Enthusiasts, please join me for a moment of silence to mourn the loss of our most dear. I’m afraid that it can’t be avoided any longer, the end is no longer nigh, but is here. The manual transmission is dead.
To make such a bold declaration, I first must ask why was the manual superior in the first place? The efficiency argument has long passed, with new generation automatics and dual clutch gearboxes boasting more ratios and better economy, the manual is a thirstier beast.
It is driving enjoyment that has long been the saving grace of the manual. The competition on this field has been traditionally very weak. The ‘Tiptronic’ automatic was always a slow, dim-witted thing regardless of brand. Automated manual gearboxes were very hit and miss. From the Alfa Romeo ‘Sillyspeed’ (atrocious) to the BMW SMG III – one of the better examples.
I recently had the privilege of driving an E60 M5 for the first time. That 5.0L V10 is a masterpiece. Free to rev yet benign on the street but when the many settings are dialed up to 11 and the tach is clearing 5000rpm the experience is almost ethereal. Linear to a fault the power delivery just builds and builds, never overwhelming, always intoxicating. Instead of being one of the best cars I’ve ever driven – the chassis and engine are certainly in that class – the E60 is just a fond memory of delicious balance and spine tingling V10 noises, ruined by a gearbox that can’t keep up with the rest of the show. When you pull a paddle on the SMG III you are aware that the clutch needs to disengage, the cogs swapped and then re-engage. Read that again out loud. Think about how long that took. Yes – that’s how long it takes.
Now the world of shifting has shifted. Twin clutch gearboxes from the Volkswagen group started a trend that has spread like wildfire. Suddenly, the gearbox that could drive in automatic would respond to the paddles with computer-game like immediacy. Initially, they were OK. Reliability was very questionable and with high service costs, however 14 years down the track they have gotten better and better and better. Automatic gearbox manufacturers have smartened up as well, with ZF’s latest auto being able to shift in just 200 milliseconds and have a direct, manual-like feel from torque converters that are very quick to lock up.
I’ve been lucky in the last couple of years to spend days at the Phillip Island Grand Prix Circuit with both Volkswagen and BMW, lapping the Golf R, Scirocco R and the M140i/M240i twins. The VW DSG and the ZF 8-Speed Auto as fitted to the M-Performance duo are two of the finest gearboxes of their respective kinds.
Brake. Pull the left paddle, downshift. Again. Perfect rev match, every time. Turn in. Feed in the power. Go flat. Hold it flat and rapid-fire off instant gears.
Times have changed and I hate to say it, but it’s for the better. As someone whose track experience has always included a third pedal, at no point on either of these days did I find myself wishing my left foot had something to do. In fact I was grateful for it.
Does this dilute the driving experience? Initially, yes. Because as a driver it seems like you have less to do. But do it more. Spend some time getting to know those paddles. Anyone under 40 seems to get it better than people over – that’s my observation from years of conducting test drives. My generation has been playing computer games all our lives so we seem to be able to adapt to using different controls more easily.
The payoff for this familiarity is you can forget about shifting technique and use the spare grey matter to explore the depths of the chassis in greater detail. Nuances previously hidden by multitasking reveal themselves. Braking without the burden of the heel-toe downshift gives a clarity of feeling and an affinity for the weight transfer and the threshold of grip. You get to keep both hands on the wheel, your connection with the chassis never need be distant or diluted through one hand only. Less involving? Definitely not, I counter that with a good crisp paddle shift you’re actually more involved because you’re less distracted by the unnecessary.
There’s a good reason why all the major racing classes the world over have gone the route of the paddle shift. A racing gearbox in a road car would always be a recalcitrant pain in the arse to drive in traffic so we have DCTs and latest generation autos that can deliver the best of both worlds through electronic control. They are that good and we haven’t even got to the best bit. Once all the fun is over, you slot D, set the cruise control and relax all the way home. Or in the real world, where you have to deal with kamikaze soccer mums in SUVs and tradies who think they’re Craig Lowndes in a ute, slot D and concentrate on avoiding the lunatics.
For car companies, the proof is on the bottom line. Customers are voting with their feet in droves. Mercedes Benz abandoned the manual gearbox years ago, however BMW – being the keen drivers choice – still offers it as a no cost option on most of its cars. How long this will remain the case can only be a matter of time.
Here in the dealership, of 1400 cars sold in calendar year 2016 just 6, you did read that right, 6, had do-it-yourself ratios.
So why develop them? There is much time and effort put into development and validation, a very expensive process and there clearly isn’t much of a payoff for manufacturers any more. Like any business, if they’re going to invest in a product it needs to generate a return on investment.
So join me in a salute to the manual gearbox and the heel-toe downshift. It’s been great, but it’s time for us to move on.