See title. That's really it. I think I'm starting to grow out of my manual transmission car. And the reason is very simple: DCTs are better. I'll go a step farther: Shiftable automatic transmissions are as good as an average manual now, and DCTs are better.
BACK IN MY DAY, all we had was Tiptronic. And Sportronic. And Sentronic. And Mechatronic. And Touchtronic. And Comfortonic, Geartronic, 2tronic, Steptronic, Switchtronic, Q-Tronic, S-tronic, and Sportmatic, Hydromatic, Activematic, Multimatic, and a dozen-dozen other liars, pretenders, fakers, and also-rans. And these were the names of the many-headed enemy who's true identity we can only speak in a hushed whisper, even today: The Manumatic. All of them sucked. They fucking sucked ass. They sucked so badly that the shiftable automatic in any form is just now starting to be taken seriously, and the original vacuum-actuated, clutched Manumatic was invented almost 90 years ago.
By simple definition, any automatic transmission that can be shifted independently by the operator is some form of Manumatic. All of them were designed to emulate or return some helpful or desirable facet of the manual transmission. Whether that's pure speed, or sporty driving feel, or fuel efficiency, or helping with towing, all of these brand name Manumatics were designed to overcome the undeniable fact that automatic transmissions are bad or worse at anything that isn't the most basic kind of going forwards and very rarely going backwards.
Now, I'm not going to give a blow-for-blow accounting of transmission history, and what exactly lead to the automatic dominating automotive culture especially in America, but I will share some of my personal perspective. As I see it, the automatic took over in America because of: 1) Laziness, 2) America's addiction to and obsession with the war machine, 3) Manual transmissions sucking. Obviously, automatic transmissions are easier to drive than manuals. It takes less mental and physical effort, and people like that. As much as it may seem like hyperbole to blame the automatic transmission on war, Oldsmobile leaned heavily on war marketing to sell their Hydra-matic transmission (as seen in TANKS) when it was released in 1940. Five years later, all of GM was marketing those same automatic transmissions as "battle-hardened", and culturally, it was a fait accompli. Then there's that last prong. Yes. If we fast forward through the 60s and 70s, decades where the automatic continued to trend upwards in popularity, the 80s will land us in an automotive world where the automatic transmissions were pretty bad, but the manual transmissions were even worse. Ask about the Lamborghini Countach. Ask about the Delorean. The Dodge Omni. The Ford Mustang. In a situation where the options are a bad automatic or a worse manual, even I'm going with the automatic every time, because at least you don't have to touch the damn thing.
By the 1980s, even the world-renowned transmission elites at Porsche were struggling. Porsche wanted to make a shiftable automatic that wasn't horrific, but they hadn't yet made it click with customers. In 1980, Porsche pulled the plug on their Sportomatic "automatic", which had been made since 1968. With this transmission, the driver would move the stick, but there was no clutch pedal. Was it a manual, was it an automatic, the answer is probably "Yes, and". But what Porsche did next would not only contextualize the Sportomatic, it would also set the world on fire.
In 1989, Porsche introduced the 964-era 911 with a brand new transmission. This transmission, made in concert with a provincial company called Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen, was trade-named the Tiptronic. And all it did was start a nuclear arms race of transmission technology. The Tiptronic was a computer-controlled automatic gearbox that had one earth-shaking feature: A manual sequential Sport Mode. By the time Porsche got around to revising Tiptronic in 1995, almost every kind of car was being offered with transmissions that went beyond PRND, and soon after, the world was in the throws of Manumatic madness. From Acura to Volvo, car brands have sold 58 different kinds of Manumatic since the introduction of the Tiptronic, and that doesn't count the VW-group duplicates, all of whom have used Tiptronic itself in addition to any other shiftable automatics they may have offered. That's a staggering proliferation in a very short amount of time, especially when considering that most of those technologies, save for Tiptronic and Subaru's Sportshift transmissions, were primarily built in-house by these manufacturers. Or at least built for them by expert transmission shops. This means that the majority of these transmissions weren't just badge-engineered, they were unique enough to be considered bespoke.
All of these transmissions were meant to sell the idea of performance: An automatic transmission that was fun to drive. But...none of them were. Maybe Porsche's was fun, I don't know I've never driven it. But I can tell you that pretty much all the rest are desperately bad. None of them were sporty, none of them felt good. On most of them, the Sport mode was lip service at best, and it was a primary selling feature! How does that happen?! These transmissions, even in their sportiest mode, would indeed shift when the driver told them to...on their own time. I remember trying this in so many different cars over the years: Seeing the freeway gap, shifting into the manual mode which took the car out of its overdrive gear, pressing the lever down to drop another gear, and...
nothing would happen. THEN something would happen, and the gap was gone, and your foot was already down on the gas, and there was a car right behind you and they couldn't stop and then you and everyone else would die in a fiery explosion of disgust and disappointment and hate. Happened to everyone back then. By the early 2000s, these Manumatics were a failure on their own terms. They were never accepted by even the most casual sporty driver. Yes, they had become mainstream, but they had come out the other side exactly as diminished as the slushiest of automatic slushboxes.
But that was before The ZF. Remember that company I mentioned before? Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen? They just go by ZF now. And they make a shiftable automatic that's so good, it's known only as The ZF. This little 8-speed automatic is the industry standard, and it can be found in everything from the Chrysler 300 to the Lamborghini Urus, and from the Ram 1500 to the Rolls Royce Phantom, and the Range Rover, and the brand-new Toyota Supra. Numbers are a tricky thing when it comes to shift times, and companies define a shift differently in order to put forth numbers that "lead the class", but the important thing to know about the ZF is that - as a standard automatic - it not only shifts as fast as the LFA, and faster than the Ferrari F430, but it can also shift non-sequentially, a brand new trick for standard automatic transmissions. The ZF is so good and so reasonably priced that it has flooded the market, and most companies who don't use CVT in their mid-tier and up passenger cars use the ZF. AND it works with all drive setups. AND it works with true 4WD. AND it's hybrid compatible. AND it's notably efficient. It's just fantastic engineering, and it feels good to drive as well, even in spirited moments. And that was my first realization, inspired by the ZF: If what's most satisfying about a manual is the shift, and if the shift in a really good shiftable automatic is - after all these years - finally as good, then why not just go with the automatic?
NEXT TIME: Double Clutches enter the fray.