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Hot Hatches And The Semi-Auto ‘Box

A £30,000 hot hatch is basically the same as a £500,000 supercar.  Confused?  So am I, however this seems to be the rather unfortunate case when it comes to today’s hot hatch.  And to be honest, it’s a bit worrying.

It seems as if since the beginning of the century the international enthusiast community has been in a bit of a civil war over the topic of driver involvement.  In one corner you have the driving enthusiasts who choose to argue that a fast lap time is the most imperative aspect of a performance car, and all things that must be done, should be done in order to achieve such.

Whether that be the most advanced traction control system on the road or a dual-clutch transmission that shifts faster than you can bat an eye, in their minds, every tenth matters.

However, in the other corner you have the purists, the sort of people who would instead choose to argue that in many of today’s performance cars, driver involvement is about as alive as the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

In their eyes, a performance car isn’t a proper performance machine if it doesn’t come equipped a load less driver aids, three pedals in the footwell, and a stick on the transmission tunnel that moves about.

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Now usually when it comes to the dual-clutch debate, I can understand both sides.  I may not walk around town with ‘I Love DCT’ plastered on my chest, however I’ll admit that I can perfectly understand why the engineers behind the 991 GT3 said, ‘PDK or the highway.’

But it’s the topic of the semi-auto-only transmission decision and hot hatches that truly ‘grinds my gears’ (sorry for the pun, it was just too easy).

The reason being is that I feel that the decision to not offer a manual goes against nearly everything the hot hatch stands for.  There’s something magical about hitting an up or downshift just right that adds to the sheer brilliance and fun of the driving experience, something that tiptoes on the borderline of magical.

And that something is exactly what the hot hatch was based off of; bringing awe-inspiring driving thrills to those who couldn’t go out and buy the latest from Maranello or Woking.  And how were those thrills brought about?  By taking a rather ordinary concept, and retaining the standard practicality while adding a bit of sportiness to the suspension and a touch of pizazz to the engine.

And finally, a bit like how a bow is the perfect way to top off the perfect gift, such was the manual gearbox on the original hot hatch, the sole, instrumental tool that could decide the car’s attitude at a push of the leg and a flick of the wrist.

Now I realize that marketing and sales play a vital role in the final decision to go dual-clutch or not; today’s drivers would rather click a button then go through the ‘laborious’ effort of shifting gears manually.  Maybe it’s me, but even with those statistics I fail to understand how much of an inconvenience or waste of money it can be to offer the manual as an option, just as manufacturers did all those years back when Formula 1 ’box  technology first hit public roads.

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And while hot hatch makers may be trained to respond that the reason to go semi-auto was because of “sales,” I remain convinced that all of it has to do with lap and 0-60 times.

And that’s where the problem sources from.  Honestly, when did the naught-to-sixty time begin to become the signing of a check on a 200 horsepower hot hatch?  As cool as ‘0-60 in 4.9 seconds with the DCT’ sounds, hot hatches were built for driver involvement and fun, not lap times and 0-60 runs — leave that bit up to the Porsche GT3.

Fortunately for hot hatch purists such as myself, internet classifieds are chock-full of manual hatchbacks that can drop the kids off at school, the dog at the vet, and then leave you hooting and hollering as you lift the inside rear-wheel on a tight left-hander on the way to work.

The upshot is that we purists at least want the ability to be able to opt for the manual.  Sometimes the semi-auto is downright better than the do-it-yourself ‘box, in which case, it’s a bit obvious which one to go for.  However, there have been countless times in which the manual is just too irresistible to decline.  But at least give us the option to play eeny-meeny-miny-mo.

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3 Comments

  • Ross Jukes Says

    Great article Brad, though I’m more of a fan of 80’s and 90’s Hot Hatches and they’re all manual!

  • James Butler Says

    Im a purist in the sense of i want no driver aids at all. My e30 has ABS and thats it and i love it for that exact reason. No flappy paddles or traction control, just me and the car and some driving skill. The art of driving is being taken away from drivers these days with manufacturers giving us too many aids for safety reasons.

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