Why manual cars rule in the snow

Published: 19 January 2010

We don’t often get heavy snow in this country, but when we do I find myself longing for one thing in a car, and it isn’t four-by-four; it’s a manual gearbox. Another bout of snow hit CAR HQ yesterday, and I'm glad the Scirocco R I was heading home didn't have a DSG 'box.

Much as we marvel at the smoothness and frugality of each successive generation of dual-clutch gearbox, they simply don’t give you the level of control you get with a manual. Last March, for instance, I couldn’t leave my own street because the Jaguar XF’s slusher was stuck in first gear and its rear tyres flailed helplessly, ditto an Audi R8 R-Tronic on a snowy Spanish hillside. With a manual I’d have slotted second gear, job done.

Then this year the cold snap finished off a relative’s ageing battery, but she couldn’t bump-start it because it was – ta-da! – an auto.

I’m not anti-auto, and I recognise that some cars – like the XF – just don’t suit a self-shifter, but I enjoy the direct connection a three-pedal car gives you, and, you know what, I can even bear to change gear myself in town.

When you factor in the extra cost of an auto, the fact that the technology often ages badly – the current M5 is now spoiled only by its clunky SMG transmission – and the extra expense and complication of repairing elderly items that fail (see Alfa Selespeed or E46 M3 SMG), whether that be software glitches or hydraulic pump failures, I’m much more inclined to vote manual.

And, yes, four-wheel drive would help, but I find the extra weight, fuel consumption and complexity it brings unnecessary in a largely snow-free climate (especially as we move into an era when all cars will have to be fitted with stability control) and, in many but not all cases, it often blunts the driving experience too.

It’s a manual two-wheel driver for me, then, whatever the weather.

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By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator