Take a seat, anywhere will do: couch, chair, park bench, doesn’t matter. Comfy? Good, we’re going to perform a simple exercise. Stretch your legs out in front of you but hold your left foot back slightly.
Now extend that left leg whilst simultaneously retracting your right leg slightly. Not too tricky, yeah? It’s about to get harder. While performing the aforementioned leg movement take your left hand and wiggle it forwards and backwards. Got it?
I hope so, for as you’ve probably surmised, you’ve just gone through the motions of changing gear.
It takes a bit of coordination but it’s not particularly difficult, proven by the fact that millions of people each year achieve a sufficient level of competency at this task to be awarded a driving licence.
Given the relative simplicity of this skill, then, why is it so often held to be the arbiter of driver ability?
There are so many more challenging activities behind the wheel than swapping cogs – steering progression, trail braking, holding oversteer to name just a few – but imagine the ridicule if you’d mastered all this yet announced at a car meet that you couldn’t drive a manual?
That might sound crazy but it’s a reality for many young racing drivers who graduate straight from karts to paddle-shifted Formula 4 or Formula Renault and, in some cases, reach the highest echelons of motorsport without ever completing a heel-and-toe downshift.
Does that make them lesser drivers? Sebastien Loeb won nine straight WRC titles and didn’t use a clutch to change gear once.
The catalyst for this quasi-rant is numerous recent comments on social media – yes, yes, I should know better – regarding our recent comparison test between the Ford Focus ST and Renault Sport Megane which used the automatic variants of each.
Some dismissed these cars outright for not having three pedals, which is foolish. Just as being able to change gear manually doesn’t automatically make you a great driver, having a manual gearbox doesn’t automatically make for a great driver’s car.
Even when both options are available, the manual isn’t automatically the default choice.
Funnily enough, the Renault Sport Megane is a perfect example. RS Meganes have never had the slickest shift – the RS275 Trophy-R loved getting jammed between gears – and now the latest example is available as a dual-clutch its quick, snappy shifts are preferable to wrestling the indistinct manual.
It’s not alone: the idea of a manual Jaguar F-Type was much better than the reality, likewise various BMWs (M140i/M240i/F80 M4).
It’s not always the shift that’s the problem, however. Porsche, for instance, offers beautifully oiled gear changes but its decision to massively over-gear its cars in the lower ratios means its superb PDK is usually the more enjoyable choice, unless you have the horsepower of a GT3.
Speaking of horsepower, today’s top tier supercars are just too quick for three pedals. The likes of the Ferrari 812 Superfast or McLaren 720S are so ferociously fast that you’re literally out of breath at the end of a drive without the added workload of moving your left foot.
Don’t think I’m denigrating the venerable manual. Changing gears is still a skill that requires time and effort to utterly perfect and it is worthwhile doing so – for example, save a tenth of a second (literally the blink of an eye) on every shift over a lap that requires 10 gearshifts and you’re a second faster.
More importantly, done well, three pedals are great fun. Cars with sweet manual ’boxes like the Fiesta ST or ND MX-5 are a joy to drive; the latter actually has a very capable automatic option, but in this example, the manual is definitely preferable.
And this is the point. It all depends. You’re not a driving hero just because you can essentially pat your head and rub your tummy at the same time; if you want to decrease your lap times there are plenty of other things to worry about.
Similarly, just because a car occasionally shifts its own gears doesn’t write it off as a fantastic performance car.
Just like any other part of the machine, a great manual gearbox enhances the driving experience and a crap one detracts from it.