Car geekery part 3: automatic transmissions with clutches

As much as I like cars, there aren't too many technical innovations in them that I'd be willing to pay for. An exception is what I'll call an automated manual transmission. Once a rarity (think Ferrari F1 cars and BMW M3s), they have slowly approached my price range (Audi/VW DSG, still not there). But lo and behold: this year we get a dual clutch automatic transmission in the 2011 Ford Fiesta ... for about $14k. This is a car I'd actually consider buying.

What is an automated manual transmission? You can think of it as a stick-shifter with the addition of a computer that can shift for you. How is this different from a conventional automatic transmision? In a car with a stick, there's a solid mechanical connection (through a clutch plate) between the engine and the wheels. In contrast, a conventional automatic puts the engine's power through a fluid connection (the torque converter). They're called "slushboxes". Think of sticking a spoon in a jar of honey and twisting the spoon to spin the jar. The drawbacks are delays, inefficiency, and less sense of being connected to the road.

Inefficiency, yes. Fuel economy is everything these days. Everybody knows manuals get better gas mileage than automatics--they're lighter, they don't waste power churning fluids, and they have more gears to choose from. Nonetheless I was startled to see the EPA estimates for the Fiesta:
Manual: 29 city/38 highway
Automatic: 30 city/40 highway
Um, what? The automatic gets BETTER mileage than the manual? Yes - it's doubtless heavier but it has one more gear.

On the downside, apparently you cannot choose what gear to be in, so you can't downshift in preparation for a passing maneuver. I think I'm OK with that. What I really want is the immediate response. I hate pushing the accelerator and waiting for my car's automatic to raise the engine revs and tighten the torque converter before I start to accelerate.

Jalopnik thinks very highly of this car, despite it only having 120 horsepower. It's light and has a great suspension, which is actually a lot more important to me than the powertrain. I know from experience that having more power just makes me drive like a jerk. What I enjoy is being able to go around corners without slowing down. This could be my next car.

Previous car geekery: part 1 and part 2.