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2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S Test: The Great Stick-Shift Conundrum

Sound the alarm: You can now drive a 992 911 with a manual gearbox.

LOS ANGELES—I feel guilty, and a little bit confused, and some of what I'm about to say will go down like a tungsten catamaran. But hear me out. I recently drove a 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S, now fitted with a seven-speed manual gearbox as a no-cost option, and you can probaly predict the gist to be: "The manual transmission is for real drivers. It's more fun, more engaging, requires more skill, and, really, only wankers drive performance cars with a dual-clutch or some other such automated gearbox doing the work for them. The end."

This refrain was a lot more reality-based a decade-plus ago, when a sports car equipped with an automatic transmission usually meant a neutered experience with a traditional, torque-converter 'box. Those transmissions might or might not have decided to select the right gear for a given situation, and did so slowly, so enthusiasts' derision of them made easy sense.

2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S Manual Test: Times Have Changed

Today, though, modern paddle-shift gearbox performance eclipses what was not long ago state-of-the-art in world-class race cars. Even the Porsche folks who design and engineer these cars privately roll their eyes at this whole stick-shift thing. And it's not limited to the people who work on the Cayenne and Macan and Panamera and Taycan, lest you think Porsche is no longer entirely an enthusiast-driven enterprise.

This might come as a depressing shock, but if you have a casual dinner with the GT team members responsible for the hardcore GT2, GT3, and GT4 models, and you wait till they've finished a glass or two of wine, you barely have to spit out something like, "So, about those manual transmissions … ," before you get a response like, "If it wasn't for America, we'd have been finished with that nonsense years ago."

If nothing else, it isn't lost on them that there's something amusing about the idea the same market that led a mass exodus from manual-gearbox cars is now the loudest complainer when Porsche tries to sneak out of the stick-shift game. Remember when a few years ago the Flacht crew tried to permanently retire the manual from the GT3? The reaction makes my imaginary, ballast-based sailboat look like an antigravity machine in comparison.

Of course, American fans of Porsche sports cars are a different, small group; the fact we want to shift gears ourselves—I own a 2006 Cayman S six-speed manual, so "we" is appropriate here—is irrelevant to the overall car-market's behavior. And, depending upon the 911 model in question, well more than 30 percent of buyers opt for the manual, so Stuttgart listens.

My pangs of guilt and confusion on this topic stem from decades spent mostly romanticizing the stick shift, the clutch pedal, and perfecting their interplay. Long before I could actually drive, I would put my left hand on top of my mother's right hand as she changed gears in our poor little 1985 Ford Escort. As soon as I got my own driver's license in the '90s, I set out to master this art, and when you add heel-and-toe downshifts into the equation, I do still think of it as an art.

This all matters when it comes to the manual-gearbox 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S, for two reasons: I'm an established stick-shift aficionado, and a Porsche owner. And after driving the new car, as amazing and satisfying as it is, I cannot legitimately say it's more fun, more engaging, or more better than the eight-speed, PDK twin-clutch version Porsche pushed into the market first. This is the point where self-described "enthusiasts" will start fast-pitching Molotov cocktails at their computer screens.

2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S Manual Test: An All-Time Great Gearbox

Don't light that wick just yet. In terms of a conventional, non-philosophical analysis, the 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S' optional, no-cost seven-speed manual is marvelous. It includes notably short throws from the physically short shift lever (due to the height of the center console upon which the stick is mounted), and a stiff, excellently positive, GT3-like engagement through the gates. In fact, it's easily the best base-model 911 shift-linkage action of all time. The only tactile knock on it: The shift knob features a plastic, diamond-pattern ring circling its top, which rubs against your palm and becomes annoying after a spell of hard driving. (Or maybe my delicate, uncalloused hands are the problem here.) This design element looks cool, but it's an ill-conceived choice in terms of user comfort, made in the name of aesthetics.

Likewise, Porsche has mastered the art of driver-input tactility. The clutch pedal somehow works simultaneously like a light switch in its actuation yet is notably progressive beneath your left foot as you target the bite point. The latter is a bit high in the pedal's travel, which gives you the progressiveness, but its response is a perfect balance of stiff and beefy while being absolutely not tiring, and it's easily predictable.

It's so predictable, in fact, the 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S and its manual transmission feels like it features a pseudo anti-stall mode: For example, hesitate in engaging the clutch fully as you attempt to creep up an inclined driveway at 1 mph, and the engine might thunk into what feels like a full-on stall. But you need only to stab the clutch pedal again to refire the flat-six, and you don't need some pro race-driver level of sensitivity to accomplish this feat. It demonstrates Porsche's mastery of control inputs and its forethought of such matters, which mesh together unlike any other car on the market today, regardless of price or vehicle segment.

2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S Manual Test: Operational Details

There are two other real-world-user practicalities to note about this transmission. The first is nothing but welcome, while the second comes with an annoyance and with questions, both physically and philosophically.

Having a seventh-ratio available in a manual transmission is great—as long as there's a mechanism in place to avoid grabbing seventh gear instead of fifth when you bang the shifter up and to the right, especially when attempting quick shifts. The 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S indeed provides a lockout feature, making it impossible to screw up your Texas-mile runs, or your balls-out laps on the Nürburgring.

This is not a speed- or rpm-dependent function, it's simply a mechanical lockout; you can lug the engine in seventh at 35 mph, but you have to physically shift to fifth- or sixth-gear first, before the lock releases and makes the seventh gate available. It all might sound like an engineering trait deserving of nothing more than a "duh" in response, but it's something others have overlooked in recent years with similar manual transmissions, to the detriment of driver confidence and consistency, and certainly to lap times.

When it comes to the previously mentioned "art of shifting," though, the transmission's automatic rev-match program for downshifts is a sight more confounding. Considering the 2020 911 Carrera carries its share of ubiquitous modern-car driving modes and settings, the lack of a simple rev-match on/off button seems like an oversight as silly as a manufacturer neglecting to include a seventh-gear lockout.

To most people and to most Porsche customers, this will not be a big deal, and certainly not a game breaker. But if "driver engagement" and "purity" is what you get for ticking the manual-transmission order-form box … well, shouldn't those who know how to match revs themselves be afforded the opportunity?

This is where I ran into a philosophical and emotional cliff-face with the manual-shift 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S. Just as the settings for the active suspension, stability/traction control, and exhaust are available to tune individually regardless of overall drive mode, you can avoid the rev-match function. But in the latter's case and unlike those other dynamic settings, you can't activate the car's overall Sport or Sport Plus driving modes while doing so.

Instead, you must stick to Normal mode if you want to employ your own heel-and-toe skills. In other words, if you want to impress your passengers with your downshifting magic, you can't do so while taking advantage of the quicker throttle response you get in Sport and Sport Plus. This is rather odd because, when blipping my own throttle pedal to match revs, I (and I imagine most other experienced drivers) welcome a more-aggressive response from the gas pedal in order to complete the throttle-blip quicker.

Even more wacky, it turns out there is one way to disable the rev-match program in Sport and Sport Plus: fully disable the PSM stability-management system. This effectively means the manual-'box 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S functions at two extremes: either you do it all yourself—and give up the PSM safety-net you have access to in every other mode—or you always have some level of automated shifting intervention in all but the car's most mundane Normal setting. Whether or not this odd PSM-off-for-rev-match-deactivation is a conscious decision by the 992-development team or, more likely, an old, unclosed loophole of Porsche's sports-car CAN bus, it doesn't matter to the end user. The fact the previous-gen 911 GT3 does feature a rev-match on/off button makes this situation all the more irritating.

2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S Manual Test: What It All Means

I'm struck by the oddness of it all, and by at least a little bit of disingenuousness, if the argument for a manual-shift, modern 911 is all about do-it-yourself engagement. Most any stick-shift loyalist will agree the art lies in the downshift; I have a difficult time understanding the supposed massive difference between pulling paddles to shift up and down versus moving a stick up and down (and, OK, left and right) while all you have to do is press and depress the clutch pedal with little mechanical sympathy or coordination.

Meanwhile, the PDK-equipped 911 is marginally quicker than its manual sibling, allows you to always keep both hands on the steering wheel, allows you to left-foot brake just like almost all real racers do anymore, and allows you to focus 100 percent on hitting your braking, corner-entry, and apex marks. Cue my internal conflict and confusion when I'm trying to decide, in the context of the modern era, which model is more of a "real driver's car."

So, light those Molotovs and hurl them my way, but before you do, know this: I still love shifting gears for myself, and I had nothing but a blast while clutching and de-clutching and working my right hand for every minute I drove the 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S manual. I haven't lost my mind or my sense of history, of what this all meant for so long. The world wouldn't feel right without any stick-shift Porsches, and we'd all miss the feeling of moving the stick in our hands, the satisfaction of a perfect manual downshift.

But let's be real: The next time you see someone driving a paddle-shift performance car, don't think your manual-banging self is automatically more of a true driver or enthusiast. At this point in the game, the other guy or gal could make a few compelling arguments of his or her own as to why the opposite might be just as true. It also explains why, back in Germany, more than a few, perhaps too-empirical Porsche decisionmakers would like to have a word with you. Not that I'd suggest for a moment any of us should give up the fight—but we should all at least acknowledge what it is we're fighting for.

  2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S Manual Specifications
ON SALE Now
PRICE $114,650 (base)
ENGINE 3.0L twin-turbo DOHC 24-valve flat-6/443 hp @ 6,500 rpm,

390 lb-ft @ 2,300-5,000 rpm

TRANSMISSION 7-speed manual
LAYOUT 2-door, 2+2-passenger, rear-engine, RWD coupe
EPA MILEAGE 17/25 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 177.9 x 72.9 x 51.2 in
WHEELBASE 96.5 in
WEIGHT 3,298 lb (est)
0-60 MPH 4.0 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 191 mph