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The Volkswagen Golf GTI is currently, and has long been, one of the best and most popular examples of the hot-hatch formula – as much as many would like to argue the point.
With its front-wheel-drive layout, punchy engine and compact dimensions, the Mk7 Volkswagen Golf GTI is not only supremely competent, it’s also vastly entertaining. But what impact, if any, do transmissions have on that entertainment factor? To put it simply: which is more fun, stick or paddles?
Now, it’s important to highlight from the start that this a question that affects more vehicles than the Golf GTI and far more brands than solely Volkswagen.
True, the German car maker first introduced the direct-shift gearbox (DSG) – or dual-clutch transmission (DCT) – into a series production road car in 2003 with the original Volkswagen Golf R32. But paddle-shifted automated manual-type transmissions had already been seen in high-end street cars since the late 1990s – notably the Ferrari 355 F1 and SMG-equipped E36 BMW M3.
The proliferation of these transmissions, however, has been more impressive. According to Volkswagen Australia, since the arrival of the Mk6 Golf in 2009, DSG transmissions have become the dominant sales choice for local buyers and now claim a 90 per cent take-up rate in the current market.
With the majority of manufacturers reporting similar sales splits in favour of paddle-equipped models and away from those with traditional three pedal-setups, many marques have been forced to bow to the trend, even – or especially – when it comes to performance models. From Audi and BMW to Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and Renault, the option to select a traditional manual gearbox is becoming ever more scarce or, in some cases, entirely non-existent.
Ferrari and Lamborghini now claim they won’t even make a manual transmission anymore, and last year the poster child for performance car purity, the iconic Porsche 911 GT3, was unveiled sans a third pedal for the first time ever in the hardcore model’s life.
So with all this in mind, let’s meet our contenders.
Our two test cars for the day will be a Carbon Steel Grey manual and a Tornado Red DSG.
Attached to a list priced of $41,990, our grey GTI teams a 162kW/350Nm turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engine with a six-speed manual transmission and is as standard as they come – meaning uber-cool Clark tartan sport seats and golf ball-style gear knob.
Coming at a $2500 premium, the $44,490 red GTI packs the same engine and outputs but features a six-speed dual-clutch transmission and paddles fitted to either side of its leather-bound flat-bottom steering wheel. Red-stitched heated leather seats have also been optioned in for an additional $3150.
Both claim identical 6.5sec 0-100km/h times and both make do with Volkswagen's extended electronic differential lock (XDL), rather than the electronically controlled limited-slip front differential found in the more powerful but dearer Golf GTI Performance.
The DSG is also 11 kilograms heavier than its 1313kg manual counterpart and claims a higher average fuel consumption figure at 6.6L/100km (versus the manual’s 6.2L/100km). And while both ride on matching 18-inch Austin alloy wheels wrapped in 225mm-wide 40-aspect rubber, the manual rolls on Continental SportContact2 tyres, the DSG Bridgestone Potenzas. Numbers all squared away, it’s time for the real challenge.
Taking into consideration the Volkswagen Golf GTI’s excellent on-road flexibility and usability, focusing solely on performance (i.e. with a track test) would be far from a complete test. Based on this then, we have devised four tests that each car will complete.
The first will be a five kilometre hills run through a tasty stretch of winding Victorian forest road. CarAdvice’s own preeminent paddle aficionado, Anthony Crawford, will be in charge of the DSG, and yours truly the manual. The passenger will be tasked with not only avoiding ‘twisty tummy’ syndrome but also counting the number of gear changes taken to complete the run.
Not timed, and most definitely not a race, the goal here is simply to record how many times each car swaps cogs over the same section of road.
Test two will see Tony behind the wheel of both cars for a true measure of man and machine, the much-maligned parallel park.
The battle of wits – and transmissions – will continue with a three-point turn-off handled by myself, before the day’s conclusion: a peak-hour traffic stint steering our initial cars. Let the games begin…
ON THE ROAD
With both cars’ touchscreen-operated selectable driver profile system in our ideal ‘Individual’ mode – adaptive chassis control and steering in ‘Normal’, engine and transmission in ‘Sport’ – we are primed and ready for Test One. Tony’s first at the helm of the red DSG, while over in the passenger seat my trigger finger hovers above the official counter’s silver clicker.
Now, given Volkswagen has, in the past, claimed DSG shift times of around eight milliseconds, keeping track of gear changes can be no mean feat. So to ensure a modicum of legitimacy, several runs are to be completed with the goal being to come up with an average gear change number per car.
Vomit and incident free, Tony manhandles the paddles an average of 23 times per run.
A quick swap of cars, and seats, and we tackle the identical leg again, this time with my ginger self charged with juggling the grey car’s trio of pedals.
Another stack of runs down and the results are in: the manual averaging 15 shifts per run – eight fewer than in the red DSG.
Fun enough to have Tony questioning his original preconceived bias towards paddles, the manual easily feels the more engaging of the two and allows braking to be done later and gear changes to be completed at will. The paddles win out for sheer speed of shifts, of course, and also ensure hands never have to leave the wheel. The exhaust ‘blurts’ that punctuate every paddle click also never fail to put smiles on dials.
Too early to pick a winner, we move out of the woods and into civilisation for the remaining tests.
Increasing the difficulty of Tony’s parallel parking task – and putting that little bit of added pressure on our co-founder and his reputation – our chosen parking space is located on a steep downhill incline on the right-hand side of the road.
Helping the cause, however, are the reversing camera and parking sensors now fitted as standard on the Volkswagen Golf GTI. And for the record, neither car is equipped with the auto park assist function included as part of the model’s $1300 driver assistance package, so there can be no cheating.
Fast quelling any possible inkling of nerves, Tony seamlessly parks first the red DSG, then the Grey manual, finding engagement of reverse gear in both cars quick and trouble free.
Tony says that while the six-speed gearbox in the manual GTI isn’t quite as fluid as the six-speeder in the base Golf 90TSI, it still slides into gear with almost no effort and throwing hill-start assist into the mix makes parallel parking on an incline a breeze.
The parking prize, however, must go to the DSG Volkswagen Golf GTI.
With the low-speed jitters and hesitation that plagued earlier versions of the dual-clutch transmission all but a distant memory, Tony concludes the red GTI is comfortably easier to park than its grey manual rival.
Onto the three-point turn and the pressure is now on my own shoulders to test first hand how both transmissions deal with that moment you realise you’ve just driven past the street you were looking for.
Jumping into the manual first and things are a simple and straightforward affair. Arrive in first gear, turn hard right towards the kerb, snick the notchy gear lever into reverse, roll the car back while unwinding lock, back into first and we’re away.
Swapping into the DSG and my doubts about how the transmission will handle the sudden stop-start nature of the task are hard to mask, but all for not. Barring a minor pause between selecting reverse and the car permitting backwards drive – repeated going from reverse to drive – the challenge is completed almost as seamlessly as in the grey GTI.
So still not a lot to chose between the two at this point then. Let’s see if a stint in bumper-to-bumper traffic changes the landscape any…
Sitting in the middle of brake-light city brings little joy to anyone. But while the grey Volkswagen Golf GTI and I are getting all too familiar with the process of slowly clutching out, crawling forward several millimetres and quickly clutching in again, Tony is in full auto mode in the red GTI with his stress levels, and his car’s paddle shifters, oblivious to the situation’s aggravations.
Sure, the manual allows you the option to rest the gear lever in neutral when stationary, but when it comes to the urban grind, it’s hard to go past the DSG for overall ease and simplicity.
Tony concurs saying that in its latest and now smoother guise, the DSG transmission operates much more like a standard torque-converter automatic transmission, making the peak-hour crawl effortless and a far more relaxing experience than in the manual GTI.
Stick versus paddles or manual versus DSG is a difficult question, as we found out. A lot has to do with personal preference and individual factors such as the way you like to drive and what or where the majority of your driving may be.
And, while we weren’t specifically looking at running costs in this particular back to back, it’s interesting to note that over the first three years of servicing, both Volkswagen Golf GTIs will set you back the same amount under the car maker’s capped-price scheme ($1305 including a pollen filter and brake fluid replacement at the two-year mark).
Over our combined 165km test day, however, the manual did prove 13 per cent more fuel efficient than the DSG – 11.2L/100km versus 12.8L/100km – despite both cars completing identical tests and being driven in an identical manner.
Regardless of which side of the fence you sit, there’s no denying the Mk7 Volkswagen Golf GTI is an impressive and capable steerer that proudly carries forward a legacy that started with the original GTI almost 40 years ago. Happy to argue about plenty – food and table tennis to name a couple of things – Tony and I can at least agree on that.
Tony’s pick: Through the twisties, the manual transmission is simply a cut above the DSG for sheer driver engagement and entertainment. Having to shift gears yourself may not be to everyone’s taste, but it allows for far greater control of the car into and out of corners and makes swapping cogs possible at precisely the engine speeds you desire. That said, if commuting in city traffic is a daily affair, then I’d still have to go with the DSG and its paddles. It’s simply easier.
Dave’s pick: An absolute blast through our forest roads and fractionally smoother in the three-point turn challenge, the grey Golf GTI confirmed my unashamed advocacy of manual transmissions throughout the day. But ignoring the impressive flexibility and versatility a DSG-type paddle-shifted transmission provides – particularly in heavy traffic or when the sole purpose of a trip is to transport you from point A to point B – is pure frivolity. And while I was thrilled to see Tony right on the cusp of jumping ship to the three-pedal society following his time through the bends, my money still goes to the manual every time. Being able to actually ‘drive’ a car is far too tempting a proposition to pass up.
*Note: Volkswagen Golf GTI DSG supplied with thanks to Bayford Volkswagen.