May 07, 2015

Horse 1890 - Vale The Clutch

For a number of years BMW had "The Ultimate Driving Machine" as their slogan. Now you can say what you like about the perception of BMW as brand (hooray, boo, hooray, boo) but I don't think that BMW can even wear that tag anymore, and it's all because of a choice that they've made.

This is from the BMW Australia website; concerning their latest M4 coupé:
M3 Sedan - M double clutch with Drivelogic
M4 Coupé - M double clutch with Drivelogic

There are no other transmission options for their M3 or M4. You get a choice of one; so really no choice at all.

But what is the "M double clutch with Drivelogic"? Put simply, it is a twin-clutch transmission with two separate automatic clutches for odd and even gears. That's either a semi-manual or a semi-automatic depending on whether or not the marketing people think that the glass is half full or half empty. As someone who likes manual gearboxes and manual clutches, simple mathematics tells me that two half nothings make a whole lot of nothing.

Automatic clutch mechanisms have finally got to the point where they are better on all metrics than a human doing the same job. They're faster at changing, more smooth at changing and more efficient at changing gears than any human ever could. Of course anyone who has been watching Formula One for the past 25 years knew that that point was passed ages ago. I can remember Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost fighting with semi-automatic gearboxes all the way back in 1990 and in the mean time the flappy paddle gearbox has been improved to the point that automatic clutches are not only de rigueur in Formula One but so old hat as to be entirely unremarkable.
Porsche's flappy paddle gearbox has been in road cars for years and the fact that BMW should also decide to install an automatic clutch in their M4 should also be unremarkable if it wasn't for the fact that they've also decided to remove the all manual gearboxes from their lineup.

It must be said that I drive a car with an automatic gearbox but not through choice. If I was allowed full reign on the kind of car I was allowed to buy, there would still be a range of compromises I'd have to make (so there's zero chance of me getting my dream car, which is a Jaguar D-Type) but if the car was solely driven by me, I would absolutely prefer to have a manual gearbox and manual clutch.
I don't have any lofty reasons about manual gearboxes being more efficient and giving better fuel economy, or anything like that, the reason why I'd want a manual gearbox with a manual clutch is simply because they are more fun.

The automatic transmission in the Peugeot 206 that we have, is in all honesty, ridiculously dim witted. As far as transmissions go, it's certainly not in the classes for gifted students; it's more likely to be up the back of the classroom sticking play-doh up its nose and eating Perkin's Paste. Between 50km/h and 60km/h it hesitates and gets really confused about what its supposed to do, and spends its time changing up and down at arbitrary intervals. The reason for this I suspect is that the standing speed limit on French roads in urban areas is 50km/h and les boffins at Peugeot have decided to do as little work as  they possibly could to engineer the gearbox for the Australian market (which was zero work). A different suite of software would more than likely cure this problem entirely but even if you could fix that issue, I still bet that a car with an automatic transmission would be less fun to drive than a car with a manual gearbox and clutch.
In contrast, the Ford Ka that I had with its five speed manual gearbox, was easily the funnest car I've ever driven on the road. Not even when I've stepped into other people's cars like Ferraris, Porsches and even a Toyota 86, have I driven something as nimble or as chuckable as the Ka. Sure, the Ka didn't give you a lot of power to play with but when I used to drive to work, there were some sweeping corners which you could just glide through; shifting from 3rd, to 4th and then straight to 2nd before torquing back up a hill and through 3rd and 4th again. I bet that in a BMW M4, it wouldn't be nearly half as fun; even with four times the power because they will have taken away the clutch.

The way I see it is thusly. The motor car replaced the horse and cart. Automatic transmissions have largely replaced manual transmissions. Self-driving cars will in due time replace cars that humans drive themselves. People still have horses though and the reason is that they still like horses.
I can see the day when self-driving cars will be the new normal and ruin it for those of us who like to drive ourselves, in the same way that people who have bought cars with automatic transmissions have ruined it for those of use who like manual transmissions, in the same way that the arrival of the motor car spelled the end for the horse and cart.

BMW aren't the first to have taken away manual gearboxes and clutches from their motor cars but the fact that this was in their M3 and M4 is most singular. BMW's M Division are the group that gave us the M1 and the M3 touring car. Even though BMW's foray into Formula One with Williams and Sauber were both less than stellar and their shot at Le Mans also wasn't spectacular, the M Division is where BMW like to put all of their fanciest toys. The BMW M cars are usually where you'd expect to find the best handling and most powerful models in their respective series.
Either BMW know that the sorts of people who but their M cars are only doing so for the Veblen conspicuous consumption aspects of it (look at me, I'm so fancy) and so in which cases it doesn't really matter that they've taken away manual gearboxes and manual clutches but if they've done so because that's what they think that enthusiasts and hobbyists like, I think that they've missed the target entirely and fired their arrow into the next field. If M cars are driven by people who like driving for driving's sake, then those people also probably like to change gears manually because that's also fun.
You can hardly call your product "The Ultimate Driving Machine" when you've taken away some of the fun of driving. That's like a pie with no sauce, or Laurel without Hardy, or a vindaloo without it blowing your head off - it's still fun but not as fun as it could have been.

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