Save the Manuals?

I found myself thrown into the new car market a couple of weeks ago. A case of unintended acceleration resulted in the rear ending of my beloved 2001 Audi A4 Avant at a light in Virginia Beach. I was the rear-ended. The rear ender had pulled up to let a vehicle slip in behind while we were waiting for the light. To stop, instead of the brake, the driver stepped on the the throttle. When the car didn’t slow, push harder. Bang. The sad bit was that I was going to a club meeting that didn’t exist.

State Farm took one look at the car and called it a total loss. The hatch frame was badly warped and the way back floor was badly buckled. Beyond economic repair. Other than some brake light alarms, it drove home normally much to my amazement. At this point it was time to go car shopping, something I was hoping to put off while VW and Audi product plans had settled some more. Fortunately, they had settled enough that there were choices.

The Contenders

After several years of watching Top Gear, a year of the magazine, and regular reading of Automobile Magazine and Car and Driver, my short list of dog friendly cars was

  • Mini 4 door
  • Focus ST hatch back
  • Fiesta ST hatch back
  • Golf GTI

State Farm let me have a Fiesta SE as a temporary replacement vehicle. It took 10 minutes to figure out how to tune the radio. That pretty much took Fords off the list. Sync lived up to its reputation. I didn’t try to pair the phone or use the other features.

Meanwhile, the Golf is car of the year, the world over. All trim levels, all drive trains. Let’s start there. I ended there. My first choice was a white four door Golf GTI stick. There were none to be had but one of the first things I did was stick or auto. The stick was the nicest I’d driven with crisp gates, a robust feel, and nice clutch take up. I’d forgotten what a new clutch felt like! The automatic was inoffensive but I really had my heart on a stick. Save the Manuals and all that. I’d driven stick for 40 years and this may be their last hurrah.

Not your father’s slushbox

But there were none to be had unless I wanted the red two door on the lot. Red, done that. Two doors, done that. Time for change. I’d picked white and 4 doors (done 4). But in my old age, I need to open the door wide to get in and out. The shorter doors of the 4 door make that easier in a narrow carport (got one) or parking spot. So if I wanted white with 4 doors and a stick, it had to come from out of area. Well, who would have thunk white 4 door sticks were in demand. They were. The dealer would find one and the dealer holding it would have a local offer the next day. Two found, two sold at home.

What’s a slush box?

So I bought the DSG automatic from stock. This transmission is not your father’s slush box. That’s ’60’s slang for an automatic of the day. These beasts were 2 or 3 speeds, crude, and coupled to the engine by a torque converter. This is a fluid coupling that allows the engine to turn while the car is stopped with a gear engaged. It also allows the gears to switch by letting the transmission’s input shaft change speed relative to the engine speed when the switch occurs.

The torque converter works by requiring the engine to turn faster than the transmission input shaft to transfer torque from the engine shaft to the transmission shaft. This is called slip. It also makes the car hard to drive by sound and for the car’s motion to be somewhat sluggish relative to the direct connection of engine and transmission by a clutch. I never really liked driving an automatic. A ’56 Pontiac Turbo Hydromatic (3 speeds) may have had something to do with that.

What’s this dual clutch thing?

The VW GTI automatic transmission is a dual clutch sequential gearbox (DSG). This design is an evolution of Formula 1 and Rally technology tamed for city driving. The transmission input shaft drives two gear trains directly connected to the output shaft. The input shaft splits to drive two wet plate clutches, one for each path through the transmission. At any point in time, both clutches are disengaged when the vehicle is at rest, or one of the two is engaged to drive the vehicle.

The sequential bit comes in because the gears are engaged in order. The transmission can switch up or down by exactly 1 cog. It does this in a clever way. The idle shaft is preselected to the next gear to be used, one gear up or down from the current gear. Come time to switch, a little robot simultaneously disengages the driven clutch and engages the idle clutch. This process takes 10 milliseconds! And it is seamless. No slip. The engine note changes down and deepens, and the car pulls smoothly.

With the normal maps selected in the GTI (engine throttle map and transmission shift map), shifts are smooth and free of jerks. I knew it was smooth but didn’t realize just how smooth until I put the dogs in the way back to do an errand. I’m not the Stig so my shifting is 500 milliseconds or so and would rock the dogs around pretty good. I could occasionally put one on his or her rump with my heavy footed technique. They stand through DSG switches without noticing them!

The everyday maps are smooth. They get around town right. They get highway entrance right. The car just pulls smoothly switch, switch, switch. The engine torque curve is manage and flat over the power band. Cars with peaky torque curves feel fast. Cars with smooth broad torque curves are fast but don’t feel it. Driving to church, the car pulled up to highway speed without fuss and much quicker than I thought it had.

With a DSG gear box, the car is faster than with a manual box, even with the Stig stirring the manual. He just can’t beat that simple minded robot (or its adaptive control algorithms). And without torque converter slip, it is as efficient as a manual. With the every day shift maps in use, it delivers 28.5 mpg doing the errands across Norfolk and the Beach. The Audi (admittedly heavier) was good for 23.5 over the same weekly orbit.

That’s neat, but can it do the hard stuff?

Early DSG boxes were harsh around town. They were notorious for chatter. They didn’t like parking, neither head in nor parallel parking. VW has tamed the low speed chatter. The little robot running the engine and transmission will disengage and re-engage as needed for smooth motion in slow traffic. As you slow for a light, you hear the transmission shift down as the car slows.

Backing out of the carport, the roll off is a bit eager but easily managed with the brake. Once the car has figured out that you intend to creap, it does that well with a light foot on the brake. If it hangs up on the misaligned bit of drive, light pressure on the throttle takes it up onto the higher slab.

I can’t comment on parallel parking but the car is easily managed entering and leaving head in places. This is no harder than with a torque converter automatic. If fact it seems easier. With a manual, you normally touch the clutch to get rolling, disengage, and manage speed with the brake. The DSG feels like it is doing much the same behind the scene. Engaging to roll off but using the car momentum to complete the low speed move.