Discover the Art of Real Road Driving Part II: Tip-tronic Gearboxes Explained

By Julian Smith

If you have a car with one of these tip-tronic gearboxes, do you know how to use it so as to get the best driving experience?

Do you have a car that has one of those tip-tronic gearboxes?  You know, the type that offers you either fully automatic transmission as well as a semi-automatic mode, and which allows you to select gears manually via paddles or buttons on the steering column.

Like a lot of the technology that finds its way into our road cars, tip-tronic systems began life on the race track. The idea was that of saving milliseconds otherwise lost when performing a true manual gear change, thus also allowing the driver to remain with two hands on the steering wheel.

The first road cars to receive this technology were high-end machines, such as those from Ferrari, Lamborghini and alike, but over the last 5-years or so the cars being driven by ordinary people are being equipped with tip-tronic systems. Undoubtedly, and very soon, all cars will be built this way.

So, what is this article all about? Well, the thing is, if you have a car with one of these tip-tronic gearboxes, do you know how to use it so as to get the best driving experience? That might seem a silly question, but meeting many people with their cars as we do, we find that most have never even tried the semi-automatic option. We have met some people who have offered fierce resistance to experimenting with it.

You might well say that all you need do is stick this thing into fully auto mode and then press the loud pedal, and that gets you to where you want to go, but what an awful driving experience. You won’t see it as awful though, because at the moment you will not have sampled anything any different. But just stick with us for a while, because now you are going to sample the benefits of taking a more active part in driving your car and all from the comfort of your chair.

Car designers would love to be able to create the perfect driving experience, but are hampered by two factors; one is unpredictable and the other unmoveable.

You’re pretty much okay on a motorway, or other fast-flow trunk road, but head for the hills and things get very different. The main issue here is that cornering and driving in fully automatic mode in this environment isn’t too bad, if you are driving something small and light, like Toyota Yaris, although the driving experience of even that can be greatly improved in one of those by use of the right technique. The real seasickness experience comes more from big heavy cars, like the large executive models.

Car designers would love to be able to create the perfect driving experience, but are always hampered by two factors; one of which is unpredictable and the other unmoveable. The unpredictable one is the driver, as people are individuals and by definition no two will be exactly the same. The unmoveable aspect is the boundaries set by the laws of physics and whilst a human being has the potential to be trained to achieve better performance, the laws of physics are non-negotiable.

Every inanimate object on the planet, when set into motion, will travel in a straight line; that is unless it is subjected to an interfering force. Fire a bullet from a gun, an arrow from a bow, or just throw a ball, and each will travel straight, unless affected by something like a crosswind. Therefore, to make something travel through a curve you are asking it to perform an unnatural act and to achieve it you will need to apply force and in a different direction.

The natural direction of travel of your car, of course, will be straight ahead and therefore to make it steer around a bend will take a great deal of effort. That effort comes from your front tyres and the heavier the car the greater the required effort to steer it away from the straight ahead course.

So, how does this tie in with gearboxes? Well, one of the most negative issues with automatic gearboxes is that of the lack of control over the vehicle they offer. Drive along at any given speed, lift your foot off the gas and the car just runs on and on. This means you spend an awful lot of your time on the brakes. What it also means is that when you come to corners it is like being at sea in a boat, as the thing pitches and yaws its way around.

Using the semi-automatic gearbox mode provides you as a driver with far more control over the car, not just in terms of when gears are selected, but also over the poise and balance of the car.

A car is at its most stable attitude when travelling in a straight line, and also when the engine is driving it along, but not accelerating. The balance is as good as it gets at this point, and even when cornering a car will be as stable as it can be under those conditions when it is being driven through a bend. Think back to the reference to boats and what happens when the throttle on the boat engine is closed. Yes, the thing just wallows all over the place.

Another negative issue with automatic gearboxes is that they will insist in changing gear at the wrong time. You don’t want the thing to select the next gear mid-way through a bend, because that upsets the balance of the car. You need to be driving in a responsive gear on entry to the curve and be able to maintain that gear throughout. The gear change should occur at the other side of the bend, where the road is straight.

Using the semi-automatic gearbox mode provides you as a driver with far more control over the car, not just in terms of when gears are selected, but also over the poise and balance of the car. It also has the ability to make driving in environments such as towns and cities a less stressful experience.


Driving a Bend

Imagine driving a winding B-class road. By selecting your semi-automatic gear mode the first thing you will notice is that when you hold the car at mid-range gear, when you lift your foot off the gas the car will immediately begin to slow. The great thing about this is that if you can anticipate far enough ahead there will be a need to reduce speed, such as the approach to a bend, by lifting your foot you can very often arrive at the bend at the right speed. Therefore, you will not need to apply the brakes.

You will also realise that when holding the car in a responsive gear whilst driving it through the curve (not lifting off the power and no brakes to be used) the thing will not only feel so much better planted on the road, but for all on board this will be a far more comfortable cornering experience. This does mean though you have to set the car up in the right gear and at the right speed before there is any input given through the steering.

When it comes to a series of bends, by developing the art of easing and squeezing the gas pedal, a winding B-Class road can be despatched with both grace and pace. 


When in Town, Change Down  

Town driving is made a much more stressful affair than it needs to be and whilst an automatic gearbox is perceived to make town driving easier, most of the time it makes the process more stressful. Again, take more control over the car by holding it in a mid-range gear. Then, by anticipating changing road and traffic conditions it is possible to drive through a busy environment with very little use of the brakes and by keeping the car moving. This is more relaxing and is also a whole lot smoother than dancing between gas pedal and brake.  

For more information on this topic or more advanced driving advice, hints and tips, please visit:

About the Author

Julian Smith received the benefit of many advanced driver training courses during his long career as a police officer, during which time he achieved the ultimate advanced driving accolade; the Police Class One advanced driving certificate. He also qualified a vehicle examiner, a LGV Class-1 licence holder and 4×4 off-road instructor. Julian is also an approved DSA driving instructor, but does not regard that in such positive terms. Joining Ride Drive in 1998, and then becoming company owner in 2004, Julian still remains as passionate as ever about his work. The idea is, no matter what you drive, from a Fiesta to a Ferrari, or where you are in the UK, everyone can get such a lot out of our advanced driver training. It is by far the most effective performance upgrade you can fit to a car.

Contact Julian Smith T: +44 (0)1296 427889 E:



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