“I am a computer. Bleep! Bloop!” says the automatic transmission’s computer brain, as your right arm and left leg go unused at the wheel.
For many driving enthusiasts, an automatic transmission amounts to a sort of death sentence for any fun and excitement at the wheel. For years, opting for a sports or performance car with a pleasure-sucking automatic typically meant slow shifts, reduced performance, and tedium. Order your Corvette, 370Z, Mustang, or Genesis Coupe with an automatic, and it’d be like putting ketchup on a steak: ruined!
After all, with an automatic, it’s a computer, not the driver, calling the shots. Engaging with the vehicle. Doing the work. There’s something charming about shifting your own gears, and driving enthusiasts know this. It just feels right.
Many stick-shift nuts would rather scour their own face off with a rusty SOS pad than own an automatic car. I’m one of them. Did you know that in many countries, automatic cars are reserved solely for the elderly, and the handicapped? [Define “many”. – Auto-driving Ed.] So yes, there’s that.
But here’s the thing: if you haven’t noticed, today, manual transmissions are disappearing as automatic transmissions are becoming better and better. Many shift faster than a human driver using a stick-shift. Most are more fuel-efficient, and better at transmitting power to the road, and better at improving performance. Today, many of the world’s fastest cars don’t even offer a manual, since using clumsy human brain and muscle power to change gears would just slow them down.
So, partly because manual transmissions are becoming extinct, and partly because automatic transmissions are improving dramatically, we’ve compiled a list of automatic (and automated) transmissions below that don’t suck, and that you may want to know about if you’d love a manual in your next ride, but can’t have one.
ZF Eight-Speed Automatic
Numerous models from Chrysler, Audi, Jaguar, Land Rover, Maserati, Volkswagen, and most BMWs
The popular ZF eight-speed automatic is a German-designed gearbox that’s found a home in the driveline of many vehicles from manufacturers around the globe. With eight gears, fuel economy and emissions are enhanced, as is performance. Non-sequential shifting means this gearbox can quickly jump from one gear to another, skipping multiple un-needed gears in between. Best of all, with the ability to complete a gearshift in as little as 200 milliseconds, the ZF eight-speed responds to manual-mode shift requests at lightning speed for huge entertainment value.
911, Boxster, Cayman, Macan, Panamera, others
The Porsche PDK transmission has been around for nearly a decade, and is the German performance brand’s take on a dual-clutch transmission. PDK is translated from a tricky-to-say German abbreviation for “Porsche Double Clutch”, and as double-clutch transmissions do, this one offers up millisecond gearshifts, improved mileage, and improved performance. In the time it takes a human driver to start pressing a conventional clutch pedal, the PDK has already completed the entire shift, and all with no interruption in forward momentum. All said, a PDK transmission makes the Porsche of your choice faster, more responsive, and more fuel-efficient. Shift speeds are giggle-worthy, and most models offer a launch control function, working the PDK’s internal clutches to get the vehicle off the line as quickly as possible. There may be no clutch pedal, but putting the PDK transmission through its paces via the paddle shifters is a total riot.
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Ford 10-Speed Automatic (10R80)
When it comes to boosting performance and mileage, the more gears the merrier – and that’s just why Ford is stuffing a new 10-speed automatic transmission into their 2018 Mustang. The new 10R80 gearbox is a joint venture with GM, and other versions of this transmission are available or coming to the Camaro, F-150, and other machinery. More gears means lower cruising revs for better mileage, and less of a step between each gear, which enhances refinement. Smoothness and noise levels benefit, too. This 10-speed unit uses no cast iron in its construction, and is only slightly larger than the six-speed automatic transmission it replaces. Plus, with a deep first gear and claimed shift speeds on par with some of the world’s fastest transmissions, the 10R80 enables a marked increase in performance. Equipped with this transmission, the new Mustang GT can do 0–100 km/h in under four seconds, which was the stuff of big-dollar supercars just a few years ago.
BMW M2, M3, M4, M6, others
BMW’s take on a high-performance dual-clutch transmission culminates in a seven-speed unit with blazing shift speed capability, enhanced functionality for refinement in casual driving, and numerous performance-optimizing add-ons. Drivers can select a lazy daily-driver automatic mode, a thrilling paddle-shift mode with impossibly quick gearshifts, or anything in between. Shift speed and force can be fine-tuned to the driving at hand, and the paddle shifters enable direct, millisecond control over the unit at all times. Using navigation data, the M-DCT can even gear down pre-emptively ahead of bends. Plus Launch Control enables neck-snapping off-the-line acceleration.
Don’t miss the maximum shift speed setting, which slams through gears so quickly that a lick of wheelspin is likely on your first few full-throttle upshifts. Few other transmissions on the road use technology in so many clever ways to enhance the performance experience.
German automakers do dual-clutch transmissions best, and Mercedes-Benz and Audi offer similarly entertaining takes on this technology via their AMG Speedshift and S-Tronic transmissions, respectively.
Subaru “Performance” CVT
Though a Subaru WRX with an automatic transmission (much less a CVT) amounts to one of the most vile forms of blasphemy, this is a transmission not to be overlooked if you’re after a WRX, but can’t go with the manual six-speed for some reason. The WRX’s CVT permits a considerable reduction in fuel use, and ties into various drive modes, via expert programming, to fully capitalize on the output of the boxer turbo engine. Drivers can feel the shift-free CVT adapting to their currently deployed drive mode and driving style, and at a track day, this clever gearbox always seems to have the right gear ratio served up and ready to go. If you can get the manual, you should, but this CVT is a lot more fun to use than you think. Don’t miss the rapid-fire simulated upshifts at full throttle, where the WRX sounds like a fast-shifting, close-ratio automatic. Of all transmissions on this list, the WRX’s CVT may be the most surprising.
Toyota / Subaru Six-Speed Automatic
Toyota 86 / Subaru BR-Z
Subaru and Toyota know that sometimes, you really want a manual transmission, but that life is cruel, and that that’s not always a possibility. So, because they care about you, they’ve made a fantastic automatic transmission for use in their BR-Z and 86 models. Not only does the six-speed automatic get a gated shifter with a leather boot that looks like a manual shifter at a glance, but it has a paddle-shift mode that’s highly responsive, reacts quickly to shift requests, and rev-matches beautifully in both directions, even down into first gear. It’s not quite as quick at swapping cogs as the dual-clutch transmissions available in some competitors, but it’s damn close.
And the end result is an automatic with a paddle-shift mode that’s so much fun, you’ll actually want to use it.
Golf R, GTI, Others
VW was one of the first automakers to bring dual-clutch transmission technology to the masses, and they continue to offer their Direct Shift Gearbox, or DSG, in numerous models to this day. Like all good dual-clutch transmissions, this one serves up nearly instant response to paddle shift requests, completes gear changes in the blink of an eye, and perfectly rev-matches in both directions. Simultaneously improving performance, efficiency and refinement, entertaining drivers with absolute responsiveness is the name of the DSG’s game. And, when you’re done clicking off semi-automatic gearshifts like a hooligan, or if you find yourself tasked with eating an inconveniently drippy burrito at the wheel, just slip the shifter back into “D” – where it functions like a smooth and seamless automatic.