Diesels and manual gearboxes – enjoy them while you can

15 July 2010

Over dinner, hosted by Volvo in the City of London, the conversation turns to electric cars. “Aren’t they a bit soulless?” asks one of our fellow diners. “No gears to change, no involvement? Just press and go?” There’s a murmur of agreement – but not from those around the table who’ve actually driven one.

Unless you’ve driven an EV, it’s hard to imagine exactly how involving the experience can be. The smooth delivery, the absence of noise - it makes you feel more connected to the road, not less, as if you’ve taken off a pair of thick woollen mittens for the first time.

A while later, the topic lands on twin-clutch gearboxes. One of our number, a staffer at Autocar, notes how the technology has transformed expectations about what can be done to combine both economy and urge. Dual-clutch boxes switch gears rapidly and seamlessly without human intervention, and after a few miles you cease to think about which gear you might be in and concentrate instead on the road. They can drop gears with more commitment than the average driver, making up for a relatively weedy engine, or change up promptly to encourage thrift.

It’s an interesting contrast. The electric car and the dual-clutch gearbox will both take us in the same direction – away from involvement with gears.

Give it a couple of decades and drivers will no doubt marvel that anyone ever wanted to swap cogs by hand, wrestling with a stick sprouting from the floor. Sooner than we might expect, the manual gearbox will graunch off into the sunset, going the way of the choke, the carburettor, and the spark-advance lever.

But we’ve strayed off topic. The occasion for our meal together is the launch of Volvo’s latest Emissions Equality campaign, an attempt to highlight the various nasties that emerge from exhaust pipes besides carbon dioxide – notably NOx, particulates and unburned hydrocarbons.

Volvo believes that the current focus on CO2 as a basis for car taxation – and as a shorthand for a car’s cleanliness – paints only half of a picture. Instead it is proposing a new colour-coded labelling scheme for air pollutants other than CO2, so that showroom stickers will present not one but two red-amber-green indicators, one for CO2 and another for air-quality impact. In the US, a similar dual-score system is already in use.

Volvo hopes to persuade its fellow car makers that there is merit in cleaning up their act, or at least clearly labelling it, with a further aim of influencing lawmakers to look beyond g/km of CO2.

If Volvo’s efforts succeed, it may go some way to reversing the current popularity of diesel engines, which are lauded for their low CO2 emissions even while they churn out microscopic soot particles that mess up the lungs of small children.

There are alternatives - advanced petrol-based powertrains, like Fiat’s MultiAir engines, Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive and GM’s Voltec range extender, all tackle CO2 but do so without the soot.

We hope Volvo’s efforts get off the ground. You can follow its progress, and add your voice, via Twitter or Facebook.

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