Can you have fun with an automatic transmission?

Alfa Romeo 33

I know that I’m getting older. Our bathroom mirror tells me so every morning. I have to remind the mirror that it shouldn’t gloat, because it’s always 30 minutes behind the message I get from my back when I get out of bed.

Despite my premature ageing, I’ve always been pretty young on the roads. I consider myself a Driver and from my experience, most Drivers are young in their road attitude (even if they’re also mature about it).

I wonder if I’m starting to age in this area, too, though.

Except for the 1986 Saab 900 Turbo I bought around 10 years ago, I’ve only ever owned cars with manual transmissions. I guess you could say I’ve also had a couple of automatic Saab 9000s, but they’ve actually belonged to Mrs Swade, so I’m not counting them as my own, even if I’ve spent a lot of time behind the wheel.

I’ve always felt that changing the gears yourself was essential to a true Driving experience. It’s part of the semi-organic connection between man and machine, part of being an automotive grown-up. There’s nothing quite like the feel of a good gearbox, the way it snicks into place and unleashes another rev band for you to explore. It really can make or break some cars.

The best feeling gearbox from a car that I’ve owned myself was in the Mazda MX-5. It’s a shame it didn’t have another 20hp or so to go with it, though the light chassis weight still made the car a lot of fun to drive.

The best feeling gearbox I’ve ever driven was in a Koenigsegg, but let’s keep it real, shall we?

The best feeling gearbox I’ve driven in a car that I’d ever have a chance of buying was in a Porsche 964, owned by my friend Mats, in Sweden. It really does have that rifle-bolt-action feeling and the car responds like the pedigree champion that it is.

As you know, I’m currently car-less. I’m looking at purchasing two cars this year, an everyday runabout and something more…. special…. for the weekends. The surprising thing for me is that for the first time in my life, I’m considering buying a car with an automatic transmission.

There are a few reasons for this.

Since we’ve been at our current address, I’ve owned a Viggen, a Saab 900, a Mazda MX-5, two Alfa Romeo 33s and a Saab 9-3 Monte Carlo. Forget the Viggen, one of the Alfas and the MX-5, all of which had short ownership stints at this address. The remaining three cars, all of which I owned for a year or more at this address, all had to have their clutches replaced during my ownership.

Maybe it’s just coincidence, but I think it’s got more to do with the driveway angle, as seen in the image to the right. Early morning starts at the bottom of this driveway seem to make my clutches tired and angry.

The 900, one of the Alfas and the Monte, all with expensive clutch jobs and all in a relatively short period of time. Frankly, I’m a little sick of it. And whilst I’ve tried to talk Mrs Swade into moving to a more car-friendly abode, that particular conversation doesn’t seem to be progressing well at this stage.

So, the plan I’m contemplating is to get my little manual runabout, maybe still the Subaru Brumby (which has the advantage of low-range 4WD) or maybe something else and park it on the street, if necessary.

Behind the Alfa in the photo above is a garage, and in that garage is where I’d put the fun car. Current thinking suggests that car should be a comfortable, V8-engined, automatic cruiser. A car strictly for the weekends. The garage would not only provide safe storage, but it would also give the car a nice gentle lead-up to the big hilly driveway.

I’ve never owned a V8, so I’m curious about that, for starters. I also like the idea of paying my wife back (a little) for all the patience she’s exhibited over the last few years by exploring a number of the wonderful day trips we could do here in Southern Tasmania – in a comfy, sporting GT cruiser of my choosing, of course.

But still, in the back of my mind there’s a question: Can you really have an enjoyable, engaging driving experience with an automatic transmission?

I know the answer’s “yes” for more modern cars. Today’s automatics have flappy paddles and double-clutch thingies that seem to get all the motoring scribes excited in ways that I’m yet to understand. I won’t be considering a modern car, however. I don’t have the money. Mine will (hopefully) be a modern-for-the-time V8 with what will basically be an old-school automatic, though hopefully at least a 4-speed.

So can you have fun with an automatic? Or am I chasing after some sort of mythical beast that doesn’t really exist?

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  1. Not sure mate. I ran an Auto 9-5 Aero for a year (was Mr Ross’ car from new, then Dad’s, then mine…) which had the 9-5 version of flappy paddles and was my first auto since I last had one in a company car 20 odd years ago. I just didn’t get on with it. Fine in town, and OK on the motorway, but on the hilly moorland roads up here it was forever up & down the box. Thirsty too… And I’m not much younger than you!

    Steve McQueen would say no…

    1. Maybe that’s a new test we can impose, Al – WWSMD?

      Problem is, invoking that test would imply reaping the lifestyle rewards of being Steve McQueen, which I’m sure my circumstances aren’t ever able to deliver!

      1. Steve McQueen had a 1960s Mini Cooper S. Not quite a V8 automatic grand tourer, but it’s important to approach car shopping with an open mind.

  2. I just have to say that this posting makes you sound like the automotive Carrie Bradshaw. You may need to Google her…, but it made me smile.

  3. Quite funny perspective on the Alfa, looks like you get to see the cars in all their morning glory.

    Anyway, 928??

  4. In my (somewhat age-limited) experience, any automatic that’s not a dual-clutch modern flappy-paddle job is a bit anemic, mostly due to the 40% torque loss from a planetary automatic. Plus older cars often only have 3 gears (maybe 4), which produces its own set of problems.

    I’ve driven a 2011 Audi A3 (Thanks to Zipcar!), and the dual-clutch transmission really is wonderful. I’d much rather row my own, but I could live with one of their DSGs if I had to share a single car with my wife (Who only really drives automatic). It’s really the torque loss that kills most of the old boxes, but it doesn’t help that lots of older automatics don’t have a “sport” mode which keeps you in lower gears longer, so they often shift at all the wrong times.

    In short, no, older automatics are no good. Instead, perhaps you could build a platform on your property at street level so you can get flat starts? Or even a whole garage if you’re feeling handy. Here in the hills of Northern California, there are a lot of garages built on streets, with houses perched on hillsides above or below. Or maybe try to get into the habit of idling your car for 5 minutes before you set up? That’d get it up to temperature…

    But hey, at least with that angle, if you have to replace anything else, it’s easier to get under there! I loved that picture of your Monte Carlo. =)


  5. For many years I seemed to vacillate from auto to manual and back again, getting sick of crawling along in stop go traffic on Rt 95 in Connecticut, with a manual, then getting bored of an automatic in the replacement car. My cars over the last decade or so have Been;

    Audi 100. (auto)
    Audi 100s (5 speed stick – very rare)
    Audi A6 quattro wagon. ( auto – the only way it came)
    Audi Allroad ( auto with paddle shifters, but still a slush box. Sexy car though)
    VW jetta VR6. 5 speed manual. (clunky gearbox, sweet engine)
    VW Jetta GLI VR6. 6 speed manual. Better gearbox, drove it 54k miles, wife front ended it, a drunk rear ended it, and it still only depreciated $6k in 3 years.

    VW R 32. With DSG ( the only way it came, in the US). Numbered steering wheel, mine was number 468/5000 . This car is hands down the sexiest engine sound this side of a Ferrari. Had it been available with a manual, that’s what I would have bought. However, the DSG is a better gearbox. It’s “manual” ( in that it doesn’t have a torque converter) but shifts quicker than any person could, accelerates quicker than a manual, and has better fuel economy. It even blipped the throttle on downshifts. It had launch control, meaning you put your foot on the brake, floored the throttle ( the rev limiter limited it to 3000 rpm) ” dropped the brake” and kept your foot hard on the gas pedal. (and winced as you took your foot off the brake). It took off like a scalded cat.

    Then I decided I was sick of 22 mpg, and wanted “to do my bit”. Now I have a 2011 VW golf TDI, with a DSG box. The TDI golf in the states is basically a european GTD , but missing 30 HP. Again I agonized over the 6 speed manual, but thoughts of Rt 95 in rush hour prevailed. It had paddle shifters, that I barely have ever used, and I have never put it in “s”. The DSG is ideally suited to the torque of a diesel, and now I relish the 40 plus mpg it gets.It really is the best of both worlds.

    But I still would love an R32 with a stick….

  6. If you continue down this path it ends in a Holden. You’ve been warned.

    If you want to keep the V-8 requirement, you limit your options tremendously in my opinion. Essentially you end up with either a Jaguar XJ8, 12-15-year-old BMW 5 or 7, M-B or Lexus. I’m sure that there are others, but work with me here. For an interesting experience, I’m picking the Jag every time. It’s going to have a 5-speed slushbox with the J-gate shifter which gives a modicum (read: nil) of shift-it-yourself fun. If you choose properly, the car will have the firmer sporting set up rather than the ‘never-feel-the-road’ wallow. You be the judge, but for my money, I love the Jaguar’s old-school insistence that cars should be felt, heard and smelled. The Lexus is on the other end of the spectrum — nary a sound and certainly little feel. The Germans are, well, German.

    If you can see your way clear to a 6-cylinder car, then I’d suggest as new an Audi as you can budget for. The four-wheel-drive is something to be reckoned with as a handling force, and the dual-clutch 6-speed in my 2009 was too good to be true, but it was. The A4 was as good a car as I’ve ever driven regardless of the price tag. It’s that good.

    As I eluded to earlier, the Holden Monaro is really going to be the best bang for the buck. I know that Holden has built four-door performance vehicles that are probably dropping in value like a rock. I don’t know the specs or the reviews, but a modern car with a GM V-8 and some factory tuning would probably win in an objective competition. You’ll never buy one, so go back to my comment about the Jag.

  7. I bought my 2010 9-5 Aero with an automatic (the only transmission available with XWD in the US). It’s really exceptional — the manumatic function works well enough that I’m able to hold the gear when I need to, but let the computer shift the other 90 percent of the time.

    Saab generally has done a good job of integrating automatics with a turbocharged engine. In some ways automatics are better with turbos, because it’s easier to maintain boost pressure during acceleration between upshifts.

    And automatics have improved a lot, particularly since the four speed automatics became standard in the mid-90’s.

  8. Having seen and walked down your driveway Swade, I’m not surprised you’ve burnt out so many clutches! I don’t recall ever being game enough to park my 900 on it 😉

    Can slushboxes be fun? I never would have thought so. I then owned a Merc 190D 2.5, and my girlfriend at the time owned a BMW 316i. Both were autos, and worse, both were hopelessly low powered cars. The Bimmer made a mere 75hp – about as much as an inkjet printer – and needed to be revved above 3000rpm to convince to move with any urgency. The Merc had 92hp apparently, but being a 5-cylinder diesel it made it very slowly, ran out of revs 2000rpm too soon and sounded like a broken tractor all the while, leaving plumes of black smoke behind it. Further slowing matters was the infamous Merc gearbox, which wants to take off in 2nd gear rather than first unless you step on its head or do the secret D-N-D trick to force its hand.

    But here’s the thing – I miss both those cars. Around the city – which was where I lived at the time – they were great runabouts. Being autos, they were great in stop-start traffic, getting in and out of multistory car parks and driving around while shovelling food in your face. But they were both also RWD and had great chassis. The BMW was an absolute go cart; short, light, no overhangs. Throw it into any corner and it just gripped and went for it. It might have had less power than a hair dryer, but you could use all of it… pretty much all the time. I pretty much drove it using three accelerator settings… none, all, and all plus kickdown button. Which possibly explains why I often got 12L/100Km out of an 8V 1.6L 4-cyl engine around town 😀

    The Merc was cushier in its suspension and rolled a bit, but it still gripped on its itty-bitty 185-section wheels and always felt composed, secure and communicative. What it lacked in go-kart fun it made up for as a mile-eating cruiser. Yes, it took many, many seconds to get to highway cruising speeds, but once there it would stay there. In fact it was kinda hard to keep it under 130kmh or so… must be a Euro thing, but it would just find its groove , speedo wouldn’t budge from 130kmh… all the while sipping 7L/100km of the smelly stuff . Given the number of kays I was doing between the north and south of Tassie at the time, it was A Good Thing.

    All that said, for a Sunday car, it needs to be fun, it needs to be about the driving experience. It really needs to be a manual.

    For a daily driver I wouldn’t rule out an auto though. I’ve never been particularly impressed with Saab’s flappy paddle efforts (they’re just regular autos with electronic controls) but Audi’s DSG system is pretty good – it works well as a manual or auto.

  9. My 6er is auto and if you pop it into sport mode it only uses 3 of the 4 gears and it’s a bloody hoot to drive with gusto.

  10. Ok I’ll play the little red horned guy sitting on your right shoulder here Swade.

    Go drive a 928 automatic and experience it, then sit down and have a good hard think and then stop compromising ! You’ve got the poison in your veins now….it’s just a matter of time before you see the light…

    //Mats, who before work will go dry-shift the 964 a few times 😉

    1. It was only a matter of time before this happened…… 🙂

      I just cannot do it with our driveway. And I don’t think it’d provide the kind of ride that Trish would enjoy. Maybe I can do a deal with you to cover half my first clutch replacement?

      All in good time, grasshopper.

  11. Dear Swade

    For me the answer is yes:
    I owned a Rover P6B 3500 which was a V8 with 3 speed auto. I also consider myself a driver and among other cars I owned in Tas were a Fiat 125 Special and a 1991 Mitsubishi Galant VR4, both of which were 5 speed manual’s. I can honestly say I really enjoyed them all in their own different ways. The essence to getting the most from the Rover was left foot braking/ balancing with the Rt foot on the throttle. Seeing as the manual versions of the P6B only came with a 4speed gearbox, having an auto wasn’t that much of a disadvantage.

    Moving on to the current time, I have just purchased a 1991 Saab 900 T16 with Auto – primarily b/c it was a bargain and is in amazing nik. Like the Rover, the guts of the transm. are 3sp Borg-Warner and to my great surprise this set-up really suits the Saab Turbo unit in the car….You could do worse!

  12. BTW I know someone in Tas with a 944 Automatic tucked away which I wouldn’t mind betting would be for sale if approached.

    1. Thanks Ian. I’ve toyed with the idea of a 944 in the past, but it would have to be a Turbo or an S2, and for the 4 cylinder, a manual. So I reckon I’ll bypass that and am looking towards the big daddy.

  13. I’m sure you could have fun with a new Chevrolet Camaro! 6.2 liters of V8 with HUD at the same price as a 9.5 😉

  14. Yes, Swade, absolutely you can have fun with an automatic. And they do not break. Multiple driers are also hard on a clutch because each has a different clutching touch, and let the left foot drag on the pedal. Automatics in normal cars can accelerate more quickly than most drivers can accomplish in a manual, and in hilly city terrain, it is more fun. I do miss shifting at times, but not for long. Our Dame Edna 9-5 is an automatic. I sometimes select the “Sport” mode in heavy traffic or with a full load, because it is more responsive, but I never bother with the shift paddles. Manual shifters are great fun and give better fuel economy, but especially in a larger, heavier car, there is no need to apologize for liking an automatic. If I recall correctly, even Carlson once said that it was the preferred transmission for the OG 9-5.

  15. Its never the same but if you have something small, light and with a manual ‘box tucked away then the daily driver certainly can be ok with a slushbox. My 93 ‘Combi would be a revalation with stick but its a very liveable commuter/cruiser without one. Plus, the manual override is pretty decent. Not the same but decent enough.

  16. As everybody seems to be inferring, the answer is “sometimes”.

    I had a 900 v6 2.5 Auto for a while – v.thirsty but fun, except on twisty roads in a hurry, when it didn’t know which gear to use.

    I experienced the VAG DSG in a hired Golf in Switzerland – very impressed. But… …it’s just two dinky clutches instead on one big one. I fear that driveway would burn it.

    BUT, if you’re trying to reward Mrs Swade for her patience, thrashing an old V8 auto down narrow country lanes might not be the most conducive!!! 😀

  17. I once had the opportunity to drive a 1963 Buick Special. The owner had ditched the original six for a worked Wild Cat engine coupled to a two speed power glide. It was like a rear wheel drive Viggen on steroids. I nearly lost control when I tried the kick down doing 60 km.

  18. My answer is “yes, you can have fun with an automatic”.

    Changing the gears is in my opinion only a part of the driving experience, and not necessarily the major part. Sense of speed, the engine sound and vibration, steering the car around bends, “talking” with the chassis and steering, these are other parts of the driving experience, and these are present also in an automatic transmission automobile.
    Yes, a bad automatic gearbox with a small engine can ruin a lot, but then again you’d not buy one of those…? 🙂

  19. Yes. Unless you happen to live next to the Nurburgring.

    I’m 30 in April and haven’t driven a manual since I sold my Citroen Xantia in 2001. (I once held a long-standing lap record at a go-karting track when I was a teenager, just in case anyone’s thinking he’s not a ‘driver’ etc.)

    Volvo S60 T5 perhaps?

  20. Swade,

    Automatic vs. manual isn’t an age thing. My mom drove a manual into her 70s. If anything, she was glad to be rid of the big automatics after the kids moved out.

    If you are getting an automatic, at least get a car that doesn’t work as a manual (conceptually). Put it this way: if you had an automatic Porsche or BMW, some part of you would think that the manual version of the same car is better.

    I that spirit, I think you need to test drive a Rolls or Bentley that’s near the bottom of its depreciation curve. I’m not kidding. 20K should get you there.

    I’ve always loved the XJ-S (few people did). Any good ones in your area?

    A 1980s E-Class or S-Class would also be good, although you may as well get a diesel one of those (you live half a world away from the Autobahn).

    If you want a more modern ride, look for a VW Phaeton. It is a Bentley in sheep’s clothing. I would rather drive 9-5, but it’s still a remarkable car.

    I don’t know much about Australian cars, so I won’t comment on those.
    On the Japanese side, Mazda has made some interesting big cars that we never got in North America. We also never got the V12 Toyota Century…

    Have fun shopping.

    1. Nothin beats and old cop car — except they are kind of lacking in the comfort luxo area — but my 94 chevy cop car is a real hoot to drive — and it can burn rubber all the way up that driveway!

  21. I absolutely think you can have fun with an automatic. My SAAB 9-3 2008 convertible 2.0t is an absolute blast to drive- it has pep, speed, and a very sporty feel. It also has the ability to put a smile on my face almost immediately.

    One of my favorite things to do is to tool around on windy country roads around the east side of Cleveland with the top down (the XM is a nice touch). If you would like the benefit of the manual, at least there is the “M” option (although I have yet to use it- dad and boyfriend both think it’s lots of fun).

    Anyway, good luck to you on your car hunt!

  22. Get a manual trans! 🙂

    I’m on the north side of 60…and my wife will turn 70 in June. She LOVES her 5-speed ’03 9-5 Aero…won’t part with it…and refuses to drive an automatic.

    Turst me…you’re only as old as you think you are…and we’re NOT old…yet.

    We have four cars, and all are manual trans. The only auto trans car I even briefly considered was a M-B C63 with the paddle shifters…but just couldn’t bring myself to do it.

    Steven…don’t cave in until your left leg has to be amputated. Even then…give it some serious thought. 😉

  23. Yes, you can have heaps of fun with an automatic gearbox.

    I drive a MY04 9-5 with about 290hp and the 5-speed autobox. I do not see any reason to go back to manual shifting, except for the torque limits of this particular gearbox (440nm, still plenty for a lot of fun though).

    All depends on the match between gearbox and engine and the roads you drive. I live in the Netherlands, which is flat as you’ve seen. 95% of my driving is on motorways with often traffic jams. One week of driving with a manual box in traffic jams was more than enough to confirm my choice for the auto gearbox.

    And for the fun part: I often go to the Eifel-area with fellow Saab-drivers. We follow some routes for motorcycles, with a lot of twists, turns, uphills and downhills. The first time I had a lot of fun, but I was unable to keep up due to the torque converter. The second year I started to use the paddles to put it in the proper gear (mostly using just 2nd and 3rd anyway), which really did outdo any performance difference between the manual MY04 9-5 with the same power that my friend drives.

    I guess a testdrive around the type of roads you use, is the only way to tell if it is something for you or not. A 5 -speed box is in my opinion a much much nicer choice than a 4-speed, if that’s a choice you can make.

  24. Yes you can. What it takes is DCT (dual clutch transmission) and powerfull engine + some sophisticated ECU software (no gearchange during cornering etc.).
    Maybe some of the latest ZF (BMW) transmissions are also up the job. But no conventional torque converter ´box can do this, nope.

  25. Yes and no…
    My 2 cents about auto transmission is somewhat diverging.
    Even at a relatively young age, I thought an auto gearbox could be fine in a car with “enough” power:
    I was deeply impressed when my dad tried full throttle on an automatic 280E Mercedes back in the 70ies.
    I drove a friend’s automatic 90 hp VW Golf in the 90ies and I liked it.
    But before I bought my current Saab (9.3 vert, 1.8t with Hirsch) I test drove a 9.3 with auto gearbox – and I didn’t like it!
    Cruising at 130 km/h on German autobahn, it always shifted down to 4th gear when I pressed the accelerator pedal – although a Saab Turbo does not need to.
    So I ordered a manual. And sometimes in every day’s traffic jams I still miss the auto.
    So I got mixed emotions …
    On the other hand, I drove a 9.5-II with both options at the Saab XWDays on small winding mountain roads in Austria. And I must confess I preferred the manual. It feels more quirky – by far.
    My wife’s Golf is a 75 hp VW Golf with auto gearbox and I like it for its driving simplicity. It is really slow and runs in what I call “acceleration-free-mode”, but it is fun anyway. Just jump in, start the engine, shift to “D” and go! Feels almost like a bumper car on a countryside fair 😉

    And last but not least, about “sportyness”:
    Is it more sporty to open your garage door by hand instead of remote control?
    Is it more sporty to walk to your TV set to switch channels instead of using remote?
    Is it more sporty to wind up or down your car windows instead of using electric windows?
    No? So why should it be more sporty shift gears by hand instaed of using an auto gearbox???

  26. No, never enjoyed an automatic before.
    They just give me a sleepy leg.
    And the recent trend of switchgear at the steering column doesn’t help either.
    The interaction of switching gears with turning in etc., the moment to change gear up and especially down, I never get it right with an automatic one.

    And yes, it is more sporty to walk the tele to switch canals. I recall the seventies, we even had to turn the antenna to get a better recieving of i.e. german or dutch canals over here in Belgium. Or the garage door, or turning the dials of the phone.

    I prefer the manual thing in many things, it seems. A bit old-fashioned, that is.

  27. Absolutely you can have fun because there comes a point in one’s life when there can sometimes be no choice. I have driven over 3 million miles mainly in manual SAABs and at age 63 both my knees are shot. I still own my SQR Tunned, Stage III 2001 Viggen which is my Summer and SAAB Convention car. I have all the fun I need when I want to, but my every day car is my 2007 9-5 Aero Combi. I have the ultimate utility of the wagon but very comfortable ride and super performance. For city driving it is a no brainer. I still use the paddle shifters when in light freeway traffic and always when towing. Between the 2 cars it is a marriage made in Heaven.

    In 2007 I spend a fun-filled Track-Day at Waterford Hills, in Michigan with the 9-5. This was part of that year’s Convention (my Viggen was also driven there by a friend). The manual paddle shifters were still the same fun and the 2007 engine made the car a surprising, agile animal on the track.

    In 2010 I drove to the summit of Pikes Peak, CO and down again in 2 hours and it was every much as fun as driving up to the summit of Mt. Washington, NH last summer.

  28. Hi Swade,

    My tuppence worth – I had a 1992 Range Rover V8 petrol for about 5 or 6 years, which was a hoot. It’s not sporty though; it would roll considerably, but you could actually provoke it. It did sound great though! Mrs Swade might also appreciate its ride height and expansive 1970s view past the slim pillars. Consumption at 22mpg on a cruise, it was ok. and mine was pretty much leak free. I also ran a 2007 Audi A8 diesel V8 – very rapid, 30+ mpg, but little soul.

  29. The question as you pose it is a difficult one. Why? Two answers. For a car that you have to use every day, it’s simple, take the autobox. You can only beat the gear change time by recklessly pulling the lever regardless of the consequences on service life. After a busy day at work you’re not that good a driver anymore, you need your attention on the road and the traffic, not on the gear change.
    Ten years ago, the number of trucks with automated gearboxes was low, now (at least in EU) it’s more than 96%. Ten years ago an average trucker would slam you if you told him he would be driving an autobox. They all felt that they were better shifters. They all changed their mind.
    Yesterday, Honda tried to convince me that for a new tranche of police motorcycles, I really should consider their DCT-box. Their main reason: lower costs.
    And after all: you don’t crank your engine any more with a crank to get it started, you no longer have two levers on your steering wheel for mixture and ignition timing. So why then change gears yourself?
    The only reason for changing gears yourself is because you know what comes ahead and your car doesn’t.
    That’s why we call an autobox sometimes the slushbox.
    But that does not necessarily take away all the fun.
    Having fun starts with power, not with auto or manual.