Some car enthusiasts still loathe the automatic transmission, but these modern self-shifters are top-shelf units that even diehards can’t ignore.
Gone are the days of slow-shifting four-speed automatics in sports cars. We went through a brief era of the five-speed ‘tiptronic’ automatic, some with push-button steering wheel-mounted +/- buttons, but even John West would reject those.
Real advances came with the dual-clutch transmission design that dominates our top five, but there are also traditional torque converter automatics that hand out ratios as effectively as a casino card dealer.
1. Porsche 911 and Boxster/Cayman PDK
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 911, Porsche performed 50 full throttle launch control starts in a seven-speed dual-clutch-equipped 991 faster than you can say doppelkupplungsgetriebe – the name of the transmission, but shortened to PDK.
The combination of thumping upshifts, aggressive auto-timed downshifts and tightly spaced ratios is enough, but clearly such special Stuttgart engineering has resulted in transmission longevity too.
It’s best sampled beyond 8000rpm in a 911 GT3 RS, where you can even pull both paddles at once and uncouple both clutches to, “neutralise the driving behaviour of the vehicle when oversteering in a wet curve, thus redirecting additional cornering force to the wheels of the rear axle”.
2. Ferrari 458 Italia/Spyder/Speciale
The delicious 458 has just handed the baton to the newly turbocharged 488, but we are yet to drive one on local soil. When a transmission is working beyond 9000rpm with a flat-plane-crank 4.5-litre V8 engine it needs to be a good one, and the Ferrari seven-speed dual-clutch is as finely honed as expected.
Via the paddles, gearshifts are simply instant, up or down, and the throttle blipping and rev-matching plays to the hands (or hearts) of such a screaming engine.
It is a clever thing in the torqued-up turbo California T, too, the computers feeding in power to achieve throttle linearity rather than turning boost on like a light switch.
3. Audi R8 S tronic
Double the clutches make the Audi R8 at least twice as appealing in automatic form. The original 2007-era R8 had an awful single-clutch gearbox that was clunky and indecisive, though decent for track work.
Fast forward to this year’s second-generation model and a seven-speed dual-clutch unit joins contemporary standards both technically and in driveability.
Audi has stuck with natural aspiration and a mighty V10 for R8 round-two and it is a fine partner for the three-mode S tronic gearbox to work with. In its most track-focused mode it is possible to leave the paddles alone and let the computers deliver immaculately timed shifts.
4. BMW 228i/330i/340i
Arguably the best relatively affordable automatic on the market is BMW’s ZF-sourced eight-speed automatic in any number of 1 Series, 2 Series, 3 Series, 4 Series and 5 Series models – in fact, there are about as many ‘Series’ models as the gearbox has ratios.
The way the manual mode allows downshifts that throw the tachometer right to redline is inspired in a world of autos preserving their insides with restrictive downshifting. If we hear one more beep one more time…
Unlike some dual-clutchers, this torque converter is impeccably smooth and smart even when trundling around town, yet the Clark Kent suit quickly gets stripped off when fast flying is called for.
5. Mitsubishi Evolution X
Back in 2008 when the Evo X launched the dual-clutch transmission was far from prevalent. Yet here it was in six-speed Twin Clutch Sportronic Shift Transmission (TC-SST) guise mounted underneath a humble Lancer.
It may not be the smoothest unit around – although it was like sheen on parquetry flooring compared with the GT-R and Godzilla’s similar design that launched a year earlier – but flick a toggle switch to its most aggressive setting, and heaven awaits.
Aggressive is perhaps an understatement to describe how brutal and immediate the TC-SST was in handing out downshifts when under brakes coming into a corner. It was so perfect the paddles were virtually redundant – and this was years before more expensive cars mastered the beauty of an aggressive sports auto setting.