The arguments in favour of manual transmissions are becoming less and less compelling— robotic gearboxes shift faster than even the most skilful human ever could, conventional automatics are smooth in all situations and they're often more fuel efficient since they tend to keep engine speeds very low. The only remaining argument for stick shift diehards is the abstract concept of “driving experience” that sets the ordinary apart from the transcendental.
But is that still the case? To find out, I drove one Volkswagen Golf GTI after the other: they were identical except that one came with a six-speed manual gearbox universally recognized for its fabulous operation and the other with the famous DSG transmission, a semi-automatic unit that shifts gears all by itself in four hundredths of a second.
Before we get into the transmission
Although based on the compact Golf, the GTI has the soul of a sports car. Its engine's 210 horsepower and 258 lbs.-ft. of torque provide impressive power (the torque is available starting from 1,600 rpm). The car’s style is subdued, but there are a few clues that it’s not your average Golf: dual exhaust, 18-inch wheels, the iconic red line in the front grille and exterior logos here and there. In the passenger compartment, the seats are comfortable and offer near perfect support in curves, all the controls (and the manual gearbox’s shifter) are well situated and the steering wheel is just the right size for a sporty grip. What’s more, my test cars had the traditional GTI tartan seats, and I loved them right from the start. It steers with surgical precision and you feel exactly what’s going on under the wheels. Press the Sport button and a speaker is activated to imitate a huskier exhaust, transforming the engine sound; when you want to get worked up, it gives you a much more guttural soundtrack. But don’t forget it’s a hatchback – I was able to help a friend move all his belongings, without problem. Try to do that with a sport coupe! Basically, this car is an absolute delight.
Clutch or Direkt-Schalt-Getriebe?
If you’re convinced that you need a GTI in your driveway, let’s take a look at your options. On one hand, there’s the manual transmission with its six speeds and almost flawless operation. The shifting distance is just right and the gears engage easily, all of which makes changing gears a breeze. Moreover, the extremely good gear ratios make it simple to utilize the vehicle’s wide powerband. There’s one small problem, however: while the clutch is easy to use in everyday situations (even a traffic jam of over an hour didn’t cause any discomfort), its friction point is a little high. Those who drive their GTI for a long time will definitely get used to it, but my short test drive left me somewhat confused when the time came to launch the car again after a full stop. On the other hand, the pedals are ideally located for heel-and-toe shifting, and if you like sport driving, you know that there’s no better feeling than downshifting a manual transmission in a turn, performing the intricate ballet that is the heel-toe technique and opening up the throttle as you come out of the turn.
The other option, the DSG, costs $1,400 and is one of the most precise automatic gearboxes on the market. It has six speeds and makes the GTI’s split personality even more noticeable. For everyday driving, this transmission disguises itself as a conventional automatic, changing gears smoothly and upshifting efficiently, which helps with fuel consumption. Push the Sport button, however, and the beast awakens. Shifting becomes much more incisive, the computer downshifts in braking situations to keep the rpms above 2,000 and the valved exhaust emits an awesome sound between each gear change. Even after a week-long test drive, I never got tired of the noise. Gears can be selected manually using the paddles located behind the wheel. Although this technique is not as satisfying as with a manual car, it is much faster, with a mere four hundredths of a second needed when selecting a higher gear. In sport conditions, this transmission gives the impression that you’re in an exotic Italian car rather than a compact family model!
But feeling isn’t everything. Consider these figures recorded during my test drives: in identical conditions, the GTI with a manual transmission was clocked at 7.3 seconds for the 0-100 km/hr sprint (that’s a long way from the 6.5 seconds promised by the manufacturer, but don’t forget that we were on snow tires), while the one equipped with the DSG beat it with a time of 7 seconds flat. This can be explained, in part, by the fact that the automatic comes with Launch Control that engages the clutch to accelerate as quickly as possible. The other interesting fact deals with the consistency of the times: with the DSG, my fellow tester and I recorded a difference of 0.5 seconds between our best and worst times, while with the manual transmission, the difference was almost a second.
A question of needs and taste
Simultaneously offering a manual and a DSG transmission for the GTI was a stroke of genius by Volkswagen. Those who like gadgets and want to get the best performance out of their sports car will opt for the DSG, which has the user-friendliness of a traditional automatic and performance approaching that of a race car. It is also the most efficient on a track.
However, if it was me footing the bill, my GTI (a black four-door) would be equipped with a manual gearbox. I prioritize pleasure over out-and-out performance and appreciate the satisfaction of a perfect downshift, so I remain a staunch supporter of the left pedal.
The best thing about this story is that there is no wrong choice – anyone who chooses a GTI, regardless of the number of pedals it has, comes out a winner.