What is a DSG gearbox?

Confused about what a DSG gearbox is and how it works? Here is your one-stop-shop for all things DSG

By James Wilson

Shopping for your next car involves all sorts of jargon from DAB to ACC and one of the terms you may come across is 'DSG', which refers to a broad range of automatic gearboxes used by the Volkswagen Group - which includes brands from VW to Audi, Seat and Skoda. Rarely, however, can you find an explanation of how to drive a car with a DSG gearbox. Here we explain how DSG gearboxes work, so you can decide if this type of tech works for you.

Below we cover how to drive a car with a DSG automatic gearbox, what exactly ‘DSG’ stands for and list some alternative terms used by car manufacturers that refer to the exact same thing. We've also covered the pros and cons of choosing a car with a DSG transmission, along with a few examples of cars with DSG gearboxes. This should give you a good feel for whether your next car should come with DSG or not.

How to drive a DSG gearbox car

Driving a car with a DSG gearbox is very similar to driving a car with a traditional automatic gearbox. In fact, it is practically impossible to tell the difference unless you know specifically what you are looking for.

The basic setup for a DSG car involves two pedals - brake and accelerator - and a gear lever. The gear lever is different to that in manual cars as, instead of enabling you to choose any of the car's gears, you normally only have the choice between 'Park', 'Reverse', 'Neutral' and 'Drive' - often shortened to P, R, N and D. The gear stick normally has a button on it that you must press in order to be able to shift between the different options. This is to prevent accidental gear changes.

Once the engine is started, most cars will require you to have your foot on the brake before being able to select Drive or Reverse modes. Select D and the car will start to creep forward as soon as you take your foot off the brake. This creep feature is incredibly useful when completing slow manoeuvres such as parking or crawling along in traffic, as you don't need to constantly jump between accelerator and brake when making small adjustments.

As you accelerate and start to pick up speed, the car will work out when best to change gear. If you are accelerating slowly, it will likely choose to shift up sooner, to maximise fuel economy. If you are accelerating quickly, meanwhile, the onboard computers will assume you want to go fast, so the gear change will be delayed to get maximum power from the engine.

Coming to a stop is just as straightforward. As you slow down, either by lifting off the throttle or using the brake pedal, the car will automatically change gears and if you come to a complete stop the car will not stall; it will disengage the gears instead.

Most automatic cars come with some kind of manual mode. This allows the driver to take over control of the gearbox. For DSG cars this is often via paddles located behind the steering wheel - one to change up a gear, the other to change down a gear - so they are within easy reach of your fingertips. Often these are referred to as ‘flappy paddles’. In the case of paddles, you can take control by pressing one of them to override the current gear. After a while, if you don’t press anything, the car will revert back to its fully automatic mode.

In some cars, the manual mode is controlled by moving the automatic gear stick back and forth. Typically this works by sliding the gearstick to the left or right and then pushing it forward or backwards to tell the onboard computers you wish to change up or down a gear.

What does DSG actually mean?

DSG stands for ‘direct shift gearbox’. There are also a number of alternative acronyms out there which effectively mean the same thing. Most of these are created by manufacturers so their gearboxes are easily differentiated from the competition. Below is a table of the most common alternatives and what each one stands for.

Make DSG equivalent acronym Meaning
Audi S tronic
BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes, Nissan DCT Dual-clutch transmission
Dacia, Renault EDC Efficient dual-clutch
Fiat, Jeep DDCT Dual dry clutch transmission
Ford, Volvo Powershift
Mini Steptronic automatic transmission with double clutch
Porsche PDK Porsche doppelkupplungsgetriebe
Seat, Skoda, Volkswagen DSG Direct shift gearbox
Smart Twinamic
Suzuki TCSS Twin-clutch system by Suzuki


Advantages of a DSG gearbox

There are two main benefits to a DSG gearbox. The first is the speed of gear changes. A well-calibrated DSG gearbox will more often than not have the next gear ready to change into before the driver or engine asks for it. This makes this type of gearbox particularly responsive and more satisfying for keen drivers than traditional automatic gearboxes, which typically take longer to change gear manually. This difference is explained in the ‘How does a DSG gearbox work?’ section further down.

The second main benefit to DSG gearboxes is that gear changes can be practically seamless. Why is this an advantage? Well, if you are driving in stop-start traffic, it helps stop jerky gear changes and if you are accelerating quickly, it helps to sustain the acceleration better, which means a car should be faster.

This is one reason why a lot of performance cars use DSG gearboxes - they are typically quicker to respond than traditional automatic gearboxes. In a manual car, meanwhile, some acceleration is lost when pressing the clutch, moving the gear stick and releasing the clutch, although a lot of drivers prefer the added control and involvement this brings to driving.

A DSG gearbox is also just as easy to use as a traditional automatic, so if you have experience with the latter, you will have no issue driving a car with DSG. Additionally, cars with automatic gearboxes can be available with adaptive cruise control that has stop/go functionality. This means you can set your cruise control at a desired speed and if you get close to slower-moving vehicles in your lane, the car will automatically slow down to maintain a safe distance from the vehicle in front.

If traffic comes to a standstill, stop/go systems will bring the car to a complete stop and start moving again once the car in front moves forward - although you might be required to give the throttle a blip to signal you are ready to move again. This is not available on a manual car, as manuals would stall without the driver disengaging the clutch.

Disadvantages of a DSG gearbox

DSG gearboxes are not without their drawbacks. One is that they are more complicated than a traditional manual gearbox, so DSG models typically cost more than manual equivalents and in theory, should they break you will have more of a financial headache on your hands. On the flip side, reports of major issues with DSG gearboxes aren’t all that common. Additionally, as the system is controlled by a computer it should mean the components are treated better than a poor driver consistently changing gears badly in a manual car.

The other drawback to a DSG car is that they tend to be more expensive when buying or financing a car. For regular new cars like the VW Golf, the price increase is around £1,500. The good news is that automatic versions of used cars tend to be worth slightly more than their manual counterparts, so the monthly payment difference with PCP finance is less than you might expect - or, if you're paying cash, you'll probably get more back when you come to sell most automatic cars.

Which cars come with a DSG gearbox?

DSG gearboxes are increasingly common, although they were first made popular by the Volkswagen and Audi Group. This conglomerate of car makers includes Skoda, Seat, Lamborghini, Porsche, Bugatti, Bentley and of course Volkswagen and Audi.

As a result, there are DSG gearboxes in everything from the small and affordable Skoda Fabia supermini to the large and practical Seat Tarraco SUV. Also, eye-wateringly expensive high-performance Porsches and Lamborghinis use DSG gearboxes.

Volkswagen Polo

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Skoda Kodiaq

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How does a DSG gearbox work?

A DSG gearbox is ingenious in that it combines electronic components with mechanical components - systems like this are said to be 'mechatronic'. The electronic parts include a number of sensors that monitor the speed at which certain parts of the gearbox are rotating. These feed information into a computer. The computer then controls when gear changes are made and also predicts what gear it thinks the driver will need next. Clever stuff.

The mechanical components of a DSG gearbox are responsible for getting the power from the engine to the wheels. The brilliant part about DSG gearboxes is that they have two different routes for doing this - it is quite literally like having two separate paths that start and end at the same place.

The electronics can switch which path the gearbox uses in a fraction of a second, which is why DSG gearboxes have a reputation for fast gear changes. The switching is also seamless, thanks to one path to the wheels being faded in as the other is faded out.

One route from the engine to the wheels is responsible for odd number gears - first, third, fifth and seventh (if a car has a seventh gear). Meanwhile, the other manages even number gears - second, fourth and sixth. Organising the gears this way means that the computer can always have one gear ready to change into at a moment's notice. What is really smart is that the car monitors whether you are accelerating or braking to decide whether the gear it prepares should be the next gear up or the next one down.

What's the difference between DSG, torque converter and automated manual gearboxes?

It is worth knowing there are other types of automatic gearboxes to DSG versions. The most common is called a ‘torque converter’ and this format has been around for decades. Torque converters only have one route to take power from the engine to the wheels but they are renowned for smooth gear changes. We won’t get bogged down in the technical details of how a torque converter works but in general, this type of gearbox is reliable and long-lasting.

Another type of automatic gearbox is an automated manual gearbox - or AMT for short. You can think of an AMT as a regular manual car, but with one less pedal and with a robot changing gear. These aren’t as common as torque converters and DSG gearboxes are much better alternatives for most drivers.