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Opinion: Don’t let the manual gearbox die out

By Andy Enright, 15 Dec 2020 Opinion

You may well have seen figures showing that electric vehicles are now more popular than cars with manual gearboxes, in the US at least. Here things are often a bit different but, in five months of 2019, the Tesla Model 3 sold more than 3500 units.  That’s more than the combined manual registrations for Ford Mustang, BMW 2 Series, Toyota 86, Mazda MX-5, Chevrolet Camaro and Porsche 911 for the same period– ie, the very cars you might well buy equipped with three pedals and a stick. To make matters worse for those who like to change gear themselves, in a reversal of common practice, BMW has announced that the base price for its sports coupes would be for the automatic model, with its low-volume manuals being cost-plus options on cars like the M2, M3 and M4. So things are certainly looking grim for the manual, and have for some time. Mercedes doesn’t offer a manual model. Now that the base Giulietta has been shuffled out to pasture, we get no manual Alfas. Roll that thought round in your head for a while. There haven’t been manual Ferraris or Lamborghinis for years. The gated metal gearchange that was for so long an icon of the Italian supercar somewhat ironically hit the evolutionary buffers with the Audi R8 in mid-2018.  A whole generation of drivers are going to miss that deliberate clack through the H-pattern. They’ll never know the tactile delight of a heel-and-toe downshift in a Honda S2000, the one-pause-two cadence of a Viper’s box, the liquid metal feel of second to third in an E30 M3, or the full-arm pool-ball break of a C6 Vette’s Tremec, surely Mexico’s finest export after the three-bean burrito. Porsche tried to kill off the three-pedal 911 GT3 back in 2013 when it launched the 991 generation without a manual option. The 911 model chief August Achleitner underestimated the depth of feeling among purists when he breezily claimed: “When we launched the 911 Turbo S, we did not offer a manual, but we have not had a single complaint.” The gripes certainly came thick and fast with the PDK-only 991 GT3 and kept coming until a dramatic corporate U-turn with the manual 991.2 GT3 in 2017. That sort of response is rare. Once manuals are gone, they tend to stay gone. That’s largely due to the fact that as soon as the human is taken out of the loop, the transmission can be relied on to do some quite clever things.  Eight-, nine- or 10-gear ratios, which would clearly be impossible to marshal by hand, can deliver the sort of torque response and economy we once thought the preserve of the ‘efficient manual’.  Those gains are hard for a manufacturer to concede. If General Motors can write off entire right-hand-drive markets as marginal, you can be sure that car makers can forgo tooling up for a transmission that might make up two percent of their sales figures. It will be interesting to see the sales numbers of the Hyundai i30 N, previously only offered as manual, when its twin-clutch ’box arrives within a year. I love a good auto but have come to believe I’d miss the manual. It rankles if I ever see an MX-5, an 86 or a Mustang furnished with a mere pair of pedals. That’s because the car can be a toy, something that we buy purely for joy and tactility. A road car doesn’t need to chase lap times and it doesn’t always have to be the acme of efficiency.  When car makers are looking to shave costs and lower group emissions numbers, the manual is an easy casualty but the way to save it is simple: Put your money where your mouth is.

Things are certainly looking grim for the manual, but the way to save it is simple.

You may well have seen figures showing that electric vehicles are now more popular than cars with manual gearboxes, in the US at least. Here things are often a bit different but, in five months of 2019, the Tesla Model 3 sold more than 3500 units.

That’s more than the combined manual registrations for Ford Mustang, BMW 2 Series, Toyota 86, Mazda MX-5, Chevrolet Camaro and Porsche 911 for the same period– ie, the very cars you might well buy equipped with three pedals and a stick.

To make matters worse for those who like to change gear themselves, in a reversal of common practice, BMW has announced that the base price for its sports coupes would be for the automatic model, with its low-volume manuals being cost-plus options on cars like the M2, M3 and M4.

So things are certainly looking grim for the manual, and have for some time. Mercedes doesn’t offer a manual model. Now that the base Giulietta has been shuffled out to pasture, we get no manual Alfas. Roll that thought round in your head for a while.

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Mazda MX-5 and Subaru BRZ

There haven’t been manual Ferraris or Lamborghinis for years. The gated metal gearchange that was for so long an icon of the Italian supercar somewhat ironically hit the evolutionary buffers with the Audi R8 in mid-2018.

A whole generation of drivers are going to miss that deliberate clack through the H-pattern. They’ll never know the tactile delight of a heel-and-toe downshift in a Honda S2000, the one-pause-two cadence of a Viper’s box, the liquid metal feel of second to third in an E30 M3, or the full-arm pool-ball break of a C6 Vette’s Tremec, surely Mexico’s finest export after the three-bean burrito.

Porsche tried to kill off the three-pedal 911 GT3 back in 2013 when it launched the 991 generation without a manual option. The 911 model chief August Achleitner underestimated the depth of feeling among purists when he breezily claimed: “When we launched the 911 Turbo S, we did not offer a manual, but we have not had a single complaint.”

The gripes certainly came thick and fast with the PDK-only 991 GT3 and kept coming until a dramatic corporate U-turn with the manual 991.2 GT3 in 2017.

That sort of response is rare. Once manuals are gone, they tend to stay gone. That’s largely due to the fact that as soon as the human is taken out of the loop, the transmission can be relied on to do some quite clever things.

auto transmission

Eight-, nine- or 10-gear ratios, which would clearly be impossible to marshal by hand, can deliver the sort of torque response and economy we once thought the preserve of the ‘efficient manual’.

Those gains are hard for a manufacturer to concede. If General Motors can write off entire right-hand-drive markets as marginal, you can be sure that car makers can forgo tooling up for a transmission that might make up two percent of their sales figures. It will be interesting to see the sales numbers of the Hyundai i30 N, previously only offered as manual, when its twin-clutch ’box arrives within a year.

I love a good auto but have come to believe I’d miss the manual. It rankles if I ever see an MX-5, an 86 or a Mustang furnished with a mere pair of pedals. That’s because the car can be a toy, something that we buy purely for joy and tactility. A road car doesn’t need to chase lap times and it doesn’t always have to be the acme of efficiency.

When car makers are looking to shave costs and lower group emissions numbers, the manual is an easy casualty but the way to save it is simple: Put your money where your mouth is.

SECOND OPINION Are we holding the manual in too high regard?