The Manual Transmission Is Dying, But Here's Why It Absolutely Shouldn't
Yes, they're as rare as a crowded library, but there's nothing like a manual.
Last fall, on a writhing mountain two-lane on a perfect SoCal afternoon, I braked hard for a tight left-hander, blipped the throttle twice with my right foot as I worked the clutch with my left and the shift lever with my right hand, and clicked off two quick downshifts before squeezing back on the gas as the 2019 Mazda MX-5 RF convertible howled toward the next turn a quarter-mile ahead. And right then it hit me: This heel-and-toe thing, that clutch pedal, the six-speed stick…man, I haven't used a manual transmission in almost a year.
Given the number of cars we drive annually, going almost 12 months without stirring a shifter by hand says a lot about the near-dodo state of the manual gearbox. At our 2019 All-Stars competition, the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, Hyundai Veloster N, and another Miata RF were the only entrants that showed up bearing row-your-own shifters. A few months before that, I'd driven a new Ford Mustang GT convertible, and it, too, had a manual gearbox. Aside from those, there was nothing with a clutch pedal in my driving logbooks until 2017, when I found a Porsche 718 Cayman and a Nissan 370Z. Looking into an automobile's cockpit and finding three pedals is as rare as a crowded library—unless, of course, you're transporting your Fender Stratocaster and have also brought along your wah-wah.
Three-pedal transmissions may be the film cameras of the auto world, but the manual-versus-automatic debate remains as heated as ever among driving aficionados. For the purists, there is no transmission but a manual. Shifting with anything else—a slushbox, a dual-clutch automatic, a CVT—is "cheating." Never mind that one of the purest of all makers, Ferrari, abandoned manuals entirely nearly a decade ago (mostly because computer-regulated gearboxes eliminate warranty repairs necessitated by, say, accidentally downshifting into second instead of fourth). Never mind that among buyers of the purebred Porsche 911 sports car, barely one in five opt for a manual. Never mind that of the manual cars I mentioned in the second paragraph, each one but the Miata has a "rev match" feature that "cheats" by doing the all-important throttle blip (the "heel" in "heel and toe," even though you actually use more of the side of your right foot) during downshifts. Never mind that even our own resident pro hot shoe, Andy Pilgrim, has told me, "When I'm lapping a track with a great dual-clutch gearbox like the Porsche PDK, I don't even bother with the shift paddles behind the wheel. The computer executes the upshifts and downshifts perfectly, all by itself." Never mind all of that, because I can still hear the purists all the way from here: "Cheater!"
But here's the thing: I get it. My first car, a well-used '63 Volkswagen Bug, was a manual, and for more than 40 years now I've been driving manuals, dutifully practicing my heel-and-toe work, quickly catching first gear on steep inclines before my car rolls backward, shifting synchro-free crash 'boxes up and down in single-seat race cars, and adoring the man-machine collaboration that only a stick shift can provide. Learning manual gearchangery truly is like riding a bicycle. Even after nearly a year of my left foot just sitting there against the dead pedal while driving, I slipped into that Miata RF and took off with zero rust. And I savored every minute of that glorious afternoon zipping through the mountains "the old way."
Let's all admit that it's not performance that makes manuals so endearing. Consider this: In Corsa (race) mode, the seven-speed dual-clutch F1 transmission in the Ferrari 488 Pista can execute a gear change in 30 milliseconds. The average human eye blink is about 100 milliseconds. Go ahead—give your eye a blink. Think you're gonna pull off a manual draw three times quicker than that, Wyatt Earp? And although you might be able to whip-saw a fast upshift (and risk the health of your transmission doing it), downshifts are much more difficult to pull off speedily—especially when you're trying to maximize braking performance while simultaneously blipping the throttle with the same foot. Nope, the dual-clutch 'boxes will out-shift you every time. Or just look to Formula 1, which, in its bid to field the quickest, most technologically advanced race cars on earth, mandates the use of highly automated, sequential-shift gearboxes, which can shift even faster than dual-clutch designs. (The last F1 machine to race with a manual 'box was the 1995 Forti FG01. The team scored zero points that season and folded altogether in 1996.)
As I see it, the reason we crazed driving enthusiasts still love manuals is a blend of warm and fuzzy nostalgia, the satisfaction that comes from mastering a time-honored skill, and a stubborn resistance to "those damn Space Odyssey computers doing everything for me, dammit!"
There are tons of parallels. Way back when I first learned to fly (and no, Orville was not my instructor), I used to guide my little Cessnas and Pipers around mostly by homing in on radio signals from non-directional beacons and VOR transmitters (those funny little white "lighthouses" you see in cornfields when you drive cross-country)—and sometimes briefly I'd get lost. Today? Just look down at the high-res color GPS display and, right there, 10 miles ahead, you'll see that little unpaved runway you're after. Yes, it's a far easier and better way to navigate, but does GPS produce the same satisfaction as plotting a course and, using just the needles on an old-fashioned "steam gauge," arriving smack dab at that same grass strip?
It's the same with scuba diving. Years ago, I'd plan my dives using a plastic chart to balance depth with allowable bottom time—and then once underwater monitor a depth gauge and, on my analog wristwatch, minutes submerged. Today? Just strap on a dive computer, and it analyzes duration and depth and tells you, "Go no deeper," or, "Time to head up." So do I still read dive tables and wear my analog watch alongside the dive computer? You bet I do. When I'm always calculating, I have a better sense of "I know what's what."
Manual shifters are like that. You're not simply pulling a paddle and letting the transmission do all the hard work. The gearbox never does a thing until you command it to do so; you're 100 percent in charge. You're more attuned to the tachometer, you're thinking way ahead, and well before every turn you're readying both feet to perform that remarkable dance of braking, blipping, and clutching all at the same time. Answer me this: Is there a more soul-nourishing driving act than kicking the throttle just the right amount as you slip the gearstick down and feel the lower gear engage at the perfect rpm, not the slightest shudder from the powertrain, the exhaust note a beauteous zing?
Perhaps that explains why, despite the move away from manuals, purists can still find about 40 models available with a stick. After all, computers might be quicker, but "Sorry, HAL. That perfect manual downshift? That was all me."