The joy of Ferrari's automatic transmission

Ferrari automatic transmission in Ferrari California T

THE right place for a manual transmission isn’t something powerful and sporty. In a car packing 400kW or more in its engine compartment, two pedals is just the right number. Especially if that car is a Ferrari.

Both the Maranello-made cars I’ve spent time with this year had truly great gearboxes. The most recent occasion was the launch of the GTC4 Lusso, the prettier and much improved update of the FF, staged among the Dolomite Mountains near Italy’s border with Austria. And earlier in the year, before spring began to warm Italy’s air, there had been three memorable days in Tuscany in a Ferrari 488 Spider.

The first has a non-turbo V12. The second has a twin-turbo V8. Both have seven-speed dual-clutch transmissions. Shifting gears with the shapely and sturdy paddles mounted on their steering columns was everything you’d expect; almost instant and deftly co-ordinated.

But what was truly awe-inspiring was that these Ferrari transmissions are able to establish telepathic connection with the driver’s mind. Left in self-shifting Auto mode, they swiftly sense any alteration in driving style.

Caught, say, behind a slow tourist who’s taking in the scenery, shifts will be early, smooth, leisurely. Snatch the opportunity to overtake on the last short straight before a mountain pass, stuff it hard into the first corner, and the car realises what’s going on. Immediately it begins holding gears longer, shifting up at higher revs, and making perfectly timed, throttle-blipping downshifts while braking.

It’s a mystery to me exactly how they do it.

Sensors are involved, obviously. But what combination of (and I’m guessing here) speed and extent of throttle opening, yaw rate, rate of steering angle change, brake pressure and g-forces Ferrari uses I couldn’t begin to figure out. What I do know is that whoever wrote the software that sucks up the data and spits out exactly the drivetrain behaviour any decent driver would want is a genius.

Maybe you think I’m exaggerating; this is not the case. On the Ferrari GTC4 Lusso drive, I shared a car with fellow Wheels contributor Stephen Corby. After spanking the big four-seater down a pass in Auto, I asked Corby what he thought of its drivetrain control software. He looked confused at first. He thought it had been me playing the symphony for seven speeds on the paddle-shifters. “That was the car?” he asked, disbelief in his tone.

Yet while Ferrari is producing software good enough to fool experts, plenty of people who count themselves car and driving enthusiasts are fighting to preserve the manual gearbox, even though it will inevitably take longer to lap a track and use more fuel on the road. And there are enough fans of slowness and inefficiency out there to sway carmakers. Thanks mainly to insistent whining from America, Porsche has promised it will continue to offer manuals in many of its sports cars.

I wonder how many will rally to the cause of preserving the paddle-shifter? As Ferrari is demonstrating with its telepathic drivetrain management software, the day is surely coming when they will no longer be needed.

Where to stick it

So where do manual transmissions belong if not in powerful sports cars? In my opinion, it’s in small and cheap cars. To me, an automatic in something like a Citroen C4 Cactus is just plain wrong…

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