Jaco Van Der Merwe
Whether you are a first-time car buyer or seasoned motorist, the choice of transmission is an important decision to make when purchasing a car.
Manual gearboxes might have been the mainstay of the local automotive scene throughout its history, but the landscape has slowly but surely shifted in favour of automatic transmissions. And as the supply and demand for two-pedal options continues to grow, three-pedal new offerings will get less and less.
Take the new Toyota Corolla Sedan for example, of which only one of its three-model range is fitted with manual transmission. Where self-shifting technology wasn’t associated with South Africa’s favourite car for most if it’s 40 plus years in local existence, now only a third of its range is offered with manual transmission. Manual transmission in other local favourites like Mercedes-Benz’s C-Class, BMW’s 3 Series and an Audi A4 have already been confined to the history books.
While manual transmissions need no explanation, it is important to note that not all self-shifting transmissions are created equal. Over and above cars featuring a fully automatic gearbox, more and more manufacturers are offering continuously variable transmission (CVT) options, while cars featuring automatic manual transmission (AMT) are also on the rise. Without getting too technical, there are huge differences between the three two-pedal options.
Operating two pedals instead of three makes self-shifting cars a lot easier to operate.
An example of a fully automatic gearbox is Volkswagen’s DSG, or direct-shift gearbox. It features six or seven gears and shifting is fully automatic and done through a typical double-clutch, it does offer the option of overriding the system with manual shifting. This can be done either with the gear lever or shift paddles at the back of the steering wheel.
Gear ratios determine when shifts are made and these can be varied in cars featuring various drive modes like Sport and Eco, which will mean shifts are made at higher or lower engine revolutions. Almost all the premium brands use automatic transmission across their models ranges, while most other brands offering automatic options on its higher specification models as this type of transmission is more expensive than manual derivatives.
CVTs do not use actual gears, but shift through a continuous range of effective gear ratios called steps. Not everyone’s cup of tea, CVTs tend to get confused easily and go gear hunting on inclines and during overtaking which can result in high levels of engine noise. Huge progress has nonetheless been made and newer CVT designs like the Shiftmatic technology in the new Corolla which ensures seamless operation.
Some CVTs also offer manual shifting. Manufacturers have added more CVT options to their modes over recent years as they are more affordable than traditional automatics. Especially in South Africa, where import taxes and the exchange rate are huge factors, the preference for offering a non-manual option like a CVT goes hand in hand with trying to keep prices competitive.
Some self-shifting cars are equipped with gear paddles behind the steering wheel to enable the driver to easily switch to manual shifting.
AMTs are the poor cousins of the self-shifting offerings. It is a conventional manual transmission system which has been automated by a hydraulically operated kit, which is in turn controlled by something called a transmission control unit. The bottom line is that an AMT doesn’t feature a clutch peddle and manual gear lever, so the driver doesn’t have to manually change gears. But unlike a CVT, an AMT is not operated continuously at a speed offering the best efficiency and therefore shifts are not as smooth as in other two-pedal offerings. As AMTs are the most cost-effective of the two-pedal options, they are the preferred choice for budget cars like the Renault Kwid and Suzuki S-Presso.
The three self-shifting options might differ technology-wise, but they all do the one thing manual transmission doesn’t. They enable the driver to operate the vehicle without having to shift gears by virtue of pressing down a clutch pedal with the left foot while simultaneously moving a gear lever with the left hand. This added comfort comes at a price, as two-pedal options in any guise are more expensive than manuals.
The most affordable two-peddle offering available locally is the S-Presso 1.0 GL+ AMT which costs R152 900, R13 000 more than the manual version. That works out to around R300 difference on a standard monthly finance instalment. A Honda Jazz 1.2 Comfort equipped with CVT costs R301 100 compared to the R279 600 of its manual derivative, which means the monthly instalment on typical vehicle finance will be more than R400 extra.
If you look at a Renault Duster 1.5dCi TechRoad, the manual retails for R306 900 and the EDC dual-clutch version for R340 900, will mean you’ll have to cough up around R700 extra per month for the added comfort.
The Suzuki S-Presso 1.0 GL+ AMT at R152 900 is the most affordable self-shifting new car on the local market.
While even a few hundred rand could make a big difference on many a monthly budget, it might be a small price to pay for the amount of effort you will save yourself for not having to operate a clutch during daily rush hours and bumper to bumper traffic.
With loadshedding potentially adding an additional hour or two to your daily city commuting, the strain of constantly working a clutch pedal can place huge strain on your body, nevermind your car’s components. And as technology has improved over the years, many of manual transmission’s perceived advantages over self-shifting disappeared. One is that manual transmission is more economical on fuel and another is that a human can shift faster than a machine.
In Road Test Editor Mark Jones’ ongoing throwback series looking back at the fastest cars he has tested every year since 2004, we reported that in 2010 only one manual – an Audi TT RS Coupe – could break into the top 10. A year later, all 10 fastest cars from 0 to 100 km/h were automatic, a clear indication that even the most puristic of performance junkies would have to accept that a machine can shift faster than a human. Don’t be fooled by the fact that manual transmission is still the preferred option in motorsport, as automatic transmission systems are a whole lot heavier than manual and on the track every kilogram counts.
As far as fuel consumption goes, Toyota claims the new Corolla Sedan’s 2.0-litre derivative will achieve a number of 6.5L/100 km, while the CVT will average 6.0 litres for every 100 km. The reason being again that a machine can be more efficient than a human when regulating engine revolutions during shifts. But even with self-shifting offerings becoming very irresistible, it’s not to say that there isn’t a place for manual transmission anymore.
Manual transmission is still a viable option if you are fortunate enough to avoid constant bumper to bumper traffic.
If you’re fortunate enough to be spared of hectic traffic, mostly make open road journeys or does a lot of constant slower speeds in lower gears like you would on farms roads or during recreational off-roading, a manual gearbox might suit your needs better while also being more affordable at purchase.
Another thing to consider when deciding between manual and automatic transmission is whether or not you intend to teach someone to drive in the car you buy. While not having to shift gears yourself makes learning to drive a whole lot easier, someone who learns to drive an automatic only and eventually obtains a licence restricting him or her to only drive self-shifting vehicles will have to obtain a new licence in order to legally drive a manual car down the line. On the other hand, when someone learns to drive a manual vehicle and obtains the relevant licence will never be restricted to a manual and can legally drive automatic cars as long as they keep their licences.
At the end of the day, being honest with yourself as to what you need and what you’re able to afford will determine which transmission is right for you. With research indicating that a large percentage of South Africans hold onto their cars for longer than a decade nowadays, choosing wisely which is the most beneficial transmission for you will go a long way towards happy motoring.
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