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What is a DSG gearbox? Reliability, cost and should you buy a car with DSG?

Now available on many new cars, DSGs (Direct-Shift gearboxes) are an excellent alternative to a traditional manual. But should you buy one?

Volkswagen Polo GTI facelift gearlever

The manual gearbox has been dying a slow death in the UK, with buyers increasingly opting for new cars fitted with an automatic. While all manual gearboxes are essentially the same, there are several different types of automatic gearbox, and one that appears in many new cars is the DSG gearbox, or ‘direct-shift gearbox’.

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DSG gearboxes are a type of ‘dual-clutch’ automatic gearbox, a relatively recent technology that first appeared in production cars in the early-2000s. Since its introduction, the dual-clutch gearbox has found its way into all sorts of cars, from humble hatchbacks to the latest supercars, but the ‘DSG’ name is specific to cars built by the Volkswagen Group, namely cars from Volkswagen, Skoda, SEAT and Cupra. Other VW Group manufacturers also use different names for the system, including Porsche (PDK) and Audi (S Tronic).

Best automatic cars 2024Top 10 best automatic cars 2024

Outside of the VW Group you’ll find plenty of dual-clutch gearboxes too, with manufacturers such as Ford, Hyundai and Kia adopting similar technology. Between dual-clutches, DSGs and PDKs, it may sound like a lot of technical jargon to remember, but it’s important to note that all dual-clutch gearboxes work and operate in fundamentally the same way, no matter which car they’re found in. Read on to learn how to operate them, how reliable they are and if you should buy a car fitted with one.

What is a DSG gearbox?

The DSG is a dual-clutch gearbox which, as the description implies, is a gearbox with two clutches, unlike traditional, ‘torque-converter’ automatics. From behind the wheel, a DSG feels and operates similarly to a traditional automatic, but it works quite differently behind the scenes.

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The benefit of having a second clutch is that the car’s onboard computer can work out which gear you’re likely to need next and get it ready in advance. When it's time to change gear, the DSG switches near-seamlessly from one clutch to the other, shifting to the pre-prepared gear. In theory, this allows for much quicker and smoother gear shifts when compared to a traditional automatic.

dsg cutaway

The clever sensors in a DSG gearbox constantly measure a range of variables, including how fast you’re going, how hard the engine is working and the position of the accelerator to work out the optimum gear and shift point. How you’re driving and the driving mode you’re in (if your car has different modes) will also help the gearbox work out when to change; it can do so in just a few hundredths of a second.

As with other types of automatic gearboxes, you will often have to pay extra if you want a DSG over a standard manual gearbox, so it’s worth keeping that in mind if you’re on a tight budget. Dual-clutch gearboxes can be heavier too and, in some cases, be slightly less fuel-efficient than manual gearboxes – this, however, will depend on the car you buy. You may decide these are small sacrifices for the convenience of an automatic ‘box.

How do I drive a DSG gearbox car?

Many people choose automatic gearboxes because they make driving easier, particularly in traffic; you don’t have to worry about constantly using the clutch. Driving a car with a DSG gearbox isn’t really any different to driving most other automatics – put it in drive and off you go, the car will handle the gear shifts for you.

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You’ll need to put your foot on the brake to switch between neutral, park, reverse or drive. Releasing the brake in the reverse or drive will mean the car starts creeping backwards or forwards respectively – this is deliberate, as it makes low-speed manoeuvring easier. Park should be used when you are leaving the car as it locks the transmission, but you’ll still need to apply the handbrake.

Some cars with DSG gearboxes offer a manual shifting mode that allows the driver to choose when to change gear themselves. Using paddles found on the back of the steering wheel, or sometimes using the gear selector on the centre console, the driver can shift up and down and the DSG will electronically select the gear. This can be useful when driving in adverse conditions like snow, when towing, or when you want to drive the car enthusiastically.

Steering wheel gear shift paddle

How much does a DSG gearbox cost?

Some cars are offered exclusively with a DSG, such as the Porsche Macan, but in most cases, especially in mainstream hatchbacks, it’s quite an expensive option. The cost depends on the type of car you buy and the manufacturer, but it will usually be more than £1,000. DSG versions of the Volkswagen Golf, for example, can cost almost £2,000 more than the equivalent manual option.

Are DSG gearboxes reliable?

DSG gearboxes have proven themselves to be very reliable both in six, and seven-speed variants. Failures occur rarely, but when they do they are likely to be expensive. These relatively uncommon faults are usually found in older higher-mileage vehicles. Signs of a faulty gearbox may be as obvious as a ‘limp home mode’ warning restricting power, or juddering and noisy bearings when driving.

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Don’t let the stories of failure put you off buying a DSG, especially one in a vehicle with well-documented service history. Almost all DSG gearboxes perform faultlessly with some fitted to vehicles that have clocked up more than 100,000 miles.

What’s the difference between a DSG and other automatic gearboxes?

If you are comparing different types of automatic gearboxes, chances are you’re comparing different car companies too – most only stick with one type. The main difference is the DSG’s second clutch pack, which readies the next gear for fast, smooth and comparatively efficient shifting. That being said, some of the best traditional, ‘torque-converter’ automatic gearboxes are even smoother and quieter.

Some manufacturers, usually Japanese brands such as Honda, Toyota and Subaru, offer CVT gearboxes. CVTs (Constantly Variable Transmissions) don’t have different gears as such, and tend to prioritise efficiency over everything else. On lower-powered cars, this can mean the engine is noisily revving unnecessarily.

Which cars are available with DSG gearboxes?

DSGs, at first, were only available in VW Group cars like the original Audi TT, and you’ll still find most dual-clutch gearboxes in VW, SEAT, Audi, Skoda and Porsche models. If none of those take your fancy, Ford, Volvo, Nissan and MG all offer or have offered DSG gearboxes, which are often referred to by different names. Ford, for example, calls it a Powershift gearbox. Many modern hot hatches and high-performance variants of cars are now offered exclusively with a DSG transmission.

Interestingly, BMW had its own dual-clutch system called DCT (dual-clutch transmission), but more recently decided to switch back to a traditional automatic gearbox system. The reason for this is that dual-clutch automatics can be bulkier in size, so switching back to a traditional automatic meant the German manufacturer could fit an additional gear into the same size package to improve efficiency and fuel economy.

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Charlie writes and edits news, review and advice articles for Carbuyer, as well as publishing content to its social media platforms. He has also been a regular contributor to its sister titles Auto Express, DrivingElectric and evo. As well as being consumed by everything automotive, Charlie is a speaker of five languages and once lived in Chile, Siberia and the Czech Republic, returning to the UK to write about his life-long passion: cars.

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