Automatic manuals – better than automatics AND manuals?
Do you love manual gearboxes but find them tedious around town? Well, maybe an automatic manual, or Dualogic gearbox might be more your cup of tea…
MANY DRIVERS ENJOY the direct control and driveability of a manual, but appreciate the convenience and ease of an automatic. We drove Fiat’s 500 Pop which has an electrohydraulic manual transmission, otherwise known as an electronically controlled manual gearbox or even an automated manual transmission – but Fiat call it simply Dualogic.
Whoa, stay with me, this is important, because such transmissions could well offer you best-of-both-worlds compromise between a normal automatic and a normal manual transmission.
Your normal automatic gearbox is mechanically quite different from a manual transmission, and that translates into different for the driver. Autos have something called a torque convertor, colloquially known as a slushbox. Imagine the engine drives a shaft which has a fan on the end. This fan is enclosed in a gooey oil. The engine spins the fan, and the oil spins too, kind of like a cake mix. Then there’s another shaft with a fan on the end which is also enclosed in the same gooey oil. Because the oil is now spinning around it will turn this other shaft, which is connected to the driving wheels. The two shafts aren’t directly connected, only in the same oil.
That is a simple explanation of an automatic transmission, and yes I know the correct terms weren’t used, and if you know enough to pick that up you didn’t need the explanation. Anyway, onwards.
The reason you need to know this stuff is because you can now understand why an automatic transmission behaves the way it does. You know when you accelerate, the revs go up quicker than the car accelerates, in a way that doesn’t happen with manuals? That’s because the engine driven fan is rotating the oil faster than the shaft connected to the wheels can handle, so it takes a while to equalise. And you know that if you have an auto at idle in Drive, if you take your foot off the brake it’ll creep forwards? Same deal, the oil is being turned, slowly.
So that’s a normal automatic. Now to the electrohydraulic manual transmission, which is automatic, but different.
This system is the same as a manual gearbox – it has no torque convertor, but a conventional clutch. The only difference is that your left arm/foot work is done for you. Imagine a little person inside the car pressing the clutch and shifting gears on demand using a manual system, and you got it. This is as distinct from a normal auto which is mechanically very different to a manual, mainly because of the torque convertor.
So with the differences described, let’s move on to the important part which is how it feels for the driver. This can be summarised quite simply:
Better and worse.
If you enjoy driving, it’ll be better. The reason is that there’s much more of a direct relationship from engine to speed because there’s no torque converter, and so the driver feels more connected and in control. The gearbox will also more readily respond to accelerator inputs, and allow a greater range of speeds for a given gear. The Fiat 500 for example allows you to cruise along at only 1000rpm in 5th gear, almost labouring the engine, and if you put your foot to the floor it won’t automatically change down a gear or two, unlike normal automatics. You can also skip-shift, for example double-tapping the gear selector to go from 3rd to 5th gear, or from 4th to second. The gearbox also changes down rather revvily as you brake, something driving enthusiasts will appreciate. Happily, the gearbox will stay in the gear you tell it to for as long as it possibly can. If you leave the gearbox in first gear then there will be no creep forwards at idle, because the clutch is fully down. Only when you press the accelerator will the car move, as the clutch is moved to biting point.
In short, this style of gearbox affords far more connected control than a normal auto. But it still can’t match the involvement of a true manual gearbox because there’s less skill involved.
On the other hand if you want an ultra smooth, minimal effort drive then these gearboxes are not for you, and indeed these systems are found now only on lower-priced cars because newer transmissions have taken over the pricier vehicles. The auto-manuals ‘boxes aren’t the smoothest of shifters in the lower gears under medium to quick acceleration, so the driver needs to compensate by remembering to slightly lift their foot off the accelerator, then ease it back on.
As usual, the basic automatic-manual design is branded in a number of ways by different manufacturers – names include Speedgear, Dualogic, Duo Select, Pleasure Shift, Sportshift, EZ Drive and Easytronic and Mechatronic, or whatever else the marketing people spew up over a long lunch. How can you tell? In the marketing bumph there’ll be some reference to automated manual, there won’t be a P function on the gearbox, and at idle in gear the car won’t move.
So the bottom line – if you want a car that affords you manual-gearbox control and enjoyment, but you’re tired of using your left foot in traffic all the time then seriously consider an automatic manual. If for you a car is mere a-to-b transport, avoid automatic manuals and stick the normal automatics.