Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Missed Gears

Why, after being partially responsible for the first car ever to hit the road, and after a hundred years of vehicle production, many of which have passed into legend, can Mercedes-Benz still not produce a decent Manual Gearbox?

Mercedes have long had it in for fans of the row-your-own 'box, we can have a manual in some models if we're desperate, but we have to make do with a foot-operated parking brake neccesitating the rapid growth of a third foot if you want to perform a smooth hill-start. That's OK, it's a foible we have learnt to adjust to, even joke about with each other.

And it's not as if they seriously want to do away with them altogether, the new E-Class diesel is marketed heavily on the promise of low emissions, even lower when a slushbox is omitted. To remain class competitive you have to offer a nice modern six-speed gearbox, with nicely chosen ratios to compliment the power delivery of the car. On paper MB have done just this.

But it's terrible.

On my day-job, the proper one I get paid actual money for, I am leaping in and out of cars all day long. Some gearboxes are better than others, you get used to the shift actions of different marques. Audis are usually rifle-bolt quick, Toyotas typically have no feel whatsoever. But all of them, with the possible exclusion of the Land Rover Defender, are better than the Mercedes E-Class.

I'm not a bad driver, my grandmother often comments on my "lovely smooth driving", despite the appalling ride quality of my Audi. And yet somehow I cannot find a way of moving off smoothly in an E-Class manual. The clutch biting point is somewhere really strange and has you lunging forward on release if any throttle is dialled in. In fact, the only way I can prevent my passengers from suing me for whiplash injuries on take-off is to slip the clutch all the way through first and second gears. Quite an expensive driving technique.

And it isn't just pulling away smoothly, trying to get anywhere quickly is a tricky business. I have stalled on numerous occasions and found Scanias bearing down on me when pulling onto busy roads from side exits. Or leaving roundabouts quickly to get past tractors, lorries and caravans, where the 1st, 2nd, 3rd gear sprint is so important, why does 2nd have to be so baulky? 

Why are ALL the gears so recalcitrant, needing a firm shove to get past a big hump in neutral? You have to have a firm grip on the gearknob and manhandle it into gear, sometimes my hand slips off the stick mid-change and suddenly I'm out of gear leaving the engine revving in futility.

Mercedes-Benz really need to get this sorted out, especially if they're chasing the emissions-led fleet market, and do it quickly before every road-tester in the world notices.