The love is waning

Bedford16thAprilenhanced_4fa11032af19c-lightbox…but. after the praise I heaped on my 135i DCT in my first report, the reality of life with a DCT box has landed. Honeymoon period over.

The trouble is, you won’t appreciate this after your test drive, or even after one or two weeks living with the car. You’ll step out of the car having experienced seamless acceleration, characterful exhaust barps on the upshifts, and perfect rev-matched downshifts. The speed of response of the gear changes will have blown you away and having then pootled around town in auto mode, you will be convinced that the dual clutch gearbox offers the best of both manual and automatic gearboxes.

However, if you really “live” with a dual clutch gearbox over a long period, and class the act of driving as an enjoyable past time (one that you strive to get better and better at), over time, the dual clutch box becomes frustrating. It makes you lazy as a driver.

The reality is that the path of least resistance for most is to stick it in D and let the box do its thing in day-to-day driving. Can you really be bothered to paddle shift up and down the box on motorways, or in town? No, you can’t. You don’t get any extra enjoyment as a driver from doing it. The only time you really enjoy the paddles and full manual mode, is when you’re on a hoon on a good, sparsely populated, twisty A or B road and then, you find yourself thinking you’d actually be having more fun in a manual. Most drivers would be faster in the dual clutch car – of that, there is little doubt, but are you necessarily having more fun?

The challenge of shifting smoothly and quickly with a stick and clutch is far more satisfying than the remote feeling of pulling on a plastic paddle. It’s the little things that you miss, – like blipping the throttle for the sake of it in a tunnel, or feeling the meshing of cogs beneath your palm, and these are all taken away from you if you have a dual clutch transmission. No longer can you derive pleasure from perfecting that perfect heel-and-toe down change. Instead, you execute it perfectly every time (by computer), but feel you have achieved little in your quest to become a better driver.

This is the frustrating reality of life with a dual clutcher.

Having said all that, for 90% of most people’s everyday driving, a dual clutch/auto makes most sense as it takes the stress and effort out of continually pushing that left pedal whilst negotiating heavy congestion, aggressive van drivers, suicidal motorcycle couriers, average speed camera zones, contraflows, speed humps, 20mph zones and unscheduled road works. In your DCT/Auto you can just waft along and let the gearbox do its thing. It’s very relaxing.

The end result then, is that a dual clutch gearbox in a performance car ends up feeling a little too executive – too remote, and lacking in interactivity. And interactivity is what you bought a performance car for in the first place isn’t it? Or was it purely about the numbers your car can achieve? – is that your car’s raison d’etre?

No doubt about it, a DCT box in a 135i makes it a very fast car. You can leave most other machinery for dead in the traffic light grand prix. But for me, it does end up feeling like a one trick pony after a while.

I recently took my car on track at Bedford Autodrome to see if it can serve up some real fun in this environment, but there were no great revelations vs my experiences with DCT on road. The DCT advantage on track is that you can prioritise the job of concentrating on your lines and your braking points over what gear you need to be in.

Find yourself in the wrong gear at any time and a tug on one of the paddles puts you instantly in the power zone. You can even change up or down mid corner and the car just deals with it. I didn’t detect any loss in cornering balance as the gear change is slotted home so damn fast as to almost go unnoticed by the car’s chassis.

This undoubtedly will help you lap faster and more efficiently – but, it’s just not as much fun as getting it right yourself with a manual. I may be slower with a manual, but I’m having more fun. And that’s the key point.

The other disappointment I had with the 135i was just how much body roll and float I got from the front end. The car doesn’t slice into corners with the same enthusiasm as my old 130i. It’s definitely got a softer set up vs my old car.

This softer front-end does make it more comfortable day-to-day as a road car, but doesn’t help it to serve up fun on track.

The brakes held up pretty well however – but I went easy on them as you can definitely feel that they will fade quite quickly after a few laps if asked to perform at maximum attack. They are powerful 6-piston Brembo jobs, but at the end of the day they are being asked to repeatedly haul down a 1450Kg car from big speeds. Race spec pads would undoubtedly improve braking performance as the road-biased pads just aren’t up to heavy track work.

All in all, my enthusiasm for the car has waned significantly, and after 4 months with the car I’m already thinking about what next….. Not good for my finances!!!

At least I have learnt one valuable lesson – for me, my experiences with DCT/DSG have reconfirmed my love for the proper, manual gearbox.

So, help me out – What’s fun on both road and track, won’t cost me the earth to run, has a great sounding engine, returns decent combined fuel economy (ideally 30+), is well built, reliable and has ipod connectivity and a decent stereo? Oh, and it doesn’t have to be a 4-seater…. Answers on a postcard – or in the comments section below please!





David Knott