The Slow Death of the Manual Transmission, and Why I Miss Mine

Hydramatic

The Hydramatic was the first mass-produced automatic transmission.From http://adclassix.com

It’s been seven months, and sometimes I still try to push the area where a third pedal would be when I start my car. There were multiple reasons for buying a new car: my spine rattled when I drove my old Mustang, the interior panels were getting loose, and some work was going to have to go into the engine to get it at peak physical condition again, not to mention the rear left quarter panel needed some paint work. And yes, I had gotten used to driving into Los Angeles and I was thoroughly tired of feeling like my left foot was going to fall off while riding the Mustang’s very stiff clutch in stop and go traffic. I also envisioned taking my new car on long trips, and I didn’t want to worry about not hitting the gas quickly enough after stopping on steep hills. The logical choice for my driving needs was to buy a car with an alternate transmission.

I bought a Volkswagen GTI with the stellar DSG twin-clutch automatic, and I absolutely love it. But there are plenty of times when I see a similar Mustang or manual-only cars like a Lotus Elise, Honda S2000, or Honda Civic Si, and I am reminded how much fun I had rowing the notchy shifter, modulating the clutch pedal, or dropping from 5th gear to 3rd on the highway when the mood struck me. It’s for these reasons I’m selfishly trying to convince my parents to buy a car with a manual once the lease is up on one of their cars (they also enjoy driving a stick, and let’s hope they choose a 6-speed Scion FR-S rather than a 5-speed smart Fortwo or Fiat 500.).

All of this illustrates one of the reasons why the demand for cars equipped with manual transmissions declines year after year. It’s the convenience factor that guided my decision, but there are plenty of people that just don’t know how to drive stick. I taught my girlfriend and sister as a precautionary measure, in case we had driven somewhere in my Mustang and I became incapacitated in some way, and was unable to drive. I took great pride in teaching them how to ease off the clutch in first gear so the car didn’t stall, or shifting into higher gears without the car shuddering and leaving the passengers with the impression they had just been hit square in the chest by Mike Tyson.

GTI

The interior of a Volkswagen GTI with DSG trnamission, from www.automobilebox.com

So manual transmissions are inconvenient, harder to learn on than automatics, and as a result, there are fewer people that can actually drive them. So what are the benefits of driving a manual?

For starters, there are some cars on sale today that don’t come with an automatic, CVT, dual-clutch, automated manual, or whatever transmission. I mentioned a few earlier, and the new Ford Focus ST joins the ranks, along with the VW Golf R, Dodge Viper, Corvettes Z06 and ZR-1, Mazdaspeed3, and more exotic selections from boutique European manufacturers.

The majority of older sports cars were either not made with automatic transmission options, or nobody in their right mind wasted money on one (honestly, who bought an Acura NSX with a hilariously archaic 4-speed slushbox?). Old American muscle cars consistently command higher prices in secondary markets when they are armed with the old school “four-on-the-floor” shifters than automatics, and the old automatic transmissions were nothing like the ones today. They were slow to shift, had a fewer number of gears, and gear changes were controlled by mechanical triggers rather than the computer logic that decides gear selection used today.

Automatics are preferable in certain situations, however. In professional drag racing, heavy-duty automatics are used to improve consistency not only on the launch of the car but also the upshifts during the race. Equipped with an auto able to handle the torque produced by an engine, launches are smoother, with less variances due to human error, and would be able to shift quicker than a human pressing the clutch pedal, disengaging from the current gear, shifting to a new one, and letting go of the pedal. In most other types of racing, an automated manual is used. A clutch is still used in the transmission itself, but shift are controlled with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. The transmission is able to shift faster than a driver would with a manual, and this also allows a driver to keep his or her hands on the wheel at all times.

Each transmission has advantages and disadvantages to the other, and as time goes on, the case for automatics grows stronger. Most people bought manuals because they shifted faster, posted faster 0-60mph times, produced better fuel economy, and were less expensive than automatics. With the exception of the price point issue, modern automatics and automatic variants have either leveled the playing field or surpassed manual transmissions. Porsche’s PDK gearbox allows faster shifts and faster 0-60 times compared with the manual. My GTI’s fuel economy with the DSG is 24/33 city/highway, and the manual is 21/31. Automatics still command a premium, however. Differences range from $1,000 (Hyundai Accent) to $11,137 (Ferrari 430). In fact, non-manual transmissions will be the only options for high-performance supercars in the very near future. Ferrari’s 458 Italia was the first mainstream Ferrari not offered with a manual; Lamborghini has followed suit with the Aventador, McLaren with the MP4-12C, Pagani with the Huayra, and the list grows.

Even though sales of cars equipped with manual transmissions continue to decline, I will always have a soft spot for cars that work out my right arm and left foot even when I’m doing something mundane like going to the grocery store. If I am ever lucky enough to have two cars for myself, make no mistake, a car with a manual tranny will be one of them. After all, its only been nine months, and I already feel the itch.

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About Cameron Rogers

Cameron Rogers is the founder and lead writer at Downshift Autos, the only automotive blog on the Internet*. Born in the back of an AMC Gremlin, Cameron vowed to never let this extraordinarily embarrassing detail define him, so help him God. He drives a GTI but absolutely will not shut up about it if somebody asks. He will not hesitate to let people know that no, they shouldn't get a Porsche 911 when a Morgan 3 Wheeler is so obviously the superior choice. He is obsessed with the seats of a Carrera GT and the steering wheel of a Fisker Karma. He once sat in the driver's seat of a Tesla Model S, his greatest accomplishment to date. He is just now realizing that writing an autobiography, however miniscule, in the third person is odd and unnerving. *As of this writing, Cameron has been informed that there are, in fact, many websites and blogs centered around cars and car culture. He regrets his grievous error.

5 responses to “The Slow Death of the Manual Transmission, and Why I Miss Mine”

  1. Cotton Boll Conspiracy says :

    After nearly 30 years of driving I just last year bought my car that didn’t come with a manual transmission. It killed me, but I needed to downsize because of gas prices and was able to swing a great deal at the dealership I went with. Unfortunately, they didn’t offer any cars with manual transmissions. And it does feel odd not to use the left foot to push the clutch in gearing up as I get on the Interstate.

  2. cameronkrogers says :

    Yeah, I completely agree. I felt terrible buying a GTI without a stick, but I’m glad the VW engineers put a lot of time into creating the DSG transmission. Aside from a bit of downshifting harshness, it’s pretty well designed. It sure beats a heavy Mustang clutch when driving on Los Angeles freeways!

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