Journal: Is “A Fun Automatic” an Oxymoron?

Is “A Fun Automatic” an Oxymoron?

Michael Banovsky By Michael Banovsky
August 11, 2015
29 comments

Though the two main cars in our household both have manual transmissions, I was recently able to sample three very different cars equipped with “let the computer shift for you” transmissions: a McLaren 650S Spider, Fiat 500 Abarth, and Dodge Charger R/T Scat Pack.

And do you know what? One of those wasn’t too bad.

The McLaren has a seven-speed dual clutch “automatic” gearbox that was instant, seamless, and easy. I’m not sure how many clutches I would have roasted had it been fitted with a manual transmission, but I will say that it made the business of driving a supercar as easy as pushing “D” and going.

Dodge fitted the Charger with both the SRT 392’s massive 6.4-litre Hemi V8 as well as an 8-speed automatic transmission. The unit is just like every other transmission, except that it had a speed for almost any situation—but to get it to shift more quickly into a higher speed in order to save fuel was a chore. In day-to-day driving, it was well-suited to the car, but with the loud exhaust its shifts were more frequent, and noticeable, than in the others.

Finally, the 500 Abarth. You’ll be reading more about this car and the McLaren soon, but for now, be happy to know that its 6-speed automatic was fun…even though it was the least sophisticated of the bunch.

What made the Abarth my favorite is simple: in L.A., the combination of a tiny car and near-instantaneous power meant that it was incomparable in day-to-day driving. On the highway, the addition of an extra speed over the manual version helped keep noise down and fuel economy up. It was a surprisingly good combination.

I won’t be trading my manual transmission in anytime soon, but experiencing three very different “automatics” was a nice change and opportunity to try something new. Have you driven any “fun” automatics lately? And have any of them felt like they were adding to the driving experience? 

Image sources: topspeed.comautoblog.commclaren.com

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Ric Bergstrom
Ric Bergstrom

I was always a slush box hater. Drive anything with a ZF8 speed in it….that thing is magic. Seamless upshifts, revmatched downshifts.

I’d still buy a sports car with a stick….but for a sports sedan (Mine is in an F10 BMW 5 series) it is a phenomenal unit.

Hope it wears well as it has to be pricey to fix/ replace!!!

Daniel T
Daniel T

The classic manual vs automatic discussion… however in this context (“keep…fuel economy up”) I find the question a bit oxymoronic. Mainly because most of the people reading this site are petrolheads, meaning (the explanation is for Mr. Banovsky) we drive and care for the cars we have or had for subjective reasons rather than objective (e.g. running costs). And a question for Mr. Banovsky: did Petrolicious run out of classic cars to discuss about and is now turning to more day-to-day subjects? Am reading Petrolicious for a long time now, almost from the beginning, and although back there was no… Read more »

Jon Ulrich
Jon Ulrich

If you would have asked me this question 30 years ago my answer would have been different. Back then I would have said I preferred manual transmissions for “sporty”cars. But today, with traction control and abs I find that many modern automatic transmission equiped cars are actually more fun to drive. Modern auto trannys are no longer the slush boxes of old and are usually quicker off the line and shift much quicker than I can with a manual. We are fortunate today to have so many choices with the cars available.

Antony Ingram
Antony Ingram

I can’t say I’ve driven any automatics where the gearbox itself is “fun” (though “effective” could certainly be applied to many of them), but I’ve driven plenty of cars that are fun [i]despite[/i] them possessing an automatic transmission. I prefer manuals (Miata owner here), but I can see the appeal of some autos too. To play devil’s advocate, I’ve driven several manuals that are [i]far[/i] from fun – ones with no feel of mechanical connection through the shifter, a mushy biting point to the clutch, poorly-chosen ratios etc. There are certainly cars out there where the manual is so poor… Read more »

Nauman Farooq
Nauman Farooq

All manuals are not created equal – same with automatics. I can’t remember any BMW I have driven in the last decade, where the manual was great. Their 7-speed DCT and 8-speed ZF autos on the other hand are wonderful and allow you to really get the maximum out of the car. I haven’t driven the latest Audi R8 with its DCT gearbox, but the first-gen car which could be had with either a 6-speed manual or a 6-speed R-tronic (single-clutch electro-hydraulic unit), rowing your own gears was the only way to go. What’s better? I say, if the car… Read more »

Ali G
Ali G

No suprise that the Abarth auto was good; the Pop version isnt half bad with the “sport” button pressed. It was a rented Pop automatic that sold me on the Abarth with the premise that “if the base car is this good, the ultimate version will be even better.”
2013 Abarth, aka “Bender” R.I.P.

Jeremy DeConcini
Jeremy DeConcini

I have an SMG in my daily driver M3, and if used in manual mode is pretty damn fun. Maybe not quite as fun as using the clutch pedal, but I am going to call it 85\% as fun and if you factor in Southern California traffic jams, it is a no-brainer.

Bohemianracer
Bohemianracer

Anyone who buys a sports car (i.e. Porsche, Miata, Vette, etc…) with an automatic transmission is an idiot and should stick to Buicks.

shiney
shiney

I drive an 07 automatic Mx-5 and I am done apologizing for it. I bought it for a few different reasons, and no, I won’t be going out and buying a Buick as per Mr. Hiermeier’s comment. I would rather drive an auto mx-5 than anything else right now, and you know what? It’s still fun as hell. Can’t take the top off a Buick…

Jim Valcarcel
Jim Valcarcel

“ANYONE”? 17 years ago I was hit by a drunk driver on a freeway. I was told there was a pickup in front of me so I had no chance to avoid him. I was doing 65 the 19 year old drunk was doing 70 plus. When the pick up got out of the way at the last second I collided with the drunk head on. He was killed. I was in the hospital for four months and in a wheelchair for a year. So my right hip, both knees, both ankles where turned into a mess. I can still… Read more »

Jim Valcarcel
Jim Valcarcel

In all honesty Mr. Hiermeier, How fair is it to imply that “anyone” who does not drive a car with a stick is less than. But even more to state that person is an idiot. I believe you should rethink the labels you put on people such as myself that have had a misfortune befall them like myself and goodness knows how many others. I’m blessed just to be alive, to be able to walk, albeit with a cane, and then drive a car. I know everyone is passionate about the car they drive. But please can we all be… Read more »

Bohemianracer
Bohemianracer

OK, perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word “idiot” in my comment, I really should have learned my lesson about 10 years ago when my old roommate from college bought himself a Solstice with an automatic. But there is no way I would trade my three cars with manuals (85 911 Carrera, 03 Audi 1.8t with 5 speeds and my 11 BMW 328I coupe with “M package” and six speed manual. I mean I just love going through windy country roads and heel and toe downshifting as I am taking turns, specially my Porsche which has a Bursch muffler and… Read more »

Francois Bozonnet
Francois Bozonnet

your post make me remember the car drove by Clay Regazzoni after his accident. i saw several years ago a 365 gtb/4 daytona equiped with a mecanical system to change gear on the steering wheel. it was very clever and could be adaptated on every manual car. you can find a picture of this system in the book wrote by Cesare de Agostini, “Regazzoni, é sempre questione di cuore” pagina 193. maybe it could be the solution to combine the best part of each system…. and i am sure that Regazzoni was not an idiot

Xavier Corral
Xavier Corral

My Grand National would like a word with you.

Xavier Corral
Xavier Corral

whoa. No idea how this happened!

JB21
JB21

Someone commented on a different article that he considers 4C’s transmission manual, because it’s got clutch that is electronically operated. Rubbish. All intent and purpose, those semi-auto trans are automatic. It really matters very little while driving on the track, 458 was very engaging, so was 4C, I didn’t miss clutch pedal at all. But on a regular road, commuting and sitting in a traffic jam, grocery run? You just put it in D and trot about, that’s all, and none of those works very well as automatic transmission for everyday use. And I want my car to be engaging… Read more »

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger

First off let me say that your post is a case of Affirming and Denying the Same Thing at the Same Time . So if with the following words I’ve misinterpreted your meaning /intent .. blaming the self contradictory words of your comment first and foremost .. apologies in advance regardless if there is any misunderstanding … just to keep things civil A 458 is in any way shape or form ‘ engaging ‘ on the track when in reality its a mass of overly synthetic and manufactured driving experiences motivated by a plethora of computer nannies watching over you… Read more »

JB21
JB21

Well, you are just criticizing those cars, or just criticizing my experiences with them. I really enjoyed 458 on a track. 4C was enjoyable, too. And speaking of transmission, both had a very quick, almost mechanical shift when driven fast, yes, but total dud on a road. I’ve driven Elise and Exige, and they are great, sure, but we aren’t talking about [i]that[/i], I thought we were talking about automated transmission, but I guess you didn’t notice that.

Antony Ingram
Antony Ingram

We’ve been over this before, but the Alfa 4C really has nothing in common with the KTM X-Bow. That was simply a rumour before the Alfa launched, and it has since become apparent that the two are unrelated. They have different chassis, designed and constructed by different companies in different places, different engines, and are assembled in different parts of Europe by different companies.

Your points – often perfectly reasonable on their own – would hold much greater weight if they weren’t perpetually laced with misinformation bred by your own personal biases.

Corey Kononchuk
Corey Kononchuk

I’ll start by saying that I would never buy a car in automatic if it could be had with a manual. There are however, a lot of auto-only cars that are awesome to drive! My Audi RS6 was never offered with a manual gearbox; it’s the first automatic car I’ve intentionally bought since learning to drive stick… and I freakin’ love this car! Of course it would be more fun with a manual gearbox (the 5spd auto is impressive for a slushbox but certainly outclassed by the newer 6/7/8 speeds), but living in/around Boston with its heinous traffic at all… Read more »

Corey Kononchuk
Corey Kononchuk

Oh I wish! I think it would be too hard to find one and then import it to the U.S. An S6 Avant with a bigger turbo and Porsche brakes would sure be cool though!

Philip Todak
Philip Todak

I believe they can be. I had a Volvo V70 with a 4 speed automatic trans, and it was fun waiting for the kickdown 2 gears. Still not as fun as a manual; however they can be fun in the right conditions.

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger

Is a ‘ fun ‘ automatic an oxymoron ? Hmmn . Well … yes and no . It depends on the car to be honest . In an SUV/CUV /Luxury / City car etc ? Yeah ! A slush box is both practical and can be fun . But these Flappy Paddle Shifty Thingy’s [ to quote Clarkson ] in Sports/Super/Hyper/Performance cars ? Well … then an auto is about as much ‘ fun ‘as watching paint dry on the ceiling FYI ; A little take on my perspective ? Due to a chronic left leg injury I am now… Read more »

Guitar Slinger
Guitar Slinger

PS; I think F1 driver Lewis Hamilton said it best when asked why he’d bought a Pagani Zonda 760 (LH) rather than a P1 or an AMG SLS back when he was with McLaren when he said ;

” My work car is an automatic . I want my street car to be fun ! “

Francois Bozonnet
Francois Bozonnet

i drove the mondial T with the valeo clutch. i can compare with the original Mondial T that i owned in the same period. it was really fun (even if the test was short). maybe you can try to find one…
nb: you can read a full try of this car in ferrarissima n°14 first serie.