DSG: Stick Shift RIP

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
dsg stick shift rip

If you were going to invent a way to control an automobile, you wouldn't ask the average driver to develop the skill and coordination of a church organist. Note I said "average." As far as hardcore automotive enthusiasts and skilled pipe organ players are concerned, there's nothing more natural or satisfying than making beautiful music with a sublime dance of hands and feet. Yes, well, the average person would rather drive an automatic and download an iTune. Pistonheads and pipe worshippers may sneer, but if the majority of humans didn't take the path of least resistance our species would still be stuck in the trees. Meanwhile, just as digital sound has invaded God's house and rocked the organist's world, Audi's DSG transmission is here and tripedalists are toast.

The day F1 racing cars switched to paddle shift control, the clutch pedal was doomed. Only the paddle system's violence kept the left pedal from a date with old Sparky. Ferrari's ground-breaking attempts at a passenger paddler were representative rubbish; the clunky F1 system transformed the sublime F355 into a herky-jerky one-track pony. Other early systems were equally obtrusive, equally foul. At the same time, style conscious high-end manufacturers added wheel-mounted button shifts and gate activated "tip shifts." Although the technology simply handed customers slushbox control, computers eventually transformed the systems into a reasonably convincing halfway house between mindless ease and endless excitement.

Aston's Vanquish got closer to the real deal. If drivers tapped its over-sized plus paddle at the exact right rpm, the V12 GT rewarded them with a perfectly timed gear change. If not, not. Other systems followed: Ferrari, Maserati, BMW, Lamborghini, Aston Martin, even Toyota (MR2 Spyder). All of these paddle shifters downshift magnificently– even blipping the throttle on your behalf– but they either slur their upchanges like a drunk handing you a cigarette or smack you in the back of the head like a sadistic schoolteacher. And that's without considering the challenges of around town ambling or, God forbid, reverse (a non-issue for F1, obviously).

And then BorgWarner and Volkswagen AG developed DSG. The direct shift gearbox (DSG) features two wet plate clutches: one engages the odd-numbered gears, the second the even-numbered gears. When the first clutch is putting down the power, a computer readies the second clutch to engage the next gear (pre-selected according to engine revs and speed). When the driver bangs the paddle for another gear or the automatic calls for another cog, the first clutch is released and the second engages. Gear shifts are fast, smooth and accurate; both up and down the ratios. The DSG's computer– complete with 12 sensors– stands guard against "inappropriate" gear selection; an over-twitchy paddle shifter can't stall or blow up the engine.

OK rivet counters: Volksie didn't invent the double clutch. Citroen offered something similar over 70 years ago, and Porsche's formidable 962 racer also gave it a go. But VW and BorgWarner have just about perfected the DSG. (The only drawbacks are a certain sluggishness when gently tipping-in and a slight hesitation when lifting off and paddling down more than one gear, as the DSG shuffles through the intervening ratios.) Even with its quirks, the DSG rules– to the point where the clutch pedal and traditional manual gearbox is a mechanical redundancy, a dead device shifting. In fact, any car manufacturer who doesn't have a DSG or something similar installed in their performance-oriented products will soon be at a tremendous disadvantage.

And here's where the culture wars begin. Two years ago, Bob Elton's editorial "Death to the Stick Shift" suggested that cars equipped with an automatic gearbox were safer, more reliable and more pleasurable than their manual equivalents. Enthusiasts considered the proposition a personal affront. Two years of flame mail leads me to conclude that stickshifters– a self-selecting community of motorists who cherish the skill and pleasure that only a manual transmission can provide– consider autoboxers less competent, safe and passionate. Many of these tripedalists will not take kindly to the DSG; it's a bridge from the know-nothing rabble to the self-proclaimed automotive elite. The barbarians are at the shift gate; The Volkswagen Group has unlocked the door.

It will be some time before this issue plays out, but the stickshifters will lose. Once they get behind the wheel of a DSG-equipped machine like the new Audi A3 or the VW R32, even the hardiest of these manual transmission diehards will understand the system's clear superiority; in terms of speed, safety and, most importantly of all, enjoyment. Eventually, the tide will turn. Automakers will be forced to buy 'dual clutch transmission' technology from BorgWarner or their partner Getrag, or develop something at least as good. Of course, there will still be enthusiasts who stick with the stick, for personal pride and sensual satisfaction. In the meantime, a quick message from Paddle Shifters Anonymous to open-minded automotive enthusiasts: get ready for some serious fun.

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