There's the gear stick - but what have they done with the clutch pedal?

James May tests out the sort-of-automatic

How many hands do you need to drive? Two, ideally - and, as in- laws in the back seat have been insisting for years, they should both be kept on the wheel.

A number of car manufacturers are working to make that easier than ever. I have recently been driving two cars in which you can change gear without removing your hands from the steering wheel - and these aren't your standard automatics.

Both the Honda NSX F-matic and the Porsche 911 Tiptronic S feature a sort of automatic gearbox with knobs on. Both can be stuck in D and driven like a limo, but they offer a manual gear-stick position. In each, manual mode is supplemented by column-mounted controls: a lever like an indicator stalk (and sometimes confused with it) on the Honda, and thumb-tip buttons where you might expect to find the horn on the Porsche.

Forget the safety dividend inevitably claimed by both manufacturers: this is fantasy Formula One. Out on a favourite bit of winding road, hands attached resolutely to the wheel, you change up and down by moving the Honda's stalk or putting pressure on either of the Porsche's two rocker switches.

Idiot-proofing is incorporated. If you slow drastically in either car, the box will cog down accordingly. The Porsche will even change up on your behalf if you push the engine to its red line.

The effect of placing the gear selector within a thumb- or finger-span of the wheel is dramatic. Disconcerting for a few miles, digital shifting soon becomes hugely entertaining and is probably safer, too. As you squirm out of a long, fast bend, wheels kicking over irregularities, it is better not to have to grope for the stick.

Fun though they are, though, both systems are merely clever adaptations of automatics, with all the shortfalls in absolute control and mechanical efficiency that implies. They are also something of a red herring in the development of a true F1-style transmission for road cars. First-gear progress down that road has been achieved by Saab, with the Sensonic gearbox on the new 900.

The significance of Sensonic is not immediately apparent, as here we are back with a "proper" gearstick on the transmission tunnel. Indeed, it is attached to a conventional five-speed manual box and dry clutch. In the footwell, however, you will find only brake and accelerator pedals, for the clutch is totally automatic, operated by electrohydraulic means and controlled by the mandatory electronic black box.

Pressure on the gear lever triggers the clutch; the speed with which you move it controls the timing of disengagement and re-engagement. Shifts can be leisurely or lightning-fast, and even abuse such as a full-throttle upshift is tolerated, as your right-foot inputs are being monitored as well.

Sensonic is presented as a means of providing the driver with the sort of control that only a manual transmission can offer, without the legwork. But it's more than that. It takes only a stumble of the imagination to realise that if the same electrohydraulic control that operates the clutch can be applied to the selector mechanism as well, the gearstick could also be eradicated, to be replaced by buttons or paddles on the wheel. Saab will not admit it in so many words, but I'm pretty sure that even as you read, Swedish boffins are working on it.

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Maths Teacher

    £110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

    Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

    £40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

    £30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

    £35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?