downshift! I loved this SMG thing. I absolutely loved it.

BMW Paddle for SMG

My passengers did not share in my enthusiasm. Two primary reasons for this: fast shifts require a heavy foot. And, a heavy foot and fast shifts mean a bit of a jolt for the passenger. In the BMW in particular, shifting with the SMG is a very powerful thing, but isn’t much fun for a passenger, especially when they’re attempting to put on makeup or take a nap.

The SMG also provides an “auto” mode, wherein the computer shifts for you, a’ la automatic. With the first generation BMW system, the auto mode provides even more jerky behavior than in the manual mode. If you change the shift program to the slowest setting, the jerky reaction goes away, but the shift process is painfully slow and doesn’t function well with the powerful motor in the M3. Note that the SMG option was also provided in the Z4, but was widely disliked as being a diluted version of the M3 SMG. Ferrari and several other exotics have sequential gearbox solutions as well, but they are both more sophisticated and more expensive. And nobody does their makeup while being driven around in a Ferrari. It just isn’t done.

So, why would someone want an SMG solution? Beyond the concept of not having missed shifts, SMG offers a number of enhancements over a traditional 6- or 7-speed gearbox, including:

  • You can select from two shift modes, the sequential (“S”) mode or the automated (“A”) mode.
  • Drivelogic” (from BMW) allows you to individually match SMG shift characteristics to your personal driving habits, with up to 11 different driving programs.
  • When downshifting, the engine will automatically double-declutch and blip the throttle.
  • There is no need for a clutch pedal or torque converter.
  • It is simple to select the ideal shift point with the “shift lights”, LEDs in the cockpit indicating the perfect shift point on the tachometer.
  • The life of the clutch, gearbox and drive line components are extended due to the carefully calculated and precise control of clutch and gear actuation.
  • SMG uses less horsepower, provides improved fuel economy, is lighter, far less complex and cheaper to manufacture.

Still, even with several evolutions of the SMG technology, in real-world driving, SMG isn’t for everyone. It requires a precise driver to work well – smooth, good with car control, and nice, small movements of the wheel and use of the brakes and throttle. And speaking of throttle, in my experience at least, in order to use (and enjoy) SMG, you cannot drive slowly. In a powerful car, you’re fighting the speed limit from every stoplight. In my M3, I realized after a few months that I had to be alone to really enjoy my driving, or perhaps it was that nobody would drive with me any longer. Either way, SMG played a part in that.

Enter the Direct Shift Gearbox – or DSG. The DSG is a six-speed manual transmission that can offer both manual and automatic gear selection. It uses all the same ingredients as a manual transmission but with an extra clutch. Both clutches are electrohydraulically controlled, allowing two gears to be selected at the same time to minimize interruption in power delivery during shifts. As one clutch opens, the other closes.

The Direct Shift Gearbox

It’s a fantastic concept and one that bears some additional explanation. When driving a DSG-equipped car, shifting is controlled via either a paddle behind the wheel or via the stick, but as with a sequential transmission, a simple nudge forward is all that is required to up-shift. To go down a gear, pull the stick towards you. Snick.

When you’re driving, one gear is engaged. When the next gearshift point is approached, the appropriate gear is preselected, but its clutch remains disengaged. As you pull on the up-shift paddle, the gearshift process opens the clutch of the activated gear and closes the other clutch at the same time with a specific level of overlap. The gear change takes place under load, with the result that a permanent flow of power is maintained – and the shift is executed.

The DSG also has an “auto” mode – and it is very much like a traditional auto-gearbox. If the driver so chooses, there is an optional S mode (on the selector where you’d ordinarily find the L or low setting). When the S program is selected, upshifts are significantly retarded, downshifts advanced and the shifting process accelerated. A remote one-touch function accessed via the shift paddles on the steering wheel temporarily switches to the manual mode, even when the driver has selected automatic modes D and S.

An example of a DSG Paddle

After three years of experience with an M3 SMG transmission, I decided to try the DSG system. While the horsepower in the car I drove was quite a bit less than in the M3, the experience was, nevertheless, eye-opening. While driving with a steady throttle, selecting a new gear, up or down, is merely a click of the appropriate paddle and the shift is done. Over.

With more spirited driving, a bit of lead suddenly added to my right foot and the same thing – sudden, in fact nearly instant gear selection. No fuss, no muss. No jolt. The same thing again when downshifting – computer controlled RPM blip – and bam, into the selected lower gear. The shifting happens so quickly, I had to go through the process a few times just to convince myself it was really happening. The transmission is far more forgiving – if you’re not so good with shifting, it makes you look like a hero. If you’re a candidate for the Red Bull F1 team, it does better than you ever will with another gearbox. Hey, you got the job!

Almost as an afterthought, I put the shifter in the auto mode and just drove about for awhile. The gears moved up and down – just like an automatic. I could not tell the difference. My manual had become an automatic.

But, perhaps the most impressive thing about the DSG is how it’s being applied. I tested it in a 2006 Volkswagen GTI MKV. A car that fully loaded costs less than $28,000, DSG included. Go a bit up-market and you can have on in an Audi A3, TT, and soon other Audi/VW products. Putting this transmission in a sub-thirty grand car is really saying something. As for the GTI, that’s a story for another day, but I can say this: the DSG makes the GTI a much more potent and attractive vehicle.


BMW just introduced the new M5. It’s over 90 grand properly equipped and it includes the latest generation SMG. It’s far more adjustable, powerful, and capable. There is still a jolt, but it’s more of a snick, snick, snick – as you shift gears. Fun. The SMG is also available in the M6.

The Latest SMG in the M5

Next year, BMW will introduce a new M3, powered with a V8 for the first time – and available with either a manual or SMG. But, the word on the street is the SMG will only be around for about one model year… It seems that the DSG concept is so alluring, car companies other than Audi/VW are eager to adapt it. I never thought I’d ever want to drive a car that was considered an automatic. Now that I’ve tasted the fruit, I can’t get the taste out of my mouth. True, give me a Dino or an early GTO and the feel of the gears being controlled by my feet and hands is part of the experience – sensual, potent, and invigorating. But, in today’s world, with todays’ technology… DSG is here and I hope to stay. There’s no substitute.

1 Comment

  • Mike Braz| February 24, 2006 at 5:28 pm

    Sign me up! I want one today! (the VW -GTI)

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