Johannesburg - When I first started driving we had a saying: “You don’t drive an automatic car, you merely point it.” We pretty much grew up with the notion that real drivers preferred manuals and an automatic car was something your middle-aged aunt drove.

And it wasn’t just the boy-racers in us guiding this notion, some rose-tinted view that we were double-clutching and heel-and-toeing heroes. Well, maybe just a bit.

Mainly it was because those early torque-converter automatics were truly terrible things to drive. They continuously hunted for gears, the shifts weren’t particularly smooth, and they took ages to kick down when you needed a quick overtaking blast.

But things have changed in the world of two-pedalled cars. Not only have they become eminently more pleasant to drive (generally) but some of them have also crossed the coolness Rubicon.

'Slipping clutch' effect  

Looking at more humble automatics, a gearbox concept that divides opinion is the continuously variable transmission used in cars such as the Honda Jazz and Subaru XV. Instead of toothed gears, a CVT uses a belt on a cone to produce a seamless power delivery. These can have a disconcerting ‘slipping clutch’ effect when you accelerate hard, so the modern ones are programmed with ‘steps’ to make them feel more like a regular automatic - which rather defeats the whole object of seamless shifts.

The antithesis of seamless shifts were the automated-manual gearboxes used in cars such as the BMW SMG and Alfa-Romeo Selespeed, and I’m glad we’ve seen their demise. These semi-automatics were perfect for racetracks but felt very jerky in normal driving. The worst exponents of this automated-manual tech were Daimler’s early Smart cars, which threatened seasickness with the way they rocked you back and forth. The third-generation Smart, I’m happy to say, changes gears with far more grace now that it’s inherited a dual-clutch automatic.

Suzuki has recently revived automated-manual technology in some of its cars, although we haven’t yet driven them to comment on whether they’ve improved.

Dual -clutch transmissions, such as Porsche’s paddle shift PDK (pictured), Volkswagen’s DSG and BMW’s M-DCT are the best of the automatic breed today.

The best of the automatic breed today are the dual-clutch transmissions such as Porsche’s PDK which ensure swift and smooth changes by employing two separate clutches. Millisecond-quick shifts take place with minimal interruption of torque by applying the engine’s torque to one clutch at the same time as it is being disconnected from the other clutch.

If you ever get a chance, drive a dual-clutch Porsche or Ferrari to experience the pinnacle of this engineering genius. Or if you don’t move in such lofty circles, a Volkswagen Golf DSG, BMW M-DCT or Audi S tronic are also exceptional examples of how far autos have come since my aunt’s Chevrolet Chevair.

In recent years torque-converter transmissions have also improved greatly, with much quicker and smoother gearshifts, and without the shift shock that rocked you back and forth as gears were changed in old-school autos. Not only are modern autos smoother, but many also offer sport and economy modes which adapt to your mood and fuel budget at the press of a button.

Launch control

Higher-performance auto cars today have quicker off-the-line acceleration than their manual counterparts, and some have launch control functions that hike the revs before ‘dropping the clutch’. And if you do want to get more involved than just pointing the car, you can manually shift using the gearstick or in some cases paddle shifters on the steering. This, incidentally, is where the aforementioned coolness part comes in.

Although there are some purists who still insist on manual gearboxes in sports cars, they’re in a dwindling minority. Most sports-car brands - Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Mercedes-AMG included - don’t offer manual cars anymore. Porsche still does, but most of its customers choose the PDK versions.

BMW also still offers manual high-performance cars such as the M2, M3, and M4, but the vast majority of buyers still opt for its two-pedalled versions (99 percent in the case of the M3/M4 and 90 percent of M2 buyers).

In stop-start commuting an automatic is clearly a much more relaxed choice than having to operate a clutch and gearlever, but it’s good to see automatics are also catering to enthusiast drivers who like to drive, and not just point.

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