CAR magazine’s Editor-at-large, Chris Chilton, fears for the manual gearbox
Do you still get a kick out of pushing and pulling that strange metal stick poking from between your car’s seats? Then enjoy it while you can, because the manual gearbox, if not quite dead, has certainly been moved to a hospice to see out its final days. Long since the popular choice in America and Asia, automatic transmissions became the default choice in Europe in 2007, and have continued to assert their dominance. Analysts predict that by 2014, nearly three in four cars sold here will arrive minus a clutch pedal.
And we’re not simply talking about luxury barges or city-bound superminis here, either, cars which can deliver a more satisfying driving experience when machinery takes care of the gear-changing for you. At the recent Cayman launch, Porsche revealed that 80% of its sports car customers would be signing up for two-pedal motoring by opting for the PDK dual-clutch paddle-shift ‘box, a £2500 extra. Ferrari, meanwhile, a brand once famous for its exposed metal shift-gates, no longer offers any car with a manual gearbox.
Automatic transmissions have come a long way from the days of Chevrolet’s two-speed Powerglide of course. Once, automatics had only convenience on their side, because not only did they cost more to buy, they made your car slower, thirstier and gave you less control. Now, cars equipped with transmissions like the eight-speed ZF 8HP, a traditional epicyclic auto, or one of the new generation of dual-clutch robotised manuals, tend to be both faster and more frugal than their manual counterparts, while paddle-shift operation of gear selection means they can be nearly as fun.
But they still lack that last degree of involvement. Porsche and Ferrari engineers like to harp on about how an automated manual gearbox can change gears faster than any driver could. But we’re not trying to win the Monaco GP, we’re simply trying to have a bit of fun on the way to work. The odd tenth of second here or there is not a deal breaker.
What those same engineers fail to grasp, or at least pretend to fail to grasp in order to toe the party line, is the concept of someone enjoying the physical act of changing gear. When you stop to think about it, a manual gearbox is a hilariously antiquated device in the context of the other high-tech equipment that makes up a car. Perhaps therein lies the reason for its appeal: that so much control of the driving act has been removed from our grasp, we cling on to this last archaic pleasure.
The 80 per cent of Porsche Cayman customers picking the paddle-shift ‘box aren’t being forced into that decision, however. Car manufacturers exist to make money, not because of some philanthropic desire to amuse us on a twisty road. They are simply responding to customer demand. And, in Europe, at least, sports car customers seem to want to give their left leg a permanent rest.
Bizarrely, it’s the US, a country in which millions of people do not even know how to drive ‘stick’, that is home to the most fervent backlash. While most Americans wouldn’t consider anything other than an auto ‘box for their ordinary family cars, true car nuts demand three pedals in their performance cars. And such is the size of the North American market, that BMW has twice capitulated, and released US-only manual-transmission version of the last two generations of its M5 supersaloon. Now US car fans have their eyes on Porsche, which has just revealed that its latest lightweight 911 GT3 will only be available with the PDK ‘box. Can US buying power change Porsche’s mind? Not for the first time, Europe is relying on the Yanks for salvation.