Does a clutchless (for the driver) manual transmission make sense?

Toyota hopes so, having decided to offer the feature on the 2002 MR2 Spyder roadster - in addition to a conventional 5-speed manual transaxle and optional 5-speed automatic.

The so-called Sequential Shift Manual Transmission (SMT), a new item for 2002, is derived from F1 race technology and eliminates the need for the driver to manually engage and disengage the clutch. The SMT is designed to provide all (or at least most) of the substantive benefits (quickness, no parastic power loss) as well as visceral enjoyment of a "true" manual transmission controlled entirely by the driver - but without the hassle of having to deal with a clutch.

Confused? Yeah, me too.

From an engineering point-of-view, the SMT is really neat stuff - but it takes a little explaining - and a lot of getting used to. Here's how it works , in reasonably straightforward English:

Equipped with the SMT, the '02 MR2's 1.8 liter, 138-hp engine is tied to a real-deal 5-speed manual gearbox - with actual gears, and an actual clutch. Gear changes happen as they do in a conventional stickshift car - only the computer handles engaging and disengaging the clutch via electric/hydraulic actuators. Inside the car, however, there is no clutch pedal; just pedals for brake and gas, as you'd expect to find in an automatic car. Instead of a third pedal, there's a chrome-balled shifter between the seats that has a dog-leg pattern with positions for neutral, reverse, and then a gate offset to the right with "+" and "-" symbols, indicating upshifts or downshifts. You've got five forward gears to play with. (There are secondary, pad-type controls on the steering wheel as well.)

Here's where it gets a little strange. To start the car, you don't depress the clutch and turn the key - remember, there is no clutch, at least, not as far as the driver is concerned. You just move the shifter gate to the neutral position, depress the brake and key the engine to life. The computer has depressed the clutch for you - no fuss, no muss .

Ok.

Now, even though you aren't moving and the engine is running, it's not wanting to stall - exactly what would not happen with a regular stick shift - unless of course you manually pushed in the clutch, or moved the shift lever to neutral. The MR2 doesn't stall because the SMT's electronics know you aren't moving and thus has pressed in the clutch for you. You can even roll back now, if you want to - just ease off the brake. The car will remain declutched - even when you move the gate to the "+' "-" area and the dash display says you're in first gear.

To get going, just hit the gas. The computer will engage the clutch for you and off you go. It's not "grabby" - and feels just like an automatic car accelerating off the line. To get the next gear, it's your responsibility to tap the shifter (or the paddle buttons on the steering wheel) "+" to move up, "-" to go down.

Easy as that. The amazing brainiac Toyota handles the actual process of disengaging the clutch, moving the internal forks around and getting you to second, third, fourth - whatever. Reverse works the same way. And unlike a conventional manual transmission-equipped car, it is not possible to stall the car when accelerating from a stop, miss a shift, or over-rev the 5-speed transmission and grenade the engine. It's failsafe - and idiot proof.

But - and this is the nut - how does the SMT differ, from the typical driver's perspective, from an automatic transmission equipped with one of those E-shift or Tiptronic-type systems that allow a degree of manual control over up and downshifts?

Aside from the obvious technical/engineering difference, it's hard to say. There's very little for the driver to do other than bump the shifter around. And this may prove problematic for Toyota, in the end. The SMT version of the MR2 - which carries an MSRP of $24,030, or a few hundred bucks above the $23,735 cost of the MR2 with conventional 5-speed manual transaxle (third pedal and all), really doesn't behave all that differently from the automatic version of the MR2 - which has a "shiftable" feature as well that allows the driver to move through the gears electronically if he wants to. Granted, there's no actual clutch - but for all practical purposes, that's just as true of the SMT version, at least insofar as the driver is concerned.

As efficient as it may be, the SMT deprives the driver of the fun of a conventional stickshift car in which engaging and disengaging the clutch has been left to the whim (and skill) of the person behind the wheel. No missed shifts or not - the SMT is not as fun to drive as the regular 5-speed. You don't get to feather the clutch at launch - the computer does it for you - and the electronics do not allow full control over either upshifts or downshifts, either. If you try and grab a lower gear earlier than the computer deems prudent, for example, the onboard HAL9000 won't let it happen. And roll to a stop in 4th, 5th or 3rd, and the computer automatically puts the tranny back in 1st. In this way, again, it behaves much like an automatic. In fact, there is so little action required by the driver - other than joylessly bumping the shifter up and down - that it all seems fairly pointless, no matter how technologically sophisticated it may be.

True, it's easier for the not-so-skilled driver to manage the SMT in stop-and-go traffic than a regular five speed. But again, so is an automatic. People who drive because they enjoy driving - and who prefer manual transmissions precisely because they demand more skill and attention from the operator - are likely to be disappointed. The SMT sort of defeats the whole point of driving a stick - the gratification that comes with a precisely executed, deftly handled up or downshift. Why bother? Just put the thing in "Drive" and fuggedaboutit, as my underworld colleagues in Jersey like to say.

That's the purely objective dilemma. The other is subjective. Fact is, the SMT (or at least, the test car I drove) doesn't shift especially smoothly - particularly on upshifts. (Going down was OK.) There was frequently a lag followed by a jarring lurch between gear changes. A skilled operator could probably do better with a regular five speed - at least in terms of smoothness. He'd likely prefer to handle the clutch himself, too - and those who prefer not to deal with it at all will likely be just fine with the optional 5-speed automatic version of the MR2 ($24,515).

And so we're left with the question - why? Who is gonna go for the extra-cost, not-so-much-fun SMT? Maybe some automatic-inclined, wanna-be sports car poseurs - who like the idea of a "real" manual (and all the benefits that attend), but who don't want to mess with a clutch - or don't know how. But the rest? It seems an unlikely proposition.

It'll be interesting to see how the market reacts to the MR2 with the SMT tranny. My money says it'll be met with more questions than amorous enthusiasm. We'll have to sit back and check out what occurs. Maybe it'll catch on. So did "Millionaire."

Who knows?

Other than the new-for-2002 SMT tranny, the MR2 is otherwise a carryover vehicle, with few material changes from the 2001 version. The car remains loaded as it sits, though - with the only significant option being a $600 leather package. Other than that, all MR2s come fully-equipped - with standard AC, anti-lock 4-wheel disc brakes, alloy rims with performance tires, power windows and locks, tilt wheel, even a glass rear window with electric defrost.

The rear-drive, mid-engined MR2 remains one of the most agile featherweight (just barely 2,100-lbs) slot-car roadsters out there. It is a kick to drive fast - capable of making it to 60-mph in about 7 seconds -- and only its love-it-or-leave-it styling (disconcertingly insect-like to some) prevents a wholehearted endorsement.

As for the SMT gearbox, well, that's up to you, amigo. I prefer to row my own - and would rather skip the meddlesome electronic kudzu.