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

James May tests out the sort-of-automatic
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Indy Lifestyle Online
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.

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