Great Rivalries: Automatic vs Manual

August 28, 2009
0805 01z+2009 Mercedes Benz SL63 AMG+front Three Quarter View
It used to be so easy: Manuals were for real drivers, automatics were for lame-os. Now we've got dual-clutch gearboxes that drive like automatics (scads), wet-clutch automatics that can tach up from a standing start like a manual (Mercedes-Benz SL63 AMG), and manuals where a computer heel-and-toes for you (Nissan 370Z). The debate is less about performance - the Porsche 911 Turbo does 0 to 60 mph quicker with an auto than it does with a manual - and more about control. Sure, automatics execute rev-matched downshifts, and dual-clutch boxes may be faster around a track than manuals, but neither allows the driver complete control. And that's all the manual has left, really.
The battle now is technical perfection versus imperfect humanity. A manual gearbox rewards you for skill but also metes out punishment when you goof up - the grinding of gears and the helpless zing of pistons attesting to a missed shift. When actions carry consequences, driving becomes more interesting.
0902 07 Z+2009 Nissan 370Z+side View
By most rational measures, automatics are superior to manuals. An automatic won't smoke the clutch, or stall, or shift into third when it meant to shift into fifth, and the manual's fuel-economy advantage has all but evaporated. You can't shift as quickly, or launch as perfectly, as Porsche's PDK dual-clutch unit.
And still, the manual survives, an analog machine in a digital world. The death of the manual always seems to be just over the horizon, but the stick shift remains. Because for some people, tactility always trumps capability. Your computer can access infinitely more information than a book, but which one would you rather take to the beach?


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2009 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class

SL550 RWD 2-Dr Convertible V8
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2009 Mercedes-Benz SL-Class